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Keegan-Filion Farms

On Friday, January 29th I took a quick trip to Walterboro, SC to visit Keegan-Filion Farms. Two friends came with me—the very talented photographer Austin Nelson (www.austinnelson.com) and his cousin, Alicia Seay, who is a wine purveyor and well acquainted with great food. The trip was interesting and worthwhile. We were received like old friends by Mark and Annie Keegan, who showed us around the farm and graciously spent their time telling us about the animals and their pasts as farmers. We were all really impressed with how naturally the animals lived and how healthy they seemed. These farmers are really nice people, not proselytizing or off the wall in any way (I am thinking about Joel Salatin who shows up in Food Inc and Michael Pollan’s books–he is a bad spokesperson for the movement to raise animals on pasture in my opinion). I am posting some of Austin’s really nice photos to show the farm.

Keegan-Filion is only open Monday or Friday from 1-6 pm, so plan accordingly. When you show up, you will probably have to call Annie who will come to help you right away. She has 4 freezers full of really beautiful pork and chicken products. The quality of the meat is visually palpable. If you’ve eaten in any number of nice restaurants in town (Fig, Cypress and so on) you have probably tasted these superior products. I was actually a little underwhelmed with the farm eggs sold here–I think that what Celeste Albers is producing is a lot richer, but this isn’t the point of visiting Keegan. I picked up a great variety of products; chorizo, bratwurst, whole small chickens, chicken breasts, chicken thighs, breakfast sausage, ground pork, and a bone for my boxer pup. Austin picked up a few pounds of marinated chicken wings. Alicia picked up a bit of just about everything for sale. Also available is a variety of offal, pork chops, pork butts, and some other pork sausages.

Mark Keegan showed us around and explained how raising animals in this fashion can be really cost prohibitive. I get the sense that for them, a lot of the richness of this life comes from the satisfaction of raising the animals properly and from making customers really happy. Keegan raises heritage pigs, mostly from the Tamworth breed, as well as heritage Turkeys, chickens, and grass fed Cattle, mostly Holsteins. Things work in season at Keegan, and you won’t find the total offering at any one time. Right now, there was no beef, bacon, or turkey available, though it should be pretty soon. I will certainly be going back for more, or meeting Mark Keegan in Summerville on Saturday mornings, where he delivers pre-orders to Charleston area customers. I really like what this farm is doing and wish them continued success.

contact Keegan Filion Farms:

http://www.keeganfilionfarm.com/

Samos

I’ve been waiting to review Samos, Mt. Pleasant’s newest upscale Greek addition for almost a year now. I have been around since its inception so I have some inside scoop. First, let me say that it takes a lot of people more than one visit to get what is going on here. Samos offers Mezze style dining (small portions) of some classic Greek Mezze along with some new interpretations, and this can be off-putting to some diners. There are no massive greek salads here or gyro platters to speak of. The food is refined, and I think that the kitchen has become a lot more consistent and succesful over the past year.

What I love about this place in particular is that the menu takes some risks, like the charred octopus mezze (I dare you to find octopus in more than 1 other restaurant here) and the little whole fried fish mezze. These are both great dishes. I also think that Samos has really perfect Tzaziki–silky and rich, perfectly garlicky, with a nice hit of the appropriate fresh herbs. Other things on my favorites list and in this category are Samos’s other dips: The potato and garlic puree and the eggplant and walnut puree. These are versatile dips that could be packaged up just like hummus–maybe something to look forward to.

Another really succesful dish at Samos is the Shrimp, Feta, and Tomato bake that is served in a hot, personal sized cast iron skillet. I really like the presentation of this dish and find it very consistent. Best of all, this, along with all of the other mezze, are avaialable during happy hour for $5 ea. House wines and beers are $3. During happy hour, you can eat and drink really well, at a leisurley pace, for less than $25 for two.

The wine list at Samos is also really interesting and very good. The house white is a propietary blend of grapes that is complex, delicious, and most importantly, affordable. The rest of the list should keep any wine lover satiated.

Another big plus for Samos is the attention to detail that has been paid. The bread is warm and crusty, the olive oil is rich and green and tastes like olive oil should taste. The only major downside of Samos is the noise level, which can get pretty unbearable on a busy night. I’m not sure how much acoustic tiles could really help in this narrow space. Also, I would like to see some really good Greek Oregano, that most misunderstood and wonderful herb, in the spotlight more. I would also like it if the kitchen could source some wild Greek greens instead of using spinach for its greens. Regardless, Samos is very good and is the perfect place to enjoy some interesting food in a cool environment.

check them out on the web:

http://www.samostaverna.com/

visits: 5+

prices:

Happy Hour: around $15 a person

Dinner: around $40 ea with a drink or two

I doubt that you have ever tried a truly great extra virgen olive oil, unless you grew up in an olive growing region or maybe if you have access to high end restaurant purveyors. This extra virgen, available only through http://www.latienda.com, is one of these truly great oils. It comes from a small hacienda run by the Vano family in the south of Spain, right outside of Jaen (the real olive capital of the world–no, Italy doesn’t come close). I really love both varieties of this–the picual is more robust and powerful while the arbequina tastes more fruity. Both have an intense, green taste and really great body–these oils are harvested early, which contributes to their greenness and full flavor. Early pressing produces less but better tasting olive oil. I can’t think of any sad supermaret brand that comes even close to these oils. Even most gourmet store extra virgens, which often come  with a much higher price tag, cannot compare.  This oil pours beautifully on the plate for dipping with bread and is amazing when used to finish hot soup.

One taste and you will know. Order a bottle or both varietals together at http://www.latienda.com

Closed For Business

I do like the latest from Charleston’s REV group–a cozy hipster lodge occupying Raval’s old space. The remodel makes good use of limited space and the concept is solid. I disagree with a lot of what the Stephanie Barna said in her City Paper review (though it’s not a bad article):

http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/charleston/raval-is-now-closed-for-business/Content?oid=1625737

I think that Closed is doing really smart plates and has a nice, compact beer list. This place makes me want to hang around and drink lots of good beer and spend money. And I am not sure that the 21 and up issue will keep too many college kids down–it doesn’t stop them from going to any other bar.

Everyone expects a lot out of the REV group, so there seem to be lots of vitriols out there (see the comments below City Paper article). But I think that REV has nailed this concept and executed it quite nimbly. I can’t think of another group that can tear down and put up so quickly and hit the ground running.

I have been to Closed a few times, and apart from some overly piquant mussels, everything has been great. I ate there last night with a good chef friend and he was noticing that a lot of dishes seem to be picked from great gastropub menus in Chicago. It is apparent that REV did their homework and took a few food trips to various cities. I get the sense that Chicago is the main source of influence here. Anyhow, the plates are smart here and make sense. The Chicago style hot dog with pickled vegetables is good, though the bun needs to be steamed before it is served. I also loved the buffalo oysters–kind of an upscale version of the standard, with blue cheese and really perfectly fried oysters. The small menu is essentially a tight collection of awesome things to eat, with no unifying theme at all. I like this a lot, and think it is also reminiscent of Shine’s menu in many ways. I can live with this type of menu ADD as long as the plates are great–and they are at Closed.

Go to Closed for Business. Drink a bunch of beer and order lots of food. I doubt that you will leave dissapointed.

The Glass Onion

The Glass Onion mercifully begins to fill the void that gapes between fine dining and dive dining in Charleston. I think in a lot of ways this new little restaurant points to the future of dining; one in which quality and affordability trump pretension and pomp. As people become more aware of and picky about the source of their food (as food literature on the topic abounds), restaurants like The Glass Onion will meet demand.  

I’ve visited The Glass Onion three times (1 lunch + 2 dinners) since it hit the ground running a few weeks ago, and I don’t hesitate to call it an instant classic. They make an effort to source all of their ingredients locally or as close as possible to local and use good quality natural meats and local shrimp and seafood. And the prices are great, truly. $10-$13 gets you an entree with sides. $8 gets you a huge sandwich. On the side hand cut French fries are served with beef gravy or bernaise sauce, reason enough to visit. 

For lunch I like the oyster and pot roast po boys, served on a fresh hoagie with house made pickles. The cornbread with local honey is moist and delicious and the collards are good. For dinner, the shrimp and bean entree is light and nice, though it came a bit under-seasoned to the table. 

The Glass onion changes its menu daily; you can check it for updates on their webpage: www.ilovetheglassonion.com

As warmer weather approach, the menu will no doubt spring to life with strawberries, squash, tomatoes, and other spring and summer harvest. I will keep returning to The Glass Onion and look forward to the upcoming seasonal menu changes.

FIG

I recently shared a great meal at FIG with an old friend—a guy who loves to eat and truly knows food (he should—he’s the chef de cuisine at the acclaimed Chicago restaurant Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park). My friend had previously met FIG’s chef at the James Beard awards in NYC, which worked to our benefit—we were not treated like animals during our visit. In fact, we were treated really well and we had a chance to speak with the man himself—the affable, confident, and capable Mike Lata.

I’ve eaten through a lot Fig’s somewhat seasonal menu over the course of many visits. I appreciate what Lata is doing—what I understand to be localism prepared with roughly French technique and great quality ingredients. Lata has been on the local/seasonal bandwagon since its beginning (in the states at least). Trends come and go, and I imagine that soon “organic” and molecular gastronomy will meet their demise. (Do you think Adria eats science food when he is hungry? No, it’s just food wanking). However local/seasonal eating is here to stay because it is in its essence an anti-trend. Food simply tastes good when it’s seasonal and local—this wisdom is commonsensical.

Right now Fig’s menu uses late fall’s produce with warming, winter preparations. There are root vegetables, braises, the usual seafood standbys, and so forth. On this particular visit, nothing wowed us more than the ethereal, unbelievably textured pate made with chicken liver and pastured pork fat. This dish comes with the traditional accompaniments (cornichons, mustard…) and is without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted (I eat pate whenever it’s available) and certainly the best in town. This one should not be missed.

For starters (apart from the pate), we sampled the Tennessee style ham and the beef tartare. I found the ham to be too salty and cut too thick with a somewhat strange flavor. It came with arugula and some cheese (pecorino I think) which didn’t really make sense to me—the greens did not really highlight or illuminate the pork in any way and seemed to be nothing more than a garnish. I would prefer this sliced much thinner like a serrano and served with some of the edible things that those no doubt good quality pigs might eat. This dish was the only miss of the night. The beef tartare was vibrant and delicious—obviously ground from great quality meat and served with paper-thin fried potato slices—almost like a deconstructed burger and fries—this, to me, made perfect sense. A quail egg, however, would’ve been nice.

Our entrees, though pleasant, did not wow either of us like the pate had. My braised short rib was fork tender and very meaty tasting with a nice puree of root vegetables. This dish was simple and satisfying. My friend’s flounder was also nicely cooked—perfectly crisp and tender—and very fresh—but to me a little uninventive—I definitely prefer FIG’s triggerfish which really highlights Lata’s ambitious side—triggerfish is a mess to deal with—ask any fisherman. As a side we shared FIG’s cauliflower in brown butter, which was under seasoned, though delicious once salted.

FIG has a nice dessert offering that rounds out a well-paced, enjoyable meal. We tried the Bosc pear, butterscotch pot de crème, and apple crisp. These old standby’s worked nicely and were not end of the meal gut busters.

FIG is great and consistently praised (rightfully so) by local food writers. It was even mentioned by the New York Times. Maybe this praise comes in response to both what FIG is and is not among its peers. It is local, high quality, well-prepared food served in a laid back dining room with perfect, understated service. It is not annoying fusion food, tourist seafood, food served by a tuxedoed man-servant, or god forbid, molecular gastronomy. However, as Charleston’s de facto “foodie” restaurant, I find FIG a bit lacking in ambition (though not in approach). Maybe some house cured meats and/or house pickled vegetables could add that extra artisanal touch and ingenuity that will keep foodies interested. Either way, I’ll be back for more soon and praise FIG for what it has accomplished so far.

Check out FIG’s homepage: http://www.figrestaurant.com

le club fez

My first impressions of Le Club Fez, the latest from the raval, monza, taco boy group are really positive. The menu is concise and appealing and basically split into French food and Moroccan food. The prices are very reasonable for the level of service and quality of food–they mirror Al Di La’s prices with entrees under $20, appetizers under $10 and glasses of wine under $6 (John Marshal of Al di la was a consultant for this venture). I think it’s fair to say that Fez has hit the ground running–it feels very polished after only three weeks of operation–clearly this restaurant group knows what they’re doing.

I sampled the Moroccan side of the menu during my first visit–a really nice beef tagine with Harissa and dried cherries, an olive plate, Moroccan style mussels, and Harira (chickpea stew). Everything tasted very bright and properly seasoned with the wide North African palette of spices that includes coriander, cumin, cardamom, citrus, caraway, cinnamon, anise, saffron…sometimes these spices can be abused, but Fez used them very appropriately–the vegetable salad that accompanies the tagines illustrates this understanding well; shredded carrots with cumin, zucchini with caraway, and cauliflower with a delicate saffron taste (saffron can be really overpowering). I like that Fez cooks honestly and skillfully with these ingredients–it helps show that Charleston is sophisticated enough for new food. I would however add to the end of the meal the very important tradition of delicious, sweet Moroccan mint tea decanted from midair out of an ornate silver tea kettle. And maybe a hookah in the bar area? I’m sure this was mulled over so I respect their decision, but the mint tea is a total oversight–it’s just too quintessential to miss (and a bag of mint tea doesn’t count).

As usual, objections to this (like any) rendition of ethnic food will arise. It’s not home made Moroccan, it’s not particularly regional, the owners aren’t natives, and you could find it for much cheaper in Morocco. But this isn’t Morocco, and Fez does an honest job recreating Moroccan in a really nice environment and fills yet another void in our dining scene. I will return soon try the French side of the menu and the things that I missed from the Moroccan side. I am happy Fez has arrived and look forward to this groups next venture. Any ideas what it should be?

I have an idea, or truth be told, a desperate plea: Upscale Lebanese–the most delicate, refined, and delicious cuisine from the Middle East–totally under-appreciated and not at all what you get in a fast food shawarma/falafel joint (although we need that as well). For now I’ll have to make it at home, which is fine (check out Nada Saleh’s ‘New Flavors of the Lebanese Table’ or her ‘Seductive Flavors of the Levant’–these are some of the best books on the Eastern Mediterranean). Or a great Persian place. Or a regional Greek place. I am ready for any new ethnic food that is not Italian. Enough Italian already.