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Archive for September, 2006

In the short history of this food blog, we have a reputation for spitting fire at other Charleston food writers. While most local food criticism is timid and parochial, I’d like to thank Jeff Allen of the Charleston City Paper for his incisive review of Mercato, the new Hank Holliday Jacques Larson Italian venture on the market.

http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A17479

Though his writing can border on the absurd (“Spaghetti alla Carbonara threaten(s) the stomach with deliciousness”…makes me wonder if he’s competing for the worst English sentence award http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/), Allen shows a real knowledge of what interesting Italian food should be and consequently how Mercato mostly fails to meet expectations.

Having eaten there last night with a big group, I’m left with the same feeling Mr. Allen had, (but which apparently his editors wouldn’t let him lead with): blah. The food is well prepared on the whole, but the menu is just really fucking boring. I had the Osso bucco, marinara pizza, eggplant appetizer, fried ricotta balls, gnocchi, orrechiette with sausage and broccoli, gnocco, flourless chocolate cake and peach sorbet. The pizza was terrible. Though thin crust, good Italian or new york style pizza crust is not supposed to taste like a cracker. It’s supposed to be thin, crisp on the outside, and doughy at the same time (I’m resisting the urge to go on a pizza diatribe here…just google ‘new haven pizza’). Mercato’s pizza was thin but white on the bottom, without the charred spots that mark a good wood or coal oven pizza, and lacked that doughy flavor (Al Di La’s pizza is way better. Also more interesting). Found the eggplant appetizer to be great: crisp, thin slices of grilled eggplant wrapped around ricotta (if I remember correctly) with balsamic vinegar and tomatoes. Simple, fresh, not trying to do more than it should. The fried ricotta balls, who’s bullshit Italian name I forget right now, were too much like pizza bites for me (anyone who’s ever had the joy of having to subsist on college cafeteria fare will know what I’m talking about) The gnocchi was good—tender, creamy, rich and light at the same time, like good gnocchi should be—but I guess I really just don’t like gnocchi that much. The combination of gnocchi with a cream or cheese sauce is overkill to me. The similarity of both, the richness of gnocchi and cheese or cream, doesn’t provide a counterpoint, taking away from each. (This is why fresh pepper is so important in Carbonara..Also, what is this trend of ravioli in broth, and why do people enjoy this. I’ve yet to be satisfied by an in brodo pasta preparation, though I will concede that this is one of the few creative, inspired options on the menu). The orecchiette was good, not oversauced, but $16 is a lot for what’s basically a smallish bowl of pasta. I liked the osso bucco. The fregula (on the side with the osso bucco) was interesting, though I think I liked it more in theory than in practice. As for the osso bucco, the meat wasn’t fall off the bone tender as advertised. Definitely good, but I did use my knife.

On a more positive note, the service was great. Attentive without being oversolicitous. Had a youngish guy with long, slicked back blonde hair. Kinda looked like Bowie in the late 70s in his thin white duke phase. By the way, this Bowie video is great, though a little later in his evolution.

The desserts, though fairly run of the mill (gelato, sorbet, panna cotta), were another bright spot. The peach sorbet was really great, with an underplayed, natural sweetness. The same for the gelato.

But back to the concept of the restaurant itself. Honestly, what are they thinking with the menu? I’d like to believe that this caliber of restauranteurs would try to introduce the unexpected, unexplored areas of Italian cuisine, and show the connection to regional influences i.e. chickpeas throughout the Mediterranean: Africa, Middle East, and Euro as an example. But this isn’t the case. They really just play to base, common expectations. As Mr. Allen points out, spaghetti and meatballs at I think $16 and chicken parm at $22 dollars are a joke, which is only heightened by listing them under Italian names. This place isn’t trying to be a garlic/red sauce palace like you’d see in Providence, New York, or south Philly, where parm and other northern Italian/Italian American fare are de rigueur. They’re trying to be an upscale, noveau Italian restaurant, where regional cuisine is introduced, and at this they fail miserably. A place like Lupa, which I used to frequent when I lived in New York, wasn’t particularly expensive, but had interesting, authentic regional dishes: bavette cacio y pepe (pasta with cheese and black pepper), bucatini alla amatriciana, lamb shank with figs. The same for Osteria del Sole, which brought some Sardinian flare. And even Babbo, though certainly in a different class of restaurants, has unique dishes – fresh grilled sardines, beef cheek ravioli, whole fresh branzino with lemon-thyme jam, things that could be replicated, at least in spirit, at Mercato. These places have signature dishes, things that you remember eating for years. I’m not sure there’s anything unique and definitive at Mercato, that I’ll be telling people they must eat before they go, that I’ll remember in a year’s time.

This is all the more disappointing given the hype surrounding Mercato’s opening. Jacques Larson, the chef, used to be the head chef at Cintra, where they served interesting, unique Italian food: gnocci with lemon rind and pine nuts sticks in my memory. Even the Bolognese was bright and rich, not the leaden, heavy mess found at some places…ahem…Al Di La. For those who don’t know, Larson left Cintra under contentious circumstances. While he supposedly quit/got out of his contract at Cintra to cook the line at Lupa with Batali in New York, and to travel around Italy, I’ve heard that this was just a ruse to be part of Holliday’s new venture, and he only lasted about two weeks with Batali, for whatever reason. While I’m fine with this kind of Kitchen Confidential backstabbing, I wish he would bring some of the flair from Cintra and Lupa to Mercato.

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The first time I ate at this place left me feeling bad for the guys. The next time made me never go back. I walked into this dumpster smelling shanty of a room adjacent to a Folly Road surf shack and proceeded to have a truly third world dining experience. And seriously, the room smelled like the inside of a wet dumpster. During the thirty minutes of waiting for two burritos, I also noticed a roach infestation problem. Apart from the ridiculous wait (thirty minutes for 2 tiny burritos), the environment was so terrible that my friends and I decided to leave. Up until this point, I had never walked out of a restaurant in my life.

How could this happen? How is this place in business? Does the staff notice the trash smell? And finally, how do they have an A rating? I really feel bad for these poor guys and wonder if they shouldn’t just stick to selling weed. Also, though it’s almost of no consequence, the food sucks as well. Wait, I did have one good thing; amazingly, the grouper fish taco. Pero que podrida eres tu, La Cocina!

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Anyway, I’m trying not to start this entry with a tedious history of the American hamburger…drive ins, 50s, California culture, and the last gasp of manifest destiny. Hamburgers hold some mystical psychic place for most Americans. I don’t think it’s necessary to tackle that. Just listen to the beach boys and think of the beautiful cars you’ll never be able to drive again because of oil prices.

Anyway, there are two basic types of hamburgers: what I would refer to as the California style and the East Coast. The east coast burger, defined by places like Mr. Bartley’s in Cambridge and Corner Bistro in Greenwich Village (or maybe even the ascetic burger at Louis Lunch in New Haven, where the mullahs don’t allow condiments) features large, round, juicy burgers, thick, toasted buns, and usually a heavy helping of lettuce, tomato, and onion. The west coast style, which spawned most fast food joints (or maybe the causation should be reversed), has a fairly small patty, a thin, usually sesame bun, and mustard and cheese. Thinking both McDonald’s and In N Out here. I’m a fan of both: the juicy, steak like quality of east coast burgers and the greasy synergy of bread, cheese, mustard and meat from the west. Both versions can be done to perfection. It’s just a question of style and mood.

So, with the history lesson out of the way, where does Sesame, the newest entry to North Charleston’s failed gentrification project, fit in? (An aside on the new north Charleston and Noisette – why do people want walkable faux downtowns that are a block long and will be driven to and from anyway…why is this better than a strip mall) I’ve been there twice, and while the burgers are of the thick, east coast style, and their hearts seem to be in the right place, the owners don’t really understand what a hamburger is all about. Maybe they’ve read a little too much Fast Food Nation. And here’s the thing: a hamburger can be gourmet i.e. prepared with care, using high-end ingredients, but it should never be upscale or yuppie, and the fundamentals should always be spot on. At its core, the hamburger is an example of mechanized, assembly line food, and has been ‘fast’ since its crystallization in the 50s. Prepare the basics i.e. meat, bun, cheese, and condiments with care, but don’t alter its fundamental nature in the process.

So why did Sesame decide that everything has to be home made? While I’m all for having house ground burgers, both for the rare center and the lack of mad cow, is it really necessary to have home made ketchup, mustard, and buns. Homemade ketchup is not ketchup: it’s tomato relish.  Should I really have to ask for Heinz when I’m eating steak fries?

In the scheme of things, these are minor quibbles, but they reveal flaws in the approach and understanding of what a burger should be. While Sesame serves different permutations with interesting toppings, they fail to do the fundamentals well. The burgers I’ve had both times weren’t cooked professionally. On my first visit, though my burger was accurately cooked to a medium, the outside was too charred, basically black, ruining the meat flavor. My second visit had me ordering a medium and getting a well done, with the cheese not fully melted (don’t they have a salamander). They served both burgers on a hard, toasted Kaiser role, which impedes a complete bite and pretty much prevents any melding of meat, cheese, bread, grease and condiments.

On a somewhat more upbeat note, the fries, both steak and sweet potato, are good, though they cool considerably while you ask and wait for Heinz ketchup to eat them with (and when is someone going to marry Belgian style frites and flavored mayonnaise with American style burgers). The burgers are also reasonably priced, though I don’t remember exactly how much they cost not to mention what else they have on the menu. I think they also offer chicken and black bean versions of their burgers, but who cares? And why don’t they have milkshakes, specifically Oreo?

Anyway, it’s frustrating that someone would devote so much time and energy to a hamburger joint yet show so little understanding of what makes a really good hamburger. Regardless of style, burgers are about good, basic, even assembly line ingredients heightened by their interaction, not gourmet ingredients standing out from the pack. Do the basics i.e. bread, meat, and cheese well, and provide the typical condiments.

But with their clueless approach, I wonder what’s next from Sesame: an Adria-style hamburger flavored air topped with American cheese foam?

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Basil

Basil polarizes everyone into extremes–you either swear by it or hate it. At least thats how I view it. I have heard people complain that they have a special Thai place in the Northeast that is so much better. I’ve heard big city folk say that Basil is the best. Though it is a bit trendy and overpriced, I think Basil is basically very good. Try the house specialties (whole fried flounder, fried half duck, stir-fried tilapia) and you will find something interesting and delicious. Who cares about spring rolls…it’s the unique dishes that make a place worthwile.

Visits to Basil: +10
Prices: entree $13-25

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The Wreck

The wreck is a good spot for fresh fried seafood and a great place to take out of town friends to show off old village charm. The oysters and shrimp are incredibly fresh and local and so is the fish (grouper, wahoo, flounder…) The fact that the location is basically impossible to find gives it some added local charm. However, the outdoor, no AC dining area can be quite unpleasant in the summer. Eating in a hot outdoor room and being served on paper plates is fine with me, just not at the Wreck’s prices. This place is expensive for what it is. Whoever is paying should expect to feel fully taken advantage of.

Visits: 2

Prices: entrees around $17

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