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Archive for the ‘Downtown’ Category

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

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Any meal that costs over $100 for two people should leave you with great food memories. Unfortunately, a recent meal at Tristan left me with the most intense nausea I’ve had since I last ate a pile of 3-day-old lukewarm boiled peanuts from a gas station. The price tag that came with this nausea is infuriating and makes my poor grandfather do 1080’s in his grave.

Oh yeah, half of my table was also sickened by the meal (there were 8 of us total).

There is a lot I do not like about Tristan and because of its stature and price tag I do not feel bad expressing these things. First, the dining room (recently renovated?) looks like a bad 1990’s vision of the modern future, at once expensive and tasteless. Also, check out the Demolition Man style sculpture sinks in the bathrooms. At any upscale restaurant, I hope for a dining room that makes sense in relation to the menu, whether it’s rustic like La Fourchette’s, dark and stately like Oak’s, or minimal and modern like Fig’s, for example. Actually, looking at it that way, Tristan’s décor does sync up with the experience.

The food at Tristan is undeniably fancy and prepared with obvious skill and technical knowledge from its chef. At the same time it really lacks soul and is more of a display of technique than anything. I get the sense that the chef is just going through the motions. The food is formulaic. He wears a chef cam. One of the sauces (chocolate BBQ) is bottled for sale. What results is that the total experience at Tristan tells you with a fair amount of force that you are enjoying the impressive food and ambience without even asking you if you really like it. There is no subtlety here. The chef bottles his own sauce it’s so good!

But it’s not. It’s expensive and cheesy, and a lot of it is downright bad and sickening, like the butterfish and seared fois gras over lima beans and a sickly sweet, torrid butter sauce with kiwi-strawberry gastrique (it is hard to think about this dish without a wave of nausea hitting me). Or the tuna over fava beans, which made a companion make some hilarious faces in disgust. Or fishy tasting scallops over way too rich risotto. Those were the worst, the rest was average…asparagus appetizer, decent salads and so forth…and a few things were very good like the duck appetizer (delicious, tender slices of duck breast) and of course, the tomahawk ribeye (ribeye is almost impossible to screw up with all of its delicious marbling).

Tristan is like a culinary version of the band Dreamtheater who can shred through every musical scale in the world and play in some impossible African time signature that white people can’t even perceive. But who wants to listen to Dreamtheater? In the end it is soulless musical masturbation. Likewise, Tristan can prepare fancy food, plate real pretty, use a chef cam, bottle its sauces, and dream up any other number of gimmicks, but I will not be paying attention, because like listening to Dreamtheater, I do not enjoy what they are doing.

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Farmers Markets are way more culturally correct than Whole Foods. In fact, the more places you go to find your food, the cooler you are (all on foot or bike of course). If you are still buying organic lettuce that is flown in from California some 2000 miles away you are missing the point and probably a soccer mom.

The Farmers Market at Marion Square (every sat. until 2) is a pretty good way to add some local flavor to your life, though you won’t be able to find everything you need here. My favorite produce stand, “Owl’s Nest Plantation” is run by a very serious and friendly farmer. His produce is pristine and even organic— he went to the trouble to get organic certification which is increasingly seen as a big and unnecessary financial hurdle for small farms (look for “all natural, no pesticides used” as a euphemism for organic but not big enough to comply with the USDA’s long bureaucracy). Owl’s Nest has the nicest salad greens I have ever seen (no exaggeration) including arugula, baby spinach, and spring mix. Also, their garlic, especially the purple variety, is truly great, especially if you crush lots of garlic in your cooking. Likewise all of his fruits are top notch and his tomatoes are never refrigerated and without a doubt the best at the market. You pay a small premium at this stand though it is worth it.

Unlike Owl’s nest, a lot of the bigger stands sell things that are not local or seasonal. I know that each stand is allowed a certain percentage of non-local produce—but I can go to the grocery store for bananas from California. On the up-side, most of the bigger stands sell great corn, watermelon, peaches, and butterbeans in season.

Kennerty Farms has a small table that sells some of the best local honey available. According to the owners, they pay a lot of attention to the placement of their hives in order to draw the best flavor from wildflowers and other local vegetation. The result is an interesting and complex wild honey that will destroy any normal honey that you buy from the store.

The market is missing a lot of the upper portion of the food pyramid, with a few exceptions. Local food celebrity Celeste Albers sells her Sea Island farm fresh eggs and raw cow’s milk at her little stand near the food vendors—check out this great piece by Sarah O’Kelly about Albers’ farm and others alike:

http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A28729

Her eggs are uncharacteristically rich and completely unlike the pale yolked, liquidy eggs from the supermarket—these have rich, solid, almost fluorescent orange yolks that make baked good taste richer and are amazing simply fried over easy in some butter. I think that of all the local products one finds, this one will surprise you the most. Apart from her eggs and some produce, you can usually find fresh locally caught shrimp for sale.

Apart from these few offerings, there is nothing in the way of meat or poultry available for sale at the market. I truly think that pastured chicken, pork, and beef would add a tremendous amount of appeal to the market by nicely rounding out its offerings and making it it easier for the average person to find everything they need to put together a special, locally raised, healthful meal. Apparently the lack of meat owes to a lack of producers within the local geography, which stops at I-95 about an hour away. There is plenty of pastured meat available in the midlands and upstate, especially around Columbia and Greenville. Hopefully our market will carry these things in the future.

There are things I am leaving out for brevity’s sake; the other noteworthys are the famous crepe stand with a 30 minute wait, Evo pizza which has good ingredients but is sometimes too burned on the bottom, fresh handmade pasta, squash blossoms in season, good planted herb selection, and enough kitchsh crafts to keep the tourists busy.

*Update*
9/15/07 This was the first week that a cattle farm (River Run or River Bend Farm-can’t remember the name) set up shop at the farmers market to sell their grass-fed pastured beef. This is certainly the real thing–the cattle are raised on a family farm in Santee–and it seems like the whole family runs the booth on Saturday as well. The patriarch, Mr. Oliver (I think it’s Ray Oliver) will talk to you about how much care and work goes into raising his beef and the nutritional profile of his beef versus grain fed beef from lesser animals. The meat is indeed delicious and distinctive with a clean taste and less of the unctuous mouth feel of grain fed beef (grain fed has more saturated fat). Definitely worth checking out at the market–talk to this family and you will experience the almost disappeared romance of buying great meat from a proud producer. This interaction, to me, is what makes a farmers market special and worthwile.

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Five Loaves Cafe

Soups and Sandwiches!!! Who would’ve thought!?! And in Charleston no less!

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I’m sick of sourcing ground lamb all over town. Whole foods has good lamb when they actually have it–you must call first to check their stock and even if they have leg of lamb in stock, they often won’t grind it for you (for a multitude of bogus reasons). Earth Fare has gamey, frozen ground lamb that is awful. Other stores have unfriendly butchers who either don’t want to give service or are simply absent from their meat departments.

This predicament has thankfully led me to rediscover Ted’s Butcherblock for myself as a premium full service butcher that can happily process orders for you on the spot. In the words of Ted, who I recently complained to about lackluster butchers avoiding special orders; “That’s ridiculous–they are meat departments–that’s what they are supposed to do.” That, to me, is exactly right. Though you pay a small premium for Ted’s products, you get real service from someone who can make good recommendations and even tell you accurately where the meat comes from. And best of all, no ground meat sitting in display cases all day, Ted’s will grind it all fresh to order, including lamb. You might have to wait a few minutes (I once waited for 20 minutes while Ted masterfully carved a perfect skirt steak out of some seriously nasty gristle and membrane) but it is ultimately worth it–fresh ground meat and steaks taste great. There is something to be said about actually knowing your butcher–it’s very old world. And it’s current–it follows the justifiable desire of conscientious consumers to know the source of their food.

Oh yeah, Ted’s is also a good lunch spot with delicious sandwiches, sides, and best of all, really good expensive chocalate. I like the Chicken Pancetta Avocado sandwich, the greek sandwich, or whatever panini is featured that month (each month the lunch menu rotates to focus on a specific region or country). The sides are usually pretty mediocre and really the only downside to lunch at Ted’s. Ted’s also serves as a gourmet grocer selling all kinds of stinky cheeses, chocolates, and good wines and hosts regualr tastings. Rottenoysters big ups you Ted’s Butcherblock for being the best (and arguably the only real) butcher in town.

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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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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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