Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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.

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.

Uno Mas

I pay a fair amount of attention to Mexican cuisine, or as I often say with an annoying and pretentious accent, “La Cocina Mexicana.” In our own backyard (all over North Charleston) lies an abundance of good, simple, real Mexican food. Sal Parco’s most recent venture, Uno Mas, attempts to recreate this food with upscale ingredients and ambience. At first glance–and to be fair I’ve only eaten at Uno Mas once since it recently opened–the food is really no better than what you can find in North Charleston (and in some cases much worse), only it is served to you by a guayabera clad waitron while Cuban music plays. I can forgive this intransigence because it exists everywhere. But imagine finding an American restaurant in Japan that serves American food but plays Irish Folk Songs and requires its staff to wear riverdance costumes. Though the irony may seem unimportant, it becomes hard to take such a place seriously (even if it is funny irony). Come to think of it, Taco Boy commits the same crime. I swear, it’s everywhere.

I like Uno Mas more for what it isn’t than for what it is. The menu is very unconfused–no stupid Asian Fusion on its periphery, no annoying Tex Mex dishes like fajitas or extreme burritos, and overall a pretty good sense of identity. However, for all of its authenticity, the menu’s items are pretty insipid and lifeless. I tried the taco sampler which features six of the meats also found on the entree list. While nothing was strikingly bad, nothing was strikingly great. The stewed meats lacked the rich confit fattiness of great carnitas or al pastor meat while the seafood, although fresh, did not seem to be anything more than just cooked. Of all the nice chiles mentioned on the menu–Ancho, Pasilla, Guajillo…none really popped or added any of that fruity, smoky richness characteristic of proper chile manipulation (might I suggest quickly toasting the dried chiles over open flame to release their flavors). The black beans were undersalted and tasteless and should be refried or at least mashed a bit—whole black beans are Yucatecan and/or Caribbean and do not match the rest of the menu.

Parco’s model for restaurants, judging by those that have preceded this one–Mustard Seed, Sette, Boulevard diner…is basically to shoot for middle-priced, good, accessible food. To this end, he has always succeeded and does so again. Uno Mas is not Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill (Chicago) which does a great job with its treatment of upscale Mexican cocina (Bayless has a formidable collection of cookbooks and you’ve probably seen his frontera brand salsas in the supermarket). It is definitely not one of the Mexico D. F. classics (check out this recent Bittman piece in the NY times: http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/travel/28Choice.html). But I guess that is not the point…

Maybe Uno Mas doesn’t deserve to be thrown in the same pool with really serious Mexican Restaurants around the country. And truthfully it isn’t in that category—it will never surprise or innovate—and that’s fine. It’s just that when it calls itself upscale I get excited that something great and new has arrived in Charleston—only to find that it really hasn’t. Oh well, they have a great tequila selection and good enough Margarita’s.

Five Loaves Cafe

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

This post is basically an addendum to the la nortena post. If you turn left onto Ashley Phosphate from the 26 exit, you will find a small world of authentic Mexican streetfood from a number of carts and vendors and in restaurants as well.

Los Parados Taco Cart: This is the first taco cart I tried on this street. The tacos are similar to those found all along this strip with slow cooked meats, fresh onions and cilantro on a double stack of corn tortillas served with fresh salsas. This stand is good and similar to the one found across the street (though they have hot pickled carrots served on the side). Generally at these places younger employees will be able to communicate in English and older ones will not. But if you know what you want, all you need is to order that item followed by a por favor. The tacos al pastor are always a good choice as well as carnitas (or whatever you are willling to try…lengua, mejilla (beef cheek), tripe…)

Fruit stand cart: This is basically across the street from los parados taco stand and next to another taco stand (the one mentioned above). They sell some food but mostly offer fruits prepared, if you like, with lime juice and chile powder (a common way to eat fruit in Mexico). Try the cut up mango or jicama with lime juice and chile, cut to order on the spot by a nice abuelita.

Los Parados Restaurant: This was my first Mexican experience on Ashley Phosphate, and though I think the quality can be fickle, it serves some authentic stuff like huaraches (fried or grilled fresh corn tortilla cakes topped with meat, queso fresco, avocado…) along with flat tacos, soups, and other staples. I have to say that this place can feel uncomfortable for a gringo–not as clean and peppy as la nortena.

El Progreso Restaurant: Though this is not on Ashley Phosphate (It’s on Remount) it deserves comment–it fits into this category pretty well. Progreso has a lunch buffet that I would stay away from but does have good huaraches piled high with meat and fixings, all served to us by a very cynical puerto rican waitress who made us laugh by telling us not to order anything and asking why we liked this food.

La Nortena Restaurant: The Nortena on Ashley Phoshate has had some renovations and its Remount location is now closed. Apparently, another Nortena will open soon on Rivers. In the meantime, this Nortena is up to par and is usually full for dinner. Try the torta jalisco or the torta carnitas which are delicious grilled sandwiches with meat, cheese, beans, jalapenos; the kind of food you dream of after the bars. Also the veracruzana fish is pretty good. Avoid the shrimp cocktail though–it is not that fresh and swimming in a sickly sweet tomato sauce. Strangely, the spanish speakers in these restaurants love the shrimp cocktail.

There are a number of other spots along this strip–feel free to add your input–one day we will rottenoysters them all. In the meantime your info would be appreciated. Buen Provecho!

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.

It’s strange how a restaurant’s space affects the diner. Fancy food seems to taste better in an elegant setting and likewise, rustic food is better enjoyed in a rustic space. This is why West Ashley’s new BBQ establishment Home Team is throwing me a little bit. In fact, I want to call this place an instant classic, but wait.

In the newly renovated Bunch’s Garage (next to Bait and Tackle), this new BBQ dig is the antithesis of all classic BBQ temples (Sweatman’s, Big T’s, Lexington BBQ…to name a few). Inside it’s so clean that it’s almost antiseptic and there is a wrap sandwich on the menu to boot (wraps are the worst food trend since sun dried tomatoes and asian-fusion and I hate them). Sounds like sacrelige to all purists, and this to me is where it gets tricky. I’m not sure if I’m just aggrandizing a good BBQ restaurant, but it seems like the pit master here is both tipping his hat to grand old tradition (BBQ is arguably our only native cuisine) with incredible, sublime BBQ while irreverently goofing off (and arguably showing off) in it’s face. Apart from the wrap, and another example of its irreverence for that matter, Home Team serves a mayonnaise based BBQ sauce that is remarkably good. Stripped to its bare bones, with all of the temporal elements of ambiance and feel aside, I think that Home Team has some of the best BBQ anywhere. Just without the classic BBQ shack feel.

The meat at Home Team is pit roasted with a dry rub and served with no sticky, tricky, or even worse, sticky-icky sauce. What results from the rub and slow cooking is truly sublime, with rich smoke and pork flavor, very subtle sweetness, and nothing overpowering. And it absolutely does not need sauce. To call it tender would be an understatement. It’s downright soft, so tender that it’s almost strange. The pulled pork, ribs, and even the chicken all taste the same both in flavor and texture; delicious. In fact, I’ve never had BBQ chicken that could compete with pork and this one certainly does. The sides are great as well; I like the collards, squash casserole, and creamed corn. But who cares about the sides, it’s all about the BBQ. Anyhow, enough fawning, time will tell where Home Team lands in the great BBQ realm of the Carolinas, though with lines already out the door, I am comfortable calling it an instant classic.