Ludlow, VT 2.0

Every restaurant goes through staff changes. I try the golden rule of maintaining good relationships with my employees by giving them the tools for success, putting them in a position to earn the most money possible, and treating them as human beings with lives to live. The more I listen, the more I can be a flexible and understanding owner, keeping my employees as happy as possible by granting reasonable requests, paying better than the next owner out there, and not micro managing.

That’s why there isn’t much turnover at Pata Negra. Most of our regulars know the staff well, and often come back to spend time with them rather than me, who, as some of you know, is always trying to skip town, or work on my never ending cookbook, which I hope to publish one day.

In a flash of one calendar day, my dishwasher/busboy took off for Mexico, and my main cook got detained for an undetermined spell. That uncertainty propelled me back into the kitchen tout de suite, and it took a few days to get back up to working speed, and dig myself out of the weeds. Placed ads on Craig’s list yielded some 200 responses for the dishwasher job. Apparently there must be some degree that is being given out there for this task, but few for competent cooks who can handle real pressure. I picked the best two candidates and soldiered on.

The timing was definitely not right, both professionally and personally, but having scheduled a much-needed non-refundable trip to Vermont for a week, I put my business and myself in the unenviable position of a semi-trained brand new kitchen staff while I snuck away to the cozy environs of Eden. The alternative was to close, and thanks to former Mayor Bloomberg’s consecutive two years in a row 25% real estate tax increases, closing for a week is no longer an option.

Needless to say the gamble did not work according to plan, and I have some making up to do for some of my best clients. Old, rare wine cures much, and if you are of the affected, I am sure some bottles can be uncorked, and perhaps we can laugh about the ordeal together some time in the near future.

On the lighter side, I booked an ecopod (modulated eco-friendly home designed by freshpods) situated on Echo Lake in Plymouth, VT. Something about the lake water clears my head, calms me down and helps me to repair. Lying in the breeze overlooking the Plymouth State Park trees and mountains wields a blanket of security and serenity.

The change in latitude performs wonders. Add to that a few welcome food and wine changes in the town of Ludlow that are very exciting and worth the trip as well.

Angelina’s Market on Depot Street is serving Jack’s coffee from a vintage La Marzocco machine. Before that is was bring your own. Brooklyn transplanters Rachelle and her husband Jonathan are making real coffee, and the baking is even better. P&B fudge brownies and source cream coffee cakes from Sweet Tallullah (her baking co.) are delicious. Just don’t ask for decaf.

The Downtown Grocery (TDG) on Depot St. is humming as strong as the bee’s nests swarming over the discarded birch beer bottles at Curtis BBQ in Putney, Curtis is still serving up great ‘cue at that Mobil gas stop off Route 5. Pig was on holiday, but some new dogs were laying about.

TDG, Abby, owner and FOH extraordinaire and her team are still running a great show for local fare. Chef Rogan, her partner, is still crushing it with inspired technique and world flavors. Their Monday prix fixe is the best deal in the tri-state area, reminding me of a Paris bistro except that we are in Green Mountain territory, people, and I don’t miss the Rue de Tivoli as much when I am sipping wines from an eclectic wine list selected by Abby’s fine palate. Get there early or that blackened catfish you love will be crossed off the board before your heart settles on ordering it. Just don’t forget to buy the kitchen a round of ponies.

Across the street is the Wine and Cheese Depot (est. 1996), where you can save yourself all the trips to the cheese farms, because a great cross selection of cheeses can be found here. Just ask Leslie for a taste. Some good wine buying is the other half of the deal, and if that is not enough, than pass through the backdoor into the new wine bar Stem Winder. The menus and selection can be a bit overwhelming. Just grab a stool and ask for a taste. The wide selection of wines pair well with the tapas style food coming out of the ambitious kitchen. The wine bar is finding its groove, especially in the kitchen. Wendy or Elyse will find the right wine for your mood. Just beware of the infamous broken spoon parties.

Goodman’s Pizza has moved out of a space on Main St. held for fourteen years. And although I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why, the wood fired pizza is still just as good as advertised with bountiful fresh toppings and very reasonable prices. In its space is an admirable replacement, a Mex-Cajun-southern fusion joint called Mojo. Chef John and his wife Jodi spent a Halloween down in Nola and came back modifying their Tex-Mex food idea to include Cajun and all things southern style food. It’s an obvious marriage when you think about it, but they have the guts to try it out in Ludlow. Started with an appetizer of tempura battered poblanos, mild in heat but high in texture and flavor. These may be my new favorite tempura battered veggies. Of all the tacos sampled, the catfish reigned supreme, followed by well marinated steak. You can choose flour or corn tortillas (corn pls) and the mixes of house made salsas add layers of flavor for balance. The hand in the kitchen is light and deft, respect of the different cuisines observed. The white gumbo Jonah crab shrimp gumbo was delicate with layers of flavors, suberb on both a summer or wintry afternoon. There are burritos, enchiladas, and po boys too. No margaritas yet, but a proper coke in the bottle, and local beer on tap anchor the beverages. You will leave sated, and not break the piggy bank.

I just may have to bring some Pata Negra out here to see how Spanish tapas are received. The sky seems to be the limit out here in Ludlow.

Thank you Mister Mayor

There has been much ado about the eminent closing of a neighborhood pioneer and institution, Union Square Café, due to an exorbitant rent increase. In Danny Meyer’s response to the article, his position is noted and shared, but he fails to mention one very important piece to the real estate puzzle. Under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign, he authorized two consecutive 25 percent real estate tax increases for all commercial landlords. Since a portion, if not all, of these increases are passed onto the commercial tenants, this represents a significant hardship in terms of paying the rent.

The real estate tax increases are so high now, that having spoken to several real estate agents in the NYC area, a raise of over 2% per annum for the next decade is unlikely, due to the stress the former Mayor’s tax hikes have caused on the commercial rental community.

There is no published formula for how real estate taxes are assessed. Essentially, an inspector is dispatched to assess property value based on other similar properties within the same area. Even during the recession years of 2008, 2009, and 2010, there were significant increases. The reason is to collect additional revenue to balance city budgetary deficiencies.

The result is a city landscape devoid of any mom and pop shops, or small businesses who dare to offer something different. The homogenization is buoyed by large corporations and chains. New York is starting to look like a Midwestern metropolis.

The business community needs a mayor to set the ship right, not continue to sap the funds from already struggling businesses.   Landlords should be held accountable for empty storefronts, not given tax write-offs. An incentive to rent to locals should be top priority.

NYC neighborhoods may never return to their former glory days filled with charm and real characters, but a head start from our city government could set the course for a different future, one where smart businesses can operate at a reasonable cost, helping to maintain employment and the integrity of our communities.

Harlem Sunday Stroll

It was a bit of late Sunday whimsy, fueled by hunger and an empty pantry, that I decided to take a jaunt into Harlem, unsure of what I might discover, but up for a trip down memory lane, as I attended City College of New York to collect both of my rather perfunctory degrees (B.A. Eng. Lit. & M.S. Special Ed.).  I even lived in what is now budding SoHa for two years, on 117th And Frederick Douglass Boulevard, just before the gentrification started, a word I am not fond of.  I would rather chalk it up to moving forward or progress, or any other word that doesn’t denote breaking down racial barriers as the primary reason a neighborhood of color changes.  Don’t forget old Harlem, in its glory years, the cultural mecca of style, art, and music, before poverty and city economics and NYCHA were allowed to take root, wreak havoc and run amok.

Since I last resided on the cusp of Harlem environs in 2006 (I believe the borders are 110 St up to Hamilton Heights), there were significant changes.  First affordable, subsidized lottery housing.  Townhouses and six story buildings, with retail spaces for Duane Reades and banks serving as the base for expansion and mallification.  Then Starbuck’s and Citerella (since closed).  Follow along 125th street to find chain stores such as Old Navy and H & M.  Close your eyes and imagine being in some other urban sprawl, Cleveland or perhaps Indianapolis, save for the intense waft of incense smoke and oils, and of course all of those colorful street denizens.  Change the storefronts, but the people of Harlem still stand out, odd against the backdrop of corporate America.  Buying into Red Lobster and whatever else is served up, in a concerted effort to make every neighborhood in this great city look like a homogenized mirror of itself, a reflection that any tourist can stomach, especially while on those double-decker tour buses taking photos of the Apollo theater and the Lenox Lounge (now defunct).

And what of the food that binds the soul of Harlem?  What of M & G Diner? Rising rents and palate changes?  Sylvia’s and Amy Ruth’s have adapted (not for the better).  Old school bars like Showman’s and Londel’s are still representing as long as the owners are up to the challenge of keeping up.  As I look into the vast boulevards that make Harlem so embracing during the afternoon sun, Jamaican storefonts still prosper, and new world restaurants have come in to fill the void and join the wave of fresh housing, different clientele, demanding appetites, an ever changing Harlem.

You could say that the Red Rooster anchors the movement.  A comfortable setting with familiar food cooked by a star chef of color is just what the doctor ordered.  Even if the food isn’t necessarily soulful, the Red Rooster is a central place where all peoples can be together enjoying a new community in a multicultural setting.

After reading a restaurant piece in GQ magazine, I hopped the A train to 145 St.  The brownstones stood sturdy against the slope.  The reflection against the shiny windows provided warmth. The neighborhood seemed familiar and foreign to me all at once, an antistatic state of motion and progress.

Mountain Bird has received some good write ups and justly so.  A Japanese husband and wife tandem work diligently to provide a French fusion fare that is precise and tasty.  With a lean towards oft tossed chicken parts and armed with a master schnitzel breading technique, I was won over by the earnest service and one man cooking.  A French couple seated at the table in front of me were enjoying their duck cassoulet (I asked), and a trio of young Harlem lady professionals were excited about their chia seed garnishes to a selection of fresh fruit mimosas.  After devouring a selection of fresh baked scones and muffins, the chicken schnitzel arrived with simple garnishes.  It wasn’t just good.  It was ethereal.  I only wish the chicken horumon offered during dinner service would also be available for brunch too.  The service can be spotty at times.  If you arrive at an inopportune time, there can be quite a wait at this 19 seat charmer, but get to talking with the owner and your experience can elevate to the sublime, and you’ll want to become a regular.

After some earnest advice as to the most scenic route back towards the upper west side, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd painted a refreshing portrait.  Bathed in sunlight and fresh open air, this clearly is the best real estate in the city.  Sunday strollers and church hats of all designs.  Children on scooters, teenagers on skateboards, and lovers holding hands, a scene downright Parisian.

I ducked into the first Jamaican shop I encountered for a taste of my old college standby snack of a beef pattie in coco bread.  Alas, they were out of bread, and the only patties left were filled with ackee and saltfish.

A craving for coffee landed my partner Michelle and I at Yatenga, where we spotted Chef Marcus Samuelsson having a beer at the bar with a friend.  We cut over to Frederick Douglass Boulevard, eschewing the hustle of MLK Blvd, and found respite and solace at a crowded tea shop called Serengeti, whose house blends served as elixirs and energy boosters.  Who can resist a Levain cookie outpost on my old block (117th St.) ?  Not before I peeked into Mr. Lee’s bake shop for some rugelach.  He was in the process of making a fresh batch and so I settled for Levain.  Then a planned visit to Harlem Shambles, a butcher shop extraordinaire, where the expertise and character of the butchers is as much on display as the locally grass fed carcasses of the just butchered.  Just ask for the best cuts and your dollar will stretch a long way.  With stash in hand, and needing another break, there are plenty of options for an outdoor beer at Harlem Tavern or Bier International, as well as a decent cocktail at 67 Orange Street.

The further downtown we walked the more the landscape closed in on us like a trash compactor, squeezing every ounce of real estate into a confined space.  The loss of light was noticeable, a veritable chill set in, and the litter seemed like an ongoing epidemic.  The promising feeling I had at the apex of my journey on 145 St. had dwindled into a metropolitan nightmare, despite the emergence of viable businesses and new housing.  There was mischief and chicken bones the rest of the way home, a reminder that a fresh paint job doesn’t always reveal what’s really going on in the interior.  Having taught for thirteen years in neighborhoods just like this one (South Bronx, East Harlem), I have a good idea what lurks beneath all of the “progress”.

We arrived home hungry from the long walk and shopping.  The Denver cut of steak purchased from Harlem Shambles was as good as its billing; the whole chicken marinated, butterflied and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of days later.

As I think back on my Harlem Sunday, passing all of the churches and faces full of promise and despair, I hold onto my learning time at City College Campus in my distant memory, and wonder what type of Harlem I will be taking a Sunday stroll through just twenty years from today.

 

CHICKEN BONES

by R.A.Mateo

Saxophone simple and brass.

Neon bright Apollo, a shiny beacon at night.

Jazz June rhythm on the tip taps of tongues.

Brownstone choir gospel.  Glory be.

Chicken Bones.

 

I stroll the streets of Harlem,

Underpants and sideways caps.

Murder Muzik,  shaking booty.

Corner stoop cee-lo fortunes.

Watchtower crusaders and incense gas.

Deacons preaching, driving Mercedes S class,

While homeless lay about the trash.

Whitey on the moon,

Gentrification long at last.

Chicken Bones.

 

I stroll the streets of Harlem,

Down at my feet,

in every crack,

A hostile takeover,

A Harlem discarded.

A Harlem renewed.

Chicken Bones.

Las Terrenas – Playa Portillo

In the restaurant business, January is generally the worst month of the year sales wise, and I often take advantage of the slow down by traveling to reset and think about strategy for the new year.  The bitter cold has not helped any, except for prompting me to head south rather than to another cold weather city.

I looked at many an island for deals, until a tip from a friend steered me toward the Dominican Republic.  My father hails from La Patria and still resides there, raising roosters for cock fights, the subject better left for a therapist than blog exploration.

I spent many summers, semana santas (holy weeks), carnivals, and Christmas vacations there, but admittedly have fallen out of love with DR since the rapid modernization and North American influences.  I prefer the third world pace, the lack of technology, no internet feeds, no fast food franchises, and especially am distressed over the amount of mopeds, traffic, tourists and the resortification of the land’s most pristine beaches.

The last time I stepped into Dominican waters was for the turn of the century, spending part time in a resort area and time at my father’s farm home near Palenque, the beach I spent so much time on as a boy.  Our family would sleep on the beach over night for several days, eating locally caught snapper and pressed fried plantains, drinking Presidente beer by day and Ron Brugal  rum by night, sleeping under a blanket of stars and moonshine.

Jetblue has direct flights to Samana, in the north, leaving just a taxi ride (albeit expensive) away from some of the island’s best beaches.  I was hooked up to a beach house rental at Residencia Portillo in Bahia Portillo, near the French and Italian habitated town of Las Terrenas, just modern enough to get to the outside world, and remote enough to be secluded and relatively untouched from it all.

The beaches are relatively private, untraveled save for the curious beachwalkers from the nearby resort, the only one in Portillo, leaving long tracts of untouched white sand and calm waters patrolled only by the adopted stray dogs who beachcomb and make friends as if out of a Disney film.

On my first day on the lounge chair a black dog came to me and gave me his paw for a shake, while his two furry friends burrowed behind my lounge seat back for the refuge of cool shade. 

The house I rented belongs to a sports agent, ranch style comfort with mosquito screens for windows, complete with pool, bbq pit and doorway to a two minute jaunt to the beach, making the decision of pool vs. beach the daily chore.  There is a wrap around porch with various sitting and lounging stations, including my favorite the mesadora (rocking chair), and an open kitchen.

What made the trip, as if all of these other factors and the 80 degree weather weren’t enough, is the availability of a Dominican cook and her sidekick who takes care of the house and any needs.  Belkis made Dominican dishes for a week straight, and the food was so delicious, it brought me back to all those meals my mother and our live in cook used to prepare for us when I was young.  The simplicity of criolla cuisine, the marriage of Spanish and European techniques with the bounty of island ingredients, cooked with love and care, is what no resort can ever produce.

The woman with great touch is named Belkis, a local who has been cooking for people at their homes for years.  I studied her techniques, how she should would add a chinola to this recipe, why she would not flour her fish, etc. and learned a great deal.

I went out with Margarito (house caretaker and our guide) on the second day to do all the shopping for the week. We hit the Euro supermarket for butter, olive oil, jamon, queso and water.  Also some rose and white wines (not a great selection) and rhums, what DR is known for.  Of to the fruit market, and for 20 bucks, I was able to but a lot of fruits and vegetables, pineapples, grapefruits, chinolsa, zapote, lechosa etc.  All made breakfast so complete and balanced.  Eggs, mangu, and onions, longaniza, coco bread, and pastries from the French Boulangerie rounded out the morning 10 am desayunos.

For lunch we made fruit shakes, from pina coladas (fresh coco and pina) to mamey and papaya shakes, and noshed on cheese and jamon.

Then 7 pm would roll around. and Belkis would arrive in her moped, in order to prepare one of many outstanding home cooked Dominican meals.

Belkis made sancocho, a kitchen sink soup, that lasted for days and seemed like a bottomless pot.  One night she cooked fresh caught lobsters, with a garlic, ginger butter sauce.  The next night snappers, fried with green plantains and rice.  One night pigeon peas, the next red beans, the next black beans. No tiring of beans and rice and plantains.  One night Margarito manned the bbq pit with entrecote, and marinated adobo chocken, and longaniza sauasgaes.  Shrimp criolla sautéed and stuffed into plantains shaped like baskets, a stew of different parts of pork products mixed with rice.  Seven days, 14 oustanding Dominican dishes.

We went out on the Friday night before our flight, and the only thing the restos had over the house was that they were situated on the beach.  We visited a wine bar called Cave across from La Bodega(Town Discotech) in la Plaza, and had some good wine listening to French driven tunes the likes you might hear out of the old Pere Pinard on Ludlow St.  Some bachata and merengue at Mosquito bar, where watching the locals get picked up by the retired cougars and tigers respectively made for some great entertainment, enough to drum up some appetite for pica pollo and chimchurri, late nite Dominican street vendor fast food to knock the edge of the rum.

There was just enough left over sancocho to get rid of any resaca (hangover), and to fortify us for the breathtaking ride into the airport gazing at mountain and ocean vistas of La Patria, panaromic snapshots that endured the delayed entry into JFK, the snowstorm, and the complete transportation disaster that awaitd us back in chilly, homey, New York City.

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Low Country

Charleston, SC

If you are a foodie, or just get regular Eater blasts, it is hard to ignore all the hype Charleston has been getting with their food and wine festivals and James Beard accolades and restaurant kudos.  The same praise is bestowed on New Orleans, and is justified.  I decided to see what all of the fuss is about, and sought advice from a food critic in Charleston as to the great places to experience what I learned to be “low country” cuisine.

After a very pleasant and short two hour flight from JFK, my partner in all things wonderful and delicious, Michelle, and I headed over to Cru Café (a tip from one of my clients, Kevin), and arrived just as they opened their doors for service. From the hotel on King Street (King’s Courtyard Inn), the trail led us through the market for some shopping and by two carriage houses (of which there are many) to a charming house with a porch.  Many restos are housed in charming houses, and the word charming cannot be too redundant in describing Charleston.  Just walk through the Battery and around the southern peninsula and it will feel like an extended version of NOLA’s Garden district, with great trees and lots of peace and quiet.

The menu at Cru Café is American bistroish with a bit of the south.  We split a poblano and bell pepper soup, duck confit and onion ring arugula salad, and a play on General Tso’s chicken in a wrap with a side of creamy mashed potatoes.  The wine list is short and sweet, an international medley but all reasonably priced. We chose a 2012 Richter Riesling from the Mosel that paired well for the entire meal.   Honest cooking in a nice setting with friendly service sums it up.  Great start.

We walked through Market Street to find dessert, and ended up at Kaminsky’s for coffee and pecan pie.  The place looks like a bar save for all the baked pies and cakes in the display cake as you enter.  The slice was generous and dense, the coffee sub-par.  No off for walk-about to work it off.

There are several establishments that promote a happy hour, and it is wise to do a little research as to what is the best deal.  As we are oyster fiends, Charleston is a good place to be.  Gulf oysters can be had many places for under ten bucks a dozen.  All other coastal oysters can be as high as two bucks apiece, but still reasonable as compared to NYC.  We walked into a jam packed Pearlz a little to late, anh had to settle for some oysters and clams at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar.  The drinks were average and the shellfish fine, but overall the atmosphere was lacking and we hurried over for a serious cocktail at the Gin Joint.

Aside from being a bit too bright for a cocktail bar, the Gin Joint was a solid hit.  Pimm’s Cup, Mint Julep, Manhattan, the classics were executed well.  The house cocktails were also creative and well balanced. We could tell the patrons expected good cocktails too.  A very good sign for things to come indeed.  Patrons were not well dressed, and that was unfortunate.  Something is wrong with ladies dressed well and gentlemen in shorts, polos and tivas. We then headed to the rooftop Library bar, which yielded some lovely breezes, a must to offset the slight humidity even in late October.  The view was lovely, what with all of the low buildings, but the drinks were weak.  It started to rain, and that was our cue to exit.

We hid in the Gin Joint again until the rain died down, and made it to a 9:30 reservation at Husk unscathed.  Husk is also housed in a townhouse, but of a much larger scale.  The porch is long, and the resto sports high ceilings and different rooms.

The strategy was two glasses of white wine and a bottle of red, having felt the effects of the Gin Joint.  I found a gem, Roagna Rosso 2005 for fewer than eighty dollars, and felt that the light nebbiolo would holdup for all the dishes we planned to order. Kentuckyaki glazed Pig ears lettuce wraps with salt fermented cucumbers and peppers were crunchy and addicting.  Wood fired clams could have used a kick but were smoky and good.  More Hog Island Bay oysters with sorrel berry mignonette and preserved honey ginger please.  Then cornmeal dusted NC catfish with smoky bean Hop-n-John and Bean lacquered NC duck leg with Napa cabbage and English Peas for main courses.  There is no jealousy or animosity between NC and SC; they share their best ingredients alike.  The duck shredded like pulled pork and the catfish was cooked perfectly.  Both dishes more southern by their accompaniments, southern home cooking done at a higher level with better-sourced ingredients.  We squeezed in one desert, a buttermilk pie, and then I tapped out. No mas.

After breakfast at the inn, lunch at S.N.O.B., Slightly North of Broad.  The wine list was extensive, and we found a 1991 Richter Riesling for $74.00,  drinking fabulously.  We split two soups, butternut squash bisque and white clam chowder, both creamy and proper and excellent with the Riesling.  Then came the Maverick shrimp and grits.  The grits on most menus was Geechie Boy yellow, and this was the first exposure and wouldn’t be the last by a long shot.  The dish was accented by Tasso ham, sausage, tomatoes, green onion and garlic broth, yet somehow the grits stayed firm and true to form.  I went for the local drum fish which was seared nicely on the skin side, moist and flaky on the inside.  Before the trip I had set my mind to taste much of the local fish to get a sense of the types of fish and the respective cooking techniques.  We finished with a banana cream pie.  Who can resist?

After an extensive peregrination through the Battery, we made it back to East Bay Street for happy hour at Pearlz, which was too crowded the night before.  The bar was bustling, and we ordered many oysters and clams, but I kept returning to the peel and eat shrimp, jumbo sized and dusted with Old Bay seasoning.  After a medley of pretty decent cocktails it was time for a siesta, which I try to plan on every trip between happy hours and late dinner reservations.

This time we took a cab to The Grocery as it is located just off Upper King Street.  We had been walking to every place, but did not want to run past 10 pm, and in addition it was raining again, and Charleston streets do not hold up well in the rain.  The Grocery was the kind of place you would find in NOLA, with lots of space, a separate bar area, open kitchen, reclaimed wood and interspersed with metal etc.  When you enter an old used vault safe greets you, and you like the vibe instantly.   The Firehouse is located just across the street, but it was the police who gave us a disco show pulling over a cab going the wrong way on a one-way street.

We had some fried oysters on top of deviled egg cream.  I asked our server Walt for some bread to sop up the remnants.  He told me that was the “country” thing to do.

The two cocktails we ordered were delicious, mine a dirty tomato martini, zingy and tangy, the other all rhubarb and herb like.  I found a nice bottle of dry furmint form Heidi Schlock, a female winemaker, and I do adore a feminine touch in my wines.  My partner Michelle was feeling a bit stuffed, (Why?), and barely got through her scallops and pork belly (clean-up hitter to the rescue), and I went out on a limb and ordered the market fish whole snapper for two for myself.  The fish was wood roasted and so fat and fleshy I thought it was an oversized puffer fish.  I put that dish down inspiring awe form Walt, who said I was “low country” having completed that feat.  No dessert, onto Upper King Street, where we found out is where the hip bars and college kids hang out, a sort of mixed blessing.  Nothing against south of the market and East bay St. restaurant row, but the clientele is a lot of old money, and the average age is the NY state speed limit.

Upper King was crowded as forecasted, even with the rain keeping the masses at bay.  We stopped into the Cocktail Club, which was more nightclub than cocktail, and promptly walked out.  We caught a drink at the Belmont Lounge with a sleek Miami sort of vibe.  The drinks were proper but the clients were University, so we moved the party to Rarebit, straight out of Williamsburg. It too was a bit clubby, but the music was groovy and the drinks were rolling.  We ended up at brunch here the next day for chicken and waffles.

Perhaps the best of the seafood places was The Ordinary, also on Upper King, which looked like it used o be an old bank.  High vaulted ceilings and a tasteful maritime design splits the restaurant in two, with replica game fish, wooden mermaids and underwater diorama.  The bar yields twice as much room as is necessary, and yet when all of the thoughtfully crafted seafood plates pile up you become grateful.  A battery of pristine oysters at NYC prices makes me feel at home.  A civilized dirty Plymouth Martini with extra olives made me feel like it was Saturday night.  The selection included Blackberry Point, meaty Belons, fab Honeysuckles, Beach Blondes, Otter Island, and Caper Blades, the elixirs of the ocean.  The local little necks were no second fiddle either.  P & E Gulf shrimp was meaty and addicting. But the show stopped when the razor clams hit the bar, lightly poached and plucked from its shell, presented in a glass bowl above decorative seaweed and ice, mixed to be a ceviche with fennel, cilantro, green apple, jalapeno and lime.  We ordered it twice and became the dish’s spokesperson for the bar.  We topped it all with an oyster slider, cornmeal crusted with deviled egg cream, a perfect bite.  All the while the bartender was concocting the perfect daiquiri, the straight up version with three simple ingredients of Angostura rum, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup.  What a revelation.  We would have stayed if it were not for a 9:30 res at FIG, who happens to be partners with The Ordinary.

After another siesta and a quick change, we walked to FIG (very close to inn).  It is housed in a regular setting rather than a house.  The bar was bustling and the room very contemporary with warm earthy tones.  However, the artwork seemed out of place, and the light fixtures gaudy.  Only SNOB was more disjointly designed, and we were afraid the food might be dated.  Au contraire, with excellent service and advice from our server Ashley, we had two great cocktails from the make your own Negroni list, and went to town. Painted Hills Beef carne cruda, razor clams, Keegan-Fillion Farms chicken liver pate to open things up.  Then the oft ordered ethereal ricotta gnocchi and Appalachian Highlands Lamb Bolognese and a John’s Island tomato tarte tatin.   An enormous portion of Eden Farms pork schnitzel with heirloom tomato farotto was demolished.  All washed down with a Vajra Rosso, which was being given away for sub forty dollars.  Again we wish we had room for more.  We squeezed in a Meyer Lemon Pudding with NC blackberries and aged balsamic for sweets, and glad that we did.

Pre-flight the next day we hiked out to the Butcher and Bee, a sandwich shop that is worth any trek.  Housed in a garage, the lovely ladies just serve finely crafted sandwiches.  I was upset not to be able to try the banh mi, as it is a nighttime option (they are open until 3 am), but was extremely pleased with the roast beef sandwich and the BBQ beef and cheddar.  No Po boys here, but it the quality and creativity gives Nola’s Parkway tavern a run for its money.

Overall, I was impressed with the dining scene in Charleston.  I would like to explore the outer Island for some down low country cuisine, some more BBQ and fried chicken, and some island fishing.  It was great to see the quality of the cocktails, the composition and selections offered on the wine lists, and the local sourcing for ingredients.  I did find it strange that almost no one dressed up to go out, ala Seattle.  Most men wore the standard uniform of a plaid or checked shirt (gingham) and a pair of jeans.  The ladies’ fashion was all department store driven.  Come on, with cooking this good, show some class.

The only other comment I will make is a social one.  There was a definite division of patrons as it refers to age from Upper King to Lower King Street.  I witnessed a much older crowd on Lower King and a mixed and often university crowd on Upper King.  And, as a person of color, I rarely saw any person of color dining out or in the cocktail clubs I visited.  Even the kitchen staffs were primarily Caucasian, at least on appearance.  I did not feel segregated, and received great service by all accounted, but coming form New York it felt a bit strange to me.  I just wondered where all the people of color were dining and why they hadn’t been spotted at these places where I thought there was some solid cooking going down.

Ultimately what I take from Charleston, are people who are passionate about food and beverage as a way of life, and when you ask for extra biscuits to sop up the sauce, that is downright low country.

 

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