Cork Dork

When we’re not wining or dining (or chasing our three-year-old), chances are we’re reading – and often, the subject is food or wine.  We both recently devoured Cork Dork, a newly-published account of author Bianca Bosker’s 18-month-long transformation from wine novice to certified sommelier candidate (no spoilers – read the book to see if she passes!).  Bosker gives up her desk job as a tech editor to pursue her new obsession, a journey which leads her into varied corners of the wine world – from elite New York City sommelier tasting groups and restaurants to mass-market California wineries to neuroscience studies on the brain’s receptivity to taste – in an attempt to discern and articulate what makes a great wine.

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Bosker’s balance between enthusiasm and skepticism is what anchors Cork Dork and makes it such an enjoyable yet informative read.  Is all that wine-speak (you know, “this wine is redolent of pencil shavings, bruised red apples and garden hose”) just highfalutin nonsense? Bosker acknowledges that yes, some of it is.  But sommeliers’ tasting notes are more than just pretentious party tricks – they’re grounded in both chemistry and psychology, which Bosker covers without getting too bogged down in the science.  It turns out that smell, our most neglected sense, is key to wine tasting, and the master sommeliers she studies with train with the rigor of professional athletes to be able to blind taste a wine and identify its grape, region, vintage and even producer.   (Some of them lick rocks and smell garbage to refine their sense of smell and refuse to brush their teeth before tastings to avoid messing up their palates – that’s dedication.)

Cork Dork also explores the economic side of wine, from the difference between a $50 bottle and a $500 bottle (often scarcity rather than quality) to the art of the upsell (or occasional downsell) by restaurant sommeliers.  And lest we forget that at the end of the day, wine is meant to be enjoyed, Bosker vividly conveys the pure pleasure (or insanity) wine can bring.  Why is it that the “amazing” bottle you drank on the beach at sunset will never taste as good anywhere or anytime else (the $2-per-bottle Mexican sparkling wine we LOVED on our first kid-free vacation comes to mind!)?  And what’s it like to spend an evening at La Paulée, an absolutely insane-sounding bacchanal dedicated to drinking massive quantities of even-more-massively expensive Burgundies?  Cork Dork will tell you.

“It just makes me happy, you know?  You go somewhere, and you sit at the bar, and you eat good food, and you drink, and then you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m lucky to be alive and to be me.'”

– Darnelle, a waitress at a high-end NYC restaurant, summing up the magic of a good meal and glass of wine in Cork Dork 

As its very long subtitle states, Cork Dork is “A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught [Bosker] to Live for Taste,” but its message resonates much more broadly: take the time to stop and smell the roses (literally), go all in when it matters, and, at the end of the day, trust your senses.  We’ll drink to that.

Une soirée française à Charleston

It’s no secret that we are both Francophiles – we met during our junior year abroad in France, speak the language and adore French food and wine.  We’re always looking to indulge our inner Frenchies, and the recent opening of both a new French restaurant and a new French film here in Charleston seemed like the perfect opportunity to get a babysitter and head out on the town for a soirée française.

When we first moved to Charleston, we quickly fell in love with La Fourchette, a little French bistro on King Street, and were devastated when it suddenly closed in 2013.  Our emotions swung 180 degrees last spring when we heard that La Fourchette’s owner would be opening a new restaurant on Cannon Street (in place of the shuttered Lana, whose chef has now launched Kairos Greek Kitchen, which has quickly become one of our favorite kid-friendly spots).  So when Goulette finally opened a few weeks ago, we knew we had to try it tout de suite!  And while Goulette is not as classically French as La Fourchette was, we were thrilled to find all the components of a great French meal among its menu offerings.

Soups and salads comprise the bulk of Goulette’s appetizers, but we opted to split the shrimp roll to start.  The shrimp roll was surprisingly large and a great first course to share.  A mound of local Charleston shrimp were nestled inside a toasted, top-split brioche roll, dressed in a creamy sauce with just the right amount of dill and a drizzle of lobster oil.  It was also accompanied by the house salade verte, which provided a light counterpoint to the richness of the roll.  Despite its size, we never felt that the roll was too rich or heavy, even on a 90 degree Charleston day.  Our waitress told us that it is Goulette’s most popular appetizer, and we can vouch that it is a great choice to start your meal.

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Goulette’s entree selection is meat-heavy but eclectic, offering French classics alongside pulled pork, fish and chips and grilled shrimp.  Prices range from $16 for the pulled pork up to $26 for the duck confit and lamb chops, and each of the grilled items can be paired with a sauce (basquaise, green peppercorn, coq au vin, gorgonzola or mushroom cream), offered à la carte for an additional $3 or $3.50.

As former devotees of the steak frites at La Fourchette, we gravitated toward the French fare: hanger steak and duck leg confit, both served with heaping portions of fries and more salade verte.  The crispy duck confit (spiced with orange zest, coriander, clove and allspice) was good, but the hanger steak was truly great.  The steak arrived cooked to a perfect medium rare and was served with a dusting of garlic, parsley and (we think) Paremsan cheese.  Tyler opted to include the green peppercorn sauce, which was good but not great; it had a spice note we couldn’t nail down that was slightly overpowering.  We both agreed that we have never encountered hanger steak that tender before.  While one of the more expensive options on the menu at $25, it was $25 very well spent (though we do wish the sauces were included at that price point).  We were also thrilled to find the fries unchanged from the La Fourchette days: double fried in duck fat and completely ducking delicious.

Goulette’s wine list is relatively short but well-cultivated.  It is heavily French, but there were many selections from both the old and new worlds as well as a small by-the-glass selection.  Prices were reasonable, topping out around $80, with the vast majority of bottles under $50.  We settled on the 2012 premier cru from the “Les Vergelesses” vineyard in Savigny-les-Beaune.  2012 was a good vintage for Burgundy, and the wine met our high expectations – it was structured enough to complement the steak and duck, but its relatively light body and low alcohol content prevented it from overwhelming the shrimp roll.  The first sip was much more tannic than we anticipated, but the wine quickly softened in the glass, showing notes of raspberry, cherries and rosemary with just a touch of Burgundy barnyard funk.

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We finished our meal with an order of profiteroles, a classic French bistro dessert.  Four puffs of choux pastry filled with vanilla bean ice cream, drowning in a dark chocolate sauce, were tough to pass up.  The pastry was light with a slight crunch, clearly indicating that they were house-made and not pulled from a freezer.  The Belgian chocolate sauce had a great depth of flavor – rich but not overly so, with a a pleasant bitterness that made us wonder if some fresh coffee had been added.  It was the perfect coda to a meal that stayed true to the French philosophy of focusing on good ingredients prepared well.

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Pleasantly but not overwhelmingly full, we said au revoir to our friendly Belgian waitress and headed to The Terrace, Charleston’s only indie movie theater, to continue our French-food-focused evening with a screening of Paris Can Wait.    The movie centers on Anne (Diane Lane), an American woman being driven from the French Riviera to Paris by her husband’s French colleague, Jacques (Arnaud Viard), after an ear infection prevents her from flying.  What should be a seven-hour drive turns into a multi-day adventure as quirky, food-obsessed Jacques leads Anne on a gastronomic tour through Provence, Lyon and Burgundy.

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The plot is fairly slight – Anne’s at a bit of a crossroads in her life, having closed her business but now catering to her busy movie-producer husband, and Jacques is overtly but not aggressively flirtatious – and the real appeal (for us, anyway) was in the amazing meals, fabulous wine and beautiful landscapes that form the backbone of the film.  Non-Francophiles and non-foodies would likely find the culinary focus and meandering pace of the movie, as well as the lack of subtitles on all of the French dialogue, frustrating.  For us, though, it was like taking a delightful, delicious 90-minute vacation – so much so that, despite our meal at Goulette and our current lack of vacation time, we found ourselves slightly hungry and Googling Paris airfare prices on our drive home.  Paris may have to wait, but we’re glad Charleston’s French food and cultural offerings are strong enough to transport us there, even if only for the evening.


Restaurant Info:

Goulette
98 Cannon Street, Charleston, SC 
Open for dinner; opening soon for lunch
No Internet presence that we can find!

 

 

 

 

Da, Plavina!

“Drink what you know” has become our version of the saying “write what you know.”   On any given night when a bottle of wine is open on our table, it’s likely to from a region or a grape with which we have a long history – whether an elegant, thought provoking Burgundy, a racy and lively Oregon pinot noir, or a leathery, tobacco-spiced Rioja from somewhere near San Sebastian.  This approach has served us very well over the years,and has rarely (if ever) led to a truly disappointing bottle.  

A few weeks ago, however, we decided we wanted to branch out into lesser-known (to us) regions and grapes.  So far, this change of course has led us to some truly memorable bottles.  We’ve enjoyed bottles from all over the Old World, running the gamut from a focused and mineral-driven Gruner Veltliner from Austria to a dark, brooding Ribuero del Duero a friend brought home from Portugal and graciously opened with us.

One bottle, though, was honestly a shocking discovery: the 2015 Plavina from Croatian winemaker Ivica Pilizota.  This was the first bottle of Croatian wine we’ve ever had, but it certainly won’t be our last!  

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Plavina is a red grape indigenous to the Dalmatian Coast, and the Pilizota grapes grow in rocky soil near the Adriatic Sea.  At only 12.7% ABV, our initial thought was that this bottle would be very bright and fruit-forward with relatively high acid and a light, delicate structure.  This Plavina did primarily offer strawberry and red currant characteristics, but they were nicely balanced with a hint of bramble, dewy forest floor and even a little bit of sea air – a great expression of its coastal terroir.

The Pilizota Plavina is an absolute gem of a wine, and it’s a steal at around $16 (for Charleston locals, we found it at Bottles in Mount Pleasant).  For us, it provided an instant flashback to late summer evenings on the Jersey Shore – it’s a glass of sea air and sunsets that we recommend serving slightly chilled, preferably with an ocean view.

V-Dub Vino Score: 94/100

2015 Ivica Pilizota Plavina – 12.7% ABV – $15.99 (SC price)

 

Off the Beaten Path

“Off the Beaten Path” may be a bit of a misnomer for this post given that the featured spots are along Highway 17, one of the main arteries through the Lowcountry, but they are both far enough outside the city of Charleston that they feel like a world apart.

About twenty minutes south of Charleston, the car dealerships, restaurants and strip malls give way to open land in the rural town of Ravenel.  Only a few establishments dot the side of the highway, and three of them are real gems.  One of these is the Caw Caw Interpretive Center, a nature center and wildlife preserve and one of our favorite parks in the area – we won’t dwell on it here since its dining options are limited to vending machines, but we highly recommend a visit when you’re in this neck of the woods!  The other two, Champney’s Blueberry Farm and Ravenel Fresh Seafood, offer unique Lowcountry experiences not to be missed.

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Sure sign of summer in South Carolina!

Champney’s is a family-owned and -operated blueberry farm offering both you-pick and already-harvested blueberries in season (typically, early June to mid-July).   We recommend the you-pick option – coat yourself in sunscreen and bug spray, grab a basket from the open-air farm stand and get picking!  Walking through the vast field of blueberry trees, it’s hard to believe you’re just a stone’s throw from the highway, but you’ll quickly get lost in the moment.

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Blueberry fields forever

This year, the Lowcountry unfortunately got hit with a very late frost (23 degrees in March!), decimating a lot of the local blueberry and peach crops.  Champney’s was not spared, and so the 2017 season will be much more limited than most years’.   With that in mind, we headed to the farm on its opening day this past Saturday.  It was sad to see so many bare trees, but we were very grateful that some of the berries survived so we could enjoy one of our favorites rites of early summer in South Carolina. Even with the smaller crop, we still managed to pick four pounds of blueberries in about an hour.  Jack was actually semi-helpful this year too, though most of the berries he picked went directly into his mouth instead of his basket (and really, who could blame him?  Few things in life taste as good as sun-warmed blueberries straight off the tree).  We definitely rounded up when it came time to pay to make up for his “quality control” – and at a mere $2/lb, we were happy to do so!

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Found one!

Hot and hungry after our time at Champney’s, we headed 10 minutes farther down the road to Ravenel Fresh Seafood.   Somehow this was our first visit to Ravenel Seafood, but it definitely won’t be our last!  The small restaurant is easily visible from the highway thanks to the colorful coastal fishing murals that cover its exterior, and while the interior is more spartan, the food is anything but!

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Fish feast

Everything is made to order, and our fried oysters, whiting and shrimp came out crisp and hot.  The real star, though, was the garlic crabs: steamed, coated in a garlic butter that we are still talking about, served whole and ready to be devoured messily and immediately.  These were seriously SO freaking good that we licked our fingers clean and debated ordering more despite the mountain of fried fish we’d already inhaled.  After throwing in the towel and learning that hand sanitizer removes Old Bay residue quite, well, handily (sorry), we spent the car ride home trying to reverse engineer the garlic butter recipe.

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Garlicky, crabby deliciousness

If you need us this week, we’ll be eating blueberries by the handful and dreaming of those garlic crabs …


Info:

Champney’s Blueberry Farm Facebook page
4492 Rose Lane, Ravenel, SC
2017 season hours: Thursday-Saturday 9am-7pm

Ravenel Fresh Seafood Facebook page
5925 Savannah Highway, Ravenel, SC
Open 10am-7pm, closed Sundays

 

 

Quick Bites: Kairos Greek Kitchen

As the parents of a three-year-old whose energy levels equal those of a tornado, we are big fans of the fast-casual dining trend.  We’re fortunate that Charleston has several high-quality, locally-owned options in this category (see below for some of our favorites), but we’re always excited when a new place opens up.  So when we recently found ourselves in Mount Pleasant with a hungry tornado toddler, we headed to the recently-opened Kairos Greek Kitchen for a quick bite.

We’ll confess that we initially assumed Kairos was a chain, given its large size and location in a big-box shopping center (Bowman Place) – and we would have enjoyed it all the same.  However, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Kairos is actually the product of John Ondo, who was formerly the chef at downtown’s much-loved, now-closed Lana.  While Lana always had some Mediterranean-influenced dishes on its Italian menu, Ondo has now headed east and firmly embraced healthy Greek fare.

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Kairos’ concept is essentially Greek Chipotle: choose a base, protein, spread and toppings and watch as your meal is assembled in front of you.  Kairos offers falafel, lamb, chicken or meatballs in pitas, rice bowls and salads, which can be piled high with as many fresh, veggie-focused toppings as you wish – we recommend the red pepper feta and tomato cucumber salad in particular!  A deliciously lemon-y hummus (paired with crisp pita chips) can also be ordered as a side item, and there is a small beer & wine selection.

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The space is as clean as the flavors, with Aegean-blue chairs and light wood floors, tables and paneling.  Service is also very friendly, with workers patiently explaining the menu to first-timers and helping people who’ve ordered too much food (yes, it was us) get it all to their table without dropping any food (or their child).  High chairs are plentiful, and the reasonably-priced kids’ menu offers variations on the standard menu.  We’ll definitely be back the next time we’ve got a hangry kid and a hankering for Greek food!

Restaurant Info:
Kairos Greek Kitchen website
1100 Bowman Avenue, Mount Pleasant, SC
V-Dub Grub’s kid-friendly rating: A+


Other fast-casual favorites in Charleston:
Caviar and Bananas (downtown)
Zia Taqueria (James Island)
Joey Tomatoes (Mount Pleasant)
Verde (downtown and Mount Pleasant)

Charleston Restaurant List

Since one of us (ahem, Nina) likes making lists almost as much as she likes making dinner reservations, we’ve kept a running list of Charleston restaurants we’ve tried since first visiting the city in 2009. The list is far from scientific, but we have a few rules: (i) we include any restaurant we’ve tried in Charleston County, (ii) we don’t include bars unless (or until) we’ve tried their food offerings, (iii) we don’t double-count restaurants with more than one location or that have closed and re-opened (e.g., Taco Boy, The Granary), and (iv) we don’t include large chain restaurants (where we rarely eat anyway) but will include smaller chains with only one or two Charleston outposts (e.g., Mellow Mushroom, Urban Cookhouse).

Our pace has slowed since Jack was born (between restaurants 138 and 139, if we remember correctly), but we’re nearing 200 individual restaurants.  Our list ranges from the finest dining the city has to offer to the most casual dives and covers just about every price point and cuisine in between, which is as much a testament to the breadth and diversity of Charleston’s food scene as it is to our love of eating out!  Discussions as to which restaurant should be #200 are underway – hopefully we’ll hit that milestone later this summer!

We’ll keep this list updated on the “Charleston Restaurant List” page (see sidebar) – we like to add to it as often as possible!

1.  Taco Boy 101.  Mex 1 Coastal Cantina
 2.  SNOB 102.  Three Little Birds
 3.  Blossom 103.  Crave
 4.  Fat  Hen 104.  Xiao Bao Biscuit
 5.  Wild Olive 105.  Crust Wood Fired Pizza
 6.  Hominy Grill 106.  Liberty Tap Room
 7.  McCrady’s 107.  The Craftsmen
 8.  The Mustard Seed (closed) 108.  Butcher & Bee
 9.  Husk 109.  Lana (closed)
10.  Cru Cafe 110.  Barsa
11.  Social (closed) 111.  YoBo Cantina
12.  Poogan’s Porch 112.  Coda del Pesce
13.  Black Bean Co. 113.  Closed for Business
14.  Five Loaves 114.  Cory’s Grilled Cheese
15.  Zia Taqueria 115.  Charleston Harbor Fish House
16.  JI Pizza 116.  Black Magic Cafe
17.  Coleman Public House 117.  Opal
18.  The Glass Onion 118.  Sweeney’s (closed)
19.  Bushido 119.  Mercato
20.  Cork Bistro (closed) 120.  Al Di La
21.  Kaminsky’s 121.  The Rarebit
22.  Jim n Nick’s 122.  Graze
23.  Red’s Ice House 123.  CO
24.  Vickery’s 124.  Indaco
25.  Poe’s Tavern 125.  Verde
26.  East Bay Deli 126.  Mosaic
27.  39 Rue de Jean 127.  Early Bird Diner
28.  Woody’s Pizza 128.  Leyla
29.  Caviar & Bananas 129.  The Square Onion
30.  Melvin’s Barbecue 130.  SALT at Station 22
31.  17 North (closed) 131.  Madra Rua
32.  Old Village Post House 132.  Papa Zuzu’s
33.  Red Drum 133.  The Granary
34.  82 Queen 134.  The Obstinate Daughter
35.  Tristan (closed) 135.  Sunae’s (closed)
36.  Triangle Char & Bar 136.  Edmund’s Oast
37.  Jack’s Cosmic Dogs 137.  Egan & Sons (closed)
38.  Sesame Burger 138.  Mondo’s
39.  Osaka 139.  Boxcar Betty’s
40.  Coconut Joe’s 140.  Park Cafe
41.  High Cotton 141.  Whtie Duck Taco Shop
42.  Fuel 142.  Bowen’s Island
43.  Coast 143.  Brown Dog Deli
44.  Fish 144.  The Pickled Palate
45.  EVO Pizza 145. Pane e Vino
46.  Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar 146.  Brasserie Gigi (closed)
47.  O’Hara & Flynn Wine Bar 147. Chez Nous
48.  Heart Woodfire Kitchen (closed) 148.  Swig & Swine
49.  Carolina’s (closed) 149.  The Bluerose Cafe
50.  Sabatino’s Pizza 150.  Circa 1886
51.  FIG 151.  Leon’s Oyster Shop
52.  Oak Steakhouse 152.  Leelee’s Hot Kitchen (closed)
53.  Basil 153.  Two Boroughs Larder (closed)
54.  Eli’s Table 154.  Spero
55.  Anson 155.  Junction Kitchen
56.  O-Ku 156.  The Drawing Room
57.  Bull Street (closed) 157.  Basico
58.  Magnolia’s 158.  Island Grill & Bar
59.  Folly Beach Shrimp Co. (closed) 159.  Stereo 8 (closed)
60.  Nirlep 160.  R Kitchen
61.  Baguette Magic 161.  The Americano
62.  Monza 162.  Cafe Framboise
63.  JB’s Smokehouse 163.  Thai Elephant
64.  The Macintosh 164.  Burton’s
65.  Charleston Crab House 165.  Ellis Creek Fish Camp
66.  Boathouse at Breach Inlet 166.  Lost Dog Cafe
67.  Lucky’s (closed) 167.  Maybank Public House
68.  Tattooed Moose 168.  Apartment A (closed)
69.  Starfish Grill (closed) 169.  5Church
70.  Pick Thai 170.  The Watch
71.  El Bohio (closed) 171.  The Darling Oyster Bar
72.  Bin 152 172.  The Westendorff (closed)
73.  Tomato Shed Cafe 173.  Vintage Coffee & Cafe
74.  Athens Grill 174.  Congress
75.  Angel Oak 175.  Feathertop
76.  Peninsula Grill 176.  Parlor Deluxe (closed)
77.  Sunrise Bistro 177.  Bistro Toulouse
78.  Halls Chophouse 178.  Charleston Grill
79.  Pearlz Oyster Bar 179.  La Nortena
80.  Maria’s Mexican Grill 180.  Marina Variety
81.  Ted’s Butcherblock 181.  Jack’s Cafe
82.  Stars 182.  King Street Grille
83.  Lowcountry Bistro 183.  Little Jack’s Tavern
84.  Ms. Rose’s 184.  Le Farfalle
85.  The Sloppy Cow (closed) 185.  Artisan Meat Share
86.  Fire Street Food 186.  McCrady’s Tavern
87.  Mellow Mushroom 187.  Goat Sheep Cow North
88.  The Lot 188.  Joey Tomatoes
89.  La Fourchette (closed) 189.  Stella’s
90.  Bacco 190.  Hen and the Goat
91.  The Grocery 191.  Urban Cookhouse
92.  The Ordinary  192.  Kairos Greek Kitchen
93.  Cypress (closed)  193.  The Shelter
94.  El Mercadito
95.  New Moon (closed)
96.  Rosebank Cafe (closed)
97.  Southern General
98.  Rutledge Cab Co.
99.  Osteria La Bottiglia (closed)
100.  Trattoria Lucca