The Hampton Street Vineyard is a little slice of bistro heaven in Downtown Columbia

Back in Columbia, S.C., it seemed someone’s Aunt Patti had a gig one night at a place called Hampton Street Vineyard. I would love it. Okay, so we went.

Turned out Aunt Patti (Ficken) played guitar in an outfit called Total Denial, with Liz Cameron, Jody Creel, and Mike Cameron, which just happened to be a very fine four-piece bluegrass band. The all-acoustic group was set to play on the sidewalk out front near the restaurant’s umbrella tables. But we decided to walk down to the entrance, slightly below street level, to have a drink before moving outside.

It seems we were a bit early, but the house mojito special was a welcome relief from the sweltering heat on the street above. The drink was served from a large jug and was perfect. Most of the patrons at the bar seemed to know each other but were very friendly to strangers nonetheless.

To fortify us against the mojitos that fortified us against the heat, we also opted to get some appetizers. I went with the steamed mussels special. Though most of the mussels were very good, I was disturbed to find a few in broken shells or in shells with holes in them.

A companion also pointed out the one he tried tasted “fishy” (not a good thing) and some appeared browned and rather dry on the surface. I’m not sure but suppose the strange appearance of some and any slightly fishy taste may have been a function of too little steaming liquid. The crostini were perfectly black-brown however, and delicious dipped in the rich broth.

Soon it was time to move outside with the band. Unfortunately, after a few numbers, the wind began to pick up; then the rain came. So we decided to move the whole event under the cantilevered roof over the entrance of the Kreel building next door, which we did. That bought us another hour or so of rain falling around us while we continued listening from patio chairs we dragged over.

Then the wind blew through with a force strong enough to send us into a small corner of the entrance. That was the end of the gig—at least for a while. So we went in to eat instead.

For an entrée, I ordered the Crispy Breast of Duck with warm red bliss potato salad, glazed baby carrotsn and a blackberry brandy glazed, which I asked for on the side. Dessert was a Ginger Pear Cobbler with French vanilla bean ice cream.

The duck was a breast that was seared “crispy” and served perfectly medium-rare, cut into medallions, and strewn along the edge of the plate around the potato salad and carrots. The potato salad was a simple one in, what I call, the “German style.” Accordingly, it was slightly vinegary and redolent of bacon. The carrots were glazed but no offensively so. Just enough to give them some spice and to highlight their flavor. A very successful course!

The Ginger Pear Cobbler did not appear as I would have expected—i.e., in a shallow dish with fruit on the bottom and something like pastry or crisp on top. Instead, it was rather like a pear fritter with chunks of fruit enrobed in an oblong pancake-like breading with a scoop of ice cream on the side. But the scent and the taste were amazing.

The ginger accented the pear perfectly. There also seemed to be complements of cinnamon and allspice. The pear came through the exotic spice notes, nonetheless, and with the vanilla bean ice cream made for a fabulous summer dessert.

All in all, Hampton Street Vineyard was a perfect setting for a laid-back but enriching culinary experience. The wine, friendly patrons, and musicians playing bluegrass on our way out made for a memorable evening in Columbia.

Bon Appetite!
——————————————————————————————————————
RATING:

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance:

Real Bacon is the Real Breakfast of Real Champions

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d sip a pina colada with it!

So the other day at the Rosewood Market, the local real food market in Columbia, S.C., when I saw a certain nondescript package in the freezer section, I nearly jumped for joy. I held back on the jumping though for fear of frightening the other shoppers, but only just barely.

What the nondescript package contained was the most magical and elusive substance I have ever encountered—real bacon. I don’t mean the crap that passes as bacon in most refrigerator sections of even the finest grocery stores. (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods!) I mean Caw Caw Creek Farm’s pasture-raised, salt and sugar cured, untrimmed, thick-sliced, beautiful, life-changing, forever bacon. And it was good. Very good.

To prepare, I spared no expense. First, I thawed overnight in the refrigerator.

Then, I lovingly placed two (no more, no less) strips on a small jelly roll pan (with 3/4″ sides). The sides on this pan are very important for reserving the 1/2 cup of oil that will render out of the bacon. Yes, folks, that’s a full 1/4 cup of delicious oil per slice you can save to make everything else you cook incredible too. (This bacon just gives and gives. It’s a giver.)

Meanwhile, I heated the oven to 425 degrees. I placed the pan containing the bacon in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the meat is browned, the fat is slightly tinged with color, and the whole situation is just about floating.

After carefully removing the pan (so as not to slosh the hot oil) and allowing it to cool, I removed the bacon slices and experienced a flavor and texture that is the stuff of legend. Meaty, melty, comforting, and filling—this was simply the single best food I have ever experienced. Simply bacon.

I’m not sure I can go back to the undersized, over-trimmed, chemically-manipulated stuff I’ve called bacon before this. From now on, I believe I shall refer to this vastly inferior product as “breakfast meat” or “bacon-like product.” If a waiter is confused, that’s his bad luck. Whatever he brings me will suck anyway.

Bon appetite!

Myrtle Beach and the Deep Blue Sea

About two hours almost due East of Columbia, S.C., is Myrtle Beach, a lovely seaside resort town resting beside the green Atlantic Ocean. I recently had my first opportunity to visit there but could only stay for a couple of days. Nonetheless, my esteemed hostess found the time to introduce me to a few of the seafood delights of Eastern seaboard and, one, not so delightful.

Our first stop was a porch facing a marina along Murrells Inlet belonging to a restaurant called Drunken Jack’s. This place is one of about five restaurants hugging the waterway. They all looked pretty good but my friend wanted me to eat at this one and one other—a combo place called Divine Fish House that included an outdoor raw bar named Wahoo’s.

I don’t know what the inside of the restaurant looks like because from our seat we had an excellent view of Goat Island (so-called because of the herd of goats inhabiting the place), were serenaded by the co-habitating peacocks, and even got a front-row seat of some guy having trouble backing his cabin cruiser into a slip just below. Given that, the décor of another kitchy seaside beach restaurant just didn’t seem to warrant a trip inside. Besides they brought my order right out to me.

The first thing I learned was South Carolina had recently become a “free-pour” state with regard to liquor orders. This is a big deal as, in the past, it seems, all liquor served in bars was required to be delivered in those tiny mini-bar bottles. So if you ordered a mixed drink with six different liquors, you got six different bottles. You can see how that might add up.

Now, South Carolina is normal-er so you can buy your mixed drink 1 1/2 ounces at a time. Or if my experience at Drunken Jack’s is any indication, maybe just a smidgen more than 1 1/2 ounces….  Anyway, because we were planning on moving along at some point, we ordered only appetizers from the limited porch menu. I had the fried softshell crab with butter sauce.

Although the crab had a little more visible fat than I care for, it was unbelievably fabulous. It was the kind of crab I used to fish out of the water myself.  Ah, memories. Oh, and the lemon butter I wanted to drink as a vodka chaser!  But back to our story: the next stop was Wahoo’s.

Now one thing not many people know about Foodiesaurus is that of all the food in all the world, there is just one thing she has met so far that she totally cannot stand to eat (although she respects those who do) and that is raw oysters. So it was the special steamed mussels for me this round.

These mussels weren’t the absolute best I’ve ever had but they were right up there with the best—that is, those at a Belgian place I loved in Houston and those at two different Italian restaurants in Birmingham (one of which is owned by a perennial James Beard nominee). The traditional white wine and garlic treatment was just what I was looking for, and the crostini were crunchy and nicely toasted.

All-in-all, the Murrells Inlet crowd was way ahead of expectations.

Before leaving the shore, however, I decided to sample local seafood once more at a place called < a href=”http://www.sarajs.com/” target=”_blank”>Sara J’s.  At least I think it was local.  In all fairness, this restaurant bills itself as a “family-friendly” place so it makes no claim of grandeur.  Even still, I was disappointed.

The soft-shelled crab with horseradish marmalade sounded far more interesting than it was—notwithstanding the fact they did clean it free of fat unlike Drunken Jack’s. Likewise, the shrimp scampi was bland and tasteless. Even the hushpuppies were overly dense and free of any of the interesting bits of onion and bell pepper that are mandatory in Louisiana.

On one hand, my evaluation may seem unfair given the fact my standard of comparison on the hushpuppies is Louisiana. On the other hand, I didn’t like their soft-shelled crabs in a head-to-head comparison with a restaurant located a stone’s throw away.

I think the execution of Sara J’s restaurant was likely proper, I just think whoever developed these recipes failed to take advantage of the abundant and fabulous natural resources that give this area its reputation for amazing seafood.  Or possibly, everything I ate had been precooked or from frozen.  Either way, it is unfortunate then that “family-friendly” seems to have become a euphemism for tasteless and weak.

Although the restaurant appeared clean and neat and the service was friendly, the food was subpar by design, if not by execution. I consider that a major fail.

Bon Appetite!
——————————————————————————————————————
RATING:

DRUNKEN JACK’S/WAHOO’S—

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance:

SARA J’S—

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance:

The Gourmet Shop: Go for Brunch and Stay Awhile….

My introduction to Columbia, S.C., was really one of the most enjoyable Fridays I’ve spent in some time. It all started with many, many, many Mimosas at The Gourmet Shop along with the best petit fours I have ever utterly failed to imagine I would eat imported from another classic Columbia establishment many miles away called Tiffany’s Bakery.

I started with the petit four.  And I am glad. 

Predictably, the petit four was a delicate white rectangle enrobed in a light buttercream glaze with a colored dollop on top.  Unpredictably, the texture inside was firm with a slightly crispy surface that yielded easily to reveal the tender buttery interior.

It was as if the best cake you’ve ever eaten married the best doughnut you’ve ever had and this bit of confection was their newborn baby.  No other petit four will ever compare.  Ever.  Shut up.  Ever.

Then came The Gourmet Shop’s first counter to the greatness of Tiffany’s: Mimosas.  Here that means a really a large bottle of champagne and a small bottle of orange juice for around $10. You get the picture.

For food, I went with the Hot Egg and Cheese Croissant with bacon or turkey sausage (the correct answer: bacon) and a side, in my case, of cottage cheese. (Gotta be healthy, right?) A cup of Illy café au lait also seemed called for. And it was.

The resulting sandwich was a golden bundle of oozy woozy goodness. The croissant was soft buttery flakiness just like it was supposed to be. The cheddar cheese was a tangy melted crown draped over the top of the fluffy egg layer. Bacon was perfectly cooked. The cottage cheese was nothing really special but who cares.

My companions enjoyed the Yogurt-Granola Fresh Fruit Bowl topped with seasonal fruit and served with the ubiquitous croissant, the Breakfast Bowl including a choice of an egg, bacon or turkey sausage covered in grits and topped with cheddar, and the Breakfast Panini filled with either egg, bacon or turkey sausage, cheese and roasted red peppers. I don’t know what those tasted like. I was pretty with my stuff.

And so the day wore on. Just to be polite, you understand, we ordered more Mimosas again and again and again.

At some point, it occurred to me it was lunch time. So out came menus for round two. This time around mine was the Spinach Salad topped with bacon, very fresh, very ripe avocado, sunflower seeds, cucumbers, tomatoes, and mushrooms with celery seed vinaigrette. (Gotta be healthy, right?)

Copious other available choices included: Create Your Own Sandwich with Medium Rare Roast Beef, Hot Pastrami, Black Forest Ham, etc., on breads including pumpernickel, rye, baguette, and multi-grain, among others; salad combinations; bakery items including Scones; Cheese and Pate Plates and other charcuterie; and several specialty sandwiches on wraps, panini, soups, and bagels.

After all of the mimosas, brunch and lunch, I don’t recall anyone having dessert but they were available, and I imagine if the rest of the food was any example, the dessert was likely wonderful.

The service was responsive and patient. (My companions assured me single sitting multi-courses were a fairly common occurrence there.) And as I passed from our outdoor table to the restroom, I noticed that on far side of the building were indoor tables were in the event of extreme heat, which Columbia is capable of, or rain, I expect. Otherwise, the outdoor street scene (featuring a violinist a discreet distance away) was definitely worth getting there early for.

There is also an actual “gourmet” shop featuring a wide variety of interesting kitchen gadgets and gourmet food items as well. Shopping while dining. Awesome!

At the end of the meal(s), the most pleasant surprise was the cost. My tab (we split five ways) wasn’t $75; it wasn’t $55. It was $47, including tip. Top that!

Bon Appetite!
——————————————————————————————————————
RATING:

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance: