Navigating the quintessential Charleston Restaurant Week menu
Hanna Raskin – Wednesday, September 4, 2013
If you go
WHAT: Charleston Restaurant Week is a biannual prix-fixe promotion organized by the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association.WHEN: Through Sept. 15WHERE: More than 100 restaurants are scheduled to participateCOST: $20-$40 for three coursesMORE INFO: For a complete list of restaurants and available menus, go to charlestonrestaurantassociation.comOf note: Because of the event’s popularity, reservations are highly recommended.
If Charleston Restaurant Week participants play their reservations right, they can feast on farro salad, chicken yaki soba and galaktoboureko, or Greek custard pie, over the course of the 12-day, prix-fixe affair.
But for the significant number of diners who schedule multiple Restaurant Week meals, it’s a challenge to make it through the event without eating their share of fried green tomatoes, beverage-soaked pork and bread pudding.
More than two dozen Restaurant Week menus feature one or more of the above items, a testament to the dishes’ low production cost and enduring popularity with a wide range of eaters.
Read on for a closer look at the appetizer, entree and dessert preparations that are likely to feel like old friends by the time Restaurant Week winds down.
Appetizer: Fried green tomatoes
THE DISH: Fried green tomatoes are neither exclusively Southern nor reliably easy to produce without falling prey to overseasoning, sogginess and grease, but that hasn’t stopped area chefs from making the dish a mainstay of menus, high-end and low.
Back in 1996, The New York Times approvingly reported on Louis Osteen’s version of the dish, served at Louis’ Charleston Grill with a black-eyed-pea vinaigrette. Osteen shared the recipe in his cookbook, “Charleston Cuisine,” suggesting pan-fried softshell crab as a suitably Southern garnish.
But if the crab was a Lowcountry touch, the tomatoes themselves probably had more to do with Hollywood than Hanahan. Even New Orleans’ JoAnn Clevenger, who calls herself the city’s Green Tomato Queen, told a National Public Radio interviewer that it didn’t occur to her to fry tomatoes at Upperline Restaurant until the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” was released in 1991.“Through the movie, (the) dish has become synonymous with Southern culture and Southern cooking,” the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture explains.
Prior to the film, fried green tomatoes didn’t have much of a foothold in the South. As Charleston City Paper’s Robert Moss wrote in a 2007 blog post probing the dish’s history, the earliest published recipes appeared in Northern and Midwestern newspapers. Moss uncovered only one fried green tomato story in Southern newspaper archives:
A 1944 Dothan (Ala.) Eagle column poking fun at a USDA pamphlet advocating baked beans and fried green tomatoes for breakfast. “No, Thank You, Suh! Our Culinary Tastes Won’t Permit It, Suh!,” the editor wrote.
When the Los Angeles Times in 1944 listed fried green tomatoes alongside “creamy scrambled eggs” and “crisp bacon” on a September breakfast menu, it didn’t make any regional references.
Yet that doesn’t mean fried green tomatoes aren’t tied to a culinary culture; as Moss points out, recipes for fried green tomatoes frequently cropped up in Jewish cookbooks. Although green tomatoes are typically pickled in Jewish kitchens, “The International Jewish Cook Book” (1919) deemed the salted and cornmeal-crusted preparation (fried in butter instead of bacon fat) “an excellent breakfast dish.”
WHERE TO FIND IT: Big Billy’s Burger, Hyman’s Seafood, The Noisy Oyster, Southend Brewery, Swamp Fox Restaurant & Bar, 82 Queen, Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, Angel Oak, Lowcountry Bistro, Fat Hen, Med Bistro, Jasmine Porch at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Locklear’s Lowcountry Grill, Long Island Cafe, Ms. Rose’s Fine Food & Cocktails, Rosebank Farms Cafe
RASKIN’S PICK: 82 Queen’s version: Fried pickled green tomatoes with shrimp and sweet corn aioli.
Entree: Beverage-brined pork
THE DISH: The converse of fried green tomatoes, pork brined with sweet tea, Cheerwine or another sugary Southern drink is a thoroughly regional invention, with an extraordinarily short history.
Asian cooks have long used tea to flavor, color and tenderize meats. But in the U.S., the vast majority of tea is poured over ice cubes and sipped. As late as 1989, The New York Times characterized tea as an ingredient as “a Chinese secret.”
Soda always has figured more prominently in Southern pantries, thanks to advertising cookbooklets that promoted bottled beverages as braising liquids. In 1951, the Tennessee Department of Conservation suggested hunters treat 2 pounds of deer meat with one bottle of Coca-Cola.
The switch to sweet tea made instinctive sense to young Southern chefs, who understood that a basic pork brine is nothing but water, sugar and salt.
John Fleer, now executive chef of Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, N.C., was one of the first chefs in the region to publish a recipe for a sweet tea-enhanced dish: His Sweet-Tea Cured Roast Pork appeared in a 1997 issue of Food & Wine. Ben Barker turned sweet tea-brined pork chops into a hallmark of Durham’s Magnolia Grill, in 2007 earning a Top 10 Recipe of the Year honor from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Yet word of sweet tea-cooking traveled slowly, even within the South. When a guest on a 2010 episode of Paula’s Best Dishes prepared sweet tea-brined chicken, Paula Deen remarked that she’d never heard of such a thing.
Within a year or two, though, eaters across the South were familiar with the concept.
“They are using it for everything and anything,” “Iced Tea” author Fred Thompson was quoted as saying in a 2011 Raleigh News & Observer story about the practice’s sudden popularity. The reporter theorized the phenomenon could be partly attributable to Wadmalaw Island’s sweet tea vodka pioneer, Firefly Distillery.
Whatever sparked the trend, it’s now seized the nation: Spicemaker McCormick this year issued a powdered “Smokin’ Sweet Tea” marinade.
WHERE TO FIND IT: 82 Queen, Jasmine Porch at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Lowcountry Bistro, Rosebank Farms Cafe, SpiritLine Cruises
RASKIN’S PICK: Grilled Charleston Peach Tea-brined pork tenderloin at Rosebank Farms Cafe.
Dessert: Bread pudding
THE DISH: It’s no wonder that bread pudding shows up on so many Restaurant Week menus: The dish has been solving culinary quandaries for centuries.
In the Middle Ages, frugal cooks already had figured out they could extend the usefulness of bread by softening and sweetening a cubed stale loaf with milk and honey.
An early Southern preparation was captured in Mary Randolph’s 1824 “The Virginia Housewife.” Her comparatively rich recipe called for eggs, butter, sugar, brandy and grated lemon peel.
Randolph’s fancifying bent still holds sway in commercial kitchens, which use bread pudding as a foundation for fruits, nuts, vegetables and sauces. No two Restaurant Week puddings are exactly alike.
WHERE TO FIND IT: Caviar & Bananas, Cherrywood BBQ, La Tabella, Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, Rutledge Cab Co., Grill 225, Barbadoes Room at The Mills House Hotel, Cork, Med Bistro, Jasmine Porch at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Leaf, Mosaic Cafe
RASKIN’S PICK: Banana Bread Pudding with sliced fired bananas, caramel ice cream and warm caramel sauce at Grill 225.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.