Barsa's local-sourced paella, which the upper King Street tapas bar earlier this month showed off at Abundant Seafood's CFA stand, has earned the restaurant a spot on Travel + Leisure's list of "Best Tapas Restaurants in the U.S."
The magazine selected 20 tapas bars across the country for the honor. The Southeast had a strong showing: In addition to Barsa, the list cites Durham's Mateo Tapas, Asheville's Curate and Atlanta's The Iberian Pig.
"Barsa, which bills itself as a Spanish-influenced restaurant with a Southern drawl, has been a local favorite on trendy Upper King Street for years," says the blurb accompanying Barsa's entry. "Chalk it up to the paella with ingredients sourced from local farms and the convivial atmosphere."
Travel + Leisure specifically praised Barsa's "Basque-inspired plates of octopus with smoked paprika, roasted chicken and kale croquettes, and Manchego-stuffed dates."
Now featuring a slightly reformatted menu, Barsa is open every day at 630 King St.
Hominy Grill replaces its Windsor chairs
When I was in graduate school, a professor tried to make the point that objects don't speak by setting before us a plain wooden chair. As she anticipated, none of us guessed the chair had been rescued from the Harlem ballroom where Malcom X was killed.
But I'm still inclined to believe chairs are pretty good connectors to the past, perhaps because it's so easy to imagine how they were used: They're the material opposite of the coffee grinders and cherry pitters that museum docents use to stump visitors. So I jumped at the chance earlier this month to buy one of Hominy Grill's original chairs, which the restaurant announced via Twitter it was selling off for $30 apiece.
The Windsor chairs, with their gracefully curved backs and thinly padded seats, predate Hominy's tenure at the corner of Cannon and Rutledge: When chef Robert Stehling in 1996 purchased the restaurant, the previous owner offered him the chairs at an absurdly low price. In a dining room where so many patrons often hail from elsewhere, staffers came to appreciate the steady permanence of the chairs.
But the chairs chipped and cracked, so Hominy Grill was perpetually refinishing them, until the whole enterprise became too costly to keep up. This month, the restaurant replaced its chairs. The new chairs have shorter, swoopier backs; they still don't look exactly right to staffers.
The retired chairs are now tied up in tight rows, facing forward so buyers can assess them. Peering under the chairs' protective blue tarp is like casing a furniture pound: It's impossible to know in which chair R.W. Apple sat when he ate buttermilk pie or which chair was once occupied by Lou Reed. The only recourse is to choose a chair which appears handsome and sturdy, and hope for a happy future together.
I won't ever have as many shrimp-and-grits encounters as my new chair, which has likely spent much of its life sticky with sweet tea. It's a chair that's seen its share of pimiento cheese, biscuits and field peas; I can't fathom a better cubicle companion.
Stehling kindly signed the underside of my chair, since I figure it can't hurt to bring a James Beard award winner's writing into my workspace. When I marched it back to my office, a man sitting outside Five Loaves Cafe sized up the chair that was then encaging most of my top half.
"Nice-looking chair," he said. Clearly, it spoke to him.
Sushi a possibility for CO's future
CO is opening a sushi-centric restaurant in Myrtle Beach, but owner Greg Bauer currently has no plans to add raw fish to the Charleston location's menu.
"Unfortunately, CO on King Street will not offer sushi," publicist Jonah Jeter says. "However, Greg isn't ruling out the idea of opening a CO Sushi in the Charleston area."
The Myrtle Beach restaurant, CO Sushi, is scheduled to open in early 2014, two years after CO debuted downtown. CO's current executive chef, Tarquino Vintimilla, a veteran of Vegas sushi bars, will transfer to CO Sushi to serve as its executive chef.
"Vintimilla's vast experience in Asian cuisine and passion for local sourcing will help shape CO Sushi," Jeter says.
According to the restaurant's Facebook page, the menu will feature "a full sushi menu alongside a few of our contemporary Vietnamese specialties such as pho, wok dishes, and dumplings that we've brought over from our Charleston location."
CO Sushi will be at 3098 Deville St.
Halls Chophouse wins Diner's Choice prize
OpenTable diners this year elected four steakhouses to its "Top 100 Best Restaurants in America," but Atlanta's Bone's and Charleston's Halls Chophouse are the only independently owned red meat temples on the list.
Halls Chophouse finished fourth in the annual survey, which tabulates reviews submitted by 5 million users of the online reservation service. Although OpenTable doesn't reveal exact rankings beyond the Top 10, Peninsula Grill also was a Diners' Choice winner.
FIG and Tristan, which were among the site's Top 100 restaurants specializing in U.S. cuisine, according to a list released last month, didn't make the final cut. The top prize went to St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa, Calif.
For the complete list of winners, go to OpenTable.com.
Parsing Peruvian roots of very good chicken
If the phrase "pollo a la brasa" ever surfaced in a word association game, I'd probably say "garlic." Or "green sauce."
Invented more than a half-century ago by a Swiss immigrant living in Lima, pollo a la brasa is a juicy, coal-roasted chicken with crackly skin. La Granja Azul, the birthplace of the dish, was a supremely glamorous restaurant at which waiters delivered platefuls of chicken until diners begged them to stop (which sounds something like eating oysters at Bowen's Island Restaurant.) But casual chicken joints, or pollerias, are now the norm in Peru and major American cities.
According to Yelp, North Charleston has its own polleria: Pollo Loko Peruvian Cuisine on Dorchester Road specializes in chicken. Yet when I ordered a one-quarter bird portion on a recent visit to the restaurant, the chicken I received was lacking all of the classic a la brasa hallmarks. Its seasoning wasn't dominated by garlic and there weren't any sauces served with it. Stranger still, it was accompanied by rice, beans and shredded cabbage, rather than the traditional French fries.
It was a perfectly good, fairly priced meat-and-three plate. But like the music playing in the strip mall restaurant and the tortillas on the table, it appeared to have originated a few thousand miles north of Peru.
I double-checked my impressions with Morena Cuadra, who, with her daughter, co-authored "The Everything Peruvian Cookbook." On her blog last year, Cuadra outlined the nine "secrets" of great pollo a la brasa, which she refers to as "a golden passion." The secrets range from the size of the chicken to the availability of lemon pie for dessert, but most of them center on the preparation and presentation of the chicken.
The secrets include two "compulsory side dishes," which Cuadra describes as "a light, fresh and basic lettuce, tomato, and avocado salad with vinaigrette dressing, and thick French fries, cooked twice for the perfect crispiness."
Sauces are similarly regimented: ketchup and mustard are optional, but Cuadra tells me the restaurant should provide "chili pepper; mayonnaise and huacatay - this one is green." The mayonnaise-based sauce gets its color from huacatay, or black mint, although cilantro is sometimes added to the mix.
Finally, Cuadra says, "The chicken itself should have been marinated twice, so it is very flavorful, juicy and tender."
The chicken at Pollo Loko is all of those things. It's just a few French fries, sauce and seasoning short of qualifying as a true Peruvian chicken.
Ordinary is Daily Meal's Restaurant of Year
Wrapping up an inaugural year that brought best new restaurant nods from GQ, Esquire and Bon Appetit as well as a James Beard nomination in the same category, The Ordinary this week was picked as The Daily Meal's Restaurant of the Year.
To qualify for the website's prize, based on the votes of two dozen panelists, restaurants had to have opened this year and received stellar reviews. Weirdly, contributing to the echo chamber nature of restaurant assessment, "they had to have made a major splash" also was a criterion.
Mike Lata's The Ordinary qualified handily, winning twice as many votes as its nearest competitor. Other Southern restaurants under consideration included Nashville's Rolf and Daughters, Atlanta's King + Duke and New Orleans' Mariza.
"Lata, who opens a new restaurant every 10 years without fail (his last restaurant was Charleston's perennial favorite FIG), has created what's nothing short of a temple to seafood inside a historic bank building," the website raved, specifically citing the restaurant's seafood towers, oysters, smoked trout pate, fish chowder and amberjack schnitzel.
The Ordinary still has a few days left to win more 2013 awards. Stay tuned.
Charleston Distilling Co. to open in February
Although two Charleston distilleries beat Charleston Distilling Company to the starting gate, the King Street distillery's owner and master distiller maintain their spirits will be worth the wait.
"We are making a much higher-end product," owner Stephen Heilman says.
According to master distiller Brent Stephens, "other places are just trucking in alcohol," referring to the common-but-contentious craft spirits practice of purchasing neutral grain spirits to cut with water or redistill. (The American Distilling Institute neatly summarized both sides of the ongoing debate in a newsletter headline: "Bulk Neutral Spirits, Cheating, Or a Blank Canvas to Work With?")
By contrast, Stephens says, Charleston Distilling Company will handle every aspect of production, from milling the rice and corn for its vodka to barrel-aging its gin.
The distillery is aiming to finish its build-out at 501 King St. by year's end, but Heilman and Stephens don't anticipate scheduling a grand opening before February.
Despite being in the throes of construction, the distillery already appears impressive: The complex includes a 1,000-square-foot barrel room; six fermenters and a pair of custom-made Kothe stills, each capable of turning out about 800 bottles per run. The bathroom facades are styled to look like hulking wooden barrels, and the tasting room bar will be covered in copper.
"They'll be a lot of shiny, shiny, shiny components," says Michael Elliott, whose family farm in Summerton will supply the distillery's corn.