Ernie’s Restaurant, a beloved soul food joint that daily drew 200 customers with its turkey necks and lima beans, has apparently reached the end of its 36-year run on Spring Street.
Owner Ernie Kinloch last month closed the restaurant for renovations; according to Kinloch, plans to reopen were derailed when his sister, Essie Bryan, became seriously ill.
“My sister who’s been running it is sick in the hospital,” Kinloch says. “Right now, I hope she pulls through her sickness.”
In addition to managing the restaurant, Bryan handled its finances. Charleston County tax records show Bryan last year sold the 64 Spring St. parcel to a Kiawah Island real estate developer for $30,000. Property owner Al Roberds didn’t return calls seeking comment, so the future of the address is unclear.
Kinloch reports he’s not currently paying rent on the building, but deferred questions about unpaid tax bills to Bryan.
“She was handling all of that,” says Kinloch, adding the family may consider looking at other locations for the restaurant if Bryan’s condition improves in coming weeks.
Ernie’s was the last bastion of Lowcountry cooking on a street that’s gentrifying rapidly: A few weeks before Ernie’s closed, a gluten-free bakeshop opened down the block.
Although Ernie’s kept a weekday-only schedule, Kinloch earlier this year told The Post and Courier’s Shirley Greene that he wanted the restaurant to have a Sunday dinner feel: Home-style cooking and freewheeling conversation were the restaurant’s hallmarks.
Roadfood’s Michael Stern described Ernie’s as purveyor of “one of the most satisfying low-cost dinners in all of Charleston,” praising its okra soup and white rice.
One of the participants in a 2012 Charleston Wine + Food Festival soul food tour that stopped at Ernie’s was so impressed by the restaurant that she later returned to celebrate her birthday with a helping of bread pudding.
Help for those who seek a gluten-free holiday
Home cooks who may typically have the luxury of ignoring assorted dietary restrictions are frequently tested at the holidays, when guests come bearing all sorts of firmly held food preferences.
Caviar & Bananas is wagering hosts may want to buy their way out of the situation: The downtown cafe has listed 11 gluten-free dishes on its Thanksgiving/Christmas take-out menu, including butternut squash soup, braised collard greens and mashed potatoes.
It’s also offering vegetarian stuffing and vegan succotash. Caviar & Bananas is asking customers to place entree orders four days in advance of pick-up; accompaniments may show up in the store’s display case, but customers who want to avoid disappointment should call in their choices at least two days before pick-up.
None of Caviar & Bananas’ holiday pies are classified as gluten-free, but Sweet Radish Bake Shop is offering a full roster of pies, cakes, tortes and muffins, including a vegan pumpkin pie. The complete ordering guide is online at sweetradishbakeshop.com.
Gullah Cuisine adds sports bar
Taking advantage of the remaining football season, Gullah Cuisine this week inaugurated its new sports bar.
The Mount Pleasant restaurant already had a bar, but recently remade it to emphasize spectating: According to staffer Terry Baxter, a new 40-inch television was recently installed behind the bar and another two screens are planned for the back wall.
Available bar snacks include wings and boiled shrimp.
Figuring out fermentation
Chefs Collaborative, the national network of food professionals that last week brought its annual conference to Charleston, is primarily concerned with nurturing a more sustainable food system. So it made sense that the conference agenda included workshops on bycatch, hog farming and genetically modified crops. But in reviewing the schedule, I was immediately struck by how much meeting time was devoted to fermentation.
Conference attendees were herded into the Francis Marion Hotel’s ballroom for two fermentation talks, and had the option of signing up for additional workshops exploring microbial fermentation and creative ways of fermenting vegetables. Fermentation became a kind of catchphrase for eventgoers, who seized upon the bubbling-up process as a symbol of their grassroots energy.
Fermentation certainly has a countercultural appeal. But is it a critical component of sustainability? While fermentation is easy on the earth, it doesn’t appear to directly solve any of the problems with which responsible chefs wrestle: To the contrary, it has the potential to create new hassles with health departments, which don’t always look kindly on controlled rot, and customers, whose palates might not be tuned to the funky flavors that emerge when food ages.
Since I was stumped by the fermentation emphasis, I asked the group’s executive director, Melissa Kogut, to explain the programming. Here’s what she told me:
“From a chef perspective, fermentation is a new frontier for exploring food preservation, eating food beyond seasonal availability and exploring intensified flavors,” she said.
Although there are other ways to preserve food, such as canning and drying, Kogut suggested fermentation’s long history makes it an especially attractive topic for progressive chefs in the post-molecular gastronomy era. “We see fermentation as the perfect symbol of looking back and cooking forward,” Kogut says. “It’s both an ancient idea and revolutionary direction for the future of food.”
Fermentation hasn’t yet swept Charleston, but it’s a favorite technique of Sean Brock’s: The menu at McCrady’s has featured fermented buttermilk, fermented corn, fermented walnuts, fermented red peppers and fermented tomatoes. He returned from a recent trip to Senegal, chronicled in this month’s Food & Wine, thinking about fermented oysters. Stay tuned.
Magnolia offers discounts in food drive
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is again offering discounted admission to visitors who contribute nonperishable food to the Lowcountry Food Bank.
Between now and Dec. 31, donors are eligible for a “buy one, get one free” deal on garden tickets.
The site is attempting to collect more than 2,000 pounds of food, bettering last year’s tally.
“No one should be without in a city voted the best tourist destination in the country,” executive director Tom Johnson is quoted as saying in a release.
Visitors are specifically requested to bring healthy food, such as dried beans and lentils, whole wheat and whole grain products, low-sugar fruit, low-salt vegetables, peanut butter and canned fish in water. For further guidelines, go to www.lowcountryfoodbank.org/hope.
New cocktail lists at local restaurants
Two local restaurants this month are rolling out new cocktail menus, and the featured drinks couldn’t be more conceptually different.
At The Glass Onion, which emphasizes local, seasonal cooking, the beverage program is treated as “a natural extension of culinary practices,” according to a press release.
For the drinker, that means bourbon punch made with whole milk from Edgefield, bloody marys featuring High Wire vodka and garnished with housemade pickles, and Cuba Libres built from High Wire Distilling rum and Mexican Coke (which will continue to be sweetened with sugar, despite the furor which erupted this week when online reports revealed an independent bottler was considering adding more fructose to the formula).
The West Ashley restaurant is also localizing its beer list with seasonal brews from Westbrook.
Over at The Alley, the inspiration for the cocktail menu was the restaurant’s bowling alley setting. The laid-back list includes a drink made with ginger beer, rum, Kahlua and grapefruit juice, and a gin highball with fresh jalapeno. But the menu’s centerpiece is the White Russian section, developed in tribute to The Big Lebowski. There are no fewer than five White Russians, each distinguished by flavored vodka or added liqueur.
The Alley premieres its first-ever cocktail list today.
Xiao Bao birthday party set Saturday
Xiao Bao Biscuit is celebrating its first birthday this Saturday, starting at 1 p.m. The acclaimed exploratory Asian restaurant at 224 Rutledge Ave. has arranged for Bev Eggelston of Eco Friendly Foods to smoke a steamship round of beef, and co-owner Joey Ryan says, “Rumors of Korean fried chicken should also be taken seriously. Beer and cocktails will most assuredly be on hand as well.” The party runs until closing or the food sells out.
Wood-fired trend at Obstinate Daughter
Considering the persistent popularity of wood-fired cooking, which Nation’s Restaurant News back in 2010 declared a trend, eaters might assume food cooked in ovens fueled by tinder tastes better. Not so, says a spokeswoman for one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of wood-fired ovens.
“We’ve done taste tests, and we would say the flavor is the same,” says Tamra Nelson of Wood Stone, which also produces gas-powered ovens. “But it does connect visually with the customer.”
There aren’t any surveys showing exactly how many local restaurants have gone the wood-fired route, but Nelson says there are seven restaurants in and around Charleston using Wood Stone equipment, including Southend Brewery and Monza.
According to Nelson, customers’ perceptions of wood-fired ovens’ superiority can overwhelm the reality that quality doesn’t vary with fuel source.
“It almost validates the authenticity of food,” Nelson says of a showpiece oven. Additionally, “it creates an atmosphere and it’s beautiful.”
The newest area restaurant to tout its wood-fired credentials is The Obstinate Daughter, Wild Olive Restaurant Group’s new Sullivan’s Island project. Underscoring the current prevalence of wood-fired cooking, an opening announcement specifically categorizes chef Jacques Larson’s pizza, pasta and small plates spot as “a wood-fired oven restaurant.” (The Obstinate Daughter, named for a character in a British political cartoon published after the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, purchased its oven from Wood Stone.)
Cooking with wood is slightly more complicated than cooking with gas, since it requires sourcing the right wood and cleaning up a heap of ashes at night’s end. Yet while Nelson suspects coal-fired cooking could soon steal some of the concept’s heat, and the New York Times earlier this year forecast a rosy future for open wood-fired grills, wood-fired ovens are likely to remain fixtures in many restaurants.
“They’re trying to set themselves apart,” Nelson says. “They’re going back to their roots.”
The Obstinate Daughter is scheduled to open at 2063 Middle Street in January.
Food Network chronicler at JCC
Emeril Lagasse was integral to Food Network’s success, but he wasn’t the only guy who kicked the channel up a notch: Allen Salkin, who’s written the first behind-the-scenes history of the cable network, tonight appears at the Charleston JCC at 1645 Raoul Wallenberg Blvd.
The Jewish Bookfest event starts at 7 p.m., but if you show up at 6:30 p.m., there’s a preshow cupcake decorating contest. Salkin and I are picking the winners. Tickets to the talk are $8 for members and $12 for nonmembers. Call 571-6565 for more info.