Sherry has lately enjoyed a very minor resurgence in big city bars — The New York Times a few months ago noted “a renewed interest” — but the craze hasn’t yet overtaken Charleston. On a recent visit to Barsa, a bartender told me the Spanish-themed restaurant didn’t have a single sherry on its by-the-glass list.
In a 2012 New York Times column, wine critic Eric Asimov conceded that sherry is “often consigned in the public imagination to the stuffy, dusty sitting room, or to the after-dinner drinks selection.” But that perception hasn’t slowed the growth of sherry bars in London, where drinkers have taken up the continental tradition of sipping sherry with Marcona almonds and Spanish ham.
Brooks Reitz, former manager of The Ordinary, thinks sherry is equally suited to a culture steeped in boiled peanuts and barbecue. He’s devising a “decent selection” of sherries for St. Alban, the European-style cafe he’s hoping to open at 710 King St. before year’s end.
“In terms of flavor, it’s so singular,” Reitz says. “I find that it’s like savory and salty and a little sweet, and when I think of it, my mouth waters.”
The Ordinary, FIG, Husk and McCrady’s offer sherries, but Reitz worries the low-alcohol beverage is “lost in the shuffle” at restaurants with elaborate cocktail programs and significant spirit inventories. He envisions sherry playing a more central role at St. Alban, which will only serve wine, fortified wine and apertifs.
“You have olives or almonds and a glass of sherry,” Reitz says. “It’s such a simple, civilized thing. I’ve really grown to love it.”
St. Alban will operate as an all-day cafe. Reitz and partner Tim Mink, who’ve formed a restaurant concept and design consultancy, studiously avoid referring to St. Alban as a coffee shop for fear patrons will think they should only visit in the morning. (The name was selected for its European connotations, but Reitz says the cafe doesn’t have any affiliation with the beheaded British martyr.) The owners would much prefer they return in the afternoon or evening for sherry and cheese, or a bottle of wine to share with friends.
Reitz and Mink also are developing Leon’s, another project first announced by Charleston City Paper. Reitz calls the venue at 698 King St. “more of a proper restaurant,” but he doesn’t anticipate the dining room will entirely shed its paint-and-autobody past. He describes the concept as a “scruffy fried chicken and fish joint with cheap beer and expensive Champagne.”
“That’s such a storied pairing, and there’s nowhere to get it,” Reitz says. “You can get fried chicken at Martha Lou’s, but they don’t serve any beer or wine or anything.”
Leon’s chef hasn’t yet been announced, but Reitz says they’re now conducting tastings with “someone who’s got (fried chicken) history in their family.”
In addition to chicken and fish, the restaurant will serve raw and chargrilled oysters. It’s scheduled to open early next year.
As first reported by Eater Charleston, Husk recently fried up a test batch of chicken. Unfortunately for fans of the dish who weren’t tuned into the right Twitter feed, there’s no telling when the chicken will appear again.
“The fried chicken may make some surprise appearances on the Bar at Husk menu, but it will not be a scripted or weekly occurrence as it is in Nashville,” says Husk’s general manager Dan Latimer. “In Charleston, if we have it again, the production will be limited, not on a specific day.”
At Husk Nashville, fried chicken is the centerpiece of Tuesday’s $12 plate lunch. The restaurant this month debuted a rotating menu of meat-and-twos, available on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. In addition to chicken, Husk Nashville is serving roast beef, meatloaf, catfish and pork chops.
But it was the chicken which riveted Music City, a town near the top of the nation’s fried chicken pantheon. Chef Sean Brock, a known fried chicken devotee, spent three years developing the recipe. Although Latimer described the process as “top-secret,” Brock revealed to Eater National that his newly minted methodology involves brining the bird for seven or eight hours, pre-breading it with dry flour, frying it in five fats, dusting it with hot sauce and finishing it with spray-dried vinegar powder.
“It’s really a hybrid of five or six different types of chicken: gas station, honky tonk, Colonel Sanders, Husk five fat, hot chicken and buffalo wings,” Brock told the website.
Latimer confirms Husk Charleston is prepping its fried chickens according to the Nashville process.
While Latimer suggests monitoring Husk’s social media for chicken-frying notices, he warns the chicken isn’t being considered for permanent menu status. “The fried chicken will only be a guest star if it ever returns,” he says.
If construction stays on course, Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen could be open by Christmas, one of the biggest days on any Chinese restaurant’s calendar.
Owner Karalee Nielsen Fallert, formerly of Revolutionary Eating Ventures, is aiming to open the 1,700-square-foot restaurant at 218 President St. between Dec. 19 and Dec. 31. She says many of her current customers are anxious to try Lee Lee’s sweet-and-sour pork, Mongolian beef and salt-and-pepper shrimp.
“They’re coming from places where there are multi-ethnic cuisines,” Fallert says. “And that’s an area where we still lack, big time. From the time I came to Charleston 13 years ago, I realized we didn’t have great Chinese food here.”
Fallert’s now trying to rectify the situation by importing the kitchen crew from a recently closed Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Seattle. The restaurant belonged to Lily Lai, an ethnically Taiwanese chef. Fallert worked under Lai in Salt Lake City, and has always wanted to partner with her on a project.
“You’re not going to see overly sugary stir fries,” Fallert promises, blaming the city’s many “fusion” restaurants for perpetuating the notion that Chinese food is greasy and unhealthy. “(Lai) has a deftness with the way she cooks.”
Although Lai isn’t immediately relocating, three cooks and their families are now in the process of moving to Charleston.
“For this kind of specialty, it’s not something I wanted to do without trained staff,” Fallert says.
Lai’s restaurant in Redmond, Wash., received largely lukewarm reviews from citizen critics, racking up three stars on Yelp. The word “bland” crops up in numerous online write-ups, although a few Yelpers praised the hot-and-sour soup: “Pretty much your average Chinese family restaurant affair,” Miranda L. decreed in 2011. “Delicious? Yes. Outstanding? No.”
The Seattle Times in 2008 reached a similar conclusion: “It’s more middle-of-the road, with good service, ambience and food,” Tan Vinh wrote, distinguishing Watercress Asian Bistro from the area’s Chinese banquet halls and unfussy noodle joints. “The bistro plays it safe with pretty basic dishes. Highlights include spicy salt-and-pepper chicken or shrimp; lettuce wraps with chicken and hoisin sauce; and shrimp, scallops and chicken stir-fried with egg noodles.”
Perhaps the most pertinent fact about all of the above dishes, at least for Charlestonians living on the peninsula, is that they’ll be available on Sundays. Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen plans to keep an 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily schedule.
Tickets are still available to the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s dinner honoring Frank Lee, the chef who sits atop Charleston food tree.
The festival on Monday is assembling 11 chefs (six from Charleston; five from out-of-town) to pay tribute to Lee with a five-course dinner at The Grocery. The chefs will be joined by two “culinary experts,” longtime Columbia chef Malcolm Hudson, who festival events director Randi Weinstein credits with converting Lee from “vegetarian to a meat-loving fool,” and Justin Hammerstrom, a former sous chef and mixed martial arts fighter who now serves as corporate trainer for a kickboxing franchise.
Although Hammerstrom last cooked professionally in a high school cafeteria, his participation in the program is fitting, since the featured chefs say they’re indebted to Lee for much more than kitchen know-how.
Anthony Gray spent 13 years with Maverick Southern Kitchens, the restaurant group Lee launched with Dick Elliott and David Marconi after joining The Colony House in 1992.
“I think the biggest thing I took away from it was just becoming a man, and learning right from wrong,” says Gray, who’s now executive chef and director of culinary operations for Bacon Bros. Public House in Greenville.
Gray is fond of guest chef Ricky King’s description of Lee’s kitchens as a “school for reckless boys.”
“He did a great job bringing us up and teaching us how to be men,” Gray says. “There are a bunch of us who wouldn’t be as well off without Frank.”
Weinstein stresses the evening will be SNOB-centric, despite it unfolding at The Grocery. The front-of-house staff will be culled from the pool of past and current SNOB employees, and the wine will be supplied by former employees now in the wine business.
“This is like a homecoming for me,” Gray says. “There’s a countless number of success stories who’ve gone through Frank’s doors, and I’m proud to say I’m one of them.”
Tickets to the $250 dinner are available online.