Raskin Around: Armenian crooner Vatche Meguerditchian leaves Leyla's kitchen

Vatche Meguerditchian recently announced that he was leaving Charleston's newest Lebanese restaurant, Leyla, on King Street just months after they opened.

The accomplished chef charged with helping Leyla find its culinary footing has given up on the downtown Lebanese restaurant.

"I want people to know that I am no longer associated with this unorganized and unprofessional organization," Vatche Meguerditchian writes in an e-mail disclosing his resignation. "I am sure they will mess up my menu."

According to Meguerditchian, he and the first-time restaurateurs behind the 3-month-old Leyla had clashing philosophies from the start. He felt they micromanaged "a chef of my stature" by involving themselves in daily kitchen operations. But he says he made the decision to leave immediately when he was denied a glass of Scotch after work.

"I gave my 110 percent, but I saw that this was gonna be due sooner or later," he writes.

Meguerditchian reports he's returning to Los Angeles, where he ran Alcazar, a Lebanese restaurant twice named to critic Jonathan Gold's list of 99 "essential" L.A. eating spots.

Leyla's owner, College of Charleston professor Dolly Awkar, first befriended Meguerditchian as a Beirut partygoer in the 1970s. Meguerditchian, an internationally renowned Armenian singing star, played guitar in Lebanese bands before pursuing a restaurant career in California.

When she decided to open Leyla, Awkar tracked down Meguerditchian on Facebook, hoping he'd give her insider's advice. He initially offered to spend a few months in her kitchen, but later indicated he might stay on after training the staff.

"Now that I'm here, I love Charleston, I love the city," Meguerditchian told The Post and Courier in September. "I love the people. At night, I'm going out, I can see the vibe. I can see people here love food."

Awkar says the plan always called for Meguerditchian to work on a temporary basis.

"I have two other chefs," she says. "We are in very good shape."

When I formally reviewed Leyla earlier this month, I was highly impressed by the food, awarding the young restaurant three stars; only the sluggish service and enervated ambiance detracted from the excellent salads and spiced meats, which Awkar maintains her current chefs have mastered.

As for Meguerditchian, he's planning to focus on "catering; my hummos, baba ghannouj (and) garlic paste branding and distribution; and last but not least, my singing career that I had on hold since I came to Charleston." He adds he hasn't ruled out opening a new Alcazar in L.A.

The 150 fans of The Green Door who attended a final farewell party for the restaurant in October "partied pretty hard," even though they didn't have a new location to celebrate, owner Cory Burke reports.

Burke had hoped to reveal information about his plans at the customer appreciation party, rescheduled after Big John's Tavern booted the project from its premises. Burke earlier this year took over Big John's kitchen, but the partnership didn't survive a change in tavern management: Although owner Ryan Condon initially agreed to let The Green Door operate through the end of October, Burke's announcement of a blow-out Halloween party caused Condon to shut down the bar Oct. 21.

"Having a going-away party on Halloween night and going crazy in here, and they're not going to do that," Condon told The Post and Courier.

The Dec. 19 party, held at GrowFood Carolina, featured a roti bar with beef cheeks, braised seaweed, pig's head and strong punch.

Although the dishes were closely in line with The Green Door's freewheeling menu, Condon says he plans to introduce a "very different concept" at his next location.

"The atmosphere is going to be different," he says.

While Burke doesn't want to elaborate on the location until it's secured, he confirms it's in downtown Charleston.

"I've got to wait for an investor to send over a certain amount of money," he says, estimating he's 90 percent of the way to closing the deal.

Lamb barbecue is mildly popular in northern Japan, but it's not slated to make a January appearance at O-Ku, the only Indigo Restaurant Group property sitting out a month-long lamb bonanza.

In partnership with the American Lamb Board, Oak Steakhouse, The Macintosh, The Cocktail Club and Indaco are putting sheep-based dishes on their menus and providing tie-in recipe cards to interested patrons.

"Charleston is known for pork and seafood but we wanted to help these restaurants go on the lamb," a press release quotes the American Lamb Board's executive director as saying.

Planned dishes include roasted leg of lamb and lamb Bolognese cannelloni at Indaco and braised lamb neck ravioli at The Macintosh.

Whether Charlestonians order lamb with abandon, the restaurants can count on strong sales toward the end of the month, when the American Sheep Industry Association holds its annual convention at the Charleston Marriott.

Speaking of Indigo Road, the restaurant group recently released additional details about its Atlanta-area Oak Steakhouse location, set to open in Alpharetta next year.

According to a release, the menu will mirror the menu available at the Charleston restaurant, described as "a mix of classic steakhouse features, as well as a farm-to-table locally driven selection of seafood and vegetarian dishes." (That's maybe a slight stretch: I recently ate at Oak, and noticed the only dish on the entree page suitable for noncarnivores was an undescribed $18 item poetically named "vegetarian plate." But what would a vegetarian be doing in a steakhouse anyhow?)

Jeremiah Bacon, executive chef of the Oak Steakhouse here, will help hire the new restaurant's chef.

Atlanta isn't short on steakhouses: As Atlanta Magazine food critic Bill Addison wrote in an introduction to a round-up of the 17 best, "I'm convinced that what Atlanta restaurant-goers really love most is steak. Our state may be known for poultry farming and barbecue pork sandwiches, but our city thrives on ambition, and beef epitomizes power and money."

Oak Steakhouse will be in the Avalon development at the intersection of Georgia State Route 400 and Old Milton Parkway.

Basic logic suggests a city's sole purveyor of just about anything has a distinct economic advantage. But what happens when he or she gets tired of selling it?

Tucked into a West Ashley gas station is Ko Cha, an excellent Korean luncheonette. The folksy restaurant serves up scallion pancakes lumpy with sweet, fat shrimp; slinky japchae intertwined with fresh vegetables and an outstandingly crisped chicken donkkaseu (the Korean version of katsu, the popular Japanese cutlet), drizzled with a cross between fermented fish sauce and British brown gravy, per tradition. The kimchi is perhaps a smidge tactful for fans of raging funk, but the cucumber pickles have a lightly spiced snap.

Understandably, many local fans of Korean cooking flock to Ko Cha, which previously did business under the name of Rice B, for their gochujang fix. The defining condiment of Korean cuisine, gochujang is a sonorous mix of chile peppers, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice and sugar. Nothing else exactly resembles the paste.

That's what a man seated at a table next to mine wanted when he ordered an off-menu dubu muchim, or sauced fresh tofu. But when his plate arrived, he poked at it unenthusiastically. When a server asked if there was a problem, the frowning man's Korean-speaking wife explained he'd wanted red sauce, pointing to pictures he'd called up on his cell phone.

The server fetched the chef, who was dumbfounded by the man's request. His dish was made with higher-quality tofu! It was light! It was pretty! (The woman later confirmed it was all of the above.) How could somebody want gochujang when faced with a dish that represented more sophisticated, and perhaps more authentic, techniques?

But the reality is most diners at a city's only dedicated Korean restaurant aren't coming for a challenge: They're looking to quell a craving, and it's usually gochujang-related.

"When people come to a Korean restaurant, if they don't get gochujang, they think it's not authentic," the woman sighed when I asked her about the prolonged dish discussion. Just as Western diners in a Chinese restaurant expect everything to be soaked with soy, she said, Western diners in a Korean restaurant are sticklers for gochujang.

She's got me pegged. My spirits sank when I asked for something to spice up my japchae and was given Sriracha instead of a saucer of gochujang.

My standard Korean order is sundubu jjigae, a spicy soft tofu stew with seafood, but I stupidly didn't ask whether it was available when I didn't see it on the menu. As I learned from Mrs. Dubu Muchim, Ko Cha makes a version that she considers the "number one sundubu," outranking sundubus served at Korean restaurants in New York City.

The remnants of her order appeared to back her up: The bottom of the stone bowl held a whole crab (a very cool Lowcountry touch) and broth bright with gochujang. I'm definitely going back.

Ko Cha is at 3515 Mary Ader Ave. For more information (especially if your Korean language skills are good), call 766-0301.