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Honoring core values pays off for downtown Charleston restaurants working out of pandemic

Herbal infusion tests at Chasing Sage

Herbal infusion tests at Chasing Sage. Hanna Raskin/Staff

The Post and Courier Food section since August has been checking in weekly with four downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. The following three restaurants are still finding their way back to normalcy. For previous installments of the series, as well as more information about the featured restaurants and their chosen strategies for success, click here.

Chasing Sage: Good as its name

If hope has a color it’s green, and Chasing Sage is suddenly awash in it.

The Chasing Sage crew last week embarked on a project to turn herbs into infusions for their budding bar program, which they’re determined to perfect before they open their dining room to the public. While that date is still in the far-off future, putting the Chasing Sage stamp on a cocktail list is a needed reminder that the restaurant has a greater purpose than selling takeout ramen.

“All of the things we came here to do, we still yearn to do and still will do,” chef-owner Walter Edward confirmed. “This keeps us excited for it.”

What the team has yearned to do, even before signing a lease on its location at the corner of Rutledge and Line streets, is serve dishes that are equally a product of cultivating and cooking.

“We are going to be growing so many herbs,” Edward said.

Recently, they realized they could apply the same philosophy to their planned beverage menu.

Their goal now is to come up with a house plant-based liqueur, similar to Chartreuse, albeit without the back story involving mountains and monks.

Chasing Sage’s core team consists of two chefs, a farmer and a general manager, none of whom has a background in spirits. Since they didn’t have experience creating cocktails, they initially outsourced the creation of a drinks list to an out-of-town bartender friend.

It was a good list, they said, but they weren’t sure it expressed their personality or vision for the restaurant. Eventually, chef-owner Forrest Brunton and general manager Max Clarke decided to take a crack at it, approaching the drinks as though they were food menu items, focusing on the natural ingredients instead of the liquor.

Rather than think about whiskey, tequila or rum, Brunton and Clarke thought about fruits, vegetables and herbs. Especially herbs.

Brunton grows dozens of herbs in a window garden, so they plucked those and mixed them with grain alcohol to see what would happen. They did the same with rue they’d months ago planted outside of the restaurant, just because it looked pretty.

It looked even prettier after 190 proof alcohol pulled out its chlorophyll, leaving behind emerald liquid and a delicate bleached leaf intricate enough to frame.

Beyond the visuals were the flavors that Brunton and Clarke were hunting. A few of them were instant rejects: Nobody wants a drink that tastes like a day-old cigar. But among the infusions were notes of citrus, hints of menthol and traces of the woods.

Looking ahead to 2022, Brunton and Clarke are now weaving the vibrant tastes into a drinks list for spring.

Harold's Cabin: Seen a ghost

Everyone, it seems, is gung-ho about ghost kitchens right now.

Just this month, Ghost Kitchen opened in North Charleston, offering kitchen facilities to whatever delivery-only services wanted to rent them. And Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen, which exists for diners exclusively as an online ordering option, opened in 23 states.

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“I’ve been keeping an eye on the concept and its effect on our industry, especially given the real estate market in Charleston,” Harold’s Cabin owner John Schumacher said.

Harold’s Cabin could become a ghost kitchen without too much trouble, using its cooking space to produce whatever the takeout crowd fancies. But as New York magazine last week pointed out in a column titled “Ghost kitchens will always be dumb,” ghost kitchens are not the future of restaurants because they have almost nothing in common with restaurants.

Ghost kitchens “are food-logistics operations, and you could argue that is fine,” Rachel Sugar wrote. “(But) to eat a meal in a restaurant … is to participate in an immersive experience. Things are happening. You are talking to another person, or you are eavesdropping on other people talking.”

Sugar might have been describing Harold’s Cabin, which is a ghost kitchen only in the sense that memories of those impromptu conversations linger, taking up the space once occupied by patrons seated side-by-side.

Schumacher was once again reminded last week why phantoms populate the restaurant’s dining room instead of people. His brother, a health care worker who had received his second vaccination shot, tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s just another prime example that we have a long way to go and we all need to remain vigilant,” he said.

Butcher & Bee: See ya, pizza

On paper, partnering with Rosalie’s Pizza made good sense for both Butcher & Bee and the popular food truck: The weekly residency would give Rosalie’s owners Jeremy Williams and Leah Highfield a chance to experiment with restaurant operations, and give Butcher & Bee an opportunity to offer its customers their vegetarian Sicilian-style pies.

In real life, the arrangement flopped.

By mutual agreement, Rosalie’s and Butcher & Bee last week decided to put an early end to the truck’s Wednesday night visits.

“Financially, it wasn’t working out for either of us,” Butcher & Bee chef Rick Ohlemacher said. “The intersection of our clientele and their clientele: That Venn diagram was pretty slim.”

Ohlemacher stressed that “their pizza’s fantastic; they’re great people,” but the setup was hampered by logistical challenges. Butcher & Bee doesn’t have a proper pizza oven, and Williams and Highfield had to drag a cooler into the restaurant. They concluded it would be easier to make pizzas in their own trailer and sell them in places where eaters come looking for Rosalie’s.

Owner Michael Shemtov said the pop-up calendar is complicated because visiting chefs understandably want to serve on weekends when the restaurant is already drawing a crowd. Butcher & Bee would prefer to schedule them for the first half of the week, but then slow traffic leaves the guest stars feeling discouraged.

But Butcher & Bee chief of staff Tara Pate said her team had no problems rolling with the Rosalie’s cancellation: Trying new things, which remains a restaurant priority, means accepting that things don’t always go as hoped.

And in the case of Rosalie’s, the outcome might also mean that Butcher & Bee’s customers aren’t as excited about pizza as Shemtov and Ohlemacher suspected. Abstract plans to start an in-house pizza program have tumbled down the to-do list.

Butcher & Bee customers will get one last crack at Rosalie’s pizza though. The truck will make its third and final appearance at the restaurant this week.

(Editor’s note: After this column was reported, Butcher & Bee learned that Issy Varoumas, Williams and Highfield’s only employee, died on Wednesday night. Friends who remembered him as “a talented musician and chef” have created an online fundraiser to support Varoumas’ mother, who also lost her husband this year.)

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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