Thursday, January 22, 2015

Zero George, on the corner of George St. and East Bay St.

     Another Charleston Restaurant Week has come and gone, leaving me satiated, well-pleased and full of anticipation for the next CRW in September.  We visited two restaurants that were new to us, Vincent Chicco's (see my previous review) and Zero George.  Although I loved both restaurants, Zero George has now become my favorite destination for an intimate, gourmet dining experience.  The food, staff and location exceeded all of my expectations, even though I knew in advance that Zero George had received awards for excellence in 2014, including the Conde Nast Traveler's worldwide award as one of the Top 5 Best New Food Hotels.
     Located at the corner of East Bay Street and George Street, Zero George is both a boutique hotel with eighteen rooms and a small but perfect restaurant.  The property is surprisingly private considering it borders two busy steets and is a half block from the soon-to-be-completed Gaillard Center.  Reservations at Zero George will be a precious commodity once the Center opens for performances later in 2015.
  The hotel/restaurat compound consists of three Charleston homes and two brick kitchen houses that surround a charming brick courtyard.  The restaurant is housed in three, small, first floor rooms of the 1804 kitchen house.  Approximately a dozen tables and a tiny, efficient open kitchen are artfully arranged in the small space so that guests are not crowded too closely together.  The menu changes weekly, taking full advantage of fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
     The restaurants that participated in Restaurant Week this winter were allowed the freedom to set their own prix fixe menus.  So, rather than offering the typical three courses for $40.00 per person menus that the higher end restaurants have offered during past events, Zero George gave their guests the choice of one snack or appetizer, one main course selection and a shared dessert for $45.00 per person.  Guests could also order a la carte.
     I would be remiss if I didn't mention the drink menu, an eclectic mix of boutique wines, craft beers and cocktails and even artisanal mixers for non-alchoholic drinks.  My excellent server, Jami, asked the bartender to create something special for me in the non-alchoholic vein, a Jack Rudy tonic water based drink that combined fresh grapefruit juice and lime juice for a refreshing change to my usual ginger ale.  I ask every restaurant for non-alchoholic suggestions and only a few are prepared to accomodate my request (Husk, The Grocery, Stars) with something other than tea or Coke.
     Our meal was served by a team of servers who were friendly yet highly professional.  They appeared quietly and discreetly when needed: filling water glasses, clearing plates, explaining the next course.  Our server, Jami, was a delight.
     My dining partner and I followed the Restaurant Week Prix Fixe menu, beginning with one snack item and one appetizer.  My partner ordered the Local Vegetable Tempura which was served in a terracotta flower pot.  A wide variety of vegetables (cauliflower, zuchinni, cucumber) were cut in large pieces and lightly fried in a batter that left a hint of cayenne on the palate.  A rich aoili for dipping was provided, although when I tasted the tempura it was so delicious that I didn't feel the need to dip.
     My starter was the Warm Beet Salad, a hearty, winter root vegetable salad that was arranged artfully on a plate around a square of deep-fried chèvre (crunchy on the outside, warm and melted on the inside...delicious).  The purple beets were cut into good sized, chunks, roasted and served warm, while the remaining root vegetables (carrots, radishes) were uncooked, delicious and sliced paper thin.
     Our choice for the main course was a 40 Day Dry Aged Sirloin.  Served medium rare in two thick slices, the sirloin was tender and full of bold flavor.  A pureed, tri-colored swirl of "Classic Steakhouse Flavors" filled the plate and rounded out the entree by pleasing both the eye and the palate.  Pureed black truffles, spinach and Japanese sweet potatoes created a black, green and white rainbow around the sirloin.  Three, small roasted purple potatoes. (Trader Joe's sells a delicious mixed bag of red, white and purple potatoes for those of you, like me, who like to recreate restaurant dishes at home.) rested happily in the vegetable swirls.  In the center of the plate was a roasted chunk of celery, a new flavor sensation for me.  Who knew that roasted celery could taste so good?
     Although we were getting fairly full, we still decided to eat our shared dessert, the Tres Leches, a lighter than expected mixture of moist, (not soggy) white sponge cake chunks soaked in coconut milk and dotted with whipped cream and honeycomb pieces.  Zero George's Tres Leche was a surprising combination of silky smoothness and crunchiness, a real end of meal treat.
     My hat is off to Zero George, a restaurant that deserves but doesn't rest on its laurels.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

     It's time once again to enjoy one of the many benefits of living in the Lowcountry, Charleston Restuarant Week.   Over 150 area restaurants are offering a semi-annual prix fixe dinner menu, ranging from $20.00 to $40.00 per person for a three course meal, from January 7th to January 18th.  Each January and September, Charleston Restaurant Week attracts both tourists and locals interested in sampling the ample talents of the Lowcountry culinary scene.
     The first of my two restaurant choices this week is Vincent Chicco's Italian American Restaurant.
located along a quaint alley that connects Hutson St. to John St.   Bordered by sister restaurants Michael's on the Alley, Coast and Rue de Jean, as well as the coctail bar Victor's Social Club,  Vincent Chiccos occupies a renovated and creatively subdivided warehouse behind the Meeting Street Embassy Suites.  All are owned by Bennett Hospitality group.
     With soaring, mustard colored stucco walls, huge gold framed mirrors and a combination of banquette and counter table seating, Vincent Chicco's is all about comfort and service.  We arrived for dinner bundled up for below-freezing weather and were able to conveniently check our coats.  My seating request for a banquette was honored and due to my mobility issues, a waitress even escorted me to the ladies room (unnecessary but very nice).  Our waiter, Johnny, was attentive and knowledgeable, imparting a history of the building and details about the menu with equal skill.
     The menu is broken up into three sections: appetizers and salads, American-style Italian offerings and Classic Roman Italian dishes.  We look forward to returning to sample the Roman dishes, but decided to try the meals showcased on the Restaurant Week menu this time.
     For our first course, we chose the Wagyu Beef Carpaccio and the classic Italian Salad.  The Beef Carpaccio featured thinly sliced, marinated sirloin on a bed of watercress and arugula with horseradish aioli.  Garlic crostinis were the perfect crispy match to the tenderness of the beef.  My House Italian Salad was a generously sized plate of assorted greens (lots of arugula, my favorite green), thinly sliced heirloom radishes, chopped yellow and red cherry tomatoes tossed in a light, olive oil house dressing.  (Red onions were excluded at my request.)  This salad was more flavorful than most of the house salads I've tried on the peninsula.
     There were two choices for the main course; Cacio E Pepe and Marinated Painted Hills Ribeye.  My dining partner and I both ordered the pasta dish (when in Rome...) and were pleased with both the  texture and the flavor-holding properties of the spaghetti.  The light, creamy sauce clung nicely to the pasta, which was topped with a delicious Pecorino Romano/parmesan crisp, which fell apart nicely when tapped by a fork.  These crispy bits swirled into each forkful of pasta added a rich, nutty flavor to the pasta dish.
     Our last course was a milk chocolate Semifreddo, served sliced with a topping of chopped pistachios, a pool of orange cream and a generous scattering of candied, whole  pistachios.  The dessert's presentation and flavor were perfect.  Also perfect was the house cappuccino.  Served in a large cup with at least two inches of dreamy, frothed milk, Vincent Chicco's cappuccino was the perfect end to an authentic Italian meal.  Gustare il pasto!