Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: Virginia's on King, Charleston

I had the good fortune of visiting Charleston on Friday, August 6 on business. Because Charleston is an amazing food city, I wanted to check out a new restaurant while I was in town. My options were limited, however, as I was only there for the day and could only squeeze in a restaurant lunch. (Some of the most celebrated Charleston restaurants, like FIG, Charleston Grill, Peninsula Grill, and Tristan, aren't open for lunch.)

I'd originally planned to go to Slightly North of Broad (aka "S.N.O.B.") for lunch because I've heard it's the best in Charleston for lunch. But en route to SNOB, I passed Virginia's on King. The lunch menu looked terrific, and the prices were amazing given the ambiance and the inventiveness of the menu. They have a cute Southern affectation of referring to lunch as "dinner" and dinner as "supper." There were a lot of people there, so I assumed it's a place the locals enjoy. SNOB's menu, in contrast, wasn't as exciting to me. Plus, I'd been to SNOB before. For these reasons, Virginia's became the site for my post-exam smorgasbord.

As you'll understand from the recap below, I suspended my adherence to WLS dietary guidelines for the day. It was planned, so I don't feel guilty about it.
Before I get into specific reviews of each dish, note that Virginia's will be having a new head chef very soon. The manager told me that right now, they are operating with two sous chefs and no executive chef or chef de cuisine. So, take all the negatives with a grain of salt, as the menu and the execution of that menu may change.

Also, please excuse the fuzziness of the food porn. My only camera is a Blackberry, and Virginia's was rocking the mood lighting which further compromised the photo quality.
Okra Soup
Nostalgia. This soup reminded me of my grandfather, who made killer vegetable soup using lots of pork as a flavoring agent. I think they may have used bacon instead of salt pork, which would explain the hint of smokiness in the soup.

The soup was perfectly salted, but too greasy and -- interesting for an "okra soup" -- didn't contain much okra. I got exactly two slices of okra in the entire cup of soup. If this had been called "tomato soup with okra" or even "traditional southern vegetable soup," I would have been more on board with it. (What have we learned this season from Top Chef's Amanda with the minestrone, Stephen with the chimichurri, and Ed with something I can't recall right now? Don't mislabel your food!)

Also, where was the corn? It's a little odd for a southern vegetable soup to have okra and tomatoes but no corn (but that is not a fatal flaw.)

Broccoli Cornbread
This dish is a stroke of pure genius. Who would ever think, "Y'know, what this cornbread needs is a few broccoli spears"? I want to know who came up with this idea. It was awesome. The moistness of the broccoli really worked well with the cornbread, which was sweet enough but not overly so. It was great alone and dipped in the soup. I didn't eat all of the broccoli cornbread, but I wanted to.
Pimento Cheese

This pimento cheese was nothing special. It was "aight." It was a touch too mayonnaise-heavy and runny for my liking. I like a stronger focus on the cheddar cheese. They make a big deal on the menu about how it's made in-house, but it didn't taste much better than Ruth's. (To be fair, my reference point for excellent pimento cheese is DiPrato's Delicatessen in Columbia, which sets an almost unattainable bar. DiPrato's pimento cheese is truly the gold standard, the undisputable champion.)

Furthermore, excellent pimento cheese -- especially if it's made in-house -- should be served with a flavorful and special accompaniment (for example, the buttery, garlicky pita triangles at DiPrato's.) Instead, Virginia's pimento cheese comes with cardboard-flavored, obviously store-bought sesame crackers. The spread was better on the grilled bread from my shrimp and scallop salad.

Yet, even with these criticisms, I can't be too upset about this dish. I ate a good deal of it, even spreading it on the bread, shrimp, scallops, and chicken livers to add flavor. So, it couldn't have been that bad.

Tomato Pie
Of the dishes I tried, this one was most obviously plagued with execution errors. Conceptually, you can't go wrong with a deep-dish pie stuffed with fresh tomatoes, onions, mayo, and cheese. Yet, if the tomatoes are uncooked, the onions tough, the pastry too dense, and the whole pie undersalted, there's a problem.

Uncooked tomatoes -- self-explanatory, but mystifying considering that it doesn't take a lot of time for tomatoes to cook down. It makes me wonder what their technique is with the pie; do they bake both the top and bottom crusts separately and put the filling in last or something? Is that even possible?

The pastry at the back of the slice of pie was so dense it was inedible. The top pastry was quite good, but the bottom was a little too soggy which is a challenge particularly with tomato pies. You can avoid this by pre-salting the tomatoes and allowing a lot of the liquid to drain off, but apparently they did not do this. Well, apparently, they didn't salt anything at all. This had no salt. It was like a low-sodium tomato pie -- completely bland.

The most offensive aspect of the dish, however, was the chopping of the onions. Specifically, they didn't peel the onion deeply enough, so I had the tough green part of the onions in my pie. ALL of the onions were tough and crunchy. I hadn't had tomato pie before, but I'm positive that was not the way it was supposed to be. It didn't have that sumptuous, comfort-food appeal you imagine when you hear "tomato pie."

Chicken Livers

This was the worst dish I tried on Friday. The livers themselves were nicely fried with flavorful, well-executed coating. I don't have many complaints about the livers.

The fatal flaws were (1) the caramelized onions, which were in fact burnt -- you could actually see the black flecks scraped off the bottom of the pan, and they imparted an intense bitterness that ruined the entire dish; and (2) the greasy, gloppy sauce, which was ostensibly bacon and tomato gravy, but lacked tomato or bacon color or flavor. I asked the server, but I'm still clueless about what I was ingesting.

Fortunately (?), I only ate 1 of the livers. So, no significant caloric waste.

Shrimp & Scallop Salad

This is the dish I ordered to make sure the meal met my nutritional needs. Scallops and shrimp poached in broth over salad greens is super-high protein, low-carb, and low-fat. I got the potential diet busters, chive creme fraiche and lemon vinaigrette, on the side. If I were stopping here for lunch and hadn't planned a splurge, this is unquestionably what I'd order.

More specifics: The scallops and shrimp are poached in a mixture of broth (not sure what kind), white wine, and capers. It's served with grilled bread, mesclun greens, and tomatoes. Usually, the shrimp and scallops come dressed with the chive creme fraiche, reminiscent of a traditional seafood salad.

This was great! The shrimp and scallops had a delicate-but-present flavor that was heartening after the bad flavor of the chicken liver accompaniments and the non-flavor of the tomato pie. The creme fraiche was also delicately flavored, but it wouldn't have added much to the shrimp and scallops and may have even detracted from them if it were all mixed together.

Interestingly, the star of this plate was the lemon vinaigrette. It was so delicious that I was dipping all kinds of stuff into it -- the bread, the bland crackers from the pimento cheese, even the cornbread.

Pecan Pie a la Mode

I only had 2 bites of this, but it definitely gets my strong seal of approval. Generally, I'm not a pecan pie fan. I find most versions too chewy and/or cloyingly sweet. I only ordered it this time because the server said it was one of their most popular desserts.

This pecan pie was neither too sweet nor too firm. It was just gooey enough, and had a strong butteriness. I wanted to eat all of it, but thank God I didn't or I might have died right there in the restaurant.

S'more Cheesecake

The final dish. What a way to end a meal.

S'more cheesecake is chocolate cheesecake with a graham cracker crust, topped with a toasted marshmallow and drizzled with chocolate sauce. It was their dessert special, but I would strongly recommend adding this to the regular dessert menu stat. (Not that my opinion is especially informed, but this was amazing.)

Because chocolate, cheesecake, graham cracker crust, and toasted marshmallows are individually some of my favorite foods, I knew I was going to order this. I was slightly concerned, however, that all of these components added together would be way too sweet. I'm so glad I was wrong. They used the chocolate cheesecake as a sort of tart element, which balanced well with the sweet marshmallow. My absolute favorite component was the graham cracker crust. They could have just served me a bowl of that crust and I would have been very happy.

What really brought this dessert home, though, was the ice cream from the pecan pie a la mode. :-) Of course I didn't eat even half of the cheesecake, but most of what I ate was the graham cracker crust with the ice cream. Simple and heavenly.


As explained above, the savory dishes were inconsistent. The desserts, however, were excellent, especially for an affordable restaurant.

The service was good. I sat at the bar as I typically do when eating alone. My server was busy, but attentive. He forgot to give me silverware at first, so I was forced to sit and take in the nostalgia-inducing aroma of the okra soup for about 5 minutes before I could eat it. But I wasn't starving, and the soup was still hot when I could eat it, so it was fine. Also, after I ate the soup, the server told me to keep the dirty spoon instead of giving me a fresh spoon. That was not ideal. But this is not a four-star restaurant; it's nice but affordable and convenient, and is thus apparently not the kind of place that gives fresh silverware after every course.

The server and manager seemed to become more interested in me when it was obvious that I was going to write about the restaurant. (I ordered lots of food that I didn't eat and was taking photos.) The manager was an interesting guy. He was refreshingly honest about the direction of the restaurant and the limitations of their current menu. He made me want to come back to experience the food again after their personnel changes.

I loved meeting the manager in part because he's originally from Dublin, Ireland. He even went to the same university as me. He's lived in the US for about 20 years, so I didn't notice the Irish accent at first. But as we were chatting, I heard the distinctive sound of Dublin emanate from his lips. Connecting with a fellow Irishman was almost as enjoyable as the S'more Cheesecake.

No comments:

Post a Comment