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The Food Guy: Once again, Restaurant Week comes at perfect time

Photo courtesy The Block
Très Leche is on The Block’s menu for Charleston Restaurant Week.
BRICKS & BARRELS | Courtesy photo
Bricks & Barrels, one of the new restaurants participating in Charleston Restaurant Week 2016, will offer a take on shrimp and grits as one of its specials.

It’s as if the folks planning Charleston Restaurant Week have ESP or something. Their timing is impeccable.

Two years ago, the inaugural event launched just as the Kanawha Valley was recovering from the Freedom Industries chemical spill (a fiasco that closed restaurants and kept many residents homebound for days), so the promotion gave local businesses a boost during a time they needed it most.

This year, the event comes just as we’re digging out from Winter Storm Jonas, a crippling blizzard that also closed restaurants and left many stranded at home waiting for snow plows to come save the day.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get out of the house.

We met friends for dinner at B&D Gastropub Monday night and are joining another couple tonight at Bricks & Barrels, taking advantage of special Restaurant Week offerings at both places. Barring any disaster — natural, manmade or otherwise — we’ll also be hitting another spot or two going into this weekend’s closing nights.

Hope to see you out and about as well!

And if last Thursday night’s VIP preview was any indication, you’re not going to want to miss out. I joined a couple dozen folks at J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden for a kick-off reception featuring several restaurants offering special Restaurant Week menus through this coming Saturday.

Serving tasty previews were Bluegrass Kitchen and Starlings Coffee & Provisions from the East End, Mi Cocina de Amor on the West Side, B&D Gastropub from Kanawha City and Paterno’s, Bricks & Barrels and Ichiban downtown.

It was a nice night kicking off a great week designed to shine a spotlight on the city’s local restaurant scene.

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To help mark the arrival of new chef Tim Arden, Paterno’s at the Park hosted a fantastic five-course wine dinner last week at the restaurant adjacent to Charleston’s downtown ballpark.

With vino flowing and chatter filling the room, several members of the Paterno family graciously welcomed more than 60 guests with open arms, just as if we’d been invited over for dinner at one of their homes.

You can’t blame them for being so giddy.

Restaurant owners say they’re thrilled to have Arden, a Charleston-born graduate of George Washington High School and the Culinary Institute of Charleston, South Carolina, who honed his skills in highly acclaimed restaurants (including Magnolias and Hominy Grill) in our Southern sister city. Most recently he was a chef at our Charleston’s South Hills Market & Café.

In just a few short months, Arden has already raised the bar by elevating or adding several dishes, experimenting with creative molecular gastronomy techniques and focusing on more artful food presentation.

All were evident during last week’s delightful evening, which started with a large charcuterie block of salumi and imported Italian meats, house-made sausages and pickles, giant capers, lavash crackers and more, followed by a decadent foie gras ravioli with dried leeks and fresh shaved truffles. The ravioli was a masterpiece — sublime pasta dough, perfectly cooked, expertly flavored.

The third course was a skin-on trout roll stuffed with balsamic vinegar pearls atop a polenta orzo cake, then came a giant wedge of savory porchetta (pork belly) served with zucchini fritters and a watercress salad.

The evening ended with a large slice of dense Italian cake topped with figs and toasted coconut, which was more like a rich carrot cake than a light and airy cream cake.

If this special menu is any indication, I anticipate lots of very good eats coming from Paterno’s kitchen in the weeks and months ahead. And their menu for ongoing Restaurant Week (anchored by entrees of filet and balsamic-glazed salmon or a trio of pastas) looks divine.

IF YOU GO: Paterno’s at the Park, 601 Morris St. in Charleston, is open. For more information call, 304-205-5482 or visit www.paternos- restaurants-wv.com.

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I had a great time judging last week’s Sweet Charity Dessert Competition at the Columbia Gas Pipeline Auditorium in Kanawha City, but had a tough time convincing people how hard a job that is.

No, really.

I mean, do you start with the sinfully rich peanut butter-banana-chocolate cupcake or the strawberry cookie tart? The Kahlua crème cup or the apple pie cheesecake? The plate of colorful macaroons or the blackberry-filled key lime cupcakes?

It’s a tough job, people (wink-wink).

But dive in I did, along with fellow judges Maestro Grant Cooper and West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Amy Shuler Goodwin. With the maestro waving the baton for “Creativity,” the commissioner leading the charge for “Presentation” and me heading up “Taste,” the three of us spent a good 45 minutes sampling and re-sampling eight different entries to score our favorites in each of those three categories.

So who claimed sweet victory?

Best “Creativity” went to local chef and fellow Gazette-Mail columnist April Hamilton, whose homemade WV-themed apple pie featured fresh Mountain State fruit, local J.Q. Dickinson salt and Smooth Ambler ice cream made by Ellen’s (which you can now enjoy at Ellen’s, for a limited time).

Best “Presentation” went to Sugar Pie Bakery’s rustic-meets-elegant display of colorful French macaroons in a variety of delicious flavors.

And best “Taste” honors went to the guy who came in second place in all three categories last year. Talk about sweet revenge! Fannie’s Sweet Confections took top honors with a delicious sugar cookie tart topped with rich whipped cream and blanketed by fire-engine-red ripe strawberries drizzled in a sweet glaze.

The event was a benefit for Faith in Action of Kanawha Valley, a non-profit community volunteer group that provides helpful services to senior citizens who are striving to live as independently as possible. It’s a great group and a super-fun event.

And speaking of faith, I pray they ask me back to judge next year!

You can catch a glimpse of some of the tasty entries by looking up “Sweet Charity Dessert Competition” on Facebook.

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In case Snowpocalypse kept you from making it down to the West Virginia Jewish Film Festival’s special screening of “The Search for Israeli Cuisine” at Park Place Stadium Cinemas this past Sunday, here’s another chance.

The theater has offered to show a repeat presentation this Sunday, Jan. 31, at 2 p.m. Admission is still free.

In the film, Chef Michael Solomonov (who owns the popular Israeli restaurant, Zahav, in Philadelphia) takes viewers on a wide-ranging food tour of Israel to answer the question: “Is there such a thing as Israeli cuisine, or is it simply a mish-mash of Middle Eastern and other cultures?”

It’s an interesting documentary with lots of mouth-watering scenes.

Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at dailymailfoodguy@aol.com. You can also follow him on Facebook and Pinterest as “DailyMail FoodGuy,” on Twitter as “DMFoodGuy” and read his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy.

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