Review: Charleston Restaurant Week the biggest and best yet

Courtesy of Bricks & Barrels
The flat iron steak from Bricks & Barrels.
B&D Gastropub’s Crab Rangoon.
Courtesy of Paternos
Filet mignon over truffle mashed potatoes and asparagus, paired with balsamic glazed salmon over a polenta cake at Paternos.
Courtesy of Paternos
The second entree from Paternos: a pasta trio with sausage and pea rigatoni, spaghetti with meatball and a blend of sautéed shrimp, porcini mushrooms and tomatoes mixed with wide pappardelle noodles in a truffle butter cream sauce.
Courtesy of Bricks & Barrels
A shrimp ceviche appetizer from Bricks & Barrels.

I’ll tell you what. I’ve heard it from many and felt it myself: This was the biggest and best Charleston Restaurant Week yet.

Restaurant participation was up, great menus made it tough to decide where to go (and what to order once you got there) and the public was out in force. I ended up making it to four different restaurants last week and all of them were packed.

Once Saturday night rolled around, I was devastated the week had come to a close and that I wasn’t able to squeeze in more visits — or have more days to do so. Here’s to Charleston Restaurant WEEKS next time, whaddya’ say?

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When next year’s Charleston Restaurant Week does roll around, here’s why you should go out and take advantage of the special menus being offered. And trying something new when you do.

When B&D Gastropub first opened in the former Murad’s location in Kanawha City, I gave it a pretty decent review. Great beer, good service, decent food — but a gastropub, I thought, it was not.

That name implied imaginative, elevated cuisine served in a casual pub setting, which I thought was a bit of a stretch. Still, I liked the place and stopped in occasionally, if only to sample one of the rotating selections of fine craft beers.

But over the course of the past year, something interesting has taken place there. They’ve hired a legitimate chef, elevated some dishes on the menu and are now offering a pretty impressive selection of dinner specials, especially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

After a great meal there with friends last Monday night, it suddenly hit me that B&D isn’t just another sports bar now. It really has evolved into a good place to eat, too. A place befitting the name I once questioned.

When friends suggested B&D as a nice place to kick off Restaurant Week, I scanned the special menu and made a mental note of which dishes sounded better in each category.

I’d get the crab Rangoon spring rolls (because who coats shrimp with Cap’n Crunch?), the nori-wrapped brook trout (because baked steak isn’t terribly exciting) and the Guinness cupcake (because I’ve had a million bread puddings).

But with wife by my side, we each ordered different items so we were able to sample all six offerings. And I was wrong to underestimate the choices I had written off.

Although our spring rolls were the bomb, the Cap’n Crunch shrimp was a nice surprise — just a little over-fried. (The taste combination worked, however.)

The crayfish and cornbread-stuffed trout was nice, but the large portion of gravy-covered baked steak atop Brussels sprout-flecked mashed potatoes was much better than expected. It didn’t really need the wedge of sourdough bread underneath it, but the rest of the dish was spot-on.

And as tasty as the Guinness cupcake was, the mocha bread pudding with bourbon sauce was divine — moist and rich (but not too dense) with a nice crusty coating that gave way to an airy center.

I had gone in expecting decent food, but enjoyed really good food. I thought I would prefer some items, but ended up loving others. Nice surprises all around, you should really check it out. Daily specials are promoted on Facebook and you can see the full menu (and current tap list) there as well.

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Two days later, a visit to Bricks & Barrels turned up some nice surprises, too.

I’m sure most of you have followed that new restaurant’s rocky start, marred by complaints of lackluster food, spotty service and sticker-shock prices. I’ve been critical myself, but all in the hopeful and helpful spirit of wanting the place to succeed.

Good news is, the owners have taken note.

Menu items have changed, more diverse price points have been added and service issues are (mostly, but not always) improved. Better yet, they’ve hired a hot-shot new chef (Lee Swoope) who cut his teeth cooking in the culinary hotbed of Charleston, SC.

I’ve been back to Bricks & Barrels twice since calling for change — and both visits have been markedly better. I still hear of problems (and have encountered a few myself) but I dare say the tide seems to be turning to the good.

Our visit during Restaurant Week was definitely good. But just like at B&D, it didn’t go exactly as planned.

Appetizer-wise, I expected to enjoy the mini crab cakes but much preferred the stellar shrimp ceviche — fresh, flavorful and thick, almost like a chunky gazpacho. I hope this makes the regular menu!

With Chef Lee’s strong Southern roots, I knew I’d be getting the shrimp and grits but expected a pretty traditional take on it. Au contraire. His bowl of perfectly cooked shrimp was blended with sautéed peppers, onions and tasso ham gravy over grits — and it was fantastic.

For dessert, they were out of the advertised lava cake, so we sampled a mini version of the restaurant’s signature Chocolate Brick and a thick oatmeal raisin cookie baked in a mini cast iron pan and topped with ice cream, caramel and fresh berries. Both delicious.

It wasn’t a perfect night. Service was a little slow, but still very friendly. (And the place was jam-packed, which is good to see.) They also were out of the bottle of wine I wanted, but substituted a nicer one at the same price. Problems happen. It’s how you handle them makes the difference, so kudos here too.

All in all, I think Bricks & Barrels may be turning that all-important corner to success. At least I hope so.

It’s a locally owned business with great ambiance, Chef Lee is the real deal and the food is getting better. People will pay more for good quality, so I hope they keep up the good work. I’ll definitely be back to see how they’re doing.

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Two days later, my Restaurant Week visit to The Block also wasn’t quite what I expected — but not in a good way.

Although both apps (spinach and mushroom gnocchi with prosciutto in light Parmesan cream and seared jumbo scallops with tomato tartar) were nice, both entrées on the menu (grilled chicken over grits with caponota salad and a glazed pork chop atop white beans and glazed carrots) featured tragically dry, overcooked meat.

Although the seafood is stellar here, most meat dishes I’ve tried at The Block are almost always overcooked. The sides they come with are nice, though.

The restaurant recovered with desserts, somewhat. The tres leches cake is legendarily good, and the blackberry crème brulee could be. The flavors and texture were perfect, but the filling inside was stone cold. (My waitress acknowledged it had just been pulled out of the fridge, so I’m sure it didn’t have enough time to temper before the top was torched prior to serving.)

Not a perfect performance, but The Block is still one of the strongest restaurants in town. They do so many things well, just not usually meat.

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Finally, we closed out the week on a very high note at Paterno’s.

With my three sons in tow, we enjoyed fresh salads (Caesar, a wedge and the signature citrus spinach combination with grapes, gorgonzola and toasted pine nuts) and the mushroom arancini, deliciously creamy and rich fried risotto balls drenched in a savory mushroom cream.

Both entrées were just as good. The 8-year-old and I had a perfectly cooked juicy filet mignon over addictive truffle mashed potatoes and asparagus, which was paired with moist, flaky balsamic glazed salmon over a crispy (but overly so) polenta cake. The two older boys, 11 and 13, opted for a pasta trio featuring sausage and pea rigatoni, spaghetti with meatball and Pasta Niki, a ridiculously good blend of sautéed shrimp, porcini mushrooms and tomatoes mixed with wide pappardelle noodles in a decadent truffle butter cream sauce.

We ended the night with a warm brownie topped with vanilla gelato and what is surely the area’s best tiramisu, striking the perfect balance of fluffy cake, creamy layers and espresso-soaked goodness, without any one of those elements overpowering the others.

The night was such a hit, thanks to all that delicious food and rock-star service by the same waitress we had lucked into on our previous visit. (Thanks Kimberly!)

Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by e-mail 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 http://blogs.charlestondailymail/foodguy.

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