Oak Steakhouse in Charleston, SC

We had the pleasure of visiting Charleston sans kids last week.  A business conference brought us there, so we didn’t have a lot of time to explore during the day, but we did get to eat dinner out most every night, and that was a treat in itself.

On our first night, we visited the Oak Steakhouse.  My husband recommended it to me  since he had visited with friends a few years ago.  I was unsure, because at the time Urbanspoon had only rated it at 80%, and there were so many other choices rated higher.  That was my first lesson in not always letting a few detracting reviews keep you away from a restaurant.  It was our favorite from the visit.

Odd because my favorite appetizer, entree and dessert all came from different restaurants.  Not so odd when you consider what I heard Tom Colicchio quote on Top Chef: “People go to restaurants for food and they return for hospitality.”  So truthful, at least in my case.  Good service and a warm ambiance are a huge part of the experience and Oak Steakhouse has that in spades.

When we first arrive, I am taken by the warm atmosphere and balcony overlooking the bar area down below.  Upstairs was even more beautiful, with the large picture windows looking down on the street below and the murals painted on the walls.  The curtains were heavy, sending me back to a Gone with the Wind kind of time.  It was really magical for me.  Our waiter came by and began what would be an amazing service for the rest of the night.  He was so knowledgeable and helped guide us in our choices that night.  He even brought us treats to sample from the chef. All were, of course, amazing.  I thought we were going to bust there was so much food.  And all so wonderful, you didn’t want to leave a scrap behind.

oakbread

Maybe it is silly, but the bread that was brought to our table at the beginning of our meal was so delicious, I have to mention it.  Soft, warm rolls topped by a salty, crunchy mixture of herbs and garlic and accompanied with a bit of real butter.  I KNEW better than to eat the whole thing, but I just couldn’t help it.  They were that good.

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Before our appetizers, the server brought an amuse-bouche (thanks, Top Chef for that vocab lesson!) for us to sample.  Dustin MAY have let it slip that I write a blog, so there’s the reason for that extra treat.  The treat was a pickled shrimp on a lavash cracker slathered with onion jam.  The shrimp was firm, fresh and chilled and just slightly pickled with fenugreek, coriander, mustard seed, bay leaf and white wine.  The jam was sweet with a hint of cinnamon.  Beautiful together!

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First course for Dustin was the Steak Tartare.  This is a mound of chopped steak that is…gulp…raw!  On top is an over-easy fried quail egg, with and herb aioli and served with crostini.  I tried a tiny bite.  I tried to enjoy it.  But alas, the rawness I could not overcome.  I think he does this on purpose so he doesn’t have to share with me.  Whatever the case, he loved it.

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When we passed by the kitchen on the way to our table, I was struck by two things: First, that it was so small and so many people were being served out of it and second, that the oysters looked amazing.  My research had me carefully selecting dishes to try, I even saved them in a Google Doc file so I wouldn’t forget…but sometimes you just have to make a decision on the fly.  That was the right call.  My first course was Oysters Rockefeller, and not only were they beautiful, but delicious as well.  The creamy and cheesy spinach sauce with a hint of bacon capped these perfectly cooked oysters and then finished with a few chives and a squeeze of fresh lemon.  It was the perfect bite.  If you go, do NOT miss these.  Another caveat:  You can order them in any number, I got 4.

oakscallops

While waiting for our main courses to arrive, the server brought us another treat from the chef.  This one was seared scallops and they were so blissful.  The scallops were perfectly seared with a crispy crust and tender inside.  They sat atop a bright green fresh pea puree’, roasted sweet baby carrots, jalapeno jam and roasted cauliflower.  There was also a sherry gastrique underneath that had an Asian flavor, tangy and sweet, that owned me.  My husband pronounced those the best scallops he’s ever had.

oakribeye

So, no way we could eat more, right?  Wrong.  Here come the steaks…Dustin opted for the dry aged Ribeye with chargrilled onions.  It was so flavorful with a crusty outside  and a tender interior, cooked perfectly.  Chargrilled flavor was very prominent and wonderful.

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I chose the filet mignon.  I always get berated because there is not enough fat marbling to properly flavor the meat, but tonight this was no problem.  My steak was soft to the touch with a perfectly crusted exterior.  The chargrilled flavor was so delicious.

oakcrab

It’s not over yet.  The waiter told us that the King Crab was caught by the guys on the TV show.  Sold.  It was huge, spiky and worth every pinch trying to get it out.  So much sweet crab meat.  I can’t even.

oakmushrooms

So this was one of those fancy restaurants where the sides are purchased individually.  We each got one and shared.  My research told me to try the truffle fries, but my husband was dead set on the Macaroni and Cheese and I couldn’t see getting 2 starches.  So, I chose the roasted mushrooms.  I adore mushrooms, but you know…these were mushrooms.  They were great, but you could do the same at home.  If you go, and want 2 starches, don’t give in to guilt…just get them both!

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The bacon macaroni and cheese was so creamy and worth every calorie.   The bacon added a smokiness to the cheese and the noodles had just enough bite still in them to provide a bit of texture.  But not too much, no one wants crunchy macaroni and cheese.  If you dine here, one of you must get this dish.

This was our first night in this magical city and our best meal.  The food was amazing, the restaurant was beautiful but the service we received was so attentive, it made the night.  Dustin and I disagree what our server’s name was, so I looked on my receipt.  It stated he was “The Bruce.”  So if you decide to go, you know who to ask for!

Oak Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Paula Deen LIVE at the Blumenthal in Charlotte

Paula Deen came to Charlotte, ya’ll!  Her people reached out to me with fantastic tickets to see this wonderful show and to meet Paula!  What an amazing experience!  If you want to see her, here’s the link to check out her tour dates:  Paula Deen Live.  Our show was Wednesday, September 24 2014 at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Theater downtown.

When we first arrived, we were directed upstairs in this beautiful center to have some wine and snacks before going up to meet Paula.  As you might imagine, the food was amazing.  I wish I could show you pictures of the venue, but security was tight and they wouldn’t let us snap pictures inside the building.  My guess is we were too close to the Bank of America Building, and they thought we might be cat burglers.

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While we stood in line to wait on the Queen of Buttery Goodness, we spotted several famous folks.  Lee Greenwood was on hand to greet us in line, and we’d learn later he’d sing his hit song God Bless the USA during the show.  Stunning!  (not his best picture, but that is the fault of the photog, not Mr. Greenwood.)

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While we were in line to meet Paula, we were told that we could not have anyone take pictures of us (it would hold up the line) but that their photographer would get the shot and give us a link to download them.  I got that one today.  I think it came out great, even if the hubs has a death grip on Paula’s hand.  They seem like awesome people.    Paula certainly was.  Very warm and friendly :)

 

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Now, for the good stuff!  Paula’s sons were just out there strutting around, chit chatting with everyone, really working the room.  Handsome!  This might have been the highlight of my night ;)

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I didn’t take pictures of the event itself.  I was too wrapped up in listening to Paula talk!  We saw her prepare some yummy dishes, heard her telling her famous stories and anecdotes and even played some games!  It was a wonderful time, and not to be missed!

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Youssef 242 in Hickory

Hickory has blessed few real “fancy” restaurants (when compared to Charlotte) so I was so excited to finally try Youssef 242 last night.  I’ve had it on my list forever, and somehow never got to it.  I made reservations in the middle of the night (thanks Open Table!) and like that we were in.

We arrived on a back street near Hickory High School, and I was truly amazed at the cool little spot, tucked away from prying eyes on Hwy. 127.  This was gonna be good, I could feel it.  As we approached the entrance, we saw the outdoor seating area with the fireplace.  So welcoming!  Unfortunately, too hot for this gal, so inside we went.

We were greeted promptly and kindly, and given our choice of a table or a booth.  I appreciated the choice, one of our diners is a tall man, so sometimes a booth isn’t a great option.  We were seated and approached by the server quickly.

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We ordered appetizers and those were brought quickly.  Some were better than others.  I got the escargot.  They were served in small puff pastry cups and pan sautéed with garlic and parsley.  The flavor was fine, but the temperature was too cool.  My other criticism is that the shells tasted of the freezer.  Next time I’d get another dish.

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My husband got the Fried Blue Oyster Mushrooms.  They were amazing!  The batter was light and crispy, perfectly fried and not at all greasy.  They sat atop a Dijon mustard sauce which was a perfect pairing.  Very tangy!  It balanced the sweet and rich bite of mushroom.

Our friend got the crab cake, which was served atop a fried green tomato with vegetable slaw and a sriracha sauce.  He said it was in need of salt and a little bland, but cooked perfectly.  He wasn’t wild about the fried green tomato with it.

filet with cheddar mashed potatoes youseff

Two of us got the filet mignon.  It was atop cheddar mashed potatoes and finished with a demi glace.  My filet was cooked perfectly, but it lacked seasoning and had an overly smoked flavor that I did not like.  The potatoes were creamy, but I didn’t see or detect any cheddar in them.  There was even some discussion at the table that they might be fake potatoes?  I don’t believe that to be true, but we were underwhelmed for the prices Youseff charges.

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My husband got the NY Strip.  It was slightly better, but the real show stopper for me was the fried onion strips on top.  They were fried delicately and perfectly.  These folks really seem to know how to fry.  Nothing was soggy, everything crispy and perfectly seasoned.

Garden salad with chicken youseff

My other friend got the Mixed Green salad with Chicken.  She loved it, but said that the chicken was dry.  The salad had garbanzo beans, quinoa, carrots, pickled onions, cucumbers and tomatoes with a vinaigrette dressing.  It was dressed well.

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We chose 2 desserts for the table.  Robert and Jeri got the Vanilla Brulee, which was reported to be fine, but nothing special.  It did come with a quarter of a cookie which was a nice decoration, but really just a tease.

Pineapple Upsidedown cake youseff

The other dessert was a Pineapple Upside Down cake.  This was the star of the show.  It was topped with a delicious vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce.  Out of this world fresh and good.  It was served warm, too.

Did we like this place?  Sure, it was ok.  But, for the price, there are so many better choices out there, even better choices in Hickory.  The meals were hit or miss, and for half the price, I’d recommend it.  Alas, I cannot.

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Youssef 242 on Urbanspoon

Milky Way Cake

Looking for a decadent dessert that’s relatively easy to make?  Try this Milky Way cake.  I used a red velvet cake mix for mine,  but next time?  Butter Cake all the way.

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Milky Way Cake

INGREDIENTS

  • 18 1/4 butter recipe yellow cake mix, i use duncan hines
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 4 large eggs
  • 9 small fun sized Milky Way bars or 3 large Milky Way bars
  • 3 tablespoons evaporated milk
  • Glaze
  • 4 small fun sized Milky Way bars or 2 large Milky Way bars, sliced
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons evaporated milk

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Grease and flour a bundt pan or use Bakers Joy spray.
  3. Melt Milky Way bars in evaporated milk, set aside to cool.
  4. In a large bowl blend cake mix, water, butter and eggs.
  5. Blend at low speed for 1 minute.
  6. Beat at medium speed for 3 minutes, then add melted candy mixture.
  7. Beat at medium speed for 2 more minutes.
  8. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45-55 minutes.
  9. Cool in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes.
  10. Place cake on plate.
  11. Glaze or sprinkle with confectioners sugar.
  12. Glaze: In a small saucepan over low heat melt Milky way bars, butter and evaporated milk.
  13. Stir until melted and smooth.
  14. Cool slightly and pour over cake.

Carrabba’s Bread Dipping Spice

I usually refuse to go to chain restaurants.  There are so many choices out there, why waste your dining dollars on a chain where you know exactly what is on the menu and the masses will follow you there?  Well, one reason is because sometimes you just crave a dish.  And familiarity can be a comfort.  For me, those times are few and far between, but that is one reason you might see me dining at Carrabba’s.

They bring you a basket of piping hot fresh bread to your table with a scoop of herb mixture which is then mixed with olive oil.  Perfect for dipping.  I made mine for a dinner the other night and had some left over.  I mixed it with olive oil, marinated some chicken breasts with it and grilled them.  Wow!  Yum!

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Carrabba’s Bread Dipping Spice

  • 1 tablespoon minced basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley (Italian is best)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/2 teaspoon ground sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/8 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

directions

1. Combine all of the ingredients, EXCEPT oil and lemon.

2. Put in a small food processor (I used my little food chopper). Chop briefly until all ingredients are about the same.

3. Stir in oil and lemon juice.

4. TO SERVE: Combine about 1 1/2 teaspoons spice blend to 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil on a small Dish.

5. Dip sliced bread in mixture.

French Onion Soup

I think French Onion soup is my favorite soup of all time.  The KING of soups!  When I was a kid, I almost choked on a big glob of cheese while eating a cup in the mall, but now I am much more careful.  Smaller bites.  Chewing.

My favorite soups are ones that have a rich broth, not too many chunky onions, but enough so that the bread doesn’t absorb all of the liquid.  The cheese on top should be a lovely mixture of gruyere, gouda and mozzarella.  Never too much.

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French Onion Soup

Ingredients

  • 5 small onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 cans (14 ounces) low sodium beef broth (recommended: Swanson’s)
  • 2 cans (10 ounces) beef consomme (recommended: Campbell’s)
  • 1 packet onion soup mix (recommended: Lipton’s)
  • 8 slices French bread, about 1 inch thick
  • 1 cup shredded Gruyere

directions

  1. Combine onions, broth, consomme, and soup mix in a slow cooker. Cook on HIGH setting for 4 hours, or LOW setting for 8 hours.
  2. Ladle soup into serving bowls. Top with a slice of French bread. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons cheese over each bread slice. Put soup bowls under broiler until cheese is melted. Alternatively, place the bread on a baking sheet and top with cheese; broil until cheese has melted, about 30 to 40 seconds, and set on top just before serving.

*adapted from Sandra Lee

Cafe Monte in Charlotte

Café Monte

My girlfriend and I decided to give this place a try because we found a Living Social deal that was too good to pass up.  So glad we did!  The interior is fun yet elegant.  When we were there, they had live music playing in a corner and a pastry case on the opposite side.  It made the wait for our table a bit more bearable!

We were seated in the busy restaurant at a small patio (looking) table and were immediately served our drinks.  Our server was attentive and friendly.

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We started with some pretty standard appetizers.  My friend ordered a salad, and it was dressed sparsely and was pretty basic.  I tried the French Onion Soup.  The cheese was delicious, but the broth itself was lacking in body and flavor.  We both agreed we’d try something a little more adventurous next time.

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We sampled the Chicken and Mushroom Crepes for our entrée.  This was really my friend’s dish, but she let me have a taste.  They were rich and creamy and I kicked myself all night for not getting them.   I know it looks a mess, and the picture isn’t that clear, but it was the best thing we had all night.

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For my dish, I chose the special for Friday night:  Broiled Lobster with fries and asparagus.  It was fine, but the waiter really hyped it up and you know…you’ve had Lobster once, you’ve had it a million times.  It was delicious, but nothing special.  Plus, kinda messy and hard to handle with grace.  Next time, crepes for me.

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After staring at the pastry case while waiting on our reservation, we decided we had to have dessert.  My friend chose the chocolate éclair.  The photo is blurry, but I’m sure you can see the cracks in the chocolate on top.  That was an indicator we should have heeded.  It was dry and uneventful.  Very disappointing for a French bakery.

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This was the winner between the two desserts.  This Vanilla fruit tart was good, but it still had that “made ahead and sat around” flavor to me.  I was not impressed, but maybe my expectations were too high for a French restaurant.

The next time we go, we will skip dessert altogether, but definitely have the crepes.

 

Cafe Monte French Bistro & Bakery on Urbanspoon