Center Street Cafe & Deli – Healdsburg, CA

October 14th, 2014 by virginia

DSC_3008

On the morning of our friends’ wedding, we couldn’t bear the thought of stomaching another breakfast at our hotel (which admittedly was not so terrible, especially considering it was free, plus there was even an automatic pancake machine!) so we headed into downtown Healdsburg to grab some brunch. We walked around the square for a while contemplating our options and came across the Center Street Cafe & Deli, which was perfect for us because some of us wanted breakfast and some of us wanted lunch, and the diner-like menu offered both.

I was firmly in the lunch group while Josh was sort of in between, but we both wound up ordering sandwiches and splitting them. Josh picked the hot corned beef sandwich with swiss cheese on rye toast. The corned beef was surprisingly good – thick cut, flavorful, and appropriately fatty, and the rye toast was appropriately studded with lots of caraway seeds. We both upgraded to french fries, which were thin cut and looked like they were made from real potatoes. They tasted fine but were a tad soggy.

Corned beef sandwich with swiss, and french fries

Corned beef sandwich with swiss, and french fries

I selected the Thanksgiving sandwich, which featured thick cut turkey, provolone, lettuce, onions, mayo, and cranberry sauce. The turkey was tender and moist, but the cranberry sauce totally overpowered everything. I appreciated that it was made with real cranberries, not stuff that comes out of the can looking like cranberry jello, but it was overwhelmingly sour and completely detracted from the otherwise fine sandwich. Josh and I both agreed that the corned beef sandwich was the better choice.

Thanksgiving sandwich

Thanksgiving sandwich

Overall we thought the Center Street Cafe & Deli was just ok. It served its purpose, in that everyone found something they wanted to eat, and its location on the square couldn’t be beat. The food was decent. Not great, not awful, in line with what you would expect from a regular diner. Service was friendly, our glasses were always refilled, and prices were reasonable.

Center Street Cafe & Deli
304 Center St.
Healdsburg, CA

Ad Hoc – Yountville, CA

October 9th, 2014 by virginia

DSC_2996

Even though I knew we were going to be in Sonoma, not Napa, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant, especially because it’ll probably be years before we’ll be “in the neighborhood” again. I know we have Bouchon Bakery in NYC, but it’s not quite the same as a regular sit-down restaurant. The drive from Healdsburg to Yountville was actually over an hour, but it was a pretty scenic trip past rolling hills of vineyards. While I would have loved to eat at the French Laundry, logistically, and budget-wise, Ad Hoc made more sense for us. Originally we had made a reservation for a party of ten, but our group dwindled down to four, which fortunately was not an issue.

I was actually surprised by the decor of the restaurant when we walked in. I don’t know why, but in my mind, I was picturing something a little more casual and countrified. Instead, it was a beautifully modern space with tall ceilings, large windows, and a contemporary vibe. Even though we had a somewhat early reservation, the place was packed and the atmosphere was hopping.

The menu at Ad Hoc changes every day, but whatever is on the menu that day is what you get. There is usually a salad to start, a main course with the option to add a supplemental dish, a cheese course, and dessert. The meal costs $52, plus an extra supplement cost if you choose to add the supplemental dish, and you get everything. It’s all served family style, with enough portions for everyone at the table to have a healthy serving.

On the night that we dined there, the salad course featured a gorgeous mix of little gem lettuce, shaved fennel, apricots, radishes, pickled red onions, and ricotta, with a chamomile vinaigrette. The gem lettuce, which is similar to baby romaine, was unbelievably fresh, with such a crisp texture and intense lettuce flavor. The radishes fortunately were not too bitter, and the fennel was pretty mild as well. The apricots were a great addition – sweet and juicy, while the dollops of ricotta added a nice creaminess to the greens. We all thought the salad was slightly under-dressed, until we discovered that they had brought us a gravy boat of extra dressing that no one had noticed until we were almost finished eating. Oh well. The vegetables were so fresh anyway that we were sort of glad to have tasted them in all their semi-naked glory.

Salad

Salad with little gem lettuce, fennel, apricots, radishes, pickled red onions, and ricotta

The main course was grilled hanger steak, which was nicely browned on the outside and perfectly medium rare on the inside. The steak was topped with wilted mustard greens, fried polenta, bell pepper stew, and turnip agrodolce. The mustard greens were soft but not overcooked, and the slight bitterness of the turnips was counteracted by the sweet bell peppers. My favorite part of the dish, aside from the steak, was the fried polenta, which had a perfectly crisp shell and a creamy center. It was a hearty, homey dish and they definitely didn’t skimp on the meat. We wound up boxing up the leftovers.

Hanger steak

Hanger steak with mustard greens, turnips, bell pepper stew, and fried polenta

The supplemental dish was shrimp scampi, which we added to our meal without hesitation (the additional cost was $16). It was a good call, as the shrimp were perfectly cooked and the pasta was clearly homemade, with chewy strands that clung to the well balanced scampi sauce. The dish wasn’t overly garlicky and had just the right amount of acid.

Shrimp scampi

Shrimp scampi

The cheese course was the Lamb Chopper from Cyprus Grove, a sheep’s milk cheese that has a mild gamey flavor to it. It’s a hard cheese but texturally smooth, and it was served toasted cashews and honey. The sweetness of the honey really brought out the tang of the sheep’s milk. It was a nice palate cleansing course.

Chopper

Lamb Chopper cheese with honey and cashews

Dessert was ice cream sandwiches with sweet corn ice cream between shortbread cookies, rolled in blackberries. They were impossibly messy (the ice cream squeezed out the back when you bit into the cookies, and the blackberry juice got all over our hands), but they were delicious, whimsical, and just plain fun to eat. The shortbread cookies tasted like sugar cookies, though not too sugary, and the ice cream had a subtle hint of corn flavor. I was hoping to taste more of the corn, but the sandwich was just the perfect amount of sweetness to end the gluttonous meal.

Sweet corn ice cream sandwiches

Sweet corn ice cream sandwiches with blackberries

Immediately after our meal, we had kind of mixed emotions about the dinner at Ad Hoc. The food was really good – seasonal, well prepared, and plentiful. But there was nothing that knocked our socks off. Everything was properly seasoned and tasted great, but it was simple, homey fare, and I think we were expecting something a little more extraordinary from a Thomas Keller restaurant. In hindsight though, it was our own preconceived notions that had us a little disappointed at the end of the meal. Thinking back, we truly did enjoy our meal, and each course was amazing in its own right. The salad was unbelievably fresh, the steak was expertly cooked, as were the sides, the shrimp scampi was nicely balanced,  the cheese course was simple but delicious, and the ice cream sandwiches put smiles on all of our faces. It was a meal I would happily eat again, and a complete bargain considering the quality of the food and the size of the portions. If you’re expecting more composed dishes and creative combinations, then this isn’t the place. But if you’re looking for uncomplicated, straightforward, and perfectly executed food that is also unbelievably tasty, don’t hesitate to make a reservation at Ad Hoc.

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington St.
Yountville, CA

While we would have loved to eat here (French Laundry), which is just down the street, Ad Hoc was still a great restaurant in its own right

While we would have loved to eat here (French Laundry), which is just down the street, we wound up having an amazing meal at Ad Hoc

Campo Fina – Healdsburg, CA

October 7th, 2014 by virginia

DSC_2788

By Thursday, all of our friends had arrived in Healdsburg for the wedding festivities. First we stopped at the Healdsburg Bar & Grill for a group happy hour on the back patio, and then we walked along Healdsburg Avenue in search of a restaurant for dinner. Campo Fina drew us in with it varied Italian menu and immediately available seating.

At first we were crowded around a small round booth by the door, which was cozy and intimate and perfect for conversations, but not practical for the amount of food that would wind up on the table. Fortunately some more tables opened up in the front and we were able to spread out more comfortably.

Because we were all couples with different food preferences, we decided to order our own dishes rather than share with the table, even though the menu is pretty conducive for sharing. Josh and I decided to split two appetizers and a pizza so that we could try several dishes.

First up was the burrata cheese with grilled bread, prosciutto, and aged balsamic. It was a twist on our favorite mozzarella/tomato/prosciutto dinners that we indulge in almost weekly during the summer. The burrata was soft and milky in the middle and while the prosciutto was very lean, it still melted in mouths. The aged balsamic was intense in flavor and very sweet, which contrasted nicely with the salty prosciutto. There was arugula on the plate as well, adding a bit of bitterness to cut through the richness of the burrata. The grilled bread doused with good olive oil was the perfect vehicle for the ingredients. Even though it was a simple appetizer, we enjoyed it so much that it inspired us to grill our bread and eat more burrata all summer long.

Burrata with grilled bread, prosciutto, arugula, and aged balsamic

Burrata with grilled bread, prosciutto, arugula, and aged balsamic

Our second appetizer was pork belly sliders. We had enjoyed the pork belly biscuits at Chalkboard the night before so much that we were in the mood for more pork belly. These were served with fig and red onion marmellata, sauerkraut, and pickled mustard seed. The pork belly wasn’t as crispy on the outside but it was still tender and deliciously fatty. The fig and red onion added a sweet glaze to the pork, while the sauerkraut provided a tangy contrast and crunch. The mustard seeds were a nice touch, adding a little extra burst of flavor with each bite. My only complaint was the bread, which was just toasted white bread buns. They were soft and squishy and pretty mundane, especially compared with the delicate biscuits from the night before. Plus there was too much of it, which detracted a bit from the delicious pork belly.

Pork belly sliders

Pork belly sliders

For our main course, we split the salsiccia pizza, which was topped with sausage and roasted spring onions. I liked the mellow onion flavor that the roasted spring onions brought to the dish, and the sausage was also pretty mild, which I prefer. I would have liked a little bit more cheese (it was definitely on the saucier side), but overall it was a pretty tasty pie. The crust was nicely browned from the wood-burning oven and had good flavor and chew to it. We also traded slices with other people at the table and tasted a fantastic spiced lamb pizza (it was a special that night) as well as pizza calabrese, which was unfortunately did not have enough calabrese salame on top.

Pizza salsiccia

Pizza salsiccia

We were wavering on dessert but after hearing what the special of the day was, we couldn’t pass it up. The dessert special was grilled peaches with vanilla gelato, topped with olive oil and sea salt. The grilled peaches had a nice savory quality to them, which made them the perfect pair for the sweet gelato. The fruity olive oil bound the two components together, and the sea salt just put the whole combination over the top. As someone who doesn’t have a huge sweet tooth, it was the ideal dessert for me.

Grilled peaches with vanilla gelato, olive oil, and sea salt

Grilled peaches with vanilla gelato, olive oil, and sea salt

Overall, we enjoyed both the food and the atmosphere at Campo Fina. While it was a more casual and warm environment where we were at the front of the restaurant, we discovered a huge crowd out back in the garden area where it was more like a boisterous party, complete with a bocce ball court. The dishes we tried were well prepared and flavorful, though nothing extraordinarily complicated or fancy. The prices were pretty reasonable, and I liked the “smaller plates” aspect that would allow you to share dishes. Service was friendly, and our waiter introduced us to a local trousseau gris wine that was fruity yet crisp – definitely one of the favorite wines we tasted during our trip. I would happily go back there again.

Campo Fina
330 Healdsburg Ave.
Healdsburg, CA

Chalkboard – Healdsburg, CA

October 1st, 2014 by virginia

DSC_2720

We arrived in San Francisco on a misty and foggy (per usual) Wednesday morning. After picking up our rental and enjoying an awesome dim sum breakfast with my godparents, we headed into downtown SF to meet up with our friends Claire and Sean, and their adorable son, L. From their apartment we headed off to Healdsburg in our respective cars, stopping once at the Vista Point by the Golden Gate Bridge (which was completely whited out by the fog) to swap passengers (Claire and I needed some girl talk time).

The trip to Healdsburg took about 1.5 hours with minimal traffic. After checking into our hotel (make sure you never accidentally request a smoking room when filling out a reservation online!), Josh and I took a drive around downtown before meeting up with Claire, Sean, and L again for an early dinner at Chalkboard. During my usual pre-trip research, Chalkboard was one of the more heralded restaurants I read about, and the menu looked fabulous, so I had Josh book reservations for us well in advance.

We opted to sit outside on the back patio and enjoy the gorgeous weather. The menu features small plates, and our party of 4 (plus L, who picked off a little from every dish and has an incredible palate for a 1 year old) was the perfect size for sharing everything. We pretty much ordered to our hearts’ content, hitting almost every dish on the menu.

First up was the beef tartare, which had a wonderful texture to it and tons of beef flavor, as the meat was cut in larger chunks rather than the over-chopped mush we’ve seen in many other places. It was topped with a quail egg yolk that gave the beef a creamy richness, and was served with parsley, celery hearts, calabrian chile (which wasn’t too spicy), and smoked salt. We scooped up the tartare with the accompanying crunchy crostini, and it was a well balanced, well seasoned bite to start off our meal.

Beef tartare

Beef tartare

The trio of bruschetta featured duck rillete with peach mostarda, pickled beet with crescenza cheese and pistachio, and smoked salmon with smashed avocado, creme fraiche, and pickled onions. The rillete with peach was a nice combination of savory and sweet, while the tanginess of the pickled beet was mellowed out by the creamy and milky crescenza. Smoked salmon with avocado and creme fraiche is a pretty standard combination, but the pickled onions added a nice touch of acid and a bit of crunch to the mix. All three were pretty delicious.

Bruschetta trio

Bruschetta trio

The only vegetable dish we ordered was the caramelized baby carrots, which came with kohlrabi sauerkraut, caraway-dill yogurt, and rye crunch. I’m usually not a fan of carrots in general, but these were bursting with flavor. The sweet carrots were soft but not mushy and paired nicely with slightly sour sauerkraut. The yogurt was bright and fresh-tasting from the dill, and the rye crunch added a nice textural contrast. It was a great combination that I never would have thought of in a million years, nor did I think I would enjoy it, but it was a sleeper hit on the table.

Caramelized baby carrots

Caramelized baby carrots

The crudo of the day was ishidai (a Japanese fish) with pickled nectarines and fried olives. The fish was mild in flavor but definitely fresh, and the nectarines and olives added a burst of brininess without overwhelming the fish. Definitely an interesting combination, and the fried olives were a nice twist.

Crudo of the day

Crudo of the day

From the pasta section, we chose the squid ink gigli with dungeness crab, calabrian chile, black truffle butter, and lemon verbena. We couldn’t detect any truffle flavor in the dish, but we also didn’t miss it. The pasta itself had lots of depth and savoriness to it from the squid ink, and there was tons of crab meat mixed throughout. We could taste the fruitiness of the chile but it wasn’t overly spicy. My only complaint would be that the pasta was slightly mushy.

Squid ink gigli

Squid ink gigli

The lamb meatballs were another huge hit at our table. The meatballs were gamey but not overly so, and juicy and tender. They were served with charred grapes, mint, harissa, feta, and saba (a grape syrup). The sweetness of the grapes and syrup was unexpected but paired well with the meatiness of the lamb, and the fresh mint finished the dish on a bright note.

Lamb meatballs

Lamb meatballs

The dungeness crab tater tots were well executed, with perfectly crispy tots and a big heap of dungeness crab meat on top of each cube. The crab meat was sweet and fresh, while the tots had great potato flavor and were not the least bit greasy. Compared to the other dishes on the table, however, these were tasty but not as exciting.

Dungeness crab tater tots

Dungeness crab tater tots (some of the crab bundles fell off en route to the table)

The PEI mussels steamed with white wine was another more classic dish that was well executed. The mussels were plump and juicy though, and the broth had a lot of flavor from big pieces of bacon and fennel mixed throughout.

Steamed PEI mussels

Steamed PEI mussels

The hamachi crudo featured summer squash, kimchi, and crispy quinoa. It was a surprisingly large portion, which was not a bad thing, and I liked that the hamachi was cut into large chunks rather than the thin slices we were expecting. The kimchi flavor on the summer squash was present but mild, and I liked the textural crunch of the quinoa. It was definitely a more rustic dish than the crudo of the day, but both were tasty in different ways.

Hamachi crudo

Hamachi crudo

Last, but definitely not least, we had the pork belly biscuits. The pork belly was glazed with maple and perfectly cooked so that it was crispy on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside. The biscuit itself was fluffy and delicate, and pickled onions and chipotle mayo rounded out the little sandwiches. The salty sweet flavors were spot on, and I could have eaten all four of them by myself.

Pork belly biscuits

Pork belly biscuits

Overall, Josh and I both thought our meal at Chalkboard was one of the best that we’ve had in recent memory. The company was definitely part of it (it’s always a pleasure dining with Claire and Sean), but the food itself was well executed, and most of the combinations of flavors were innovative and exciting. The restaurant tries to use local produce and ingredients, and the care taken with each individual component was evident on the plate. At about $9-$16 per dish, the prices were very reasonable for the quality of the food and the portion sizes. We all walked away satisfied but not overwhelmingly full. Service was attentive, and the back patio area was just lovely. I highly recommend checking out the restaurant if you’re ever in the Healdsburg area.

Chalkboard
29 North St.
Healdsburg, CA

Two Fat Bellies Hit the Road – Sonoma

September 9th, 2014 by virginia

During June, Josh and I spent a long weekend in California to attend our friends’ wedding. The wedding and most of the wedding events took place in Healdsburg, although we did get to explore a few of the vineyards in the surrounding area and also trekked over to Napa for lovely dinner. The best part, however, was spending time with friends that we don’t get to see too often, and enjoying great conversations over plenty of wine and food.

DSC_2868

Beautiful vineyards

Rows of grapes

Rows of grapes

Ripening on the vine

Ripening on the vine

Brasserie Les Halles – Park Avenue

August 14th, 2014 by virginia

I guess it’s pretty obvious that Two Fat Bellies has become more of a travel food blog than a NY/NJ food blog. It’s been pretty tough for us to find new interesting places to eat around here since J was born, especially because Josh and I both still work full time and we don’t like to impose on our families any more than we already do. Not that we don’t go out to eat, but we go to familiar places where they know J or where no one would notice if she were disruptive (ie., kid-friendly chain restaurants). For an almost-2 year old, she’s actually really good in restaurants, but we certainly won’t be taking her to Daniel anytime soon, for example.

Ever since I was pregnant with J, I’ve been craving steak frites. And not just any steak frites – the one specifically from Les Halles. I’ve eaten plenty of steak and french fries since then, but there’s just something about Les Halles’ version that keeps it on top in my mind. But sadly, we haven’t had the opportunity to go there in almost three years. And so when I had an early summer Friday from work, I convinced Josh to meet me for a super late lunch at the Park Avenue location, which was about a 30 minute walk from where we were in midtown. We’ve never eaten at the Park Avenue branch, only the one in the Financial District. I was impressed by the old woodwork and real brasserie feel, though the restaurant was smaller than I thought it would be.

We got there just after 3 pm so it was fairly empty inside, but we were just in time for the start of happy hour. That meant a $5 beer special, and, best of all, $1 east coast oysters and $2 west coast oysters. We love raw oysters, so it was too good a deal to pass up. We ordered 6 east coast and 6 west coast to start.

Kumamoto (west coast) oysters on top, blue points (east coast) on the bottom

Kumamoto (west coast) oysters on top, blue points (east coast) on the bottom

The oysters arrived nicely chilled with lemon, cocktail sauce, and mignonette sauce on the side. We just like it with just a little squeeze of lemon though, so we can really taste the flavor of the oyster. We started with a west coast oyster, and then alternated with an east coast one, so we could compare them side by side. Even though we’re east coast snobs, we have to admit, the west coast oysters were far superior. They were kumamoto oysters, slightly smaller in size than the east coast blue point oysters, but much more flavorful. They were incredibly briney, with syrupy liquor that coated our tongues with a wonderful sea flavor that reminded me of fresh uni. The blue points, in comparison, were watery and weak. That’s not to say they were bad, but when eaten right after a kumamoto, it was no contest. Both varieties though were very fresh and pretty well cleaned. Definitely a good bargain at $1/$2 each.

For our main course, we decided to share an order of steak frites and a croque monsieur. The steak frites, which we ordered rare, was exactly as I remembered – tender, juicy, beefy. It just need a good sprinkle of salt from the table, and then it was absolutely perfect. The fries were also just as I remembered, double fried so they’re crispy on the outside and soft and potato-y on the inside. And the salad is not slouch either, lightly dressed with a flavorful vinaigrette that I wish I could replicate at home.

Steak frites

Steak frites

The croque monsieur was was gorgeously browned and bubbly on top when it arrived. It’s really a classic version of the famous ham and cheese sandwich covered in bechamel – it’s cheesy and rich and toasty all together. Unfortunately, I thought there was a bit too much nutmeg in the bechamel, which is a bit of a turnoff for me. Josh loved it though. The sandwich came with the same crispy fries and dressed salad on the side.

Croque monsieur

Croque monsieur

You know how typically when you put something up on a pedestal in your head, it usually disappoints when you get to have it because it’s not as good as you remember? This definitely wasn’t the case with the steak frites at Les Halles. It was everything I remembered it being, and is still my standard for all other steak frites. It’s just that good. And the oyster happy hour was just a bonus – it looks like it’s running from 3-7 on Tuesdays-Fridays until October 1. Even without the happy hour though, Les Halles is definitely worth a visit (or many).

Les Halles (multiple locations)
411 Park Ave S.
New York, NY

Plantation Cafe & Deli – Hilton Head, SC

August 12th, 2014 by virginia

DSC_3362

After lamenting the lack of good she crab soup over the course of our week in Hilton Head, we asked around whenever we had the opportunity to talk with locals, and the general consensus seemed to be that the best she crab soup on the island could be found at the Plantation Cafe & Deli. It’s a diner-like cafe that’s only open for breakfast and lunch, and there are two locations on the island – one on the north end and one on the south. We wound up going to the northern location on the morning that we were heading home from Hilton Head.

The menu is huge, as you would expect at any diner. There were lots of eggs and assorted breakfast items available, as well as numerous sandwiches and salads. We started with a bowl of the famous she crab soup.

She crab soup

She crab soup

Chock full of crab, thick, creamy, and rich, this really was the she crab soup of our dreams. The crab flavor was very pronounced, and it had a bit of a pepper kick to it that wasn’t overwhelming. A bowl was pretty filling though, so we were glad to have shared it, though I was craving more when we finished.

I don’t usually go for breakfast items at a diner, but a few of the breakfast dishes were calling out to me. I ended up sharing the crab cakes benedict and Elle’s southern breakfast with Josh. The crab cakes benedict featured poached eggs stacked on top of two decent-sized crab cakes and a toasted english muffin. The crab cakes had a good amount of meat in them, not a lot of filler, though they were on the mushy side rather than light and crisp. Still, it was a nice combination in terms of a runny egg on top of flavorful crab and a crunchy english muffin. We got the hollandaise sauce on the side and dipped lightly (I hate it when my eggs benedict are drowning in sauce). We had a choice of home fries or grits, and since the southern breakfast came with grits, we opted for home fries. They were shredded potatoes that were nicely browned and well seasoned on the outside, soft in the middle. We also had a choice of fresh fruit or hot cinnamon apples, and of course we went with the apples. They were like apple pie filling, though not as soft, but warm and comforting.

Crab cakes benedict with homes fries and hot cinnamon apples

Crab cakes benedict with hot cinnamon apples and home fries

Elle’s southern breakfast featured a big bowl of grits topped with three fried green tomatoes, two eggs any style (we opted for over easy), two sausage patties, and a choice of a buttermilk biscuit or toast (biscuit, of course). The fried green tomatoes were crispy on the outside and juicy and tart on the inside, but they seemed to be lacking something – more seasoning, some sauce, anything. It seemed odd that they were in the bowl of grits, so we just moved them off to the plate and doused them in salt and hot sauce, which made a big difference. The grits were buttery and creamy, and we tossed a little hot sauce in there as well for a nice kick. I’m not a fan of sausage patties in general (too many bad fast food breakfasts growing up!) but these had a nice browned crust on the outside and were milder in the flavor, which I preferred. The biscuit was fluffy and just plain yummy.

Elle's southern breakfast - fried green tomatoes, grits, eggs, biscuit, sausage

Elle’s southern breakfast – fried green tomatoes, grits, eggs, biscuit, sausage

Overall, we were pretty impressed with the food at the Plantation Cafe & Deli. It’s a cute diner that serves large portions at reasonable prices. The she crab soup was amazing (I would go back just to eat another bowl of it), and the ambiance is casual and friendly. It’s a great spot to grab a filling breakfast or lunch, and I hope that we can find the time to make it there again this year.

Plantation Cafe & Deli
96 Mathews Dr.
Hilton Head, SC

The Sea Shack – Hilton Head, SC

August 9th, 2014 by virginia

DSC_3266

The Sea Shack is great little place on the island that I finally got to try two years ago. It’s a no frills joint where the specialty is – you guessed it – seafood. You order at the counter in front and then they call your name when your food is ready. Although we usually make sandwiches for lunch and eat by the pool every day, now we try to make a special trip to the Sea Shack once a year. It takes a bit of planning since they’re only open for lunch until 3 pm (they do serve dinner from 5-9 pm), and Josh and his dad don’t usually get back from golfing until about 2 pm.

The menu is surprisingly extensive but basic. You can pretty much get whatever seafood they have either fried, grilled, or blackened. The Shark Attack combo lets you try the most amount of items, though you can also get combo platters with 2 or 3 items of your choice. The Shark Attack comes with fried fish,  shrimp, scallops, oysters, and crab cake. It also includes hush puppies and your choice of two sides. We opted for mac n’ cheese and the veggie of the day, which was stewed okra and tomatoes. The seafood is fried on the spot when you order so you can be sure it’ll come out piping hot and crispy. Everything tastes fresh, and the oysters are big enough that you can taste their brininess through the breading. The crab cake is also excellent, not too heavy on the filler.

Shark Attack combo

Shark Attack combo

The okra on that day was delicious, not at all slimy, but crisp and bright. I wish I could eat okra more often! The mac n’ cheese can be a little mushy but there’s lots of cheese mixed in. And the hush puppies are great, light and fluffy on the inside.

Hush puppies, mac n' cheese, stewed okra and tomatoes

Hush puppies, mac n’ cheese, stewed okra and tomatoes

Since we already had a big plate of fried food, we decided to try out the jerk grouper. I asked them at the counter which they would recommend – jerk or blackened – and they said they make their jerk seasoning in house. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the seasonings they used. There was something in it that had a floral quality that I didn’t like, though Josh didn’t seem to mind it. The grouper was also a bit overcooked, rendering it a little tough and chewy. I’ll skip this dish the next time, and go for something blackened. For our sides, we chose french fries (standard, but crispy) and sweet potato cornbread, which tasted a bit like pumpkin pie and was very dense but moist.

Jerk grouper, french fries, sweet potato cornbread, hush puppies

Jerk grouper, french fries, sweet potato cornbread, hush puppies

Overall, I think if you want to eat fried seafood, the Sea Shack is the place to go. Everything is prepared fresh, so that it’s not sitting out under heat lamps getting soggy. The restaurant has seats on the inside but it’s a pretty small place so it does fill up quickly. We tend to go later than normal lunch hour when it’s not as crowded, but it’s still tough to find tables together for our big group. There is also seating outside. Most sandwiches/platters will run you about $10-$15, but you get a pretty big portion of food and the quality merits the price tag. It’s definitely worth checking out.

The Sea Shack
6B Executive Park Rd.
Hilton Head, SC

Nick’s Steak and Seafood – Hilton Head, SC

August 7th, 2014 by virginia

Nick’s Steak and Seafood is the sort of generic seafood restaurant that you’ll find all over Hilton Head. We’ve eaten there before, many many years ago, and now we know why we didn’t go back. What lured us in this time was the all you can eat snow crab legs, in which several people in our party partook. But our meal got off to a bad start when Josh asked our server what fish was local, and the response was, “Umm..nothing?” I guess we have to give points for honesty!

Nevertheless, I started with a bowl of she crab soup, which I hoped would be somewhat local, given that it’s a lowcountry specialty. The soup I got was very creamy and not much else. There wasn’t any discernible crab flavor, and it was actually incredibly greasy on top. It was so bad that I sent it back, something I generally never do, because I was convinced they had given me the wrong soup, or had forgotten to stir it before they served it to me. The she crab soup other people at our table received didn’t look anything like mine, and theirs at least had some crab in it. I got back pretty much the same bowl though, and our server said it was just a new batch of soup. I don’t know what that meant, but it wasn’t a good bowl of soup.

She crab soup

She crab soup

Rather than do all you can eat crab, Josh and I shared two pounds of snow crab legs (I think it was about $25 for two pounds and $35 for all you can eat) and the captain’s platter. The snow crab legs were steamed and were just ok. They didn’t seem super fresh in the sense that the shells didn’t have a good snap to them and the meat got stuck inside. When snow crab legs are prepared nicely, we can easily extract the meat whole. They tasted fine though. We also got to pick a potato side (we opted for fries), and it came with the vegetable of the day (green beans).

Steamed snow crab legs

Steamed snow crab legs

We chose the fried version of the captain’s platter, which featured tilapia, shrimp, and scallops. The tilapia was pretty mushy, both inside and out, and the scallops tasted a tad fishy. The shrimp were the best part of the plate, with relatively big pieces that weren’t too overcooked. It also came with a choice of potato (we picked fries again) and the house vegetable.

Captain's platter with fried shrimp, tilapia, and scallops

Captain’s platter with fried shrimp, tilapia, and scallops

Overall, we thought the food at Nick’s was pretty disappointing. From start to finish, our food was pretty poorly executed and bland in flavor. The only thing I could really see coming here for is the bar, as they had decent beers on tap and a Steelers theme going on. But it’s far from a dining destination, and I doubt that we’ll be making a return visit any time soon.

Nick’s Steak and Seafood
9 Park Lane
Hilton Head Island, SC

Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s – Hilton Head, SC

August 5th, 2014 by virginia

DSC_2930

Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s is a restaurant in Hilton Head that I’ve wanted to try for years, but it’s got a reputation for being hard to get into. The daily hours vary depending on whether Dye is catering a party elsewhere. We were finally able to snag a reservation last year and I was thrilled to be able to taste home-style Gullah cuisine for the first time. Per wikipedia, the Gullah are descendents of African slaves who reside in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia. The cuisine reflects a blend of these African and Southern roots, and so it is a bit different from the usual Lowcountry fare we’ve eaten before in terms of flavors.

The menu isn’t very long and is pretty straightforward. We ordered a few appetizers to share, and we indulged on the complimentary cornbread with sugar cane syrup on the side. The cornbread was deliciously moist and didn’t even need the syrup or extra butter that came with it.

Cornbread with cane syrup

Cornbread with cane syrup

We got a few orders of the shrimp devil eggs, which were deviled eggs with shrimp mixed into the mashed yolks. These were well seasoned, not too heavy or mayo-y, and made for a nice bite to start.

Shrimp devil eggs

Shrimp devil eggs

The seafood hush puppies were fantastic. They were served to us piping hot, and had a delicately crisp outer shell. There was a mixture of crab and shrimp on the inside, and these were surprisingly light, not too dense. The hush puppies came with a homemade tartar sauce, and they were one of our favorite dishes of the night.

Seafood hush puppies

Seafood hush puppies

We also got steamed shrimp, which were bathed in a garlic butter and served with cocktail sauce. The shrimp were cooked just right so that they were tender and plump. Simple, yet tasty.

Steamed shrimp

Steamed shrimp

Lastly, we all shared a crab cake plate as part of our appetizers. The crab cakes were two big patties bursting with blue crab meat and very little filler, aside from a few veggies and seasonings. Since this was technically a dinner plate, it came with our choice of two sides. We opted for collard greens, which were more rustic in flavor than the typical collard greens we’ve tasted before, allowing the slight bitterness of the greens to shine through. We also chose the mac n’ cheese, which was baked and on the dry side, though had decent cheese flavor.

Crab cakes with collard greens and macaroni and cheese

Crab cakes with collard greens and mac n’ cheese

For our main course, Josh and I split the country fried chicken and the smothered shrimp and grits. The fried chicken came with a breast, thigh, drumstick, and wing (half a chicken) and was nicely crisp on the outside, not the least bit greasy. The meat was tender and juicy, and everything was well seasoned. We had a choice of two sides and opted for more collard greens, plus lima beans, which were savory in flavor and buttery in texture.

Country fried chicken with collard greens and butter beans

Fried chicken with collard greens and lima beans

The smothered shrimp and grits were covered in a rich brown gravy and came with bacon and smoked sausage on the side. While I liked that you could crumble in the bacon yourself, thus ensuring that it stayed crispy, there was too much gravy on the plate. I get that it’s supposed to be smothered, but the grits were totally lost in the sea of thick gravy. The shrimp were also overcooked, rendering them tough and chewy. It was too bad, because I like the flavors of the dish, but it got to be overwhelming very quickly.

Smothered shrimp and grits

Smothered shrimp and grits

Overall, we were generally pleased with our meal at Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s. Everything is homemade, and you can see the thought and care put in every dish. The only miss of the evening for us was the smothered shrimp and grits, but everything else was fantastic, especially the appetizers. The hush puppies, the crab cakes, and the fried chicken were our favorites f the evening. The food and the ambiance are nothing fancy, but that’s part of the charm. Dye herself was in the kitchen and came out to speak with us several times. She’s pretty straightforward and no nonsense, but you can tell she’s passionate about her cooking and about sharing Gullah food with newbies like us. Her niece, who was about 12, was our server for the evening, and she was extremely polite and efficient. J took a particular liking to her and wouldn’t eat unless she was around, which we all thought was pretty adorable. It’s definitely a place worth checking out, if you can get a reservation!

Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s
840 William Hilton Pkwy.
Hilton Head Island, SC