Chef Russell Keane bought the Upper Crust restaurant in Bluffton last spring. He ran it under the old name for several months, all while refurbishing until it slowly evolved into the downhome, farmer-chic image he had in his mind. It was a whirlwind of long days cooking and late nights constructing. Then, as they were about to deem it NEO, something funny struck his staff. There was no menu.
No worries, he told them. He had it all in his head. Within 20 minutes, he had it down on paper.
NEO is one of several new establishments that opened within the past year in the restaurant-crowded Lowcountry. Of all the things that a restaurant needs to do to succeed, from good service to strong financial backing, it ultimately comes down to one thing -- the menu. It's the soul of a restaurant.
Devising a menu is part science, part art, part method, part improvisation. It can be written in an instant but comes from years of preparation. And yet it is temporary, changed or altered to meet season, market or demand.
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With competition as busy as ever, new restaurants are having to find the right collection of dishes -- not too exotic, not too bland -- to succeed in the Lowcountry. Chefs such as Keane might seem as though they can dash out a menu in minutes, but as they explain, the real journey from idea to plate is a story in itself.
FROM FARM TO TABLE
Keane is a veteran of the Hilton Head Island area restaurant scene, having spent time at WiseGuys and Daniel's Restaurant & Lounge before opening his own place. NEO came about because Keane wanted to start a true farm-to-table gastropub. Places such as Husk or FIG in Charleston have found fame because of menus featuring Anson Mills grits, Carolina gold rice, vegetables grown just miles away. In other words, a strict local-only mentality.
"We wanted to do everything local," Keane said. "We've become so concerned with cheap foods. Let's get back to grass roots."
He gets his pork, beef and eggs from Hunter Cattle Co. outside Statesboro, Ga. His chicken is from Walterboro's Keegan-Fillan farms. The vegetables are from the local farmers market. It's as local as he can get. The catch is that it can be costly. For example, he gets his butter from Southern Swiss Dairy in Waynesboro, Ga. But it's about $6 a pound -- about three times what it'd be in the store.
This makes menu writing tricky. It's a bit backward form the usual process. It's not "what do I want to make, where can I get the ingredients? It's here's the ingredients, what can I do?"
For example, he wanted a way to showcase how good a fresh, organic egg can be. So he decided to put deviled eggs on the menu as an appetizer. He was a bit skeptical at first, but the Farm Fresh Deviled Eggs topped with candied bacon became a best-seller.
He calls his style "garbage-can cooking." So much of what ends up on the menu is inspired by late-night experimentations after the day is done and the staff is hungry. One of his most popular dishes at WiseGuys and Daniel's, which they kept on the menu even after he left, came about when he was working at a restaurant in Greenville. He and another chef were doing a menu tasting for their bosses and were looking for a quick snack. They took calamari, coated it in cornstarch, fried it quick and splashed on a sushi sauce. It tasted so good they shared it with their bosses, who loved it. The sweet and spicy shrimp and calamari became a staple of Keane's small plate menu.
Sometimes, those experiments don't turn out. At NEO, there's the case of the bacon steak. Bacon is big, but the pork belly brined with soy sauce just didn't sell. He got good feedback from the people who tried it, but the idea didn't appeal to most customers. It's all part of the trial and error of a restaurant. In the case of NEO, it's an example of what the chef is willing to try to set himself apart.
"I want something that's off the wall," he said. "That's what I like. You can go anywhere for a burger with lettuce and tomato. But how about one with homemade bacon and a poached egg?"
NEW IDEAS, FAMILIAR DISHES
Of course, a menu isn't created in a vacuum. Consumer taste constantly comes into play. There's a balance of risky verses safe. Chef Michael Cirafesi opened Ombra Cucina Rustica in the Village at Wexford late last year after 11 years at Michael Anthony's.
He calls himself a "crusader for Italian food." His menu is Italian, but not the American-ized version. It showcases food from the 21 regions of Italy, an array of dishes diverse as the country itself. He even follows the seasons of Italy. Fava beans have been big right now, so he's been working them into menu, such as the ricotta and fava beans ravioli.
And that works for most customers. He gets regulars who know their Italian food, who have second homes in Florence or Tuscany. The problem for being a crusader for Italian food is that a lot of visitors aren't. They want the routine -- something good, of course. But something familiar. He has to bend to customer wishes but not break. So when someone comes in asking for spaghetti and meatballs, he'll say he doesn't feature a straight-forward spaghetti and meatball. But perhaps they could try the tagliatelle bolognese. It's a homemade ribbon pasta with the classic meat sauce of the bologna region. Similar, but more authentic Italian.
From there, it's up to the diner whether they can crusader for Italian food, as well.
Chef Anish Gopinath is taking a step into even more uncharted territory at Fusion on the south end of Hilton Head. The name is a reflection of the menu -- a fusion of Indian, American and other cuisines. It's a distinct change of pace from the Italian and seafood houses that populate the local scene. So, his mission is to make it appealing to an audience not expecting the exotic. Take the Fusion Beef Taco, which features with spicy napa slaw, sriracha mayo and fried cilantro. It's like a taco with a twist -- not like something you'd get at a Mexican restaurant. That's the point. The customer is drawn in with the taco reference but then discovers something slightly different and, hopefully, appealing.
"You have to be different," he said, "They have to feel like they can't get this anywhere else."
BURGERS WITH A TWIST
Former Panini's owner Nick Borreggine started Fat Patties because he saw a hole in the market. Beaufort needed a classy burger joint.
Fat Patties opened in Port Royal last August and quickly drew a following with its burger inventions, tastes that may not seem to go together but work. One of the most popular was the sausage lasagna burger. Another was the chicken pot pie burger with smoked chicken legs. Seems crazy. But Borreggine doesn't see it that way. He sees it as comfort food. Lasagna and chicken pot pie were on the dinner table growing up. The combinations are crazy at first glance but at first bite remind you of home.
The burger is a bit different than a typical dinner. He doesn't have to worry about balancing so many flavors on a plate. A beef patty is remarkable in its ability to stand up to other strong flavors. One night he had shrimp curry and got the idea to put it on the burger. The result was the Red Curry Thai burger -- veggies and shrimp sautèed in red curry sauce.
He has a brainstorming session with his staff to come up with the weekly special. No idea is off limits. He once came up with a burger with foie gras mousse and duck liver pate with blackberry gastrique. Turned out it was too exotic. It wasn't comfortable enough.
"We're not trying to be too out there," he said. "We're looking at other foods that we like."
His favorite so far?
The foie gras mousse and duck liver pate burger.
One of these days, he hopes, foie gras and duck liver will become just as comforting as lasagna and chicken pot pie.