Food scenes have a tendency to be dominated by a handful of celebrity chefs and powerhouse restaurants. In Charleston, we benefit from the talent and star power of a couple of Bobs, who reign supreme at two of the best and most popular restaurants in the area (that's Bob Waggoner of Charleston Grill and Bob Carter of Peninsula Grill, in case you were wondering). While the Bobs remain secure at the head of the line, we've seen some big-name departures from local kitchens along with some new splashes on the scene. John Ondo at downtown's Lana Restaurant has quietly won a legion of fans with his fantastic Mediterranean fare; Ben Berryhill has had the same effect with his Southwestern cuisine in Mt. Pleasant, dazzling East Cooper with a sophisticated menu and setting. Last summer, Ciaran Duffy resurrected Tristan with an interesting and ambitious menu, providing a unique dining experience amid standard Lowcountry offerings. Most recently, Tin Dizdarevic took over at the esteemed Carolina's, proving that he's wholly capable of making Mama Rose proud while slowly cutting the apron strings. As these guys settle in to the local scene, you can expect them to continue to make a big impression on our palates.Berryhill Basks in Experience
First of all, in case you were wondering what a gastropub is, it is not a snail, slug, or any other mollusk. That's gastropod.
A gastropub is a concept that began in England about 15 years ago, the radical notion of serving something besides fish and chips with a great bitter. It's basically the British version of a brasserie.
Ben Berryhill, 40, is chef and owner of the Red Drum Gastropub in Mt. Pleasant, which opened last May. He came here from Houston, where he cohosted a weekly food show on TV, In the Kitchen, and appears to have been one of the most celebrated chefs in America's third-largest population center.
Over 12 years at the renowned Café Annie, he worked his way up from line cook to executive chef. It's also where he met his wife, Marianna, who'd spent 14 years there, starting out as a hostess and eventually becoming manager.
The two have now brought their front-of-the-house, back-of-the-house husband-and-wife team to their own restaurant."Houston's a wonderful place," Berryhill said, lying in a hammock in the Bahamas on a rare break from work. "But we have a year-old son, and I wanted to raise my family in a place where we could really enjoy the outdoors, the beach, and the fishing."
It's Tin, not Tim, and that last name is Dizdarevic, a little harder to spell than Mama Rose. The new chef at Carolina's, now under the same ownership as The Boathouse, hails originally from Slovenia, a New Jersey-sized country many say is the best-kept secret of the Balkans.
"It's very diverse in terms of the food," Dizdarevic says. "It has Italy on its western borders, which has a lot of influence on the food and wine. The Adriatic Coast gives a lot of very fresh, great seafood. It borders Austria, so you have a lot of heavy meat and sausages like the Central European countries. In the east you have Hungary and a lot of very spicy foods."
Dizdarevic, 29, came straight from New York. He previously worked as a line cook at Craftbar Restaurant in Union Square, and has enjoyed the challenge of moving from "being yelled at to doing the yelling," as well as filling the big shoes of Mama Rose Durden, who ran Carolina's kitchen for years.
"People still ask for her, but there isn't much pressure. I think a lot of people felt the restaurant needed a change."
Dizdarevic took over in October, and he's been changing the menu gradually. Look for an almost total overhaul by next spring.Ondo Great Things
Lana head chef John Ondo is a local boy.
"Bishop England was one of the finer institutions I was asked to leave," he says, smiling and smoking a Camel Light. He ended up graduating from St. Andrew's and, with the requisite chef's bad-boy credentials, is now enjoying establishing an institution of his own.
Lana is the first restaurant where Ondo, 33, has been the sole head chef.
He cut his teeth working at the old Beaumont's on Cumberland Street, then cooked at McCrady's, Carolina's, Fulton V, and for Massimiliano Sarrochi at Il Cortile del Re. He and Drazen Romic opened downtown's northernmost fine-dining establishment last March.
The two big guys — Ondo is 6'2" and Romic, who runs the front of the house, looks like he could have played on a bronze-medal '80s Yugoslavian basketball team — did most of the work on the space themselves.
"I ate a lot of Dave's [food], playing construction worker here," Ondo says, talking about the tiny fried seafood place next door on Rutledge Avenue.
While not as cheap as Dave's, the aim for Lana was to be another kind of neighborhood favorite. That's why most entrées are priced in the teens.
The menu reflects the two owners' love and knowledge of Mediterranean food, but rather than being a pan-European fusion, each dish has its own sense of place. The chicken dish is Spanish Basque, the steak is French, the pastas are Italian.
Ondo's "signature dish" is rack of lamb.
"It's not like I'm reinventing the wheel," he says. "I just buy a good product and don't try and do anything to it to screw it up."
Originally, the lamb, at $28, stood out on the menu and wasn't moving, so they took it off and made it a nightly special.
"The first night we did that we sold three times as many as we used to sell in a week," Ondo says.Born-Again Tristan Serves Virgin Grasshoppers
Ciaran Duffy took over at Tristan last May. Along with Cypress, this restaurant near the French Quarter Inn has pretty much stood alone in the ultra-chic category.
Unfortunately, it also stood closed for almost a year before Ciaran Duffy took over as chef last May. With new owners Jerry and Anita Zucker, it's safe to say the place can probably absorb a few years of "I thought they closed down" costs.
Duffy acknowledged that his menu is décor influenced.
"It's very metropolitan, very dynamic," he says. "If it looked different, the menu wouldn't be like this. The food has to make sense with the space."
Duffy calls the menu "progressive, innovative, and evolving," with a focus on artisan and seasonal products.
"We get tuna from Hawaii, scallops from New Bedford, Conn. We go out of our way to find the best, and with as little interference as possible let that ingredient stand out on the plate."
Sushi is gone, as is the free cotton candy, but Tristan's still got some tricks up its sleeve, including freebies. Each meal starts with an amuse-bouche like a chardonnay jelly in a Chinese soup spoon. An intermezzo sorbet comes before your entrée, and a digestif (recently it's been a virgin grasshopper) ends your evening.
Duffy, 32, came to Charleston from Atlanta, where he worked at Rainwater and Chicago's. He was executive chef at the Harbour Club here before coming to Tristan. His father was a master pastry chef who moved the family from Dublin when Duffy was 17, but don't expect many touches of the Emerald Isle at Tristan.
"God knows, no, not Irish," Duffy says, listing his culinary influences.