Spring has sprung, people, and you know what that means. No more root vegetables! Turnips and sweet potatoes are just fine, but who could stand to eat another pureed pile? Local chefs are even more thrilled at this news, and menus around town are popping with fresh fish, spring onions, and bright green asparagus. Walk into any restaurant worth its salt, and you'll find a specials board full of fresh flavors. We called around to see what chefs are excited about.
Chef Nate Whiting's favorite dish of the moment at Tristan is the market fish, which features whatever species his guys bring in that day. "I completely trust my fish purveyor," he says. The fish is paired with green asparagus, carrot puree, cipollini onions, and blood orange hollandaise, a butterless version that's created in a siphon charged with nitrous oxide. Pan-roasted, seared, and basted in butter, the fish is seasoned with lemon, French sea salt, espelette pepper, and Ligurian olive oil. Yum. I can taste spring.
At Lana, Chef John Ondo is playing around with similar ingredients but with a signature Mediterranean flair. He's serving flounder with sauteed asparagus, braised spring onions, roasted potatoes, green peas, and leek fondue.
Blue crabs and asparagus are figuring prominently in dishes at 181 Palmer, the Culinary Institute of Charleston's restaurant that serves as a training ground for students. You can't really eat this tonight, because they're only open for lunch, but you can most definitely check them out next week (they're open Mon.-Thurs.). Head Chef Scott Steffenelli is teaching his students to plate a shaved spring asparagus salad with blue crab, housemade bacon, Sea Island farm egg, and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
"In a nutshell," says Steffenelli, "we shave the asparagus very thinly with a peeler. We make a vinaigrette with Meyer lemons and olive oil. The Meyer lemons give the dressing a clean citrusy and slightly sweet not acidic flavor, which pairs nicely with the crab and asparagus. For service we toss some of the raw asparagus with the vinaigrette, jumbo lump crab meat, sea salt, and some of the bacon which has been rendered crisp. We neatly pile the salad on top of housemade brioche which has been toasted. Chives are then mixed in with some vinaigrette and that's swirled around the plate for extra flavor and visual appeal. Meanwhile we cook our egg sunny side up just until the white is set and the yolk is warm but still runny. We cut the egg with a round cutter to make them look uniform and perch the egg on top of the salad. We garnish the egg with a touch of sea salt and some bacon powder and as our customers eat the salad the egg yolk emulsifies nicely with the vinaigrette and the salad for some really great springtime eating." I'll say. Sounds like a lesson in springtime deliciousness.
Artista tonnato is the dish at Wild Olive on Johns Island that Chef Jacques Larson recommends. "It's a nice, light, cool dish that's perfect for this time of year," he says. A roasted pork belly wrapped around pork loin gets cooked, then chilled and thinly shaved for individual portions. The tonnato is a smooth dressing made from imported canned Sicilian tuna, which gets tossed with local butter beans, arugula, and Parmesan. This dish is traditionally made with veal, but Larson gives it a local spin by using pork instead.
Down the street at Fat Hen, Chef Fred Neuville is elegantly making the transition from winter to spring. The braised lamb shank dish with white bean ragout takes roasted local root vegetables, parsnips, and rainbow carrots and combines them with fresh white corn finished with a touch of garlic butter. The lamb is slowly cooked in red wine, tomatoes, and veal stock, and the final dish is topped with a fig compote, made from figs that are smoked first. "I tell you what, it's delicious," says Neuville.
If that doesn't get you out in search of fresh spring flavors, we don't know what will.
Brandi Ross contributed to this story.