To establish your restaurant as a serious one, you have to have a couple of things. You need a snazzy website, preferably one with stylish photos and mood music tinkling in the background. You need valet parking, a signature cocktail, and, increasingly, your own fat, lavishly illustrated cookbook.
Hank's Seafood and Peninsula Grill are serious restaurants, so it's not surprising that they have both come out with their own cookbooks. I recently got my hands on a copy of each, and it was with great curiosity that I opened their heavy covers and perused the glossy pages inside.
Both are large-format coffee-table type publications with lush, beautiful photographs by Charleston-based Peter Frank Edwards. They tell the story of how each restaurant was created and provide capsule biographies of their chefs. They ground each restaurant in history, too, including the provenance of Peninsula Grill's 165-year-old building and the story of the old Henry's Restaurant, which inspired the format of Hank's.
The volumes are slick, beautiful, and impressive, but here's the real question: can an amateur actually cook from them?
To put that to the test, I selected a few promising-looking recipes, composed a rather lengthy and intimidating grocery list, and got to work.
In Peninsula Grill: Served With Style, executive chef Graham Dailey presents his restaurant's complete menu, organized into the same sections like the Champagne Bar Menu, First Courses, and Seasonal Specialties. Chef Frank McMahon's selection in Cool Inside: Hank's Seafood Restaurant is a little wider-ranging, but everything in it has been served in the restaurant at one time or another. This includes Lowcountry classics that pay homage to the old Henry's, like curried shrimp and the gloriously named Seafood a la Wando, along with more than 30 more modern chef's specialties and two dozen soups, salads, and sides.
Of the two books, Peninsula Grill's seems to be a bit more of a tome to be read and enjoyed in a fantasy sort of way than to actually cook from, but that's mostly because of the sheer extravagance of the restaurant's offering. A home cook might hazard cooking live lobsters one way (say, steaming) for a special occasion, but is anyone really going to undertake all three variations in the scandalously named "lobster three-way"? I doubt it. That's the whole reason to go out to eat in the first place: to let someone else put in all that effort for you.
But there are still plenty of useful lessons in Dailey's book. I took a crack at the oyster stew. You make a sauce of bacon, veal stock, and cream and gently poach the oysters in it before pouring it over a big scoop of wild mushroom grits. The key component: a rich veal stock, which does wonders for a dish over regular chicken stock, though I think one could ease off the two cups of cream in the ultra-rich grits without doing much harm.
Throughout both books, butter and cream appear in quantities that would make Paula Deen blanch. It's one thing to know intellectually that restaurants use way more of the stuff than a civilian would ever attempt at home; it's another thing to have that insight brought home in vivid concreteness when you are, for instance, trucking along through McMahon's recipe for citrus beurre blanc and the time arrives to mount the butter and you check the amount you need and — wowza! — three-quarters of a pound — three sticks!
The recipe for Peninsula Grill's famous Ultimate Coconut Cake is in the book, of course, and you might say the secret ingredient is cream: 1-1/2 cups for the cake batter, 5 cups for the filling, and 1 more for the creme anglaise that's drizzled over the plate before serving — plus a cup of simple syrup for soaking each layer of the cake.
Amid all the extravagance, though, are more subtle touches that deepen and enliven dishes' flavors. Dailey's ham hock stock, for instance, is dark and smoky, perfect for flavoring a pot of greens or reducing with pan drippings to make a sauce for pork chops. It's part of the "Essentials" section, which breaks out the various stocks, sauces, and vinaigrettes that form the foundation of so much of the Peninsula Grill's repertoire. "They are staples," Dailey writes, "that make the difference between a really good dish and a great one."
There are also plenty of opportunities for adding new ingredients and preparations to your repertoire. Leeks, for instance, show up with surprising frequency, being used in everything from McMahon's leek-potato puree and whole flounder crepinette to Dailey's butternut squash soup and roasted wreckfish with baby leeks, sweet corn, and crab. Hank's roasted spring Vidalia onions — tossed with a little sugar, cider vinegar, and garlic and roasted at 325-degrees for an hour — are simple and delicious, and a great preparation this time of year when the green Vidalias are in season.
McMahon told me that to get the timings right when working on the recipes in the book he intentionally cooked not on his big restaurant range but on a small hotplate. As soon as a dish was ready, he'd arrange it on the plate and set it out for Edwards to take a picture. "It was amazing," he said. "I'd put the plate down and, bam, he'd get it in a single shot."
In Edwards' photo, McMahon's roasted grouper and risotto looks dauntingly beautiful, but the recipe is quite manageable. The preparation of the fish is a snap: sear in a pan for two minutes on high heat, then toss the whole pan in a 450-degree oven for six minutes or so until the fish is cooked through. It results in a flawlessly cooked filet with a beautiful golden brown sear on one side.
I backed off the full three sticks of butter in the accompanying citrus beurre blanc not out of fear but poor planning (the Peninsula Grill recipes had already put a serious dent in my butter supply), but it still came out splendidly silky and added a fine sweet and tangy touch. The risotto turned out great, too, with grains that stood out distinctly, firm but not crunchy. The suggested herbs — chervil, tarragon, and chives — add just the right flavor, and the extra touch of leeks and shrimp put it over the top.
Each of the components of that recipe — the oven-roasting technique, the touch of citrus to the beurre blanc, the herb-and-shrimp-enhanced risotto — can be used in different contexts and make for a nice expansion of a home cook's bag of tricks.
And that, ultimately, is what I like about cookbooks like these. Sure, they are primarily promotional vehicles, not instructional ones. They're meant to celebrate their restaurants and will appeal most to loyal fans who want to take home a touch of the atmosphere, the ambience, the history, and the food all in one.
But for those who love to cook, these tomes are far more inspirational than aspirational. The best dishes in my own cooking repertoire are things that I came up with trying to recreate something delicious I had eaten at a restaurant. I like the fact that neither Dailey nor McMahon pare back their recipes to create dumbed-down home versions. I much prefer to see in full how it's done in the restaurants, take inspiration from that, and make any simplifying adjustments myself.
Maybe the next time you come over for dinner I'll make us a coconut cake.