10597 Dorchester Road, Summerville
Prices: Moderate, $15-$26
Serving Dinner, Mon.-Sat.
Strip-mall bistros descend from a classic line. There are a thousand Jewish and Italian delis in NYC alone that follow the same interior flow: bar, dining room, kitchen. It's the commercial equivalent of a shotgun house, blank slates on which proprietors can create their own version.
There are the bright and sunny cafés, the breakfast bagel joints, and the Mafioso haunts, where the back table is conveniently located near the rear exit. Somewhere in between you find neighborhood haunts, places like Eileen's where they know your name, serve your favorite steak, and pour a heavy scotch.
Such local places certainly attract heightened interest in a down economy, and perhaps Eileen's perch on the outskirts of Summerville positions it well to serve a growing clientele. The town certainly lacks mid-priced options, with former efforts floundering whether it was for lack of skill or high rents. A good meal and drinks for two at Eileen's doesn't have to top 80 bucks.
I'd start with the crab cake ($12) — which they are justifiably "famous" for. I have a good friend from Maryland (and you know how those Eastern Shore people are about crab cakes) who rails against overly-breaded versions like Eileen's, but for 12 bucks this version is worthy. Purist criticism aside, the sheer lump factor provides enough value to keep people coming back for this thing.
Overall, Eileen's is thoroughly Southern in its intentions and methods. Any place that serves a $5 bowl of chicken noodle soup right next door to a $28 filet mignon with a blue cheese crust and port reduction sauce fits that bill. You can get a classic, crisp Caesar salad ($7) with a fabulous housemade dressing or a plate of salmon fritters ($8) that your grandma might have made, replete with perfectly piquant dipping sauce.
Despite the pedestrian origin of many of the dishes, Eileen's usually provides a contemporary twist. Juicy chicken livers ($8) sautéed in butter wallow beside deeply caramelized onions with crispy bits of prosciutto, and the risotto comes laced with whole corn kernels. Such efforts to achieve originality and distinctiveness can sometimes seem overwrought, but for a nameless little space off Dorchester Road, Eileen's does things just fine.
It pays to stick to the basics here, and I always leave wishing that the kitchen did more of that. It would make Eileen's worth a drive from Charleston. Given a simpler treatment, the New York strip ($26) would quickly become a regular order. They put a searing crackle on the outside and use a quality cut of meat, but they smother the thing with a rather annoying "bourbon glace." For such a nice steak, it seems a shame not to prepare a quality sauce, something with deep beef flavor slowly simmered from a pile of bones that doesn't need a starch to help thicken it.
And it's clear from the baked swordfish ($22) that they know how to create a great sauce. The cream is faithfully reduced, and the fish perfectly cooked, teetering against a pile of creamy risotto spiked with corn. Such interesting preparations dot the menu at Eileen's, and they change almost as quickly as one can eat them. I've never seen the same menu twice.
So, you can go for the food, or the homey, informal service, or because there's not much else like it in Summerville — or you could drop by the excellent bar after work, where you'll probably be all alone and wondering why others don't populate such a cool little place that has all the right stuff.
Or perhaps, after this article goes to press, you won't be able to get a seat, which would make the nice folks down at Eileen's very happy indeed.