Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
170 Ashley Ave., Downtown
One should be thrilled with the emergence of places like Blend, the new café/sandwich shop/upscale dinner spot situated across from the MUSC at the corner of Ashley and Doughty Streets. Charleston remains a town of big-name joints, lacking the real diversity of good neighborhood establishments that serve a local clientele — a situation that separates our food scene from the more robust cultures of places like New Orleans, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. Some of that is certainly a function of size but mostly stems from our almost singular dependence on the tourist market for monetary support. But Charleston is a growing city, and it is an exciting prospect to think what growth can bring. Upper King has already challenged the old East Bay corridor, and other neighborhoods — Avondale, Daniel Island, Park Circle, and the forthcoming Magnolia project — will undoubtedly improve on the current offerings. If they produce places like Blend, we'll all end up happy campers.
The owners at Blend have done a thorough job with the place. A pricey renovation has transformed the one-time Chinese take-out spot into a more contemporary space, a concept conceivably where wealthy medical professionals can take their morning coffee, order up a "Blackened Rock Shrimp Salad" ($8.95) for delivery to their office at lunch, and meet their spouse for a bottle of wine and a gourmet meal after a long day nurturing the infirm. The motto on the menu says it all: "Quite possibly the best food ever served so close to a hospital," a rather nebulous statement that could be translated a couple of ways. Either MUSC serves really bad hospital food, or the proximate location makes Blend a safe zone for doctors to bitch about insurance companies and trial lawyers.
The multiple spaces serve a variety of functions, literally blending the whole into a one-stop shop for sustenance. The small former single house boasts a Starbucks-esque café downstairs with a cold sandwich line running along the back of the room, turning out food that must get gobbled up throughout the medical offices in the neighborhood. Breakfast blends into lunch, delicious little fresh-baked pastries (a quick shout-out for that $1.95 blueberry bear-claw) segueing into some really good sandwiches. In fact, I'm not sure sandwiches like this have been available since the original Café Lana down on Cumberland Street moved north and morphed into a great upscale restaurant. From a hummus-filled pita pocket ($6.95) to a crispy panini full of prosciutto and capicola ham, they come packed with flavor and fresh shards of peppery arugula, hot mozzarella dripping from the sides, basil leaves, and roasted red peppers lapping at the olives.
They also serve salads, traditional ones, from Cobb ($8) to Niçoise ($9.50), and they are good if a bit underwhelming at the top end. A blackened salmon takeout will knock you back $9.50 and results in a long wait for a miniscule portion of fish cooked well done (they didn't ask a preference for temperature). A few improvements to the execution and looser grip on the product could justify the price. Salmon just isn't that expensive.
Up the stairs one finds a warm, relaxing dinner space, a bit too much like a posh photo spread out of Charleston Magazine, but real enough that non-soccer moms won't run from it in terror. At night, when the café downstairs closes down, the second level erupts into a full-scale fine dining operation. Service is prompt, if amateurish, and the food can be spotty at times. For the price one could expect a higher level of execution, but the positives outweigh the problems and the ample experience of Chef Matthew Niessner, who formerly ran operations out at The Sanctuary in Kiawah, will iron out opening jitters in quick fashion.
Most of those problems cropped up in our first visit. The "pan-fried chicken livers" ($7) tasted like overcooked chalk, with a soggy crust and cloying tomato-onion mixture underneath. A dish of fusilli pasta with big lumps of crab meat and shrimp bathed in tomato sauce ($17) was mostly excellent, with perfectly prepared seafood and a nice balance of flavors, but the pasta boiled a bit too long and the resultant mush didn't do justice to quality of the other ingredients or their expert preparation. The rack of lamb ($26) came a perfect rare, very flavorful, and had a delicate herb crust and a parcel of snappy greens beans atop, but all was overpowered by a sea of cabernet reduction so salty as to make anything coated with it inedible. A doctor eating that stuff would have to prescribe herself some extra blood-pressure medicine. A very nice bottle of burgundy, poured formally and otherwise competently presented, reached the lips at well over room temperature, perhaps over 80 degrees (why do doctors carry stethoscopes but not thermometers?). It was warm enough to make the alcohol volatile in the glass and the experience thoroughly unpleasant. To the servers' credit, a request for a few minutes in an icy champagne bucket was promptly met. Dessert, a chocolate pâté — really just dense fudge-like slabs topped with fresh berries — was outstanding and proved a glimmer of hope.
After that experience, the prospects of a good dinner at Blend appeared remote. So it seemed all the more ironic and utterly surprising that upon a second visit we ate a meal fine enough to rank among the best in the city. It was a classic meal, and perhaps classics define the best talents of Chef Niessner. A delicious French onion soup ($5) covered with an excellent blend of artisanal Swiss cheese and parmigiano reggiano and redolent with the deep flavor of a well-tuned stock, led the way, followed by a perfect Caesar salad ($7), crisp and cold, with quality cheese and a very detectable hit of anchovy in the dressing. The finale consisted of a "Black Angus New York Strip" ($24), bloody and rare, napped with salty buttons of caramelized mushrooms and skirted with a fluffy mash of buttermilk and potatoes. The sheen of béarnaise sauce swathed the whole, a great dish, and a great end to a perfectly good meal.
Among all this resided the star. The thing that I've decided makes Blend a must stop for every foodie in town — the best crabcake in any Charleston restaurant ($10). And don't take my word for it. Take my grandmother's, whose devotion to her native Eastern Shore home in Southern Delaware causes her to constantly lament ever moving to South Carolina, if for no other reason than the inability to obtain a crabcake measuring up to her lofty standards. In fact, she refuses to order crabcakes here, and when I do, she poo-poos my decision, the rolling of eyes begins, and some snide comment about how nothing compares to the seafood of the Chesapeake inevitably starts to roll from those old lips. Blend's crabcake, full of unbroken backfin lump and little else besides an ethereal crust and a small, creamy pool of corn, ham, and leek beneath, stopped her in her tracks. She had already declared the possibility of a decent crabcake improbable, but the first bite, followed by a wide-eyed declaration of it being "almost" as good as her favorite West Ocean City, Md. cake, and then the eager grab for two or three more bites told me all I needed to know. Congratulations, Chef Niessner; I thought it impossible to do.