Au Courant Columbia
Ever heard of the "West Vista?" Well, maybe you've never heard it called that, (I hadn't), but basically it's the area right over the Gervais St. bridge into West Columbia--and it is up-and-coming. I spent Thursday evening across the river and it was so much fun, I will definitely go back soon.
We started our evening at @116 Espresso and Wine Bar. I blogged about wanting to try this place a couple weeks ago, and I have been stalking their menu since then, waiting for the perfect night to try it out with our friends Matt and Rebecca. (Matt and Rebecca appreciate good food and drinks as much as James and I do, which is important when wanting to have a meal to be savored and enjoyed).
A brief description of the atmosphere and service: @116 is located on State Street, which is a cool strip of restaurants, bars, and a few interspersed shops. Just to give you an idea of the locales on State Street--it houses New Brookland Tavern, Cafe Strudel, State Street Pub, Good Times (more about that in a later post), Terra-(which I still need to try), and @116, plus some. @116 has a very comfortable, neighborhood hang-out feel, with local art on the walls, and mismatched tables and chairs. There is a small bar in the back of the restaurant. We chose the only 4-top table available at the front of the restaurant that gave us a nice view of the street. The server, Amanda, who was the only server for the whole restaurant, was very personable and knowledgeable about the menu. She freely gave recommendations and was perfectly attentive without being over-bearing. The bartender helped Amanda deliver food on a few occasions, and he was also very nice. Rebecca and I commented several times how much we liked the atmosphere--it is unlike any other restaurant I can think of in Columbia. It felt like we had just discovered a hidden gem--a place that is part dive, but also au courant....
Ryan Whitaker is the owner and head chef at @116 Espresso and Wine Bar. Whitaker took over House Coffee in May, closed it for remodeling and relaunched the business at the end of August.
What's Good Here?
That's a long list
We do a sauteed blue lip mussels with a Romesco sauce, which is sort of like a Spanish marinara. Instead of stewed, it's roasted with onions, garlic, bell peppers.. Everyone is used to mussels in white wine, this is different.
We still do feature a full coffee shop. And we do a coffee-and chili-rub flank steak that has a nice spice to it. It's served with garlic mashed potatoes.
Everything is tapas style for dinner. They are small plates so you can try different things.
One of things I'm proud of that we do is an empanada. It's one of my favorites. It's a quick dough, with a little bit of vinegar in the dough. We rotate a vegetable and a meat option. My favorite is the Cuban style with ground beef It's spicy and sweet. We serve it with a minted sour cream dipping sauce. It's a good snack - like pockets.
What does the place look like?
We kept the coffee shop feel. It's not a white tablecloth thing. It's a relaxed, casual feel. A local artist did all our tables. We feature rotating local artists on the walls.
We were shooting for some place you can get great food but not feel like you (have to get dressed up.) You could come in off the Riverwalk in shorts and a T-shirt and get a nice meal and a great bottle of wine.
Something different for Columbia?
We're trying to fill a little bit of a need here in Columbia. There's not much of a Spanish influence in restaurants in Columbia.
I'm trained under Italian chefs, but I started playing with Spanish flavors a couple years ago. I didn't want to do another Italian restaurant in Columbia. We have plenty of people who do that well already.
You serve meals late into the night?
We keep the kitchen open until midnight on weekends. So people who leave the theater or catch a late movie, they are not having to go to a sports bar. And we are open for service industry people. This is a place they can get a real meal.
Who eats there?
It's a pretty interesting mix on State Street. It's always been a younger, college crowd, but we're starting to see a little older, more professional crowd.
We still during the day have the Wifi and coffee crowd. You'll see college students working on their laptops.
How is State Street changing?
I think we're in at the right time. There's Chef Mike (Davis) at Terra and all the great things he's doing. It's a great area. The whole idea of a West Vista.
I looked all over Columbia and fell in love with this spot when I saw it. It's more casual, more independent.
It's a struggle opening a restaurant in this economy, but I'm excited about it, about what we have and what we can offer Columbia.
Last time I reviewed a West Columbia upstart, the place went out of business. It wasn’t my fault: I’d been gentle — I dare say overly so — but mediocrity is what it is, and anyway the proprietors of that now-defunct mistake seemed to be playing restaurant rather than running one.
I won’t elaborate on the blogospheric beating I took at the hands of that café’s chef after his kitchen went belly-up. I’ll admit freely, however, that upon entering a newer West Cola eatery, @116 State, and seeing the mishmash of tables and chairs in the modest dining room — then studying the menu, which struck me as perhaps too ambitious — my initial thought was, “Oh no, not again.”
How delightful to be proven wrong.
@116 is housed in a narrow space formerly occupied by a counter-service coffee shop, and while the rear of the place has since been transformed to include a pleasantly appointed bar, little else of the overall appearance has changed since the last tenants cleared out.
And yet this is an actual, honest-to-goodness, wait staff-and-specials restaurant, not a glorified espresso stand. The menu features a range of reasonably priced tapas dishes, as well as soups, salads and pizzas. Several wines are available by the bottle or the glass, and while you won’t find anything in the way of draft beer, the bottle list is sufficient. @116 also boasts a White Russian bar, which I’ll get to in due time, though first we ought to eat something.
Mrs. Trencherman and I ordered just two tapas items — the Chorizo Potato Croquettes ($6) and the Empanada of the Day ($7) — then shared a flatbread pizza. We probably should have tried a soup and/or salad as well, but faced with the modern American tapas dilemma — “How much is too much?” vs. “How much is enough?” — we played it safe. That’s not to say we left hungry, only that we might have enjoyed ourselves more, perhaps sharing the Smoked Tomato Bisque, which I suspect is quite a good deal at $5 a bowl.
But anyway — next time.
Contrary to the menu description, the chorizo of the Chorizo Potato Croquette was not integrated into the croquettes themselves but sat alongside them. No matter: the four hushpuppy-sized potato fritters were delicate and fluffy inside, perfectly crisp out, and worked well with either the saffron aioli or the raisin-y sweet “tomato jam,” which struck me as really closer to a chutney. The chorizo, so you know, was plenty piquant and thoroughly satisfying by itself.
Unlike the reasonably sized croquettes, the empanadas are enormous and come two to a plate. The night we visited they were stuffed to the crimp with flaky chunks of amberjack, black beans, corn and perhaps a smidge of cumin. The overall flavor was mild, but the enveloping pastry nicely complemented the accompanying Minted Sour Cream. Mrs. T., being something of an empañada devotee and likely the better judge, was impressed. I’m inclined to try them again, though maybe with a livelier filling.
But then came the pizza, which, alongside everything else, made the case for a bigger table. The Chef’s Pie ($8) features goat cheese, smoked provolone, Serrano ham, pepperoni and garlic. Like the other pies, one of which (Clem’s Pie; $7) is built almost entirely around the oft-misunderstood anchovy, the Chef’s Pie is exceptionally thin and crispy. It also comes sauced with Romesco rather than tomato sauce — and this to a brightly sweet, “Would it be piggish of me to order another?” effect.
I didn’t double down, but only because we still needed to try the White Russians.
Now an entire drink list devoted to variations on the Caucasian might seem a tad, well, indulgent, but as desserts go, you could do worse than a little vodka, Kahlua and cream. So it was I sampled the Colorado Bulldog ($5), which tops the aforementioned spirits, etc., with an ample spritz of cola, cutting the dairy thickness enough that you could realistically drink two of these things and not disgust yourself.
Mrs. T., for her part, ordered something frou-frou off the specialty cocktail list. The Tiramisu Tini ($6) combined liqueurs I don’t even remember with drizzles of chocolate in a chilled martini glass. Her pleasure upon the arrival of this long-stemmed concoction did surprise me, as she typically prefers sturdy beers and complicated wines to sugary nonsense, but what can I say? @116 State defied both our expectations, and made us rethink a few possibilities.
What Columbia would do without the University of South Carolina’s Wine and Beverage Institute at the McCutchen House, I shudder to think. Where else can you get wined and dined on the historic Horseshoe by the Capital City’s leading wine and food educators? Nowhere, says I.
Class begins this coming Tuesday, Feb. 2, and runs each Tuesday (Feb. 2, Feb. 9, Feb. 16 and Feb. 23) through February. Cost is $179 per person (comes out to just $45 a class, which is a bargain), and to register, you need to call 777-4450 or visit hrsm.sc.edu/McCutchen-house.
Bloody Mary Time!
We’ve told you before in this here space about @116 Espresso and Wine Bar’s fun White Russian menu. Well now, to help properly augment its brunch options, Ryan Ditman has a new Bloody Mary menu for your taste buds to explore.
First up is the 116 Original Bloody Mary with Absolut and 116’s own Bloody Mary mix that includes, herbs, spices and a bit of Guinness beer. Next is the Bloody Mary’s Revenge, which includes Absolut Peppar and 116’s Extra Hot Bloody Mary mix, which throws fresh horseradish into the party. That’s followed by 116’s Bloody Gazpacho, which is Absolut vodka and 116’s freshly made gazpacho. Finally, there’s It’s Noon Somewhere, which adds 116’s original citrus-infused vodka to its own Bloody Mary mix.
On a final note, and I hate to say this to area retailers looking to move units, but last week I abandoned my typical Zing Zang mix in favor of a new mix from Hilton Head called “Your Mom’s Island Original Bloody Mary Mix.” Without going into too much detail, it was the single nastiest, flavorless, spiceless mix imaginable by man or mom. To call it disgusting is a compliment.
I’m not kidding, this stuff is absolutely vile — ketchup and vodka would have tasted better. A hollowed-out tomato with vodka poured in it would have tasted better. Celery has a more complex flavor profile, and table salt is spicier. Seriously, if you see someone in front of you at the checkout line about to buy some, knock it out of their hand. I usually believe in shopping local, but in this case local absolutely sucks rocks, and this is a product that deserves nothing more than to die a cruel death, and the recipe banished from the annals of the human record.
Tender flank steak, roasted with a dry rub that doesn’t shy away from the smoky flavor of espresso, is served tapas style with garlic and blue cheese mashed potatoes and a garnish of lime and cilantro. Squeeze a little lime juice on the steak and the chili notes brighten up, or leave it be for a bold coffee flavor you can sink your teeth into. “I wanted to come up with something that would stay true to the character of this place”, says owner Ryan Whittaker. Carnivorous coffee lovers will be pleased.
Sat & Sun 10AM-2PM
116 State St.|West Columbia, SC
Free valet parking on Thur, Fri., and Sat. Nights