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A Little Bit(e) of Everything in Columbia, SC: Favorite Eats

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© 2013 Helana Brigman
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Below is my 3-stop tour through several very different eateries in Columbia, SC, during a recent trip back to my old college town.  To see the individual posts for each one, checkout Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe, Nonnah’s, and Harper’s Restaurant individually – Helana

When Amateur Gourmet Adam Roberts sat down with old New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl in the mid-2000s (2006, I believe), they dined at Esca in New York City.  

Despite the celebrity chef, (somewhat) intimidating menu, and dinner companion that can only be referred to as “infamous,” Roberts transcribed his’ (her’s? both’s?) “10 commandments” on dining out all gourmets—amateur or otherwise—should live by.

Although I won’t detail his 10 commandments here (for that you’ll need to buy his book), I focus on the Third Commandment:

“Know Your Hunger.”

Eating out can be a real chore despite the privilege of purchasing instead of cooking.  Often, it comes down to an issue of economics and how much you’re willing to pay, the listed menu, dinner companions, and seasonal availability.  

And, heaven forbid you’re on that first date, craving ribs like Alex from Happy Endings, or tempted to order what your local newspaper suggests (parodied below in season 2 of Portlandia)—

Pictured: Fred and Carrie wait in line for “Marion Berry” Pancakes after reading their morning paper.  See Season 2, Episode 10, “Brunch Special” for the full shenanigans!

“Knowing your hunger” means not being afraid to order what the other person is having (especially if it’s what you really want).

But, most importantly, it means being “intimately familiar with [your] body” as Roberts details when discussing whether to get “crudo and champagne” to impress his lunch date or the seasonal salmon (what he really wants).

Ask the questions, “What do you want?” and “What are you hungry for?” because—

“Dining out is about satisfying hunger.  Ordering something you’re not hungry for is a recipe for dissatisfaction.”
– Adam Roberts, Amateur Gourmet

I consider myself lucky in that “knowing my hunger” has never actually been an issue for me.  

I’m pretty good about listening to what my body wants whether it’s cheap, greasy Mexican food, or paleo-centric salads.  I love a meal that makes me smile afterwards, and dread those easy mistakes where regret washes over me right before it’s time to pay the bill.

Before moving to Baton Rouge, LA, I lived in Columbia, SC, the state capital where I attended Columbia College

Pictured: the Columbia College “Columns,” a gazebo built from repurposed columns that once held up the main building on campus (before it burned down).

Living on campus meant ramen noodles, late-night snack runs, and one too many MorningStar Farm Black Bean Veggie Burgers on weekends in the school cafeteria.  Good food was always a luxury for me, and I seldom had the funds to buy more than the adored Kashi cereal I downed before class.  

But, during a recent trip to Columbia, SC, for a speaking gig during Alumnae Weekend, I had the rare pleasure of doing more than just catching up with beloved faculty, friends, and new English majors, but also eating out at several of my favorite restaurants from college (still there, since graduating in 2008!).  

Pictured: some of the incredible faculty I studied under at Columbia College.  From left to right: Dr. Paula Shirley (Spanish), Dr. Christine Hait (English, Southern Lit.), Dr. Nancy Tuten (theory, grammar), and Dr. John Zubizaretta, or “Z” (Honors Program, English, and a combination of Southern Lit. and poetry).

Pictured: me standing in the Columbia College bookstore with my “baby,” The Fresh Table: Cooking in Louisiana All Year Round, and our cute, but “ferocious” mascot, the “fighting” Koala.  Kind of an amazing surprise to see and sign for this display during my trip!

Visiting friends and cities means eating out a lot.  

And, unbeknownst to me, I ordered most of my meals based on hunger.  If I wanted super-strong coffee and a cake-y scone, I got it.  A salad loaded with chicken and beets? Yes, please.  But the one time I ignored my hunger, bewitched by late-night chocolate-covered strawberries, I actually regretted my order altogether.*

[*Note: in this one instance, I ordered with my eyes (not my stomach).  Not a commandment I endorse living by.]

To commemorate the visit, I’ve collected several reviews of the restaurants I managed to revisit and enjoy during my trip as well as one that was quite new to me–Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe.  The former–Nonnah’s and Harper’s Restaurant–are staples in the Columbia area, nestled on opposite ends of the USC campus with noticeably different menus.  Nonnah’s specializes in desserts and coffees whereas Harper’s does a little bit of everything you’d expect for under $15 (appetizers, burgers, fries, and Happy Hour, or see the details below for more options).

Not long ago, I imagine I could have captured South Carolina food with a few menu items (sports bars mixed in with affordable artisan pizza and pitchers of PBR), but like many of the states in which I visit, dine, and speak, Columbia has a disproportionate number of restaurants and new takes on southern cuisine certainly worth tasting if you find yourself near the South Carolina state capital anytime soon.

Below are three of my favorites and my reviewer’s “grade.”

[I would be remiss without noting that I feel quite brazen posting these reviews the Monday after Tara Hebert’s article, “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Blogging Restaurant Reviews” went up at Clearly Delicious, especially since Tara did such a fine job of outlining what makes a restaurant review useful in the blogosphere (let’s hope I do her pro/con list justice!).]

Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe

American | New Southern | Southern/Soul | Seafood

Location: 2001-A Greene St. | Columbia, SC | 29205 | 803.254.7828

UrbanSpoon Rating: 91%

Menu (Ordered) & Price: Peach BBQ Glazed Salmon ($18) Buttermilk Fried Pickles ($6) City Roots Salad ($8)Beet Salad (Specials, $8)

Review Grade: A

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Pictured: One of Mr. Friendly’s most popular dishes–the Peach BBQ salmon ($18).  I was quite torn between the special of the day and this intriguing take on glazed fish, but with the encouragement of my fellow diners, was told this entrée is always a hit.  I agree.

Peach BBQ Salmon – 

Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe receives top billing for my visit, and, here, I’ve selected the Peach BBQ Salmon as the “feature” item for the restaurant for several reasons: simplicity, quality, and soul.

Simplicity: unlike some of Mr. Friendly’s creations that might pair competing stars against each other (see Crab Cakes + starchy grits), this dish has no understudy.  The salmon fillet, dressed in peach chutney and BBQ sauce, cozies up nicely with simple sautéed vegetables (although these tasted boiled to me), and the house’s classic stone-ground grits.  

But, with an item like this glazed salmon, less is more, and a great cut of fish wants for little than an uncomplicated mode of preparation. 

Quality: the salmon served here was far superior to any I’ve previously ordered at a restaurant and part of what makes this dish so memorable.  I realize my praise quantifies this review as “glowing,” but, truthfully, I’ve never eaten a better salmon in a restaurant anywhere…ever.  

When ordering, servers ask how you’d like your fish to be prepared.  I ordered the salmon “medium,” knowing full well to expect a small bump in cook time over what I consider “medium” cooking at home preference (basically: medium can usually mean “medium-well,” so be sure to talk with your servers, test your favorite places, and order accordingly).  Ultimately, what I recieved was a not-quite-medium-well fish that was juicy, tender, and “done” by my coastal living standards.

This mode of preparation encouraged that the fish did not dry out, but flaked effortlessly into bite-size slivers right where the natural “folds” of fishy protein come together.  Truly, a beautiful dish.

Overall, the fish was buttery (but not decadent) and sweet (but not candied).

Dr. Z was so captivated by my meal that I had to make sure to slip a slice onto his plate next to his crab cakes.  When something is this good, you have to offer and share!

Soul: like many of the items on the Mr. Friendly’s menu, this one was served with a side of stone-ground grits.  As you can see from the picture, the grits are not a heaping, steaming pile of white starch, but a subtle and glossy surface on which to feature the main ingredient(s).  I liked this approach.  So much of southern cooking bogs down a meal with ladles of grits because they’re classically “southern.”  But here, the grits were treated as a garnish for the main ingredient (salmon) just as you would with a spice and not a heavy side.

Also – what we ordered:

Pictured: Buttermilk Fried Pickles ($6) by Mr. Friendly’s.  Manicure by Nancy Tuten.

Pictured: Mr. Friendly’s Pecan Crab Cakes ($19), a tempting menu item, but something I couldn’t bring myself to try after Ryan Andre’s life changing version here and here.  It’s true–Louisiana has started to change the way I eat at restaurants, and it’s becoming harder than ever to eat a crab cake with a heavy dose of breading.  Honestly, this entrée looks rich and satisfying, but it’s more of a cake with a little bit of “crab” than a crab that’s been turned into a “cake.”

Pictured: Christine’s Friendly’s Salad with Fried Oysters ($6 plus extra for oysters; oysters made to order, price will vary), a brilliant idea! I wish I had thought of this.  I love fried oysters as referenced in my article last winter for Louisiana Cookin’ Magazine.

Pictured: Specials’ Salad with Heirloom Beets ($ varies).  Beautiful, but easily could have used far more beets and less filler ingredients like calorie-dense croutons.  The vinaigrette saved what could have been an over-priced starter. 

Pictured: Z’s City Roots Salad ($8); by far one of the best-looking salads on the menu, decorated in micro greens and taking advantage of locally grown ingredients (see City Roots farms in Columbia, SC) .

Nonnah’s

American | Desserts | Coffee

Location: 930 Gervais Street | Columbia, SC | 29201 | 803.779.9599

UrbanSpoon Rating: 84%

Menu (Ordered) & Price: Strawberry Amaretto ($8.25) | Honey Walnut Tart ($7.75)Café au Lait with Bailey’s ($6-$9, estimate; price varies)

Review Grade: A-

nonnah's

Pictured: Nonnah’s Barista & Hostess spicing coffee with cinnamon.  I cannot find the name of this beverage on the website (although they happily list their wine prices), but I do know it was a fancy coffee that had “flame” in the title.  The cinnamon adds a fiery kick to a fancy cup of Joe.

“Desserts Only, Please” – my Columbia College alumnas and I hit up Nonnah’s Friday night after a social on campus and dinner at Jillian’s (here and here; not pictured in this post).  

I’ve long associated one too many “romantic” memories with Nonnah’s.  It was the place to eat on Valentine’s Day 2008 and is the regular recipient of the coveted, “Best Desserts in Columbia” award for 10 years (see The Free Times’ “Best of” Reader-Voted Awards).  Locals love this Gervais-street restaurant with its strong cups of gourmet coffee. Plus, Nonnah’s is well within walking distance of The Art Bar and other restaurants and shops.

How to Order: “Know What You Want” – when ordering, I surprised myself.  I ordered with my eyes and not with my stomach (Roberts’s Golden Rule #3 for eating out).

Part of dining at Nonnah’s means lustfully peeping through the display case filled with chocolates and cakes.  I’m a sucker for anything strawberry-flavored (as seen here and here), but I really should have listened to my gut when reading the menu descriptions.

I made the mistake of ordering the Strawberry Amaretto Cake ($8)—a light, but overwhelming dessert that should be split between two people.  

Nonnah’s prices their cake slices on the $7-10 range with reason: the slices are so tall that it’s almost impossible to eat the whole thing in one sitting.  Plus, the high-end frostings and syrups can wear you down half-way through the dessert.

Pictured: a not-so-great Instagram of the Strawberry Amaretto Cake ($8.25).  But, you can tell from the candied strawberry on top that I ordered this with good reasoning.  Unfortunately, I cannot really remember how this garnish tasted….

But, as the rule with southern layer cakes go – they should be “mile high” with frosting that slips seamlessly between the stacks. Although the Strawberry Amaretto Cake met this requirement spot on, it just wasn’t for me (too much sugar, and definitely too many “bells and whistles,” I believe).

But KB, a former classmate and Girl’s State friend from high school ordered the Honey Walnut Tart ($7.75).  KB has always been the outdoors-y type with mountain gear in her car and granola bars in her pockets.  When she ordered the tart, she admitted that it was probably a subconscious granola bar-inspired purchase right after she saw the words, “honey and nuts.”

It was genius.

Pictured: Nonnah’s Honey Walnut Tart ($7.75).  A beautiful revelation in pastry, nuts, and honey.  I’ve dreamt about this dessert since leaving town.

What made KB’s dessert stand out (and worth ordering again and again) is the sophisticated, fresh-tasting ingredients.  Unlike the over-the-top  Strawberry Amaretto Cake, the pastry in this Honey Walnut Tart cradles a simple, unadulterated honey-caramel filling that’s stuffed with chopped walnuts.  I feel as if I can count all of the ingredients on one hand, and I love this feeling (it gives me a free hand with which to use my fork!).

Because the flavors are simple, natural, and likely unprocessed, the dessert wants for little more than a fork or spoon.  Of course, there’s a caramel-inspired drizzle served with each slice, but the topping is never too heavy and feels just right no matter what ratio of filling or crust covers your fork.

Be sure to eat this item with coffee, but be ready to share—everyone at the table wanted a bite, and KB was kind enough to pass around her order.

Harper’s Restaurant

American | Southern/Soul | Barbecue |Bar

Location: 700 Harden Street | Columbia, SC | 29205 | 803.252.2222 

UrbanSpoon Rating: 81%

Menu (Ordered) & Price: Harper’s Veggie Burger ($9)

Review Grade: B+

IMG_9805.2

Pictured: Hand-made veggie burger at Harper’s Restaurant in Columbia, SC, featuring a thick roll and loaded toppings.  This vegetarian-friendly entrée will set you back $9 (fries included) and features an over-sized patty dressed with mushrooms and provolone.

My 3-stop feature for Columbia, SC, ends at Harper’s Restaurant in Five Points.  Since most of my college career was spent asking the grill master in our cafeteria to prepare black bean veggie burgers, I’ve always been fixated on the restaurant-quality version of this American classic.  

Thus, I have high standards for veggie burgers.

And, I know it’s from those weekends crafting “gourmet” sandwiches with the same-old black bean patty.  So when I pay $9-$15 for one at a restaurant, I expect the works.

Scratch that.

I expect vegetables.

One of the great things about Harper’s homemade veggie is the loaded, larger-than-life, super savory patty they make in house.  Blended with a bean base (black bean? maybe?) and some buttery starches, this vegetarian entrée takes the meal as serious as a well-done angus prime.  

Pictured: The full Harper’s Veggie Burger ($9).  Here, you can see how the mushrooms (glossy and yummy at first) are beginning to show their canned age…this only increases as you eat the sandwich.  But, the cheese is melted to gooey, bubbly perfection, the fries are perfectly golden brown and crispy, and the patty is cake-y but protein-rich and filling.  Certainly worth $9 even with too much iceberg and canned mushrooms.

However, nailing the restaurant-quality “veggie burger” really is all about the vegetables.  Whether the on-site chef makes their patties in the back or outsources the product doesn’t seem to matter in the long run.  As a diner, all I care about is that the results are fresh and flavorful, (preferably) filled to the bun with vegetables in and around its sides.  

As good as this patty was (can’t you see the gooey sides falling out of the bun? This photo was taken immediately after my first bite, and the fillings are so much, the sandwich wants to fall apart – gorgeous!), the bread was way too much.  Dry, a little crumbly, and nowhere near the melt-in-your-mouth rolls Fat Cow serves with their burgers in Baton Rouge, LA, (here).

Fortunately, specifics like these aren’t terribly obvious in the beginning.  The most you’ll notice is an overabundance of iceberg lettuce – so much iceberg lettuce it’s like biting into a head of lettuce at one time. You might not even notice that the mushrooms are canned because the provolone is melted so perfectly on top.  

But you will notice these factors eventually, especially as you progress through the sandwich, sit, eat, and talk.

I guess these are the reasons why I chose to end my “tour” of Columbia, SC, favorite restaurants with Harper’s – a great sandwich with even greater potential, but some sloppy factors that keep such a veggie burger from realizing all of its possibilities.  The Columbia, SC, food scene, just like Harper’s Veggie Burger, isn’t quite what it could be.  However, there are so many small town places that show big city potential here that I can’t wait to go back and eat.

Helana

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A Little Bit(e) of Everything in Columbia, SC: Favorite Eats, 5.0 out of 5 based on 3 ratings
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  1. […] Columbia, SC.  For the larger eating tour of South Carolina’s capital city, checkout “A Little Bit(e) of Everything in Columbia, SC: Favorite Eats” or checkout my reviews of Harper’s Restaurant (here) and Mr. Friendly’s New […]

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