By Author Unknown | For some, food is just something done for the sustainability of the body. Or, perhaps, because the clock tells you it’s about that time. Or even, because your wife makes you sit down and eat as a family instead of in front of the TV watching ESPN, or in my husband’s case, the History Channel.
Food, and in turn, the act of consumption, should be enjoyable, it’s own unique and rewarding experience. Food is supposed to be good. You can have all the tricks up your sleeve you wish in decorating the plate with the new-age spoon push of sauce, or the lattice-like veggie presentation, but if, deep down in the soul of the meal, it isn’t good, it won’t resonate. It will be forgotten, become a sour afterthought, and not induce a mouth-watering, ‘Pavlov’s Dog’-like reaction when one thinks of the meal the next time you’re starving.
These thoughts run through my head as I sit at Wren Bistro, an oh-so-chic little bistro on the corner of Carteret and Port Republic streets in downtown Beaufort.
Sitting on my short-backed wicker bar stool, I stare at a medium-sized bowl overflowing with succulent PEI mussels in a butter white-wine sauce and crunchy, golden bread. I am in awe. My mouth, being ever polite, allows my eyes to feast at the site before me. And, I’m pleased to say, the mussels were good.
Not just good, but goooooooooood.
Perfectly cooked mussels meet the tongue and almost melt as you eat them; not chewy, not grainy, just delicate and luscious. A slight aftertaste of Parmesan and Romano cheeses that have been lightly shaved onto the top of my mussel mountain, and I almost kiss my fingers and open them up in the air (I remind myself I’m in public and refrain). The sauce…definitely not what I was expecting, but in the best way. The butter, white wine and various herbs and spices, such as rosemary and pepper, and hints from the cheese balance out the spiced smoky notes from the pieces of Applewood smoked bacon and onion. The sauce, while heavy-looking in the bowl, was wonderfully light, not overpowering but just slightly caresses the delicate mollusk without taking away from the true mussel taste. It’s safe to say it took all my willpower not to pick up the bowl and drink the liquid as if it were the leftover milk from a bowl of cereal. Luckily, I had saved a few pieces of crunchy, salty, bread to dip into my bowl to polish it off. The bread offered a great counterpoint of texture to the mussels and sauce and was nearly perfect. I was a bit sad to have finished it.
But I didn’t wallow in despair for long. As recommended by the bartender, a medium-rare NY strip steak was placed before me, topped with a balsamic tarragon mushroom sauce. Alongside the steak was a vibrant assortment of bell peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini, which were a refreshing and elevated spin on the typical boring broccoli medley one would find in a run-of-the-mill steak joint (and MUCH more delicious, too). Lastly, my own intrigue got the better of me and I decided to sub the whipped potatoes for Corn and Applewood Smoked bacon risotto.
Now, in case you haven’t been able to tell, I love to eat. I’ll repeat. LOVE. TO. EAT. It is one of my favorite hobbies (in addition to piña coladas and getting caught in the rain). This particular foodie’s love and appetite for all things edible is far larger than my small stature. However, as I sat, eyes wide and jaw on the floor, my stomach grumbled, as if to say “Seriously?” The steak was MASSIVE. It, and my small frame, drew raised eyebrows from those around me, and you could see the twinkle in their eye as they wondered if they should place bets on my ability to polish my plate. I, on the other hand, immediately saw a to-go box in my future (along with a very happy husband come lunch time the following day).
The cut of steak, while juicy and tender, had just a little much fat remaining on the ends. Now, as a girl who loves her steak, I understand that fat is necessary to impart flavor, but there is a line. It would have benefited the steak to leave the extra chunks of meatless fat in the kitchen rather than on my plate. But, it is what it is, and even after a rough trim on my part, the strip was still huge.
The sauce was, again, not what I was expecting, but not in the way I was hoping. I was expecting a dark, earthy sauce (due to the balsamic and mushrooms) but not too earthy (due to the slightly sweet tarragon). Instead, it tasted light and buttery, save for the large slices of mushroom on top of the steak. Perhaps if the sauce had stronger flavors of balsamic and mushroom, it would’ve won me over quicker.
And then we have the risotto, which is, in my opinion, one of the most challenging dishes to make. Trust me; I’ve gone through more containers of Arborio rice than I care to admit, trying to tackle this beast of starch and carbs. And the chef at Wren delivered on flavor of this particular risotto. Wonderfully creamy with notes of bacon goodness (I mean, who DOESN’T love bacon!) and ever so often a sweetness from the corn. Each granule of rice was cooked well, not too mushy and with an ever so slight bite. I would say, however, that it was probably left on the fire a little too long and as a result was a bit thick and dense. In a perfect world with a perfect risotto, a loose, almost porridge consistency renders a risotto with an A+ mark. Had this particular risotto been less dense, and separate from the Veggies as to not assume that chef went overkill with the garnish (which is a big no-no in the Italian-American food world), it would have nearly upstaged the mussels from my earlier course.
Overall, my main course was tasty, but fell far short of the amazing mussels.
But, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t mind. And you know why?
Looking over their menu when I first sat down, it was clear that Wren had an amazing variety to choose from, whether you crave creative flatbreads, a spicy pasta, delectable fish options or a thick, juicy burger with petite fries, which were on special for $7 (YES, SEVEN DOLLARS!!). After hearing from a few of the diners around me about the deliciousness of their meals, and the fact that my mouth still waters when thinking of my mussels, I KNOW that the next time I dine in Wren, which I plan to do on a future date-night with my husband, I will be excited at the possibilities on the menu. And about the mussels, obviously.
Wren fits, Cinderella shoe-like, into Beauforts’ culinary line-up and, just like our town, truly does have a lot to offer; an establishment whose atmosphere offers a cool vibe with a diverse menu, a place where you can wear your favorite pair of jeans or your best
date-night dress and feel neither under nor over dressed, a joint displaying a beautifully rendered chalk drawing of 3 wrens on a massive blackboard; a venue with distressed wood chairs, weathered red brick contrasting with grey color tones and elements of décor that oh so gently remind you that you’re in a sea island town. Wren put me in a good place, left its mark upon my palate, and applied stylish personality to southern fare. Both are qualities that are inherently Beaufort; a town profoundly wise (both historically and in cuisine) and profoundly deep with character.
Editor’s Note: Undercover Foodie is a recurring article on EatSleepPlayBeaufort.com in which one of our roving connoisseurs of Lowcountry cuisine will dine at a local Beaufort-area restaurant, anonymously, without fanfare or advanced notice, in a much-lighter form of ‘restaurant critique’, and bring the results here, whether they be good…or otherwise. Please note that the opinion in this column is not necessarily the opinion of Eat Sleep Play Beaufort, and please keep in mind that everyone can have an ‘off’ day.
Bring on the flavor, Beaufort restaurants…you never know who may be ordering.