Imagine yourself enjoying the myriad sensual pleasures of a truly stellar meal: the bold, imaginative dishes, each ingeniously presented, their flavors expertly intertwined…the visually captivating interior…the expert wine pairings…the attentive and sincere service…
So, where did you imagine yourself? Orangeburg, South Carolina, by any chance? I thought not.
But by the time you get done reading this, you will.
Like most, I was somewhat surprised to hear that a fine dining restaurant had opened in Orangeburg. Charleston’s substantial sphere of culinary influence notwithstanding, “O-burg” is pretty much off the expected path for gourmet experiences.
But even though the city is dismissed by some as “troubled” or past its prime, Orangeburg has much to recommend it: beautiful parks and gardens, interesting, varied architecture and neighborhoods, unique little shops, good barbecue, and a location on the highway between the state capitol and Charleston and not far from Interstate 95.
More importantly, it has residents who believe in its future, who want better for it, and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. One of those residents, Buck Ridge Plantation founder Michael Tourville, has brought together a group of experienced and highly talented professionals to create this world-class restaurant.
Judging by the look and feel of Four Moons, it seems that no detail was left to chance. From the moment you enter through the imposing wood & mirror doors, everything changes. Everything outside - heat, noise, and hurry - is traded for its mirror image within: a cool, restorative stillness and the whispers of falling water. The imaginative interior, designed in collaboration with architect Dan Sweeney of Stumphouse Design, is visually delightful yet relaxing - celestial, and almost dreamlike.
The restaurant manager and sommelier, Ryan Groeschel (formerly the general manager of Charleston’s famed Peninsula Grill) has trained and inspired his service staff to excellence, and has carefully built a firm, 500 label / 2400 bottle foundation for the confluence of fine wines and the visionary, whimsical, and sure-handed creations coming out of the kitchen of award-winning chefs Charles & Colleen Zeran.
After being welcomed by Mr. Groeschel, my dining companion and I were seated almost directly under one of the visual set-pieces of the room: a lambent red orb, looking like a dwarf star, set into a luminescent blue parabola. To my right, round ‘moon’ windows cast light onto the booths against the far wall, each separated by a glittery mesh curtain. At either end, circular banquettes with George Nelson-inspired chandeliers are swathed in an impression of Mombasa netting, an echo of Victorian elegance in this very modern interior.
The glass walled wine room to my left gave us all the encouragement we needed, and as an opening shot across our palates my dining companion and I chose crisp whites: for her, a tall, cool, and lightly effervescent Blanquette de Limoux and for me a Ca’ del Sarto Pinot Grigio.
I often find that whites are served too cold; they might be refreshing when nearly frosty, but so is Gatorade. Both of these wines arrived quickly and at the correct temperature to both refresh and to allow their nuances to emerge, no doubt the result of the sommelier’s careful attention. These were soon followed by an amuse consisting of one perfect wine-chilled shrimp on peppercress greens dappled with a tart and lively blackberry horseradish dressing. A nice way to energize the tastebuds for the meal to come.
Now about the food…
Often there are times when I read a restaurant menu and struggle to find something that sounds appealing enough to try. And then there are times such as this when a menu causes a very particular combination of anxiety/pain/despair from being forced to make choices when what I really want to do is eat every single thing on the menu because every single thing sounds unmissable. Tellingly, it took me almost 20 minutes of anguished, brow-furrowing deliberation just to order an appetizer.
In my defense, I should mention that there are four sections of appetizers on the Four Moons menu: Raw Bites (including a Lamb Carpaccio featuring capers and Point Reyes blue cheese ice cream); “Martinis” (including Chef Charles Zeran’s version of Shrimp & Grits, with Goat Cheese Roasted Garlic Polenta and Chipotle Mango Barbecue Sauce); Greens, Etc. (Including a Grilled Mississippi Quail with Baby Tatsoi Greens & Maple Scented Israeli Couscous); and Trios, which includes a dish called “Duck, Duck, Duck….Duck” that I can’t even describe here, as it causes me too much pain from wishing I’d ordered it, too. (Read the menu and you’ll understand.)
Our patient and well-informed server, Jason, was trying to be helpful, but his rhapsodic descriptions were only making things harder. In the end, I had to choose one of the “Martinis”, whimsically titled “Macaroni and Cheese”, that did indeed come in a martini glass and contained huge chunks of tender butter-poached lobster over sinfully creamy roasted garlic mascarpone orzo with a generous dollop of hackleback caviar on top. The dish was speckled with fresh chive and finished with a white truffle oil so gloriously fragrant that it perfumed the air like the world’s most expensive incense. Unless your grandmother was a witty and very talented avant garde chef, this was not, repeat, not your grandmother’s macaroni and cheese.
My companion chose the delicious and beautifully presented Beef Tataki from the Raw Bites section. It consisted of thinly sliced and exceedingly tender beef tenderloin wrapped around a tasty wakame seaweed salad and dressed with shichimi pepper, lime juice, and cilantro. The wavy white plate also cradled pickled ginger and a creme fraiche-like wasabi foam so luscious you could almost eat it for dessert.
The “Mains” section wasn’t any easier, with such choices as “Biscuits and Gravy” (Butter-poached lobster and pan seared sea scallops, sweet corn and asparagus maque choux in a lobster custard “gravy” served over a coconut lime biscuit) and a “Napoleon” of smoked paprika-rubbed beef filet, beef short rib, and masa cornbread (with red beans, pozole, tomatillo salsa, and a mole-scented beef jus), among other temptations.
After more painful deliberation, I chose the Australian lamb rack because I love lamb and I’m happy to see it coming into its own again on restaurant menus. These flavorful ribs were perfectly seasoned and well seared, while retaining the proper degree of pink tenderness within. The lamb was served with slow-roasted purple potatoes (delicately touched with horseradish so that the flavor of the potatoes remained primary), a delightful blue cheese mousse that perfectly complemented the lamb, and a silky spinach flan that ended in a pleasantly surprising spicy upnote. The plate was dotted with a raspberry apple ketchup that I would like to have a big squeeze bottle of in my refrigerator.
The Cabernet Sauvignon I paired with the lamb was big, bold, and very good - but to my taste just a little too aggressive for the finely balanced flavors of the lamb and its accompaniments.
My companion’s selection, the jaw-droppingly wonderful jumbo lump crab cakes, made me seriously rethink my habit of automatically disqualifying crab cakes as a menu choice, not because I dislike them (I love good crab cakes), but because there’s often nothing new to be experienced from the way they’re prepared at most fine restaurants. Not so here. These were an exquisite and almost quintessential expression of crab.
(I must take a moment here to express a former crab-related ambivalence: In researching the book I’m currently writing, I spent a lot of time on commercial crabbing boats unloading traps and sorting crabs. In the process, I came to respect ol’ Callinectes Sapidus, and even felt a bit sorry that these beautiful and interesting creatures had to give their lives by the bushel so that we could have our crab-based meals. Well, I’m sorry to say this, but them’s the breaks, fellas: if these crab cakes are the result, then into the pot you go!)
The accompanying passion fruit tartar sauce was a revelation, a sweetly mysterious fruit element that notched right into the salty sweetness of the crabmeat. The crabcakes were plated with a delicate and crispy tangle of yam “straw” and a finely balanced spicy vanilla yam puree. My companion’s knowledge of wine is considerable, and her choice for this dish, the 2007 Heron Chardonnay, was so spot-on that it should easily win her a place in the Wine Pairing Hall of Fame.
Dessert was the only (relatively) easy choice of the evening. We discovered that in our silent struggle, we were each trying to choose between the “RC Cola and a Moon Pie”
(Dark Chocolate Cake Layered with Graham Cracker and a Banana Marshmallow Mascarpone Cream, covered in Chocolate Ganache, and served with a miniature RC Cola Ice Cream Float) and “A Study in Peach” (Warm Peach Financier Cake with Peach Chutney, Peach Pizza with Oatmeal Cookie Crust, Peach Ice Cream and Blueberry Mint Toppings, Five Spice Peach Wonton, Chilled Peach Soup Shooter.) No problem there - one of each and some equitable sharing and we both had our “Moon Pie” and ate it, too.
As promised, The “Study…” was Pastry Chef Colleen Zeran’s thoughtful, fully-realized expression of the many aspects of the fruit. Each could stand alone, yet their proximities of flavor created something more, a symbiosis of textures and bright & dark spicings that revealed the familiar peach in unexpected ways. (If I had to pick just one part to have again, it would have to be the anise-scented Five Spice peach wontons . . . or the schnapps-spiked peach soup shooter…or …oh, never mind.)
The “RC Cola and a Moon Pie” was as much fun as promised: the super-sophisticated “pie” was appropriately rich and chocolatey, but also nicely textural in a way that all Moon Pies ought to be (but sadly never will unless the company starts using ganache and marscapone.) The scaled-down version of the classic RC cola float was just the right balance of creamy and fizzy. Very cool and very, very Southern.
After dessert, a simple and expertly prepared espresso was the coda that allowed us to linger just a bit longer in the afterglow of the meal and reflect on the experience. From the first moment, the entire service staff had displayed a high degree of competence and polish for a brand-new restaurant (or even an established one, for that matter.) The kitchen had shown dazzling skills and delightful creativity. And the environment was an absolute pleasure to be in.
Were there disappointments? Yes, HUGE disappointments: we were disappointed that the meal was over; disappointed that we couldn’t eat every dish on the menu; disappointed that we had to leave - and very disappointed that Orangeburg isn’t just a little bit closer to Charleston.
After we exited through those same mirrored doors, my companion and I were both struck by a peculiar sense of displacement that neither of us could identify. It wasn’t until the next day that I put my finger on it: while inside, we’d forgotten where we were, and subconsciously expected to walk out into the streets of a ‘food’ city like New Orleans or Charleston or San Francisco.
Still, with this year’s James Beard Awards, the field of play is expanding: creative chefs and cutting-edge restaurants in ’second cities’ and out-of-the-way places are receiving the acclaim they deserve. With nine DiRoNA Awards already under his belt from his previous kitchens, Chef Charles Zeran, along with the talented team at Four Moons will very likely make Orangeburg, SC a prominent new pin on the culinary map.
FYI: Take a right instead of a left after you enter Four Moons and you’ll find yourself in the Phases Moon Bar which has, hands down, the most appetite-arousing bar menu I’ve ever seen (how does ‘Truffle Fries with Parmigiano Reggiano Garlic Aoili for Dipping’ sound to you?) They also have an event/meeting room, a very well stocked wine & gourmet foods shop (don’t make the same mistake I made: buy at least two large jars of the amazing Lowcountry Pickled Garlic while you’re there), and a wine club with monthly events held at both the restaurant and at Buck Ridge Plantation.
Four Moons Restaurant
1145 Orangeburg Mall Circle
Orangeburg, SC 29115
Restaurant Hours: Dinner only - Tuesday through Saturday - 5:30 P.M. to 10:00 P.M.
Phases Moon Bar Hours: Drinks from 4:00 P.M. to 2:00 A.M; menu starting at 5:30 P.M.
Gourmet Shop Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am - 7pm
Please join us tomorrow to read our newest food and recipe cooking feature on HuggingtheCoast.Com from author Doug DuCap.
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