When Gary Needham took over chef duties at Bluegrass Kitchen in September, the daily special menu went from a few items that could be recited by the servers to a list of eight to 12 creations.
Keeley Steele, who owns Bluegrass with her husband, Jon, was catering out of town at the time and left the well-seasoned, but new-to-Charleston Needham in charge of the kitchen.
"I came back to this," she said, waving one of the special menus they print daily. "Now people call us at 5 to see what the specials are. They are loving it. My people are savvy."
Recent specials featured tapas appetizers like bamboo leaf wrapped pork mojo tamales and lemon-thyme risotto cakes with chicken mole. Entrees of bracciole - vegetable-stuffed West Virginia grass-fed flank steak - and mandarin thrice cooked halal chicken appeal to area foodies. Even some gourmets might have to look up a few items: methi puri, manchego croustade and pastrama crusted salmon aren't in everyone's vocabulary.
Needham hasn't changed the menu originally developed by the Steeles, just added his touch to the daily specials. Customers still order favorites from the standing menu.
"This is the stuff your grandmother would cook if your grandmother could cook like this," Keeley Steele said. "It's your grandmother's cooking with a twist."
Steele enables the affable Needham's creative instincts. A thorough researcher, Steele searches online and elsewhere to find the best food products, especially local produce and eggs, humanely raised meats and interesting seafood.
"I'm a crazy researcher. I'll find something and ask Gary, 'Have you heard of this?'" Steele said. "He'll say 'Let's cook it!'"
Recently, they've served periwinkles (small sea snails), fresh red mullets (Mediterranean goatfish), whole sardines and grilled octopus.
"Any fish items have been a big hit, as well as Indian vegetarian," he said.
They recently took a chance and served house-made pate with Riesling onions, capers and Dijon mustard. Steele wasn't surprised to find it was a big hit, particularly with some of her well-traveled patrons.
Needham found his way into Bluegrass Kitchen after answering Steele's advertisement for a chef. He was enjoying some time off living with his son's family in Winchester, Ky., after an illustrious cooking career of preparing high-end food for fine dining.
The food in his Ridgewood, N.J., restaurant was favorably reviewed by the New York Times.
He was smitten with the relaxed atmosphere and first-class food the Steeles created at Bluegrass.
"I had other big job offers, but I didn't do that kind of work anymore," he said. "I was impressed with Jon and Keeley and the unpretension in the restaurant and really impressed with the quality of products they use. They are close to the earth."