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Counter Intelligence: Restaurant Week celebrates great local dining

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Mom!" Did you know Charleston's going to have a Restaurant Week?! Isn't that cool?! That's so exciting! Dad! They have Restaurant Week in Charlotte!"

"What is it?" Dad asks.

"A celebration of all our local restaurants."

This enthusiastic delivery came forth from my high school senior. Then she proceeded to list each one by name, eight restaurants, without missing a beat. It is cool -- it's so cool that they're talking about it in high school!

Restaurant Week -- lots of big cities host these tasting events annually. It's a great way to highlight the local dining scene and encourage locals and tourists both to flock to the featured restaurants, try something new.

Every year, I attend an event in Charlotte, N.C., that coincides with their Queen's Feast Charlotte, inviting diners to "indulge in a foodie fantasy." It's a great concept -- dine in the featured eateries and enjoy some of their signature menu items, paired as three-course selections, all at a special price.

In Charlie West, this inaugural event features just a handful of our local offerings, but considering the buzz around town, it is sure to grow.

According to Dickinson Gould, president of Buzz Food Service, this promotion is a way to give back to the local restaurants. Gould suggested that this is just a starting point and that he foresees growing the event to include many more restaurants and the possibility of offering lunch specials the next go-round.

What is so exciting to me is the variety of cuisines represented in the lineup.

When I moved to Charleston in the early 1990s, none of these eight restaurants even existed. Today, each of these is well established, each offering both unique menus and atmospheres.

Choosing where I will go won't be easy. I have dined in each of these local establishments, and had the true privilege of working in one of them.

I bribed my way into a kitchen job at Soho's in the weeks before they opened.

I showed up with a plateful of brownies and the chef/owner took a bite and asked, "When can you start?"

And so began a rich friendship with Bill Sohovich, one of Charleston's pioneers in locally owned dining rooms.

Bill had already created the dessert menu for Soho's, but I urged him to make room for one more: the Soho Brownie. I spent two very enriching years in Soho's kitchen and thought about changing directions. Instead of cooking for people, I wanted to teach them to cook.

Bill encouraged me to pursue a career to "bring cooking back" (my words). When I left Soho's, my heart ached.

Bill, in his memorable voice that I miss so much, assured me, "April! You and I will be friends for life."

And he was right -- over the years, he continued to mentor me, but, unfortunately, his life ended much too soon. We lost Bill nearly a year ago.

The last time we spoke, he shared his ideas for new menu items that he wanted to explore for Soho's. I know he would have served up something with flair for Restaurant Week and would forever go on about how cool it is that our town is hosting this remarkable affair.

"Most elegant," he would say.

So head out and enjoy this sophisticated celebration of our local restaurants, and wherever your preference leads you, raise your glass to Bill, a friend to all, and a true original in the Charleston dining scene.

Espresso Brownies

This is one of my most requested recipes and was featured on the opening menu at Soho's. Serve with a scoop of Zabaione Gelato from Ellen's Homemade Ice Cream. Makes 1 dozen large brownies.

1 1/2 cups unbleached flour (see note)

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt (less if using salted butter)

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup light brown sugar

2 eggs

2 tablespoons instant coffee powder dissolved in 2 teaspoons hot water (I use Maxwell House; for decaf, use Sanka)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli)

HEAT oven to 325°. Butter a 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking pan (I use a metal pan, and I line it with foil to make cutting easier -- but it's not necessary. You can also spray with Baker's Joy).

COMBINE the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.

CREAM the butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer, mixing at medium speed for 15 seconds. Add the sugar and brown sugar and beat until the butter and sugars are creamed thoroughly, about 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low.

ADD the eggs, dissolved espresso and vanilla, mixing just until the eggs are incorporated. The mixture will look curdled. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl once during this mixing.

ADD the flour mixture slowly and mix just until the flour is incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Mix in the chocolate chips.

SPREAD the batter evenly in the prepared pan.

BAKE until a toothpick inserted in the center no longer has liquid clinging to it, but the brownies still feel soft, 28 to 30 minutes.

COOL completely on a rack, then cut into 12 squares (I cut each square into triangles).

Note: It is very important to use unbleached flour! It has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour and is the best flour for this recipe. The mixing times are also important -- I have overmixed the batter, and it doesn't turn out well.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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