I just returned from one of the most relaxing, hilarious, steamy hot and perfectly-timed vacations ever. Back in the late 90s, I met two little blond girls from Carolina, and this summer, we decided to reunite for a few days of laughter and sunshine. St. Andrews, the tiny private college at which I began my higher ed, was a complete red herring as far as learning institutions go. The drug culture was on equal footing with the strong athletic program, one of my history professors adopted a nickname given me by my high suitemate and continued to call me that for two full years, another professor would actually give me the choice whether or not to take tests for Mass Communications, since I was tutoring several classmates and had the highest grade, and we rarely left campus, choosing instead to make our own fun there. It was on this magical stomping ground that I ended up in Suite 3 sophomore year – down the hall from Katie and Robin. Robin was reedy, cool, witty and wild. She tested every boundary, sometimes more than once, and led our group with an unassuming assuredness that most often masked whatever hijinks she was really up to. Katie, tiny, bouncy, loud, and beautiful, followed our lead and surprised us with her intelligence, which you could sometimes forget when you listened to her high-pitch, deeply southern drawl. I’m not sure quite where this Yankee fit into this trio, but maybe my girls can flesh that out in the comments. We got up to all kinds of crazy shenanigans – like field trips to South of the Border and its hilarious adult toy shop, speeding tickets cutting across Camp LeJune on the way to the beach, stealing ash trays from Huddle House (Waffle House’s ghetto cousin and the cheapest place to eat in our small, college town), and evenings drinking canned beer at the Shady Lady – the worst-named bar EVER.
I hadn’t seen Katie since 2009, and then, only for a fried feast of pickles and burgers at The Penguin in Charlotte. Robin and I hadn’t managed to connect since (gasp) 1999, and I missed them both terribly, so we finally decided to cut the crap and pick a date for a reunion. Robin and her hubby stay annually at a really affordable condo in Hilton Head, SC, so we decided to avail ourselves of the deal and make that our destination. Instantly, I knew I would be treating my sisters to dinner at Robert Irvine’s Eat! Restaurant. Robert Irvine is the well-muscled British dude at the helm of Food Network shows Dinner Impossible and Restaurant Impossible. He’s thriving as that network’s answer to Gordon Ramsey, and I was just dying to try out his food. I’ll fill you in on some other Hilton Head high points in next week’s post, but today, I just have to outline our stellar meal at Eat!
First off, the restaurant is in a strip mall, which kind of surprised me. It’s not beachy at all, but then, most of Hilton Head isn’t. There are few waterfront restaurants, and the island is so thick with palm trees and Spanish moss, you would never know you’re at the beach until a stingray lodges his spur in your foot and says hello. Eat is, however, swanky. We were seated in a grand banquette lit by a beautiful blown-glass red lighting sculpture:
We discussed ahead of time and knew we wanted to eschew entrees for a large selection of tapas. Lately, I’m all about the small plates. It was 100% the right choice, and the girls wanted me to let you know that everything was hot, including the wait staff. Meaning, not a single one of the more than 10 plates we tried was less than piping hot, and also, our waiter Shane was a complete doll, as was some dude who was not our waiter, but whom we called the Silver Fox. Later, Shane also addressed him as Silver Fox, which is hilarious, and also proves that we know what we’re talking about. Not only was Shane a looker, he was a fantastic server. He chose the order our dishes came in, and they were orchestrated perfectly, lightest to heaviest. He also made custom drinks happen without batting a long, attractive eyelash, and put up with every bit of teasing, goofing around and borderline sexual harassment we threw his way. To kick off our three-hour loiter at Eat, he brought us tuna tartar and shrimp ceviche.
While the ceviche was perhaps our least favorite dish of the entire affair, the tuna was our favorite. It had the most flavor of any tartar I’ve ever had – and if you’ve read BHS for any length of time, you know this is a go-to menu item for me. Over a disc of brunoised, skin-on, cucumber, the sweet thai chile-spiced, flawlessly fresh tuna cubes were garnished with avocado cream and a touch of sweetness from ginger-maple-infused soy sauce. Both the chiles and the ginger were integral to the kick of this spiced-but-not-spicy dish, and the avocado cream lent a dreamy creaminess that balanced everything perfectly. We didn’t leave a single, tiny, cube of cucumber on that blessed plate.
Next up was our “salad” course, of pickled watermelon salad and the olive and tomato platter. Both were delightful, with the watermelon salad just edging out the trio of rosemary-sprinkled kalamata and green olives, fried, herbed wonton crips, and roasted grape tomatoes topped with tiny, pearl fresh mozzarella balls. The cold cheese over the warm tomatoes were killer.
But oh! Oh, hungries. Next up, the winner for Most Inventive and Mind-blowing Dish: fried bacon. More of that delicious cornmeal tempura coated thick-sliced, cured pork belly, atop hominy and black eyed pea salad, with pickled red onions and a nice, snappy gastrique. The bacon wasn’t crunchy, it was meaty. Groan. As a whole, the dish was rich, smoky, and grounded from the peas and exploded-corn hominy fun, as well as well-textured. There was a lot going on on this plate, but it felt surprisingly fresh and light, considering it’s probably one of the most decadent things you can possibly eat. The final word on the fried bacon is that it’s good, really, really good, and you may want to consider a trip to Hilton Head Island on its merits alone. It wasn’t the last surprising eat of the meal, but it was a welcome one.
The last tapas course was the heaviest, and still excellent. Two kinds of sliders: beef and bahn mi, plus gnocchi carbonara hit our table with a thunk, and all three were delicious. The gnocchi were melt-in-your-mouth airy, veiled in a smoky, chunky carbonara sauce that was more silky/creamy and less eggy than mine, but still successful. You KNOW I couldn’t resist ordering the carbonara, and I felt like the extremely tender gnocchi were my reward. For what? Harassing the help? Yes.
Robin and Katie liked the tender, rich, beef sliders, which were earthy with thick slices of brie cheese and blue-cheese-dressed shredded romaine lettuce, better than the bahn mi. I preferred the stronger, more varied, flavors of the pork version, laced with tons of hoisin and either fish or oyster sauce, topped with pickled slaw. I was worried the slaw would be too kim chee-adjacent, since I don’t groove on really authentic, fermented kim chee, but this was busch league slaw: pickled, user-friendly, piquant, and yummy; a solid, clean-tasting foil for the fatty, salty, luscious pork. The buns for both slider varieties were perfectly bland and soft, but just slightly more toothsome than a supermarket burger bun. Kind of a Chinese steamed bun crossed with a yeast roll that you would get in a Southern steakhouse.
At this point in the meal, we were enthralled…and stuffed. We had laughed and drank and ate and heckled longer than most of the diners around us, and when Shane proffered dessert, we were unsure if we could do it. He was still working hard for his big fat tip, though, and convinced us to split the one dessert on the menu oddball enough to intrigue: sweet potato bread pudding with Tabasco (!!!) ice cream. Praise Shane. Seriously. None of us ate too much of this, but it was divine. Katie just kept muttering “I love it, y’all.” The Tabasco ice cream was sweet and cold (of course ice cream is cold, but this surprised me for some reason), then spicy as it hits the back of your tongue. The moat of salted caramel sauce, spiced with cinnamon, which encircled the eggy, dense bread pudding lent a complexity that surprisingly would have been wanting with just the ice cream alone. This dish is a total rock star, and you should eat it.
You’ve read all the high points about Eat! There was one low point that wouldn’t even bother a lot a people, but I feel the need to mention it: the ladies restroom was in poor shape. One toilet didn’t flush at all, the other not well, and there were finishes in there that were once industrial and cool, but now a bit shabby and dirty. But listen, everything else was fantastic. Katie was on some kind of food lobotomy loop tape, and kept repeating, “Robert Irvine knows how to deep fry some sh!t.” Indeed. While the famous chef was not, himself, in house that particular night, it didn’t matter a fig. Our food was equally inventive and comforting, every execution and presentation was beautiful, and the service was impeccable. It rates a 10 on the BHS scale, and if I happen onto HHI again, I WILL be eating there. Hell, we considered going back again two nights later, but were embarrassed to run into Shane again after all our naughty behavior during our visit. Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to visit Hilton Head, and when you do, I can’t recommend dinner at Eat enough.
Next week, I’ll report in on other tasty tidbits from my trip down south, in the Carolinas both North and South. I also will be travelling to Washington, DC for work, and I think we’re dining at Jose Andres’ tapas pantheon Jaleo. So stay tuned for me to be raving about garlic shrimp and tomato bread, because I love it, y’all. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!