Monday, February 25, 2013

Haute Cuisine in Hilton Head

We are not chain restaurant people, in case you hadn't figured that out by now. And while chain restaurants are the epitome of family friendly (generally), they are certainly not known for their culinary quality. The same goes for tourist town eateries. Most of the restaurants tend to put more thought and creativity into their t-shirt and beer koozie designs than they do into their menu. Which means we had a bit of work to do to uncover some C&G approved bars & restaurants on our recent trip to Hilton Head Island.

Up for the challenge were the C&G Grandparents, who were kind enough to invite us to join them on their vacation. Grandma C&G is the Chief Planning Officer, and her vacation planning skills are legendary. They've been most everywhere on the island and they know exactly what would appeal to our C&G sensibilities. Thankfully we travel very well together and we have very similar expectations for our food & drinks. With almost all of our activities involving just enjoying the outdoors, there wasn't much work for me to do ahead of time as far as research. Our daily schedule usually centered around when and where we would head out for drinks, and Grandma C&G already had that all figured out for us.

Our first night we struck out for cocktails at Charlie's L'Etoile Verte, as they weren't open on Sundays. So our backup plan was frozen drinks at Marleys Island Grille. Not fabulous but not bad for a plan B, and the boys were happy with sports on the overhead tv's and bowls of chips and salsa. They have a lovely outdoor patio that would be fun in warmer weather, especially as it's connected to the ice cream place next door.

Truffles on Pope Avenue was our destination for our first night of vacation dinner. We had all eaten there on past trips to Hilton Head, but this was our first time there with the boys. Its Euro-chic decor and local farm to table based menu make it the perfect C&G find. The restaurant is slightly noisy, and with a lot of booths and banquettes it is pretty easy to have kids go unnoticed. Ours were super tired so they were pretty occupied with the bread basket and the coloring activities on the kids menu. The children's menu has a nice selection of unusual (but Southern) fare, such as grilled or fried shrimp, baby back ribs, or a healthy grilled chicken breast with organic butter and sea salt. My little C&G's weren't feeling so adventurous after a full day of travel so they both ordered pasta with butter. And I was very proud of them for not falling asleep in their bowls.

We finally made it to Charlie's L'Etoile Verte during the week, and we had some absolutely wonderful cocktails. The restaurant opens at 5, and as the first ones into the lounge we claimed the biggest section of couches. The seats at the bar filled up pretty quickly but we managed to have the small lounge area to ourselves. The boys brought along some action figures, so between those and the cocktail snacks they were pretty busy. The C&G Grandparents had their usual martinis, Mr. C&G had a Sazarac, and I had my new favorite Parisian Cosmo. The friendly bartender (Jeff) was happy to improvise an Orangina for Big C&G with some oj & club soda and Little C&G had lemonade. The restaurant is a very elegant French restaurant and not a good option for dining with children, but the lounge was very welcoming for cocktails and conversation.

Santa Fe Cafe is another favorite of mine from a past trip to Hilton Head. The C&G Grandparents skipped out that night as they're not fans of Mexican food. They've joined us in the past for margaritas and guacamole on their rooftop patio, but with temps unseasonably cold the patio wasn't an option. The restaurant is upscale (higher priced) Mexican, and the dining room was filled with mostly adults. There isn't a children's menu available but they were happy to make Little C&G a cheese quesadilla. Big C&G shared fajitas with Mr. C&G, and we all enjoyed the chips, salsa, and guacamole.

A new restaurant that we tried is Ela's Blu Water Grille, on the water in Shelter Cove Harbor. The bar doesn't have a lounge area, but in nice weather the tables outside would be a good choice for cocktails with a view. Ela's has an elegant vibe, but they were still very kid friendly. The children's menu has all the usual options with a bit of a twist. The mac & cheese was penne with a cheese sauce, which was perfectly fine for Little C&G. But the pizza came French bread style and wasn't what Big C&G was expecting. The regular menu is based around the local seafood, and we were all very impressed with what we ordered. The food was excellent, the atmosphere was upscale nautical, and we all had a wonderful dinner.

For our last night together we splurged on the new restaurant, Ombra. But the first order of business of course was cocktails. We headed to Robert Irvine's Drink (the bar part of Robert Irvine's Eat) to take over the lounge couches when they opened at 5:00. Mr. C&G and I were there earlier in the week on our own and got to know the talented bartender, Peter. The lounge area is huge and the boys had their choice of dark corners and couches to play on when they weren't drinking their Shirley Temples or lemonades. The C&G Grandparents don't stray from their usual martinis, while I had a Moscow Mule made with Russian Standard vodka and Regatta ginger beer in a fancy copper mug. Mr. C&G got crafty and had Peter shake him up a "Remember the Maine", after checking they had all the ingredients.

A quick walk across the parking lot and we were on time for our 6:00 dinner reservation. Ombra is a very chic and relatively new Italian restaurant. There isn't a children's menu, but with plenty of pasta options the kids can easily be accommodated. Big C&G ordered penne with bolognese, already on the menu but scaled down for him. Little C&G asked nicely if pesto was available (it wasn't anywhere on the menu), and after a quick check with the chef he was informed that "the chef would be happy to accommodate the young gentleman." The boys were the only children in the restaurant, but with their fancy collared shirts on they knew they were expected to be on their best behavior. I'm pretty sure that we all agreed Ombra was our best dinner together on the island. The food was delicious and the C&G Grandparents are adding it to the top of the list for their next visit.

And what about the gelato part of this vacation, you might be wondering? We made several trips during the week to Pino Gelato, right next door to Ombra so we could end our vacation properly. After just 6 days on Hilton Head we earned one free cup on our frequent Pino card and were well on our way to another one. Each time the selection was different, but the family favorites were pistachio and straciatella. There are multiple locations in the south, so the boys were excited to find a Pino Gelato in the Charlotte airport while we waited for our connection home.

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