Election Day, Hilton Head Style; Vote, Then Get TJ’s Take and Bake and Watch the Returns

Race cars around the Sea Pines Circle

Sea Pines NasCar Circle, Sponsored by TJ’s Take & Bake, Summer 2012

Of course, voting day is not the only day to enjoy my favorite take-out food, but it’s as good a reason as any other to NOT HAVE TO THINK about what to prepare for dinner.  Another good reason to not want to think about cooking dinner, would be jury duty.  There are plenty more good, solid reasons for not wanting to think about cooking dinner, but I will digress rapidly if I start down that road.  And speaking of roads, this is the best time of year to get back outdoors on the road, if you’re an islander and have been hiding out for a few months, after having suffered whiplash at the Sea Pines NasCar Circle during the summer, along with getting the finger gesture (because apparently, whiplash isn’t punishment enough for attempting to merge in or out).


Pie Prepared for You to Bake

Yes, getting the finger and then whiplash, are early signs for islanders to shutter ourselves in for a few months, till the commotion dies down, going out on strategically planned days that don’t conflict with check-in/check-out.  And for those of us really in the know, we take the back roads to the 1st TJ’s Take and Bake south end, beginning its 10th year, in the Island’s Crossing Plaza around the corner from Starbucks.  Locally known as the best-kept secret around for incredible, fresh-tasting pizza, where you can get in, get out, dodging the traffic, sneaky-like.  And during the season, if you’re a well-trained, covert islander, you’ll call in the order from Reilley’s Triangle while watching the Yankees take another inning on the chin at the outside bar, then zip across the street, grab your pizza and head home, still avoiding the Sea Pines Racetrack; like a stealth-bomber, nobody saw you coming, and you made it home with a pizza and maybe a buzz, and no one’s the wiser (and being a well-trained, covert islander, I will not elaborate on the back roads to avoid NasCar Circle here – ONLINE – for just anyone to see).

Chalkboard Menu

TJ’s North End Restaurant, Menu Board

If this is the first time you’ve heard of TJ’s, you may be reminded of early Seinfeld episodes, in which Kramer has the big lightbulb idea, that people want to pay to bake their own pizza.  Okay, but that’s where the similarities begin and end.  TJ’s menu reads like a delightful, gourmet pizza menu.  The difference is that they do everything, except bake the pizza for you.  You call in the order, pick it up, take it home with ‘Baking Pizza for Dummies’ directions stuck to the plastic, and you’re eating a delicious, hot pizza in about the same amount of time it would take a delivery person to bring you a not-so-hot pizza, already baked, maybe more or less than you would have liked.  And TJ’s is more than a novelty, the pizza is really superb, because a.) they use fresh ingredients, 2.) there are no chemicals in the dough (I know chemicals, right?  The other guys put chemicals in the dough?), and c.) 100% extra virgin olive oil.

dog with girls

Sam Will Have the Chef’s Special, Thank You.

And now, there are two ways to enjoy TJ’s Take and Bake.  The 2nd being the new, north end full-service restaurant, located in the JBanks Building at 35 Main Street, where they have a lunch menu that includes pizza slices, salads, and awesome butternut squash soup.  This novel idea has been so unique and successful, that the owner, Jay Conrad, along with the original owner, Tom Jans (TJ’s), also have a consulting division for start-up take-and-bakes in places like Texas, Iowa, and Minnesota (Poppi was Kramer’s New York consultant on Seinfeld, right?  In case you were wondering, I even quote Seinfeld one-liners for everyday events, like when my dog Sam, doesn’t  deposit his business during our morning walk, I run in the door, yelling – with the Soup Nazi accent – “NO POOP FOR YOU!”… I know, there’s probably a 12-step program for this).

Back to TJ’s; so now, you can lay low during the summer months like the rest of us, waiting patiently for the fall months, grateful that the economy is humming along nicely (depending on who you voted for; one side says the economy’s in the tank, the other side says it’s climbing back with substance.  All I know, is that this island gets more bloated with each passing year, and if this is a down economy, we may all have to move, if things start looking up around here).  Because, where would we be without our summer season, right?  You got it; NOT living on Hilton Head with our small tourist-dependent businesses.

The point is (yes, there is a point to this), you can enjoy TJ’s Take & Bake any time of the year, with or without traffic, no matter who’s sponsoring the Sea Pines Circle Race. And if you check their website, you can print out coupons, and Like them on Facebook.  So, go do that now… Like and get coupons for great pizza! Click here for directions, or call, to place your order – South End, 843-842-8253; North End, 843-681-2900


Dine at Flora’s Italian Cafe and Treat our Troops!

Hilton Head map.

Hilton Head map.

As many of you may have noticed, Hilton Head Island has evolved into the Little Italy of the southeast coast, when it comes to fine Roman fare.  And this actually makes some sense, geographically speaking; you see Italy, as we all know, is the shape of a Gucci boot, and Hilton Head Island is the shape of a beat-up Nike Air Max sneaker.  And, Italians are known for wearing snazzy boots, just like Hilton Head Islanders are often seen running and playing around in

Snazzy Islander Sneakerwear

Snazzy Islander Sneakerwear

Nike sneakers.  Both of these descriptive devices happen to be clothes for feet.  Obviously, Italians and Islanders place a premium on how we dress and protect our respective tootsies.

Snazzy, Italian boot- I mean, Map of Italy.

Snazzy, Italian, Map of Italy.




The literary parallels and metaphors are endless.

Many of my Vacation Company blogs about restaurants are raving reviews about dining establishments specializing in Italy’s exquisite recipes accentuated by the freshest ingredients and locally grown vegetables and herbs.  Flora’s Italian Cafe at South Island Plaza is no exception, and has easily become one of our most favorite restaurants on the island. Staffed with courteous (and very patient) servers, bartenders, and chefs, Flora’s is managed and run by the family. And The Family consists of Flora, her husband Branco, and son Branco, Jr.

When we eat there, I usually order the same thing (which is stupid I know, because everything on the menu is truly mouthwatering delicious), but the Capellini Dora is a dish I crave so much at times, I just can’t get my brain to be rational about choosing some other savory menu item. The ingredients of Capellini Dora are simple – crabmeat, shrimp, diced tomatoes, garlic, white wine, olive oil – but how they are prepared and tossed and arranged on a dish for me to plunge my head into, is truly cerebral. Every mouthful pops with flavor and the freshness is palpable; ie, you know the tomatoes were fat on the vine, sun-bathing that very morning.  Fortunately, my husband tries other dishes, such as Grouper Meuniere, Gamberi di Casa, and Fettini di Vitello Saltimbocca, and we share appetizers like Melanzane Rolantine (eggplant rolled with cheese baked in tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella) so I know that every creation is as tantalizing as my Pasta Dora.

Vino at Flora's!

Vino at Flora’s!

As some of you may know, my partner, Johnny D., is also Italian and he is lucky enough to eat at Flora’s every Thursday for lunch because Flora and Branco host the Italian-American Club of Hilton Head’s (IACHH) weekly lunch meeting.  You know things have got to be good at this place if a whole club of over a hundred tansplanted, professional Italians will go there week after week, crowding out Flora’s Cafe, while solving major international conflicts between Italy and Hilton Head like, should people be allowed to drink a little wine on the beach? Which as everyone knows is good for your health, but on American soil, can sometimes be confused with glugging down any kind of fermented vegetation that started in a blender and is best consumed through a straw.  You see how easy it would be to confuse the two thirst-quenching methods, right?  However, the Italian-American Club is also a major contributor to local charities, scholarships, and non-profit organizations, donating lots of money and good will towards the community, through fundraisers like the Annual Italian Heritage Festival held every September. Which brings me to my next tangent…

Jeannette Cram l-r on Martha Stewart's Show.

Jeannette Cram l-r on Martha Stewart’s Show.

Next Tuesday, June 26, 2012, Flora’s is donating $5/plate towards Treat the Troops, a local organization gone national, founded by Jeannette Cram in 1990 during the Gulf War.  Jeannette and volunteers, known as Crumbs (get it? Crumbs, like cookie crumbs), bake homemade cookies and ship them to our young heroes overseas who are protecting our right to drink wine on the beach, among other rights and freedoms over which we are very protective, and sometimes take for granted. This organization needs money for shipping costs and baking ingredients, and is greatly appreciated by our soldiers who probably miss Mom’s cookies, while breathing in mouthfuls of desert sand on our behalf. Jeannette is grateful to Flora’s Italian Cafe, she said when I called to ask her about the cookie organization, because “people forget that our troops miss the flavors from home.”  This is an excellent opportunity to both a.) try out Flora’s Italian Cafe, and 2.) demonstrate your patriotism by contributing to a wonderfully inspired, local non-profit organization. AND…. another cool thing (they just keep coming don’tCookies &Crumbs they?  I’m almost out of breath here…), at 6:30 pm, there will be a book-signing event by Jeannette who also wrote, Soldiers, Cookies, & the Crumbs. 

Chefs, Branco and Flora Raiac

Chefs, Branco and Flora Raiac

Okay, so back to Flora’s who, by the way, greets you in person and seats you with a genuine smile, while her son, Branco Jr. works the tables along with several other excellent wait staff. The kitchen is run by Branco the First, and each dish is his and Flora’s chefdoeuvre, hand-prepared to order, with herbs and vegetables grown fresh in their own garden. Flora herself makes all the desserts from scratch, and has been featured in the local press for award-winning pastry  and each one is more delectable than the last. I can’t say enough about this marvelous bistro when it comes to the authentic quality of the food.

Originally from Romania, Branco Raiac studied Italian cuisine at the Culinary Institute of Romania before moving to New Jersey with his family. In New Jersey, they owned and operated a popular restaurant called, Villa Romagna for ten more years and then they migrated south to Hilton Head, like the rest of us Yanks tired of long winters and screeching traffic.  And if all of the above doesn’t sell you on dinner at Flora’s, how about being voted Winner of the 2012 Island Packet Reader’s Choice Award for Best International Restaurant?  Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Tell her Carmen and Johnny D sent you, and maybe she’ll laugh really hard and say, “Who?”

Flora’s Italian Cafe located at South Island Plaza, 841 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island, SC  29928, is open Monday through Saturday 5 – 10 pm

Call: 843-842-8200 for reservations


Culinary Arts Center at Hilton Head; a Delightful Dining Experience

         Every once in a while, something comes along that penetrates my ongoing Blog-Writer’s-Block condition (thank goodness The Vacation Company keeps bringing me fabulous vacation rentals and special deals to write about).  Today’s block-breaker has to be the current best-kept foodie secret on the island.  The Culinary Arts Center (CAC) at Hilton Head Health (H3) located just inside the Shipyard gate from Pope Avenue, is open to the public for all kinds of tasty events that will leave you feeling sated and, a bit more cerebral about food, even if your only expertise heretofore was throwing chicken breasts on the George Foreman.   

Executive Chef Jen Welper Answers Questions at the Wednesday Night Chef's Table

       This season is the introduction of the CAC at Hilton Head Health as a separate entity and open to the public.  Their mission states, “the Culinary Arts Center… is a state-of-the-art kitchen designed to enhance the overall culinary experience, while educating you how to prepare healthy, gourmet cuisine in a comfortable and warm environment”.  Meaning that, more than chef’s dinners, guests can enjoy themed dinners, such as Date Night (every other Saturday, 5:30-9:00 pm) where the chef takes you through a romantic three-course meal for two in an interactive atmosphere.  There is also an interactive cooking class on (Thursdays and Sundays from 2:00 – 3:30 pm).  And every other Saturday, a hands-on session packed with strategies for creating low-calorie meals to fit into an everyday schedule.  This one covers a variety of themes, such as ethnic cuisine, as well as seasonal and holiday foods.  

       Recently, I had the pleasure of experiencing the Chef’s Table, held every other Wednesday at 6:00 pm, at H3’s soft-lit restaurant.  There were about ten other guests with me sitting comfortably around a large, polished-granite countertop facing an unpretentious looking (yet highly efficient), state-of-the-art kitchen, while Executive Chef, Jen Welper, prepared our three-course meal.  I’ve attended chef’s table dinners before, all of which were wonderful, however, intimidating.  Such was not the case at the Culinary Arts Center, and the experience was exceptional. 

       And while Chef Welper explained what she was preparing, the head server, Lauraa introduced the wine pairings prior to each course, describing it perfectly and why it was selected for the course.  Especially useful were the recipe packet describing the dinner (including the sides, like the grilled asparagus) and extra page listing the wines, including an image of the label (very helpful when shopping for it) and brief description.  All in all, a very thorough presentation without taking the fun out of the experience.        

Full View of Chef's Table & Restaurant

     Several servers quietly delivered our dishes and kept the bar clean while we interacted with each other and the chef, who graciously answered all of our questions without making any of us feel stupid (this thoughtful behavior, I happen to know from my own extensive hospitality experience, is quite a challenge for an executive chef).  Many guests brought pencil and paper, as they were here taking part in the H3 program.  However, the materials we were given were so thorough, it made note-taking redundant.  The menu this night was simple fare, yet delicious and savory and extremely fresh-tasting:  turkey bacon-wrapped scallops to start, followed by grilled herb-rubbed filet, and crowned with vanilla bean crème brulee.  All the ingredients are geared towards helping guests develop healthy eating habits, without sacrificing flavor.   

              The best part about all of this is that a DISCOUNT IS OFFERED IF YOU ARE A GUEST OF  The Vacation Company!  So, don’t wait for a rainy day, these classes don’t take that long and are really fun besides being informative.  Questions? Call 843.785.3919 for information and reservations. Or, visit their website for more details. Address:  14 Valencia Road,  Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

At Robert Irvine’s Hilton Head Restaurant, You Can Eat! Your Heart Out

On Hilton Head Island we are fortunate to be home to an extraordinary number of fine-dining, award-winning, nationally recognized restaurants.  Eat! with an exclamation point in the name, is Robert Irvine’s island endeavor, and might I say, Eat!   Okay, I draw attention to the exclamation point so that you don’t think I’m one of those writers who has to use excessive punctuation to make my points because I don’t have a good command of the American English lexicon and accompanying grammar rules. 

This is not the case, so if you peruse this blog and see a number of exclamation points, it is because I’m reviewing the restaurant Eat! (which almost makes me want to follow with the word “now!” or to actually shout the name of the restaurant whenever I say it, which would give my friends pause, wondering if I was telling them to meet me there shortly.  It also complicates the fundamentals of punctuation that we Type A’s try to follow, making us use less dots and dashes throughout our copy but then we’re always wondering if readers will understand where and what we mean to emphasize – sorry, digressing). 

Eat! Lounge

Drink! now! the lounge at Eat!, Hilton Head, SC

Robert Irvine’s other restaurant is nosh, which tells you he’s not hung up on stylized prose and frills.  This is a good thing, because he obviously puts his gray matter energy into the cuisine, which you will totally get after just one meal.  We, of course, have enjoyed many more than one meal at Eat!, located in the Village at Wexford – adjacent to the Jazz Corner  (very convenient for music lovers) – where you will be treated to a delectable array of tapas, entrees, and desserts, in a very chi-chi, but not at all pretentious atmosphere. Everything fits the bill as it should, without over or underdoing any details.  For example, booths are round and comfortable, with high backs, so you feel as though you are in an intimate setting, while not being cut off from civil society, which would be the extreme of intimate dining; as in, ‘”Honey is this the time-out room?  I told you not to scarf down all those olives at the bar.”  The decor is a little New York deco, with really cool stone, cave-like, very clean bathrooms with water dripping down the walls, and sensored gadgets that always seem to work; another pleasant surprise meaning it is a well-maintained restaurant.

Now to the food, which has never let us down (“It’s about time,” you’re thinking to yourself, “When is she going to get to the food?”). First of all, I get she crab bisque every time, perfectly seasoned with big lumps of crabmeat.  We also have the prime rib sliders at every visit with brie and a sliced pickle, always perfectly cooked.  We also like the tuna tartare, very zesty and fresh adding a tantalizing chill to the palate which offsets the savory warmth of the other appetizers.  Other appetizer winners are paneed blue crab cakes, bacon & shallot compote topped oysters, creole barbeque prawns with bacon & horseradish, fried green tomatoes with brown butter & feta cheese, and baked brie, which pretty much covers all the appetizers on the menu, I just noticed.

My favorite entrees have been, in no particular order, blackened snapper & tomato harvarti grits with bay shrimp & a red pepper goat cheese coulis, char-grilled N.Y Strip – prepared different ways,  and whatever fish special they are offering.  Another fave is the pan-roasted free-range chicken roulade stuffed with pork sausage, drizzled with pan jus, and served with yukon mashed potato.  This is Johnny’s standard that he orders every time, and every time he tells our server, “You know, I never order chicken when we’re out except when we come here, it’s that good.”  And every time the same waiter, being a good sport, says, “Really?  That’s high praise, thanks for telling me.”  The  menu changes frequently, and the aforementioned dishes may be served a little differently if you go there in a few weeks.  Please remember this when looking over the menu and thinking to yourself, “Boy, that The Vacation Company blogger really doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Finally the desserts, again never fail to delight.  And again we have a constant, the sweet potato bread pudding with tabasco ice cream, a surprisingly great blend of flavors if you haven’t ventured into the fairly recent trend of totally out-of-your-head ice cream combinations (others that I have tried and loved are basil ice cream and feta cheese).  Please try these at any fine restaurant when you see them.  I’ve never been disappointed.

The service is excellent, and our guy Nathan, who works early in the week, is the go-to front house man always looking after us, even when we’ve called too late or just showed up, unprepared, and you can see the pained wrinkles around the corners of his ears and you know he’s thinking to himself, “Can’t these idiots even organize themselves around a simple dinner reservation?” while he graciously smiles, shakes my husband’s hand and says, “Of course, no problem Johnny, if you don’t mind waiting at the bar, I’m sure we will have a table for you in a moment.”  And he always does.  What a guy.  In case you didn’t know, Nathan is Johnny’s guy at Eat!  (Johnny has a guy for everything; the car – both buying and fixing -, the hair, the clothes, and of course, eating out.  Price over at Truffles is his other guy for eating out.  And in case you were wondering, Bob is the guy for fixing the car, Frank in Providence is for buying the car, Charlie is the hair guy, and Hughey at Knickers is one of his many guys for buying clothes.)

Chef Robert Irvine

Telegenic Chef Robert Irvine Flexing His Career Muscle

 The owner, very telegenic Robert Irvine, has his own website describing his career, as well as four television shows, and recipe books, making it hard to imagine how he does all that while maintaining such high standards in his restaurants; actually, one imagines he has a marvelous team of chef’s in-training, interns, and p.r. minions excited to just be part of his organization.  This is evidenced by the wonderful staff at the Hilton Head restaurant.  And if he hasn’t already, he should definitely consider doing a tv show here (and if he has, he should do several more) because the place is filled with marvelously telegenic employees from the hostesses, servers, to the busboys, bartenders, and even the cute kid who waited on us in the lounge the last couple of times we were there.  And of course, don’t forget Nathan, Johnny’s guy at the front.  Very charming.  Of course, tv shows would really pack the place out more than it already is, and Johnny and I would have to get it together and better organize ourselves around dinner reservations. 

Menu prices are on the high-end-ish ranging from $18-$36 for an entree on any given day (high, only if you’re from around here or the mid-west; deli-counter prices if you are from New York, Boston, California, or Providence, Rhode Island),  but well worth it for the quality, service, and ambience.  For more information, details, and directions, go to Eat!’s website, now!  Ha, ha, get it? Or just call for reservations, 843.785.4850 (ahead of time, please.  Just because last-minute works for the Legendary Johnny D, I can’t promise it will work for you).  Or, if you’d like to take one of their cooking classes, check out the Eat! events calendar for dates and times.

P.S.  And don’t forget to tip well (I have to say that, having worked in Hilton Head restaurants a while back – not that long ago, smarty-pants – and know that I would be shot on-sight if I didn’t remind everyone to remember your servers and bartenders).

Trattoria Divina, Excellent Taste of Italy, in Park Plaza Restaurant – Review

Trattoria Divina Main Dining Room, Park Plaza, HHI, SC
   “Like Hilton Head Island needed another restaurant,” you say.  Well, YES IT DID!  And what a winner we have in Trattoria Divina, an Italian restaurant in Park Plaza just outside the main Sea Pines Gate, a few doorways down from the theater.  My husband and I ate there this past Friday night just before our 6:50 pm show, (big date night), and were just delighted with the whole meal and friendly staff.  The bartender, Paul, greeted us around 5:00 just when they had opened and kindly showed us around, including the bar/pool room they were preparing to open next door (more on that in another blog, but right now I can say, WOW).
One of several wall murals 
by Wyatt Ramsey 

One thing to mention about both the pool room and the restaurant, are the stunning murals painted by Isaac McCaslin, a senior at SCAD, and his friend, Wyatt Ramsey, two bright talents whom we will most definitely be hearing more about down the road.

When we returned to the restaurant, our waiter, Brendan, made all the right menu suggestions and we didn’t go wrong in any of our choices. We were pleasantly delighted with everything from the artisan bread made exclusively for Trattoria by a Sicilian baker working from a recipe that had been in the family 1000 years (now, I understand the phrase, Old World), to my entree of Orecchiette Gamberetti E Broccoli (homemade pasta tossed with spicy black shrimp, prosciutto, broccoli, Tuscan white beans, mixed in a white wine/zest of lemon sauce, to the molten chocolate cake with vanilla gelato.  Johnny started his dinner with a generous portion of tuna tartare, with slices of fresh tomato and chopped, chunky and ripe avacodo, was probably the best appetizer we’ve had in many a moon.  Then he moved on to an angel hair pasta dish with large seared scallops, black tiger shrimp, tossed in a light, zesty tomato sauce with freshly chopped tomatoes.

Salmon Scallop Chef’s Special

My husband ordered directly off the a la carte dinner menu, while I had the two-course 5-6:15 pm menu for $16.95.  The price was right however you order and with wine appetizers, three glasses of wine and large bottle of sparkling water, the check was still just under $100.00.  All the staff were very attentive, checking on us frequently, keeping our drinks and bread basket full.  Very professional and also friendly; not an easy combination to achieve so fluidly.

Chef Hugo Lee, originally from Mexico City, has an amazing resume that demonstrates a recognized talent that was essentially discovered and recruited all the way to Hilton Head.  From his early training at Il Fornaio in San Diego, to a scholarship at the CIA culinary school, and a stint working for famed Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, Lee wowed himself through a stellar pedigree of training and restaurants.  How fortunate for us he wound up here!
    That concludes this, my first food review for HiltonHeadsup.com.  Hope you enjoyed it and will give this restaurant a try while enjoying your stay in one of our luxury vacation rentals. Grazie.