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Upstairs, Downstairs Smoking, Charleston

A trio of cigar-friendly places in Charleston, South Carolina
Alejandro Benes
Posted: October 4, 2007

"We're not going to stay here, are we?" my wife fairly shouts to be heard above the music and the din of many people talking and having a good time. We have just taken the elevator up to the Pavilion Bar, not so high atop the Market Pavilion Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. When my wife, a contrarian's guide to great cigar bars, protests as she just has, I know this is the place my fellow aficionados will love.

I was looking for a comfortable place to have a cigar after dinner, something that became considerably more challenging in the Palmetto State's Low Country this year since the Charleston City Council passed an indoor smoking ban. Basically, there are now three easily accessible places to enjoy a cigar in Charleston. (See below.) This night, I chose the Pavilion Bar, in part because downstairs is Grill 225, which advertises itself as the city's "only 100% USDA prime steakhouse," something that is itself a bit of a challenge these days and, to answer Grill 225's Web site, not so important.

Grill 225 gets great reviews from most and especially so for its steaks and lamb chops. I am always happy to have a USDA prime rib eye, even at 18 ounces as promised by Grill 225's menu, but I am unhappily cursed by the knowledge that prime beef in the United States is in high demand and relatively short supply. So I ask our server what kind of cow the rib eye comes from because some prime steak houses around the country are getting their beef from heifers. Dairy cows, in other words.

"I don't know," he says, "but I will find out." When he comes back form the kitchen, he says, "It's not Kobe or Angus, but beyond that I can tell you it's corn-fed Midwest beef."

The Grill 225 diningroom
Grill 225's Web site has a category titled "Prime Beef 101" that includes the chef's screed against certified Angus beef. Amusing, given that no one seemed to know what flavor of cow gave itself up for my excessive consumption of protein this evening. In the interest of full disclosure, part of the reason I'm in Charleston is that I am on my way to the annual Certified Angus Beef convention in Savannah, Georgia. (In the interest of fuller disclosure, the reason I am on my way to that gathering is that I am a partner in 11 restaurants that together constitute one of the biggest sellers of certified Angus beef steaks in Southern California. So, they invite me every year.)

I explain to our server that my experience is that a steak from a dairy cow is not as consistently flavorful as a steak from cattle bred for steak. Still, I'm gonna take a shot because you, my fellow steak lovers, need to know if this is worth your time and the $39 for the rib eye, which is pretty reasonable these days for prime beef.

The rib eye is a perfect medium-rare and thick. The marbling is not the best I've seen, tending more to a top sirloin inside. The seasoning is a little heavy on the salt, but that's OK by me. When I ask for A-1, I'm told that Grill 225 has its own steak sauce. Great, I say. But it's closer to barbecue sauce -- too sweet -- than a classic, piquant steak sauce, despite containing what appear to be ample quantities of horseradish. Bottom line: overall, not bad, but order the lamb chop, which is widely held to be extraordinary.

My wife orders the grouper, a filet glazed with sweet soy, having been marinated in ginger and soy. The fish sits atop a pan-fried rice cake and sautéed baby bok choy. She enjoys this more than I like my steak. We share truffled potato chips with warm buttermilk blue cheese. The chips, at $12, are crispy and come in a huge bowl that will easily serve six big guys. We also order some asparagus, which is beautifully cooked, but the stalks are very thin and pretty much wilt in their own heat by the second bite.

I started with a sliced tomato and onion salad in blue cheese dressing, which was excellent. My wife had the tomato napoleon, a stack of fried green tomatoes with shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese and roasted tri-color pepper coulis. I grew up in the South and I never could taste too much tomato flavor in fried green tomatoes, but you can always taste the breading and I think that's what sets off the pleasure sensors. We finish with a very non-classic peach cobbler that has raspberries and blueberries in it. The fruit has essentially melted together with whatever biscuit crust there might have been to form a flavor that is more berry than peach. It's good, but it's not tasting like peach cobbler in a state that produces a lot of delicious peaches.

After dinner, we catch the elevator up to the Pavilion Bar. It is essentially the bar on the rooftop of the hotel that has become a very popular nightspot, especially for smokers. The crowd is mostly young. Some are smoking cigars, but they have not bought them here. (The hotel is just a couple of blocks from the Smoking Lamp tobacco shop at 189 East Bay Street, which has an excellent selection of cigars.)

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