Fine fare, French flair and music in the air
Aspen Grille has been synonymous with fine dining on the Grand Strand for as long as I can remember, but it definitely got a table leg up when chef Curry Martin decided to give up his globetrotting culinary career and come home to the Lowcountry and open his very own restaurant.
A 1996 graduate of the Johnson & Wales University Culinary School in Charleston, Curry honed his skills in North Carolina, Napa Valley, Lyon and Paris. And those kitchen experiences served to cultivate his espousal of celebrating the natural flavors of fresh, local ingredients and the importance of understanding the subtle but powerful roles of wine with food.
Aspen Grille’s menu adds seasonal dishes to take advantage of peak-of-ripeness homegrown produce, and a market-fresh fish plate changes with the local catch of the day.
On our visit, we found Aspen lived up to Curry’s promise of “offering diners a sophisticated yet extremely comfortable setting and exceptional service.” The tables were dressed in white linens and our waitress gave us the option of either a black or white napkin to complement our attire. By the way, if you leave your table, the napkin is refolded upon your return. Servers roll out dishes from the kitchen on a two-tier cart, a smart traveling station complete with ready-to-go cutlery, butter, pepper mill, spices and condiments.
Appetizers like chilled oysters on the half-shell and pickled shrimp in a lemon aioli were tempting starts, as were the pair of soups du jour—French onion and sherry-splashed lobster bisque—but we decided to go for Aspen’s featured dish: warm goat cheese salad.
With a basket of warm and crusty bread, the medallions of cheese served the salad well and also became a delicious spread. A spring mix of greens was tossed with chunks of roasted beets, yellow squash and a silky white truffle oil vinaigrette. It’s one of those dishes that make you stop and admire every forkful of color and texture before delighting your taste buds.
My husband ordered the Pork Osso Bucco, a fall house special, and we were impressed that Chef Curry did not think it was plated to his standards and personally brought out a savory replacement.
The meat itself melted from the center bone and was drenched in a rich, dark pan gravy nestled against a hill of bacon-braised red cabbage and a gathering of fingerling potatoes.
Having already read the raves, I had to experience Aspen’s seared New Bedford Sea Scallops, a dish that lived up to its reputation. The thickset scallops came perfectly prepared, imparting a buttery flavor accented by a white wine sauce. With the New Bedfords standing in a circle, the middle of the plate featured a creamy and earthy mushroom risotto covered by sautéed spinach.
Full dinner entrees at Aspen Grille start at $18 for pan-roasted free-range chicken, climbing to $38 for a Niman Ranch natural charbroiled ribeye and choice of sauce and a side dish. But you can take a big bite out of the check during happy hour, Tuesday through Friday nights, in Aspen’s happening bar area. Appetizers are half price, and in addition to the oysters and pickled shrimp, the line-up includes black-eyed pea cakes, fried calamari, risotto, goat cheese crostini, fried green tomatoes, steak tips and yellowfin tuna. You can also sip on $4 glasses of wine selected from the extensive vino list.
Adding to the convivial ambience, Aspen fills the air with live “cool jazz” on Wednesday evenings, “sophisticated jazz” every Thursday and a pianist on Saturdays.