Monday, February 21, 2011

On the Road: Columbia, SC

So, I'm on a bit of a hastily planned road trip, to visit my mother who's recovering from an illness¹. Despite the circumstances, it's something of a vacation for me, because... well, for one thing, she lives in Florida, and for another, I happen to love cross-country driving. I love junky road-food, too, but after 800+ miles of Big Macs, Big Gulps, roller dogs, and jalapeno-cheddar Chex Mix², I was ready for real food when I pulled into Columbia, South Carolina, Saturday evening.

What luck, then, that I stumbled upon the Tombo Grille, a brilliant little bistro stashed unobtrusively in a storefront right down Forest Drive from the Super 8 motel I'd landed at. The cozy lounge was full when I dragged in, and the tasteful, art-bedecked dining room was almost full, but happily they were able to seat my road-weary tuchus with no delay. My server could not have been more pleasant, nor more helpful, and shortly I was studying the menu while enjoying warm house-made bread dipped in olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar and sipping a Troubador Obscura Mild Stout.

The menu consists of what the folks at Tombo describe as "creative comfort food," with a southern bent and featuring South Carolina grown ingredients. I noticed that certain items — pecans, polenta, butternut squash, andoullie sausage, artisanal cheeses threaded through the selections (which, I gather, change seasonally), creating the impression of a focused and harmonious palette of flavors. For the sake of sampling more widely (and, if I'm honest, in deference to my bellyfull of road food), I decided to forego an entree in favor of two Small Bites. One very tempting beef filet item on the daily specials menu was sold out, and I managed to avoid the temptation implicit its entree sibling: "pan seared filet of beef, goat cheese, demi-glace, roasted fingerling potatoes, and warm bacon vinaigrette - wilted arugula." On the regular menu, the promise of cracked black pepper sauce, roasted pepper polenta, and grilled onions almost made me forget I don't really like fried chicken livers... but I eventually settled on seared sea scallops served on an andoullie-butternut hash with a saffron sauce, followed by a 1/2 rack of lamb with roasted garlic demi-glace. The three big scallops were nicely seared and buttery smooth, the medium rare lamb was perfectly cooked, and the accompaniments on both plates were simply brilliant. Better yet, the two plates satisfied my hunger while leaving room for dessert... which was grilled pound cake. Now, I love pound cake. I have warm fuzzy memories of my grandmother's classic pound cake, and the Lovely Bride® has a signature dessert that's essentially a pound cake with a broiled walnut glaze.

One online reviewer called Tombo's grilled pound cake "weird" (as if that were a bad thing!), and it is a bit strange to see crossed grill marks on a wedge of cake. But the carmelized, almost burnt, flavor that hides in those grill marks adds a perfect note of complexity to the smooth sweetness of the cake and the scoop of (presumably house-made) vanilla ice cream served next to it. Let's put it this way: Now I want to learn how to bake pound cake just so I can try making this dessert!

Sadly, I probably won't pass through Columbia at dinner time on the way home, so I won't get to try the mac & cheese (with house-cured bacon and smoked cornish hen); nor the roasted beet, rare seared beef, and blue cheese salad; nor the bourbon butternut soup; nor the pecan-crusted rainbow trout, nor... <sigh>. If any of y'all get a chance to stop in, let me know what I've missed, woncha'?

¹ She's fine; thanks for asking.

² Which is awesome, BTW.

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