The Woodlands Resort & Inn: Destination Southern Fine Dining [CLOSED]

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Fine Dining South Carolina

For each of the past five Christmas Eves, my family and I have driven three hours round-trip to Summerville, South Carolina, to eat at The Woodlands Resort & Inn, a Mobil Five-Star hotel widely recognized as housing one of the premiere restaurants in the Southeast United States, if not the entire country. But this year was different, or so we feared. We had a slew of pressing questions going into the meal due to the departure of Ken Vedrinski, The Woodlands’ long-time chef, who left earlier in the year to open Sienna, an Italian fusion restaurant on nearby Daniel Island. Enter a new Executive Chef: Scott M. Crawford, fresh from the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Florida. Vedrinski was so inventive; how could Crawford’s food possibly keep up? Would our friend Stephane Peltier, the Sommelier, still be there? Heck, would he even be in the country? A French citizen with a tenuous hold on his U.S. residency, Stephane has had more than a few run-ins with INS, including, how shall I put this, an unplanned extension to a recent visit home. And maybe most importantly, would The Woodlands still serve those incredible cheddar biscuits, Vedrinski inventions? Read on and I’ll report our findings.

The dining room looked identical to the previous years: elegant, pristine, a lot of white, with liberally spaced tables and high windows looking out into the Carolina night. Okay, enough on the décor, I’ll get to the important part, the food.

Chef Ken’s amuse bouche was a slice of homemade sausage with a dollop of garlic-tapioca pudding and half a cherry tomato. Fabulous. The pink sausage with the pudding was silky smooth. As I’ve heard many times, if you’re going to offer something for free, make it good. The Woodlands clearly knows that.

It didn’t take long to check one answer off our list. In the distance, I saw a waiter navigating the dining room with a large basket in one hand and tongs in the other hand. He was clearly packing bread. When he reached our table, in French-accented English, I heard the words I longed to hear, “Cheddar biscuit?” I ate three of those suckers, and one harvest wheat roll to boot.

They also still had the “butter pyramid:” sweet cream on top, herb-garlic in the middle, and honey-pecan on bottom. I slapped some herb-garlic on the warm biscuit. Honey-pecan was a good match for the harvest wheat roll. Sweet cream sat this dance out.

Our second answer wasn’t long to arrive either, as Stephane sidled up to our table and presented my father with a phone book-thick wine list. After some back and forth between Stephane and my step-mom, we settled on a very nice bottle of red wine made using Cabernet Franc grapes from France’s Loire Valley, which complemented our meal nicely. With Stephane as our vino guide, it always does. A food writer I know who’s eaten at The Woodlands hilariously captured Stephane’s approach: “Why can’t people understand my beautiful wines?” We do, Stephane. When he isn’t at work, he can be found training for assorted marathons. Stephane is so passionate about running, he once ran the Kiawah Island Marathon in the morning and then worked a full shift at night. He conceded that might have been a bit much.

As always, we each got different appetizers, entrees, and desserts, wanting to try as many offerings as possible. We’re a sharing family.

To start, I ordered “Country Farms quail & seared foie gras, wild boar-lentil ragout, maple balsamic,” a dish combining three meats and my favorite legume, lentils; how could I lose? A whole, boned quail teetered on a slab of foie gras and was served over a bed of boar-studded lentils, rich but clean-tasting and delicious.

My step-mom’s “Diver scallops poached in beet juice, Clementine, parsnip mousse & sunflower seeds” were dyed purple from the beet juice, the scallops were enormous and velvety, only strengthened by the citrus accompaniment.

From the tasting menu, my father plucked the “Marinated Onaga snapper, pickled Honshimeji mushrooms, Kanzuri mignonette,” basically an impeccable snapper sashimi.

For the salad course, I ordered “Jones Farm” organic beets, winter greens, goat’s cheese, citrus juices,” baby red, golden and pink beets, showered with small flower petals and chunks of creamy goat’s cheese. I was very pleased.

My dad and step-mom both ordered “Woodlands” signature Caesar salad, pecorino “crackers,” fresh anchovy,” which is the third incarnation of the salad I’ve seen served at the Woodlands. It involved thick sheets of romaine, surrounded by three pecorino crouton rings, plated with coiled white anchovies, a quail egg over easy and two dots of the brown dressing that’s often used in Nicoise salad. It was certainly the most visually stunning salad I’ve ever eaten, and just as tasty as The Woodlands’ past Caesars, which included one that stood upright, jutting out of a cylindrical crouton base.

For my entrée, I ordered “Pistachio roasted venison loin, date jam, goat cheese “pudding,” sweet onion reduction,” which was one of the best red meat dishes I’ve ever eaten. The two cuts of venison were so lean and tender, coated with crushed pistachios, which added a subtle sweetness. The goat’s cheese pudding tower was dense, but clean, and unbelievably savory, fantastic. There were also two little chunks of grilled cauliflower topped with a sweet cippolini onion.

My father ordered the “Sauteed local gray grouper, shell bean-smoked duck stew & parmesan essence,” but he wouldn’t give me a bite.

My step-mom, from the tasting menu, ordered the “Cocoa bean & mint crusted lamb loin, rutabaga puree, spiced cabernet jus,” incredibly tender, flavorful meat, rubbed with cocoa, almost like a molé. Unlike my father, she gave me several chunks, which were very good, just not as good as the venison.

Our palate cleanser was an eggnog parfait, basically eggnog pudding, delicious.

I can’t remember if Pastry Chef Sheree McDowell was here last year, but she prepared incredible desserts. “Hazelnut griddle cakes, baked gala apples & caraway cream,” basically small hazelnut pancakes layered with baked apple slices, were great with the chopped macadamia nuts.

We also enjoyed the super-dense, but somehow not overly rich “Chocolate-pistachio “bombe,” Grand-Marnier anglaise,” so great it glowed.

“Almond cake with port glazed pears & Sabayon” was insane, a sweet, beyond moist almond cake with a pile of chopped, glazed pears and blueberry cream. Okay, that was the best dessert. Or was it? They were all sensational, and very different.

We each had a decaf caffe latte, the only standard item we consumed all night.

So what did we learn from our meal? Ken Vedrinski didn’t hijack the cheddar biscuits. Stephane is still The Woodlands’ Sommelier, and still in top form. And the new chef, Scott M. Crawford, hasn’t been there long, and was given a supreme challenge in following up local legend Ken Vedrinski, but his cooking is just as dynamic. I loved Ken’s Asian influences. Stephane (who loves both chefs) claims Ken used more butter, which made the food heavier, and that Scott uses no butter, so it’s cleaner tasting and goes down easier. I don’t know about that, but I know The Woodlands is still amazing, and remains a near perfect holiday tradition.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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