Thursday, June 28, 2007

Former CIC Student John Ondo's Restaurant Takes 4 Stars in Post & Courier Review

With these Mediterranean accents, it's easy to speak well of Lana
By Deidre Schipani The Post and Courier Thursday, June 28, 2007
It was the bard William Shakespeare who penned "summer's lease hath all too short a date." When it comes to the seasons, we are in agreement; for restaurants, however, it can be a very good thing.

Fans of Cafe Lana's original Cumberland Street location mourned the passage of their favorite lunch cafe. But with the owners of the building making other plans for its use, Lana chef-owner Drazen Romic was forced to find another location for his cafe named after his daughter. Just like a face-lift can refresh a person's look, Lana's move to a renovated building on Rutledge Avenue was just what it needed — a full kitchen with enough space to operate and, for owner Romic, a partner in chef John Ondo.

For me, I am glad that Hominy Grill has company and that there exists the possibility of four corners of comfort food artistry in this Cannonborough neighborhood. This simple space sets off its bar area under a gentle arch, positions tables with good sight lines at the windows and fashions banquettes out of recycled wood to create a cozy wall of seats looking out over this small restaurant. There are a few booths, but that is it. The walls of the restaurant provide a gallery for local artists, and at the time of our visit, photographs of Charleston by architect Sandy Logan gave Lana not only a sense of space but declared the sense of humor of the photographer.

The menu is a Mediterranean haven for lovers of foods washed by its shores. Italy, Spain, Greece, Morocco and France are all at your fingertips. A basket of focaccia, fragrant with herbs, is served with a robust olive oil. The full flavor of the olives is rendered in this green-gold oil and portends quality ahead.

It is easy to stop at the appetizers. Marinated olives ($3.50), a platter of dips ($7) sporting hummus, baba ghanoush, olive tapenade and lavash; antipasto for two ($13.50) or the lamb spanakopita ($8.50) easily can be partnered for a satisfying meal. We opted for a bright start, literally and figuratively, and ordered avgolemono ($4), a Greek lemon chicken soup. This signature dish of Greek cuisine is a light chicken broth, thickened with orzo (or sometimes rice) and lemon and egg are whisked into the broth. Lana's version delivers the touch of Midas. If your appetite needs a wake-up call, this soup does the trick.

We were intrigued by shrimp "putanesca" ($9). This was no ordinary interpretation of the "ladies of the night" pasta sauce. For starters, the "pasta" was thin strands of cucumber, a pale green "linguini" topped with tender shrimp, crispy fried olives and tomatoes in a bagna cauda (hot bath) of olive oil and garlic. It was a delightful culinary trompe l'oeil. The Village Salad ($8.50) is a Greek classic — tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, olives and artichokes served lettuce-free with grilled flat bread. The Grilled Asparagus Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette ($7.50) also will jump-start your taste buds.

Choosing an entree was a challenge — they all sounded so good. Lana offers pastas, gnocchi and a daily risotto. Vegetarians will find a Vegetable Plate ($14) reflecting the season and the chef's whim. And then this kitchen covers the map: chicken in a Basque style, halibut speaking in a French accent, a Moroccan braised lamb shank.

On the advice of our server, we tried the Grilled Wahoo ($17.75) with Vegetables. The potatoes were beautiful Peruvian purples along with All Reds and a vibrant salsa verde. The wahoo's pristine whiteness was perfect against the palette of the potatoes and the sauce. The duck ($19) demonstrated a sure hand in the kitchen. The breast was medium rare as ordered with a crisp skin served with a meltingly tender confit of the leg. Served with golden nuggets of sweet potato gnocchi and tiny dice of parsnips, it was hard to not lick the plate. A balsamic fig gastrique sauced the dish. A gastrique is wine or vinegar, sugar and fruit reduced to a viscous sauce and, when done well, is a perfect foil for rich meats. Every element of this dish was a success. Our server was attentive, familiar with the menu, engaging and sensitive to our dining pace.

Desserts are a sorbet lover's dream. Nine flavors are offered, and for the economical price of $6.75, you can taste three. We chose blackberry, mango and peach. The heady perfume of the peach came through loud and clear, the mango toyed with the tongue with a sweet start and a tart finish and the blackberries' intensity spoke to the quality of the fruit. Wines by the glass are not pedestrian and are reasonably priced. Lana even features a wine from Croatia. Which, by the way, is the hot spot for culinary travel and the sheer beauty of its landscape.

Lana has a new address, a refinement of its menu and all the creature comforts of what is best in a neighborhood restaurant, people who care about your experience.
Lana Restaurant and Bar Neighborhood Favorite
Phone: 720-8899 Address: 210 Rutledge Ave., Charleston
Food: ****Service: ****Atmosphere: ***-1/2Price: $-$$
Costs: Appetizers, $3.50-$13.50; soups, $4-$6; salads, $7.50-$8.50; pasta and rice, $9-$16; entrees, $14-$21; specials may run higher; desserts, $5-$6.75. Bar: Full-service bar; nice selection of wines by the glass along with dessert wines; moderately priced wine list.
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner, 6-10 p.m. weekdays; until 11 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. Decibel Level: Moderate, but as in any small space, levels will vary with guests. Vegetarian Alternatives: Yes. Wheelchair Access: Yes. Parking: Street parking. Reservations: Suggested for large parties and the weekend. Smoking: No.
On The Web: or e-mail
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