Food & Drink

July 5, 2014

Stepping out of your culinary comfort zone

There’s never been a better time to take a bite of something new in the Midlands.

New things can be scary. I get that.

But new things, especially new and tasty things, can bring you joy and delight and even lead you to exploring and expanding your culinary horizons (and your waistline if you’re not careful).

Take my sister, for example. I remember years ago taking her to a Greek restaurant in Five Points where the salads came topped with feta cheese. She’d never had feta before and asked me what it was. When I told her that it’s a kind of salty, crumbly cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk, she exclaimed “Goat’s milk? Eww!”

But she DID try it and found that she LOVED it. And that experience led her to try other types of cheeses: bleus, aged cheddars, manchego, queso fresco and more. She and her husband even drove to West Jefferson, N.C., to check out Ashe County Cheese Factory and sample more cheeses.

The point is, we all have our own comfort zones in dining: We like what we like and may think that there’s not room on our personal menu for anything more. But now, more than ever, Columbia has more delicious dining choices to entice you and I find, if you are willing to take baby steps, that sometimes you come across something new to enjoy, a new favorite dish.

For me, it is oxtails. If you don’t already know or haven’t guessed, oxtail is just that: an ox’s tail, cut into pieces and usually braised or stewed.

Now don’t say “EWWW!”

If you like beef, really tender, fall-off-the-bone, full-of-flavor beef, then you’ll love oxtails. And a delicious and inexpensive way to try oxtails is during lunch at The Island Grill on Harden Street. This Jamaican restaurant serves up a wonderful combination plate of oxtail with a choice of two sides for $9.25. The lady behind the counter was very helpful, explaining what certain ingredients were and helping me decide on the choice of sides (I ended up with rice and peas and steamed cabbage ... yummy with the bottled hot sauces). The meat is sooo tender and perfectly seasoned that I know that I will be going back for more. They also serve curry goat, so while I have prepared goat dishes at home, I’ve not yet tried a curry. That’s next on my list.

I’ve found that when in doubt, ask about a listing on the menu. For the most part, the servers or folks behind the counter are friendly and knowledgeable and eager to help you make the right choice for your particular taste.

For instance, I love Indian curries but I get confused as to which curry or sauce goes best with a particular protein. Recently I went to lunch at Shalimar, also known as the Curry House, on South Main Street in Columbia. The idea behind the menu at Shalimar is that you can customize your meal to fit your cravings: select a protein (chicken, lamb, beef or paneer); then select a curry or sauce and vegetables. The gentleman manning the food station explained to me that chicken is traditionally paired with a tikka masala sauce or korma; lamb with korma; and paneer (an unaged farmer’s cheese) goes great with makhni (a butter sauce). He was helpful in my choice of a combination plate of lamb korma with a samosa (a vegetarian pastry, usually featuring potatoes and peas). The meal was delicious and I learned a little something along the way.

So you don’t have to make a radical shift in your dining habits, say from fried fish to sushi ... unless you want to. Take baby steps to get out of your comfort zone. You’ll find that Columbia has a lot more to offer these days as far as dining: from Brazilian steakhouses to Ethiopian cuisine, new farm-to-table restaurants and new chefs, seasonal menus and lighter fare.

It’s a perfect time to open wide and take a bite.


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