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March 2008

The Review:
Written By: 
Patricia Agnew
Photographs By: 
Christopher Brown

For city pulse and neighborhood buzz, thriving Blend is an exciting peninsular option recently making its debut on the corner of Ashley and Doughty near MUSC.

This multi-option café, now serving gourmet deli-style ­dishes downstairs and lunch, dinner, and Saturday brunch upstairs, is making a name for itself with busy residents and 24-7 MUSC staff working nearby. The first-floor deli offers everything from frappes to panini for enjoyment in the sunny indoor café or pleasant courtyard. Clock-watchers are also pleased with the takeaway and delivery options for any items served in-house. Upstairs, spacious rooms with wood floors, cozy trappings, and pleasant local art hint at the building’s former life as a residence. An upstairs terrace provides a popular vantage point for observing the slice of life below.

A casual business lunch first caught our attention with choices of fried green ­tomato cakes and blackened salmon salad. The cakes were paired with jumbo lump crab, corn, and red pepper salad served over delicate watercress and boursin, while the salmon salad was served with cucumber, dill, yogurt dressing, and arugula on toasted croissant—both so delicious we almost ordered takeaway encores. Later, coffee and pastries to go inspired a recent return to savor chef Matthew Niessner’s menu of evening cuisine.

Upon our arrival, a personable server described the menu and wine list in refreshing detail with a confidence borne of true respect for the food. We sampled a couple of wines from the primarily boutique list that changes every few months to make room for new finds. When our hearty appetites and smallish tables prompted us to request joining two tables, our server cheerfully accommodated us.

The dinner menu included a promising collection of dishes reflective of the chef’s experience, most recently garnered at Kiawah Island properties. We began with ­slightly smoky, superbly textured, fire-roasted tomato soup flavored with crispy pancetta, fresh basil from the chef’s garden, and a touch of heavy cream. The crispy cornmeal-battered fried calamari appetizer featured chili-pineapple sauce and lightly dressed shredded cucumber salad. The frisée salad quickly became a new favorite, blending peppery greens with orange supremes, thinly sliced sweet onion, pears, candied pecans, and salty Wisconsin blue cheese in a lovely whisper of white balsamic vinaigrette. Next, a beautiful shared lamb ragout prompted dual exclamations of pleasure. This flavorful stew of braised and pulled lamb shank simmered in roasted tomato broth with mushrooms and caramelized onions was finished with Italian gorgonzola and house-made pasta.

We soon reveled in excellent entrée courses of flounder and vegetarian lasagna. Generously stuffed with fresh crabmeat, the flounder filet was served over pepper-jack grits in a velvet tomato-chive beurre blanc along with haricot vert salad touched with truffle butter. The vegetable lasagna featured single layers of light-as-air pasta with grilled zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, roasted red pepper, tomato broth, fontina, and mozzarella finished with a crisp edge and pesto cream. This rich preparation—perhaps a bit too cheesy—was still a pleasant departure from the traditional. For dessert, our server had no difficulty convincing us to try the refreshing trio of brûlées: espresso bean with fresh raspberries, vanilla, and lemon flavored with fresh thyme. The latter won our vote hands down.

Blend is a welcome option for a variety of experiences, each consistently delicious and warmed by hospitable service. Seating in the courtyard or on the upstairs ­piazza is available, and parking issues are resolved with validated parking at the MUSC garage next door and free on-street parking after 5 p.m.

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