When you've wrestled the bragging rights for “the most life-changing mac 'n' cheese in America” from some of the country's culinary big shots—Sarita's Macaroni and Cheese in New York City, for example—you may be tempted to rest on your laurels. Sure, Charleston's raucous dining scene makes food headlines practically every other day, but when an eatery in the tamer suburb of Mount Pleasant steals the show, that can be, well, life-changing. At Crave Kitchen & Cocktails, the culinary crew has taken the landslide win in stride.
By WENDY SWAT SNYDER
As the story goes, when Esquire contacted executive chef Landen Ganstrom with the news that his macaroni and cheese recipe had beaten nine others in the 2013 national competition, he let out a loud “woo-hoo!” and was soon on to the next challenge. The kitchen set about devising a deconstructed package of the award-winning pasta that a customer could take home for an easy dinner or holiday dish for 20. All that's required is a spoon and a pan to recreate the dish, piping hot, in minutes. Instructions are included for combining 10-year aged California cheddar, mozzarella, cavatappi, and a secret ingredient suggested by Ganstrom's young daughter.
The chef's menu is influenced by personal lifestyle choices that actually preclude macaroni and cheese. “I'm very health conscious,” says Ganstrom—a self-proclaimed “crossfit guy” who maintains a pasta-free Paleo diet. “My menu reflects my style with dishes like the sea bass—served with a fresh salsa; or the salmon, which comes with a Mediterranean salad—they're low carb, very light.”
A blend of casual and fine dining, Crave offers something for every palate, balancing healthy and more indulgent dishes. A sandwich of smokey honey-chipotle marinated pulled pork is drenched in a rich tomato-based sauce with a spicy kick, and comes topped with a coconut onion ring. A garlic herb wrap stuffed with char-grilled veggies and goat cheese is an option on the lighter side.
A Kansas native, Ganstrom credits his new coastal hometown for a fusion of Lowcountry flavors with his French and German training, and local demand for dictating dishes that have been popular since the restaurant opened. Dishes such as hanger steak, sea bass, and scallops—featuring top quality product from respected purveyors. Scallops Fed Ex-ed fresh from the Boston area are seared and served atop a rich lobster risotto garnished with tender claw meat. Artisan beef from Painted Hills is showcased in the classic steak frites that revolves through the specials board.
Local sourcing of as many ingredients as possible is also a big part of the culinary program at Crave. Ganstrom says he was a farm-to-table proponent before it became trendy. “I've been working with farmers ever since I came to the Lowcountry,” he maintains. “Why wouldn't you? That's the fun of being a chef! I have a farmer I get wild boar sausage from, another grows hydroponic lettuces, another provides produce like tomatoes, cucumbers, and collard greens.” The kitchen's shrimp comes from Shem Creek in the summer when “it's booming” and the blue crab is local in season as well.
The same level of care is brought to the beverage program headed by Michael Fitzgerald, whose handcrafted libations are so thoughtfully composed—taking into account “incredible nuances and textures”—the staff refers to him as a “cocktail chef” rather than a mixologist. His objective: “to deliver a drink that is as natural and fresh as possible.”
Fitzgerald's amazing bloody Mary, dubbed “Ancho Maria,” is light on tomatoes and flavored with a tincture of celery, fennel, and caraway seeds—and a host of other proprietary ingredients. Roasted ancho chili peppers pulverized with Kosher salt rim the glass of this subtly flavored drink.
“We put pride and love into our food,” says owner and veteran restaurateur Peter Woodman, whose leadership has taken the restaurant to another level since his purchase of the property in 2013.
“Peter's knowledge of every aspect of the restaurant—from the dish pit to the bar—is refreshing,” says Ganstrom, who holds a degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson County College and who, like Woodman, completed an apprenticeship program while in school. “He understands how to bring out the best in every employee and utilize that to make the experience better for every guest.”
Woodman acknowledges that his management style—driven by respect and core values—is unique. “My job is to serve and support our staff. Ultimately, our line cooks, servers, bartenders, and hosts are in the best possible position to serve our guests—and exceed their expectations.”
General manager Anthony Melius has been associated with Woodman since their early days in Boston, Mass. “I've worked with Peter for 11 years,” says Melius, who is, himself, a hands-on manager, getting his start in the business as a dishwasher. “I met him three months after he moved from Cork, Ireland. His attention to detail and customer service acumen are unbelievable.”
“Peter and I will both work the line,” notes Ganstrom, “we'll work the front door, help out behind the bar—get a good feeling for every position in the restaurant. I believe that's what has made a difference, made the experience for the guest memorable.”
Woodman's approach centers around a very literal interpretation of “hospitality”. “Every guest has been invited to the restaurant by me,” he contends. “You have to honor that, and have a genuine love for serving people. That's what we do.”
“My wife Sarah is my true inspiration and driving force behind my work ethic,” adds Woodman, admitting that he's a “lucky man”. “I could not do what I do without her support and understanding.”
On the horizon for Crave followers is an ambitious renovation—the final step in what has been a multifaceted process to make this diamond shine. With Woodman at the helm, the same attention to detail that rules the house is guaranteed, promising “a restaurant with a soul and character.”
Life-changing—they've got that down.
Crave Kitchen & Cocktails
1968 Riviera Dr., Mount Pleasant