Crafting a Southern-inspired Christmas menu is “a balancing act,” declares Don Drake, executive chef of Magnolias in Charleston, S.C. That’s because even though patrons relish the upscale restaurant’s modern takes on traditional cooking, they tend to judge its holiday dishes against their own cherished memories of home-cooked fare.
Drake strikes a balance by menuing the innovative and the familiar. From his regular menu come signatures like Down South Egg Roll, a Hawaiian-inspired wrap-up of chicken, collard greens and tasso, and Boiled Peanut Hummus with pickled okra and flatbread. Joining them are familiar specials like Roasted Turkey with Sage Butter, Virginia Baked Ham and Herb Roasted Lamb Porterhouse. Drake expects close to 800 people to dine on dishes like those between noon and 8 p.m. on Christmas.
Another Christmas item, Apple Parsnip Bisque with Brandied Apple Butter, typifies the simplicity and style of Magnolia’s cooking and its penchant for seasonal ingredients. In this dish, well-caramelized parsnips are simmered with apple cider and blended into a silky bisque. A dollop of brandy-flamed, cinnamon-spiced apple butter and some fresh sage leaves are the crowning touches.
How do your customers like Apple Parsnip Bisque with Brandied Apple Butter?
They love it. I find if you give them a soup offering on the holidays, one out of three people will have a soup of some sort. We also offer our traditional Blue Crab Bisque and Creamy Tomato Bisque on Christmas.
How have customer attitudes toward holiday dining changed over the years?
It used to be that no one went out for Christmas or New Year’s. But now it seems that more and more people are celebrating the holidays by dining out. I don’t know if it’s due to changes in the family system, or because jobs and lives have gotten busier or if it’s because of all the cost and work of celebrating at home, but we definitely see our numbers jump every year for the holidays. You are busy from the time you open until the time you close.
Which items on your Christmas menu do you predict will sell the most?
Roast Turkey with Sage Butter, no question. After that, probably the Virginia Baked Ham and the Herb Roasted Lamb Porterhouse. Turkey is still going to be the winner. It’s hard to beat, you know.
In locally grown produce, what’s available in your area at this time of year?
I’m fortunate to be close to Johns Island and Yonges Island where there are some great farmers. We are still getting kale, spinach, collard greens, Brussels spouts, carrots and potatoes of all sorts. And some people are growing lettuces indoors in greenhouses.