November 2008

Get to Know CQ’s

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr | Photographer: photography by anne

“From the moment you step foot on the polished, nineteenth-century heart pine floors which were the original laid, you can look around and discern a sense of time passed…of island history.”

So begins “The History of CQ’s” as it is eloquently imparted on the restaurant’s menu, along with the enchanting “Legend of The Blue Lady.” I will defer any further recounting of these stories to your next CQ’s visit as they are best enjoyed when read in their own setting.

Instead, I’m going to let the people of CQ’s tell a story. Plenty of restaurants have good food and good service, but still some of them come and go like the weather while others endure. CQ’s is one of the latter, having been in business in the same Harbour Town location since 1973. When I spoke to Chef Eric Sayers and bar manager, Keith Weinman—it became clear that there are intangible qualities beyond good food, good service, good location, and other items found on a business plan that give some restaurants seemingly eternal energy. The secret, for CQ’s at least, can be found in the manner in which Eric, Kristen and Keith speak about the restaurant. All of them, in one way or another, refer to CQ’s as a living, breathing entity, or as a home, if not both. When telling the CQ’s story, the physical structure that is the restaurant is not merely the setting; it is, in fact, a character in the story.

The common thread woven through three individuals’ stories is made more profound by the fact that each comes from quite a different perspective. Eric, classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America and in Europe, came from New England to give Hilton Head a try for a year or so, and has been chef at CQ’s for over ten years. Kristen, a newbie in the Lowcountry (she’s only been here four months) came from Tampa, Florida for a slower pace of life, and right away noticed something different about CQ’s. Keith came home to Hilton Head after six years spent in California and found his place at CQ’s.
At some point, we do have to get down to the basics because the bottom line is: history, local lore and ghost stories will only get you so far unless they are wrapped around a great dining experience. CQ’s achieves that experience for its diners through…well…experience: the experience of its own evolution and the experience that Eric Sayers brought to the table ten years ago.

In the early days, from the time the building was transformed from an artist’s studio to an eatery, CQ’s was actually more of a casual dining establishment as opposed to the fine dining model that we know today.

“It started out as a lunch place. They were known for the best burgers and that kind of thing,” said Sayers. “By the time I came in 1998, they [the Lowrey Group, who had purchased CQ’s in 1994] were going for a more fine dining aspect. I think we just evolved from there. At least my own culinary style has.”

Sayers defines his culinary style as very American with French influences, to which he has added a bit of local color. “I’m classically trained, so I have that background. I do use local ingredients in everything, but I wouldn’t really say it’s a Southern flair. Very progressive American is how I would describe my style. I study the great current chefs— Charlie Trotter is one of my heroes—so that will also come through in my cooking.”

Sayers strives to put as much local content as possible on the table with every meal served at CQ’s, but, surprisingly when you consider our region’s agricultural background and our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, local produce and seafood has not always been as easy to procure as you might think. “I remember when I first got here, local seafood was actually difficult to get, which I found absurd,” said Sayers. “Fishermen and farmers weren’t coordinated well enough to get to the restaurants.”

That situation is vastly improved these days. “One of the things I’m really proud of is our shrimp. It’s such a night and day comparison between our local shrimp and imported shrimp.” And, you can be assured that the shrimp on your plate will always be local. “Absolutely. If there is shrimp on the menu, there is no other. My supplier is really good. He can get shrimp to me pretty much year round.”

Sayers revises the menu four times per year with the seasons, and the offerings have changed and evolved through the years; but there are two items that he does not “mess around with,” because the really work.

“I would have to say that our lobster pasta and our tuna are the signature dishes,” said Sayers. “The tuna (Ahi Tuna, Asian vegetables, edamame hummus, ponzu and pickled ginger) is absolutely a delicious dish. I’m always trying to better our cooking and our procedure, but the tuna is something that I haven’t really had to touch. I think the flavors are fantastic, it’s absolutely gorgeous.”

“The lobster pasta (Boursin soubise, spinach and grape tomatoes) kind of evolved into CQ’s Lobster Pasta. I used to name it after a customer who would order it every day. He asked me to remove his name, though.”

“We’re constantly evolving. I’m really lucky to work with fantastic people, both wait staff, back-of-the-house, everybody. We just kind of push and drive off of each other and have fun with it. This is our livelihood and we truly enjoy it. Bottom line is that, and I think the menu has just progressed that way.”

What is it that keeps a chef in one place for such an extended period of time? If you know people in the food and beverage business, you have a pretty good idea that this is the exception, not the rule. Sayers explains himself:

“I think Hilton Head is absolutely gorgeous, that goes without saying. As far as CQ’s goes, I just love the vibe of this restaurant. I love the feel of it. I took the job without ever seeing the inside, and when I came in I thought, ‘Hmm. This isn’t what I expected at all.’ I think I was expecting a more modern look, but I just liked the feel of it. It’s almost like the restaurant is alive. We have our little story that we’re haunted, if you believe in that sort of thing. I don’t know if I believe in it, but this restaurant kind of breathes to me; it’s alive and it kind of energizes you. I really feel that way.”

You might expect that kind of devotion and attachment from somebody with such a long-term relationship with a place, but when asked about her experience at CQ’s so far, assistant manager Kristen Cohen’s comments mirrored Sayers’s. And she had only been on the job for three months when we spoke.

“It’s definitely unique,” she said. “Sometimes you just walk into a place and get a good feeling about it. I love the way every wall is different and unique.” Cohen also noted how the atmosphere in CQ’s reflects that of its Hilton Head surroundings. “People all seem happy here and I see that in our customers. The same people keep coming back, and that says a lot.”

Keith Weinman’s view from the bar and wine cellar is no different. The Hilton Head native has been serving cocktails in the Heritage Room and developing CQ’s’ wine list for the past three years, having returned from six years in the California Wine Country and Lake Tahoe. “There’s not a bar that I’d rather work in, and everybody here says that this is the best kitchen they’ve ever worked with,” he said.

“It’s not just a job to any of us, really, said Sayers. “Like I said, CQ’s is a living, breathing thing to me and I really take what we do seriously. The cooks and everybody here take pride in what we do and absolutely love it and enjoy it, and we think we have something really special. It’s home. It really is, and we all care about what we’re doing. CQ’s has a personality.”

A Memorable Evening at CQ’s

CH2’s Editor-in-Chief, Maggie, can be very demanding. So when she asked me to write about CQ’s, she insisted on the most copious and comprehensive research. I complied, buckling down to make a dinner reservation.
Dining solo, since nobody from my list of preferred dinner guests was available on the specified evening, I took Steve Martin’s approach to dining alone in the film The Lonely Guy: Make sure that people see you taking notes so they’ll think you’re a respected restaurant critic. I mention this to introduce the point that it did not matter, because the staff members at CQ’s are quite friendly and professional, and will make you feel right at home whether by yourself or with a party of four.

Seated at a booth in the Plantation Room, the main downstairs dining room, a refreshing bottle of water was already waiting for me at the table. My server, Eric Stern, arrived promptly to take my drink order. The wine list is as extensive as any in this market, some 10,000 bottles according to bar manager Keith Weinman, but I opted to keep it simple and went with a glass of Roshambo Justice, a Sonoma Valley Syrah, from the Featured Reds/Interesting Reds listed on the menu. I made the choice in anticipation that I would be ordering red meat, as Chef Eric Sayers had mentioned his passion for cooking game in an earlier interview and I took note.

I’d hardly sat down before Chef came to the table to get things started with the first course, toasted brioche with a hard boiled quail egg, duck cracklings and baby arugula. I’ll just say that I was impressed enough with something barely larger than a quarter to later call my brother, an accomplished chef himself, to tell him all about it.

Next came the bread and four flavored butters: raspberry, rosemary and sage, honey, and cinnamon. I sampled all four on pieces of a warm roll, and they were all very flavorful; but if forced to choose a favorite I would pick the rosemary and sage.

Since I make it a point to eat an abundance of alkalizing raw vegetables every day, my choice of the Chef’s Garden Organic Mixed Green salad was a no-brainer. It consists of a variety of greens, cucumbers, grape tomatoes and sliced carrots dressed with an aged sherry vinaigrette, appetizingly presented in a nice, neat stack as opposed to the pile of stuff that I just throw in a bowl for myself. Yes, this was much better.

For dinner, I stuck with my plan to try something that Chef had already identified as a particular passion: game. The menu choice is the Grilled Bison Ribeye (glazed carrots and garden beans, buttermilk potatoes and brandied demi glace), but I chose one of the evening’s specials: thinly sliced medallions of sautéed Broken Arrow Ranch venison, served over mushroom chips and hazelnut dust and finished with a demi glace.

Now, folks, I am not a professional food critic, nor am I in the culinary arts, but I have enjoyed plenty of excellent cuisine in my life. As mentioned already, my brother is a chef who has worked at fine establishments in Paris, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere, and I have dined at most of them (except Paris, unfortunately). Furthermore, my brother freely admits that he would rather eat our mother’s cooking than his own. Point being, I’m no stranger to good food, so suffice it to say that I do not exaggerate when I say that my entrée at CQ’s was, pardon the cliché, mouthwateringly spectacular and very high on my list of best restaurant meals in memory.

Throughout the evening, the service was right on target—highly professional, yet warm and friendly. If something is required, a server or runner is on the spot before you realize you need anything. Otherwise, you hardly notice their presence.

As for the overall experience, great food and great service I’ve already covered; the CQ’s atmosphere, a blending of fine dining with Hilton Head casual, completes the picture. Soft jazz piano music lends a touch of elegance to contrast with the rustic, folksy décor. You’ll be right at home—local or traveler—whether in a shirt and tie or shorts and a golf shirt, and you might even have an encounter with a ghost.

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