I haven't made any secret of the fact that sometimes chefs are hard to pin down.
Not too many of them reply to emails. Getting them on the phone sometimes is a matter of luck, timing and knowing when to call. If you really want to have a solid conversation with one, your best bet is late night after the kitchen is winding down.
I've tracked some down having a late-night glass of wine, others having a smoke outside in the lane. Sometimes you get really lucky and see one walking his dog on a Sunday.
I get it, and I've never complained. Running a kitchen is a tough gig. Imagine my surprise, then, when a chef calls me? It is very rare. They typically aren't their own PR machines. They just cook.
But one afternoon last summer, I got a call from a chef here in town. It was Kirk Blaine, former chef at Driftaway CafÃ© and more recently Cohen's Retreat. That was the message he left: He was no longer at Cohen's. He said he had a couple of projects in the works and would keep me posted. Frankly, I was shocked.
Before I could get back to Chef Kirk, I started hearing buzzing on the street about one of those new projects. It's called Castaways and is set to open soon in Sandfly. Funny thing happened while I was keeping tabs on that particular project. The Howlin' Hound is now open on Waters Avenue near Eisenhower on Savannah's Southside. A third party told me Blaine was behind that one as well. Huh? Yeah. I was confused.
"This space just kind of happened," he tells me during a recent post-lunch break. "I had all kinds of equipment in storage and kept driving by this location. It seemed like the time to do this."
The Howlin' Hound (named for the family hound dog that is always looking for handouts at mealtime) is a former fast-food spot on Waters that Kirk and his team have converted into a "fast-casual" location. It's a complete departure from anything anyone has ever known this chef to do.
"We wanted to do something that people could enjoy every day," Kirk says. "With fine dining, you can have 200-plus people on Saturday, but then three on Tuesday. We wanted everyday food that was well prepared in a family atmosphere."
The Howlin' Hound offers any number of sandwiches, wraps, meatball subs and burgers. There are salads, homemade sides like mac and cheese, onion rings and more. It's not cheap fast food. It's higher quality food that you will save a few bucks on by cutting out the frills.
"We don't have traditional table service," he says. You order at the counter and have a seat while you wait.
"We want people to be able to save a few bucks by not leaving a tip," he adds. "Our guests will also have the option to order just a sandwich without sides and save a couple of dollars as well."
The Bethesda Burger is an instant hit in my book. Made with ground beef from cattle raised at Bethesda Academy. Kirk says he tried several different options for his burger beef and ultimately settled on the product now being raised at Bethesda. The bonus is he gets to support a truly local effort. We already know about Bethesda's Farmers Market; well, in case you didn't know, they are now raising a tiny bit of cattle. Kirk is buying up all of the beef.
"I really like the flavor. It's a quality product," he says.
The Bethesda Burger is an homage - if you will - to the "Animal Style" burger at the famed In-N-Out Burger chain mostly located out west. In-N-Out Burger has some of the best fast-food burgers in America. They are regularly voted tops. Lately, my personal favorite, Shake Shack, has been giving them a run for their money, but that is a 3,000-calorie debate for another time.
The Bethesda Burger features two griddled patties, American cheese, Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomato and red onion on a warm ciabatta bun. It is fantastic. I sent a photo of their classic Muffaletta sandwich to a friend of mine from New Orleans and she asked me if I was at Central Grocery. It looked that good.
The meatballs are made by hand every day with a mix of that same Bethesda beef and pork. The ahi tuna looked wonderful as well.
"Where else are you going to be able to order an ahi tuna wrap and pick it up in the drive through?" Kirk says through a laugh.
Yes, The Howlin' Hound, having been a fast-food joint, had a drive-thru window all ready to go. Once they get the electronics worked out, you'll be able to order anything off the menu from the drive-thru or with a quick phone call and pick up in the window. A first for food of this quality in the area.
The plans for now are to only open for breakfast and lunch. No dinner service. That time will be taken up at the Castaways location I mentioned earlier.
"This gives us a chance to see our friends," Kirk says with a smile. "When you are doing fine dining, you are always in the kitchen, making sure every dish is perfect every time. I like being able to talk to our guests."
Which I'm sure comes in handy, because he probably knows them all.
The word has gotten out. Chef Kirk's following around Savannah is significant, and rightly so. He's a graduate of Benedictine, went off to the Culinary Institute of America in New York and came right back to Savannah. He put in time learning the ropes at Driftaway CafÃ© before going on his own at Cohen's Retreat.
"The Cohen's experience taught me a lot," he says. That property has re-opened with another chef and Kirk has moved on to do his own thing, shortly in two locations. The Howlin' Hound will continue to do well, I predict. Castaways has yet to open. I will keep you posted on that spot.
Kirk says he will call me when that spot is up and running.
See you on TV,