Low Country

Charleston, SC

If you are a foodie, or just get regular Eater blasts, it is hard to ignore all the hype Charleston has been getting with their food and wine festivals and James Beard accolades and restaurant kudos.  The same praise is bestowed on New Orleans, and is justified.  I decided to see what all of the fuss is about, and sought advice from a food critic in Charleston as to the great places to experience what I learned to be “low country” cuisine.

After a very pleasant and short two hour flight from JFK, my partner in all things wonderful and delicious, Michelle, and I headed over to Cru Café (a tip from one of my clients, Kevin), and arrived just as they opened their doors for service. From the hotel on King Street (King’s Courtyard Inn), the trail led us through the market for some shopping and by two carriage houses (of which there are many) to a charming house with a porch.  Many restos are housed in charming houses, and the word charming cannot be too redundant in describing Charleston.  Just walk through the Battery and around the southern peninsula and it will feel like an extended version of NOLA’s Garden district, with great trees and lots of peace and quiet.

The menu at Cru Café is American bistroish with a bit of the south.  We split a poblano and bell pepper soup, duck confit and onion ring arugula salad, and a play on General Tso’s chicken in a wrap with a side of creamy mashed potatoes.  The wine list is short and sweet, an international medley but all reasonably priced. We chose a 2012 Richter Riesling from the Mosel that paired well for the entire meal.   Honest cooking in a nice setting with friendly service sums it up.  Great start.

We walked through Market Street to find dessert, and ended up at Kaminsky’s for coffee and pecan pie.  The place looks like a bar save for all the baked pies and cakes in the display cake as you enter.  The slice was generous and dense, the coffee sub-par.  No off for walk-about to work it off.

There are several establishments that promote a happy hour, and it is wise to do a little research as to what is the best deal.  As we are oyster fiends, Charleston is a good place to be.  Gulf oysters can be had many places for under ten bucks a dozen.  All other coastal oysters can be as high as two bucks apiece, but still reasonable as compared to NYC.  We walked into a jam packed Pearlz a little to late, anh had to settle for some oysters and clams at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar.  The drinks were average and the shellfish fine, but overall the atmosphere was lacking and we hurried over for a serious cocktail at the Gin Joint.

Aside from being a bit too bright for a cocktail bar, the Gin Joint was a solid hit.  Pimm’s Cup, Mint Julep, Manhattan, the classics were executed well.  The house cocktails were also creative and well balanced. We could tell the patrons expected good cocktails too.  A very good sign for things to come indeed.  Patrons were not well dressed, and that was unfortunate.  Something is wrong with ladies dressed well and gentlemen in shorts, polos and tivas. We then headed to the rooftop Library bar, which yielded some lovely breezes, a must to offset the slight humidity even in late October.  The view was lovely, what with all of the low buildings, but the drinks were weak.  It started to rain, and that was our cue to exit.

We hid in the Gin Joint again until the rain died down, and made it to a 9:30 reservation at Husk unscathed.  Husk is also housed in a townhouse, but of a much larger scale.  The porch is long, and the resto sports high ceilings and different rooms.

The strategy was two glasses of white wine and a bottle of red, having felt the effects of the Gin Joint.  I found a gem, Roagna Rosso 2005 for fewer than eighty dollars, and felt that the light nebbiolo would holdup for all the dishes we planned to order. Kentuckyaki glazed Pig ears lettuce wraps with salt fermented cucumbers and peppers were crunchy and addicting.  Wood fired clams could have used a kick but were smoky and good.  More Hog Island Bay oysters with sorrel berry mignonette and preserved honey ginger please.  Then cornmeal dusted NC catfish with smoky bean Hop-n-John and Bean lacquered NC duck leg with Napa cabbage and English Peas for main courses.  There is no jealousy or animosity between NC and SC; they share their best ingredients alike.  The duck shredded like pulled pork and the catfish was cooked perfectly.  Both dishes more southern by their accompaniments, southern home cooking done at a higher level with better-sourced ingredients.  We squeezed in one desert, a buttermilk pie, and then I tapped out. No mas.

After breakfast at the inn, lunch at S.N.O.B., Slightly North of Broad.  The wine list was extensive, and we found a 1991 Richter Riesling for $74.00,  drinking fabulously.  We split two soups, butternut squash bisque and white clam chowder, both creamy and proper and excellent with the Riesling.  Then came the Maverick shrimp and grits.  The grits on most menus was Geechie Boy yellow, and this was the first exposure and wouldn’t be the last by a long shot.  The dish was accented by Tasso ham, sausage, tomatoes, green onion and garlic broth, yet somehow the grits stayed firm and true to form.  I went for the local drum fish which was seared nicely on the skin side, moist and flaky on the inside.  Before the trip I had set my mind to taste much of the local fish to get a sense of the types of fish and the respective cooking techniques.  We finished with a banana cream pie.  Who can resist?

After an extensive peregrination through the Battery, we made it back to East Bay Street for happy hour at Pearlz, which was too crowded the night before.  The bar was bustling, and we ordered many oysters and clams, but I kept returning to the peel and eat shrimp, jumbo sized and dusted with Old Bay seasoning.  After a medley of pretty decent cocktails it was time for a siesta, which I try to plan on every trip between happy hours and late dinner reservations.

This time we took a cab to The Grocery as it is located just off Upper King Street.  We had been walking to every place, but did not want to run past 10 pm, and in addition it was raining again, and Charleston streets do not hold up well in the rain.  The Grocery was the kind of place you would find in NOLA, with lots of space, a separate bar area, open kitchen, reclaimed wood and interspersed with metal etc.  When you enter an old used vault safe greets you, and you like the vibe instantly.   The Firehouse is located just across the street, but it was the police who gave us a disco show pulling over a cab going the wrong way on a one-way street.

We had some fried oysters on top of deviled egg cream.  I asked our server Walt for some bread to sop up the remnants.  He told me that was the “country” thing to do.

The two cocktails we ordered were delicious, mine a dirty tomato martini, zingy and tangy, the other all rhubarb and herb like.  I found a nice bottle of dry furmint form Heidi Schlock, a female winemaker, and I do adore a feminine touch in my wines.  My partner Michelle was feeling a bit stuffed, (Why?), and barely got through her scallops and pork belly (clean-up hitter to the rescue), and I went out on a limb and ordered the market fish whole snapper for two for myself.  The fish was wood roasted and so fat and fleshy I thought it was an oversized puffer fish.  I put that dish down inspiring awe form Walt, who said I was “low country” having completed that feat.  No dessert, onto Upper King Street, where we found out is where the hip bars and college kids hang out, a sort of mixed blessing.  Nothing against south of the market and East bay St. restaurant row, but the clientele is a lot of old money, and the average age is the NY state speed limit.

Upper King was crowded as forecasted, even with the rain keeping the masses at bay.  We stopped into the Cocktail Club, which was more nightclub than cocktail, and promptly walked out.  We caught a drink at the Belmont Lounge with a sleek Miami sort of vibe.  The drinks were proper but the clients were University, so we moved the party to Rarebit, straight out of Williamsburg. It too was a bit clubby, but the music was groovy and the drinks were rolling.  We ended up at brunch here the next day for chicken and waffles.

Perhaps the best of the seafood places was The Ordinary, also on Upper King, which looked like it used o be an old bank.  High vaulted ceilings and a tasteful maritime design splits the restaurant in two, with replica game fish, wooden mermaids and underwater diorama.  The bar yields twice as much room as is necessary, and yet when all of the thoughtfully crafted seafood plates pile up you become grateful.  A battery of pristine oysters at NYC prices makes me feel at home.  A civilized dirty Plymouth Martini with extra olives made me feel like it was Saturday night.  The selection included Blackberry Point, meaty Belons, fab Honeysuckles, Beach Blondes, Otter Island, and Caper Blades, the elixirs of the ocean.  The local little necks were no second fiddle either.  P & E Gulf shrimp was meaty and addicting. But the show stopped when the razor clams hit the bar, lightly poached and plucked from its shell, presented in a glass bowl above decorative seaweed and ice, mixed to be a ceviche with fennel, cilantro, green apple, jalapeno and lime.  We ordered it twice and became the dish’s spokesperson for the bar.  We topped it all with an oyster slider, cornmeal crusted with deviled egg cream, a perfect bite.  All the while the bartender was concocting the perfect daiquiri, the straight up version with three simple ingredients of Angostura rum, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup.  What a revelation.  We would have stayed if it were not for a 9:30 res at FIG, who happens to be partners with The Ordinary.

After another siesta and a quick change, we walked to FIG (very close to inn).  It is housed in a regular setting rather than a house.  The bar was bustling and the room very contemporary with warm earthy tones.  However, the artwork seemed out of place, and the light fixtures gaudy.  Only SNOB was more disjointly designed, and we were afraid the food might be dated.  Au contraire, with excellent service and advice from our server Ashley, we had two great cocktails from the make your own Negroni list, and went to town. Painted Hills Beef carne cruda, razor clams, Keegan-Fillion Farms chicken liver pate to open things up.  Then the oft ordered ethereal ricotta gnocchi and Appalachian Highlands Lamb Bolognese and a John’s Island tomato tarte tatin.   An enormous portion of Eden Farms pork schnitzel with heirloom tomato farotto was demolished.  All washed down with a Vajra Rosso, which was being given away for sub forty dollars.  Again we wish we had room for more.  We squeezed in a Meyer Lemon Pudding with NC blackberries and aged balsamic for sweets, and glad that we did.

Pre-flight the next day we hiked out to the Butcher and Bee, a sandwich shop that is worth any trek.  Housed in a garage, the lovely ladies just serve finely crafted sandwiches.  I was upset not to be able to try the banh mi, as it is a nighttime option (they are open until 3 am), but was extremely pleased with the roast beef sandwich and the BBQ beef and cheddar.  No Po boys here, but it the quality and creativity gives Nola’s Parkway tavern a run for its money.

Overall, I was impressed with the dining scene in Charleston.  I would like to explore the outer Island for some down low country cuisine, some more BBQ and fried chicken, and some island fishing.  It was great to see the quality of the cocktails, the composition and selections offered on the wine lists, and the local sourcing for ingredients.  I did find it strange that almost no one dressed up to go out, ala Seattle.  Most men wore the standard uniform of a plaid or checked shirt (gingham) and a pair of jeans.  The ladies’ fashion was all department store driven.  Come on, with cooking this good, show some class.

The only other comment I will make is a social one.  There was a definite division of patrons as it refers to age from Upper King to Lower King Street.  I witnessed a much older crowd on Lower King and a mixed and often university crowd on Upper King.  And, as a person of color, I rarely saw any person of color dining out or in the cocktail clubs I visited.  Even the kitchen staffs were primarily Caucasian, at least on appearance.  I did not feel segregated, and received great service by all accounted, but coming form New York it felt a bit strange to me.  I just wondered where all the people of color were dining and why they hadn’t been spotted at these places where I thought there was some solid cooking going down.

Ultimately what I take from Charleston, are people who are passionate about food and beverage as a way of life, and when you ask for extra biscuits to sop up the sauce, that is downright low country.