Thursday, May 28, 2009

Visiting the South - Charleston Eat-A-Palooza

Charleston has great restaurants. We had heard this and it's one of the reasons we picked the city as the primary stop on our vacation to the south this spring. Suffice it to say, there's a great culinary tradition there with many eateries to choose from. Since there is plenty to talk about then, I'll dispense with any more up-front info other than to say you can read about our site seeing adventures in Charleston here and see photos of our trip here.

With that, lets dive into our "eat-a-palo0za" through Charleston on a day-by-day basis. So, you foodies out there, sit back and enjoy.

DAY 1 - Seafood, Charleston Style
After rolling in from Savannah, checking into our hotel and sipping some delightful cocktails atop our building at The Rooftop Bar, we decided it was time to dive into the eat-o-thon that we knew our stop in Charleston was going to be. So, off to our first dinner we went. And we went to...

Hyman's Seafood - We made the short walk through the French quarter up to one of the city's seafood institutions - Hyman's. We'd heard that we would probably have to wait in a line to get in, but were pleasantly surprised to be seated right away upstairs in the crowded, hustly-bustly restaurant.

After a couple quick minutes pouring over the fresh menu on the wall and the regular one at our tables, our waitress placed a basket of boiled peanuts in front of us. Delicious and only something you're gonna get down south. We also ordered a couple icy cold, locally brewed Palmetto lager beers. Good stuff to wash everything down. Eventually we settled on our selections. We started with a small cup of "she crab" soup (basically, a chowder featuring local crab). For our entrees, I had shrimp and grits and Diane had something called Carolina Delight - two lightly fried grit cakes topped with scallops, shrimp and crab and then covered with alfredo sauce and and a dash of Cajun seasoning.

We walked around the old market area after dinner and eventually found our way back to the hotel. Convinced that we were off to a great start to our stay, we called it a night.

Day 2 - Uptown Goes Down South
Awakening to sunny skies and warm temperatures inspired our vitamin-D deprived bodies to spend our first full day in Charleston out at Folly Beach. This meant a late complementary breakfast at the hotel, which I have to say tasted great. None the less, there was nothing particularly "southern" about the menu other than a side of tasty grits.

Our "lunch"out at the beach boiled down to some cold brews we picked up a local convenience store. Not a bad way to go for us given our breakfast stuck with us all afternoon. We supplemented that nutritious feast with some late afternoon quesadillas at the hotel rooftop bar.

For dinner, we walked a couple blocks up from our hotel to one of the stars of Charleston restaurants, Magnolia's. Their tag line is something like, "Uptown Down South"...which is actually a pretty good description as the menu is filled with "high end" versions of traditional "low country" staples.

After sitting down in the causually elegant - and crowded - dining room, we started our meal with some refreshing mint juleps, fried green tomatoes featuring caramelized onion grits, ham and tomato well as the Down South Egg Rolls stuffed with collard greens, chicken with red pepper puree, mustard and peach chutney. Luckily, the portions weren't too big because we HAD to try this stuff out!

Next up were our entrees. Diane had the buttermilk fried chicken and accompanying biscuit, mashed potatoes, greens and a sausage gravy. I had the shellfish (shrimp, scallops, lobster) over grits. You may have noticed that this now constituted two straight dinners of seafood and grits for me. I made my choice this night, however, based on the strong recommendation from my friend Michael who is from South Carolina. He commanded that if I was at at "white table cloth" style restaurant that I must get the shellfish over grits as the grits would be major league better than the run-of-the-mill grits you get most other places. Well, this advice did not disappoint. Creamy stone ground grits topped with luscious pieces of meaty shellfish were a bit hit.

It's a good thing the hotel was so close as all we had energy for after that big beautiful meal was beaching ourselves on our bed.

Day 3 - Southern Comfort
We awoke the next day not exactly feeling hungry for breakfast as you might imagine.

Lunch, however, was a different story. After our morning boat tour out to Fort Sumter (see my post here), we made our way to another institution of Charleston food - Jestine's Kitchen. See the link for pictures of some of the dishes. Anyway, we'd heard a lot about this place, and it is popular. We had to wait about 30 min. for a table.

The establishment is named after a close friend of the family who founded the restaurant. Among other things, Jestine cooked up delicious southern dishes for the family and those are the same recipes featured in the restaurant today. Today, the owner (who was a daughters in the family Jestine cooked for) also works the front door greeting guests, clears plates and converses with guests...a very cool lady.

To start things off, every diner is presented with a small dish of pickled cucumbers. We indulged in those and sipped on our ice tea (I got the very "sweet tea" known simply as "tea" in the south), admiring the funky southern ambiance of the joint. Diane then ordered the fried catfish and I dialed up the pecan-encrusted chicken sandwich and fried ochre. Really good. Comfort food indeed! But that wasn't enough. No way. At a place like this, we needed to have the desert. You live for moment like this. Our selections were the coconut cream pie and the famous Coke-a-Cola Cake...a super chocolaty cake treat sweetened with the famous cola. Extreme decadence!

After exploring Boone Hall Plantation in the afternoon, for dinner we walked from our hotel to FIG - which stands for Food Is Good. The approach here is local and organic. The ambiance is modern cool, but the place still felt comfortable. We started with a sensational "salad of young lettuces" that combined the flavors and texture of several types of lettuce (apparently quite youthful) with radish, asparagus and a spring onion dressing.

For our entrees we both could not pass up the locally caught soft shell crab. Prepared simply, the crab held succulent, taste-bud-pleasing meat. And, unlike the crab we get at home in Seattle, there's no cracking open the shell and pulling the meat out. Nope. The soft shell on the soft shell crab is so thin that you just eat it along with the meat. Really good too. We paired all this up with a nice Washington L'ecole 41 semillion. After the thermo-nuclear desert action of our lunch, we refrained from desert here. It killed us to do it, but it was the right thing to do.

The service at FIG is worth noting too. The greeter and waitress were both very helpful and attentive, eager to give a recommendation rather than the standard, "everything is good" type response you get in many places. In fact, upon learning we were visiting Charleston, our waitress even suggested a good lunch spot just outside the city...which we tried the next day.

Day 4 - Another Shot of Southern Comfort
We took breakfast again at the hotel and headed out for a morning of sightseeing - this time the USS Yorktown at Patriot's Point. Following that we drove across the city in attempts at seeing another plantation, but it was not open for tours when we got there. Luckily, we were nearby the lunch spot recommended to us by the staff at FIG the night before. So, we went there.

The place is called The Glass Onion. Just off Highway 17 a few miles south of Charleston, The Glass Onion is a diner-style operation offering po' boy sandwiches, chicken, burgers and all matters of fried goodness. I had the fried shrimp po' boy and loved every bite. Diane had a spicy curry chicken dish that I was a bit jealous of. We washed it all down with a Dixie beer and left happy campers.

We kept the southern love going in the evening at The Hominy Grill. This place is not walking distance from were we were staying, but the evening was so lovely that we hired a bicycle taxi (aka rickshaw) to take us there. This proved to be a good call as we got a nice view of some old neighborhoods and cut through the pretty College of Charleston campus on the way. Turns out, the delights were just beginning.

Housed in an old home, the restaurant also has a pretty patio off to the side complete with tables under vine-entwined trellises and perfectly placed hanging lights. On a balmy evening...very charming. The crowd was clearly eclectic with local businessmen having a casual dinner over here, a friendly elderly couple chit-chatting over there and any number of us hip tourist types (OK, Diane definitely helps us increase our hip quotient, not me) filling things in.

We kicked things off with the restaurant's signature cocktail - a mix of ginger ale and rum over ice. Excellent. For our starter, we had the out-of-this-world okra and shrimp beignets with salsa and cilantro-lime sour cream. It's safe to say we'd never had anything quite like this and as you can imaging from the description, it proved divine indeed.

After the chicken, grits, seafood extravaganza I'd been on over the previous few days I decided to change things up and go for something different this time. I'm glad I did. I settled on a cashew-encrusted pork chop. A taste sensation. Diane had her first shrimp and grits dish here and loved it. It featured sauteed shrimp with mushrooms, scallions and bacon over creamy cheesy grits. Mmmmm.

Each of our entrees came with a choice of side dishes. We were thrilled to see the mac & cheese was listed as a "vegetable" and ordered accordingly. After the nice cocktails, we shifted to Palmetto lager for a cleaner beverage to accompany our feast. But were we done after the entrees? No. No way. The desert menu beckoned and we heeded the call. No splitting a single desert here. Nope. We ordered up the buttermilk pie and the deeply rich chocolate pudding. My arteries are hardening just writing about this...but we were over the moon pleased. Giddy.

Our stomachs expanded but happy, we caught a taxi home and called it a night.

Day 5 - Sweatman's!!!!
It's amazing that as I re-live our eat-o-rama in Charleston that we ever were hungry enough for breakfast, but we always felt we needed something to get us going in the morning. On this day we opted out of the hotel offering and walked up the street to a coffee shop/bakery called Baked for over sized lattes and some nice scones.

Our big adventure on this day was a trip out into the countryside to seek out some authentic and delicious South Carolina-style bar-b-que. We'd heard about just such a place from a friend and seen such a place on Antony Bourdain's TV show, No Reservations. The restaurant is called Sweatman's. Hidden out in rural Holly Hill, Sweatman's offers up the quintessential mustard-style South Carolina bar-b-que. Some say it's the best in all of the U.S. of A. I'm sure there are some people in Dallas, Memphis, Kansas City, Charlotte and other places who would debate that. But not us. Not when we were in striking distance of Sweatman's.

And so it was that we set out on the one hour drive to Holly Hill. After exiting the freeway we wound through some country roads, through Holly Hill itself, onto some more country roads until in the distance we spied the unmistakable vision of the white Sweatman's pig shaped sign. With our goal suddenly upon us, we let out a cheerful scream of "Sweatman's!!!!"

Pulling into the gravel driveway, we knew this was going to be good. The place is only open to the public for lunch and diner on Fridays and Saturdays. The parking lot was full and with mouths watering we walked up the steps and into the old ranch style building that is the restaurant today. Inside, it's wood lined walls hung with pictures of the Sweatman's family, writings about good bar-b-que and other odds and ends. The light linoleum floor shines up at you as you make your way to the inner chamber where the buffet and cashier reside.

This is a cash-only place, but a bargain. You have a choice of the full buffet for about $9 or just the pulled pork sandwich for a little less. We both went "the whole hog" and selected the buffet. For a whopping extra 71 cents each, we both also ordered the banana pudding (featuring broken up bits of Nilla wafers). After loading up our plates with succulent on-the-bone ribs covered in just the right amount of mustard sauce, some pulled pork and cole slaw and soda pop, we hunkered down to wallow in the pleasure.

But, before I get to that, Sweatman's also proved to be an interesting people watching experience too - going both ways. We saw some pretty interesting locals (most the people inside were men with big bellies in flannel shirts sporting mustaches and ball caps) and I'm sure they'd say we were of interest too as we observed some shifty eyes flitting our way to see just who these urban interlopers were. Having said that, we didn't feel uncomfortable. It's just the way it is.

OK, so...the bar-b-que at Sweatman's is out-of-sight. The ribs are cooked exquisitely so that the meat slides off the bone but retains its moist-but-firm texture. The smokey goodness of the meat is complimented by the slightly sweet/slightly spicy mustard sauce. Wow. Just wow. The pulled pork was in the same ballpark of spectacular with the cool cole slaw added a nice change up. Diane had her fill with one helping, but I had to go back for just one more (OK tw0) ribs. We finished the meal up with that 71 cent banana pudding. That knocked our socks off too.

We rolled out of the house and took a quick look around the grounds in the heat of the afternoon, snapping some pictures for the record. Hopping back in the car, we completed our pork odyssey driving back to Charleston where we took a nice horse carriage ride around the old French quarter.

For our last diner in Charleston, we selected Anson. Just off the old market, this place served as a high-end contrast to our low budget lunch. Mint juleps topped the bill and we order a couple starters to get things going - she crab soup and cornmeal dusted okra with goat cheese and chili vinaigrette. Guided by our very helpful waiter, our main courses were the same...a simply prepared wreckfish (a locally caught meaty white fish) with vegetables. Our desert this time was a warm bread pudding with ice cream. Yet again, Charleston did not disappoint. This meal really delivered the goods in terms of flavor, local style, ambiance and services. We left very pleased.

Day 6 - Cru Fest
On our last day in Charleston, we only had time for a lunch. After morning bike adventure through the old city neighborhoods and stopping to buy some nice art at a gallery we visited the next day, we knew that we had one last chance to eat well before heading north. With this in mind, we asked around about several places we've heard about, but were unanimously directed to go to the Cru Cafe. So who were we to disobey. Walking distance from our hotel, we meandered over there sans a reservation. Luckily, we were able to get in, but just barely. The place was packed at 12 p.m. and it just so happened that a couple stools at the stainless steel counter opened up. The chef - who doubled as the greeter - quickly ushered us there. This proved to be a great vantage point to observe all the action in the kitchen as we could see staff at each station in full operation.

I ordered the coconut fried oyster wrap with chipotle mayo, and Diane indulged in the scumptious fried shrimp BLT with a side of coleslaw.

With this last feat accomplished we sadly had to leave Charleston and move on up the coast. Jumping in our rental car, we pulled out of town with great memories of some of the best, most unique American food we'd every had. Not one of the places we dined disappointed and each offered a slightly different take on what we came to know as "low country" cuisine. We really went 10 for 10. No misses, all goodness.

With that in mind, I've thought about this over the last couple weeks since we've come back from this vacation, and I'm ready to declare that our diner at The Hominy Grill was the best meal of all of them. The combination of how the food tasted, how it met our fantasies about how good low country dishes can be, ambiance, service, drinks, deserts and price can't be beat. Sure, it's a close call among the 10 places we ate, but I'll go ahead and chose this as the winner by a nose.

Finally, if the above doesn't entice you enough, I'll say it straight out: If any of you considering a trip to the south, I'd recommend seriously considering Charleston...for the food alone.


Swift said...

1) I hope you had your cholesterol checked after the trip. Wowsa!

2) I hate you. I'm sitting reading this post as I consume my boring frozen microwavable lunch.

Marc said...

Ha! Thanks for the comment!

Yeah, I'm only just now (late June) back down to my pre-trip weight. It was a doozy...but fun.

Enjoy the frozen feast.