Absolutely Not-to-Be Missed Epicurean Delights in Charleston
At least once a week and probably more often than that during peak season, I get asked by friends, family, visitors, students and people on the street about the best restaurants in Charleston. The next question is invariably, “What should I order?” These are both tough questions to answer when you consider the broad range in taste, budget and even location these people usually represent. But, as a tough professional and personal food critic and trained chef, I always go to the ground rules. For me, these include chefs and kitchen staffs that utilize restraint, balance, and pristine technique in their dishes, use only the best and freshest ingredients, and execute both of these elements on a consistent (as in every time) basis. In addition, the spaces need to be immaculate and pleasant and have a professional and informed staff to make my must-do recommendation list.
Of course, in Charleston, there are many that do. But, there are only four that always do that I know of: FIG, Charleston Grill, Little Jack’s Tavern, and Hominy Grill. Each of these gems create the stuff of dreams, daily. Some of them inhabit my own, frequently. And, all of them are places I recommend without hesitation to anyone who asks. Everything is perfect at each of these places, but I’m going to tell you my favorites and why because I don’t want anyone to go through this life without sampling them, because life is too short to miss this kind of deliciousness – the kind that makes breaking any diet rule worth it, at least once.
A star almost since it opened in 2003, this now super star and James Beard-winning destination at the corner of Meeting and Hasell Streets in downtown is almost impossible to book, it’s become that famous. A master of restraint and technique, Chef and Partner Mike Lata has curated some of the best talent and instilled the same crafts within, most notably with super talented and affable Executive Chef Jason Stanhope. If you don’t think ahead to make reservations, try a seat at the comfortable bar (best bet is early or late to ensure seating) and order the silky chicken liver pate. Served with cool and sweet bread and butter pickles, imported French Dijon, and brioche toast points, it’s infinitely better than the very best foie gras, a more humane preparation, and a much better buy at $15. I never want the little square of French perfection to be finished. Add the Yukon Gold potato puree ($10) side to your go-ahead-and-do-it list. It’s smoother than butter and cream, and lovingly fortified with both, but the airy puree of golden potatoes spontaneously lifts every spoonful closer to ethereal heights. In recent years, the restaurant’s made award-winning improvements to its wine list, too. Locally sourced pristine fish and produce all shine on the menu.
Leading the special event dining destination pack since I moved here in 2000 and before, Charleston Grill remains that white linen tablecloth experience and more. It is jazzy, sexy, cosmopolitan, and subdued, and an ideal destination with go with a group or all alone to enjoy the live jazz and outstanding service. You won’t feel alone. You’ll feel sublimely pampered in the expert hands of Executive Chef Michelle Weaver and General Manager Mickey Bakst. A star player on the dinner menu and the bar menu, the fluffy, crisp, and tender crab cake is the not-to-be-missed specialty here. As Weaver has described them to me, “One bite is like tasting a mouthful of the Lowcountry.” The golden cakes are all crab and taste all of that plus sweet and buttery and expertly dressed with creek shrimp and a lime tomato vinaigrette. Sit and stay awhile. You may very well build up an appetite for another.
This is the place I always take guests to when they’re in town, not only because it will please them, but because, like a greedy little lady version of Wimpy, I’m always craving their Tavern Burger, and really every single thing on their menu. Everything is perfect. The menu is abbreviated, but chock full of nostalgic American, Rat Pack-era bravado and friendly, neighborhood service. Parking is easy (and always welcome), but the “baby” burger as I call it, not the double version, is the number one (closely followed by the first-class service) reason to come here. The 1/2″-thick patty emanates ground in-house freshness and just enough fat to enhance the sweet flavor of the “Tavern” sauce and tender, griddled onions. Nestled on a soft bun, custom made and baked daily in-house it, it drips with fully melted, wonderfully mild American cheese. It’s so sublime, it’s even on their dessert menu for those that want one more. Also outstanding here, steak tartar, all of the salads, baked egg, fries, and house cocktails, especially the Bee’s Knees.
Saving the best for last, Hominy Grill is my most recommended and favorite restaurant in Charleston. That’s because it possesses all the qualities I demand (and outlined at the top of the story), but adds elegant, authentic and homey Southern food (what most people come to Charleston to sample) for both breakfast and lunch in an adorable single house prepared by a man that has to be the one of the world’s most humble and hands-on and talented chefs, Chef/Owner Robert Stehling. His training comes from his childhood in North Carolina and later stints at celebrated Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill and some of Manhattan’s best before he brought it all home to Charleston.
I break all the rules here – diet, budget, restraint. If I had the foresight to know what my last meal on earth would be, I would make sure it was here and I would order a cup of she crab soup, a bowl of the shrimp and grits, a high rise biscuit with butter and house made preserves and for dessert, the chocolate pudding or the buttermilk tart, or both. Each of these are examples of some of the best food in Charleston, and arguably, the world. The shrimp are utterly Lowcountry local, rife with the sweet, briny flavor for which they’re known and settled on a bed of stone ground cheese grits with a simple, slightly lemmony mixture of mushrooms, scallions and bacon. The chocolate pudding, as a North Carolina- bred friend of mine used to say, is the best thing I ever put in my mouth. Dark, deep chocolate and silky smooth it (like the tart/sweet heavenly buttermilk pie) comes topped with a generous dollop of freshly whipped cream.
All of this ambrosia comes with a price – fame, and ensuing long lines. Best time to come is just before 9 a.m. on a weekday morning. You’ll likely get in the queue in short order and you can make an excuse to sip one of Hominy’s also delicious house Bloody Mary’s on the front patio.
Now you know my list. Go out and make your own when you’re in town. Charleston is full of the good stuff! I’ve featured each of these four in my latest cookbook, The New Charleston Chef’s Table Cookbook (Globe Pequot Press, May, 2018). along with many others. You can find recipes for Michelle Weaver’s crab cakes and Little Jack’s steak tartar, too. But, even better to go in person.
Bon appetit! Enjoy Charleston and don’t hesitate to write and tell me about your favorites, too.
Starting a Souffle Revolution at Home
The last time I ordered a souffle in a restaurant, or even saw one on a menu, was at Tour D’Argent in Paris, New Year’s Eve, 1992. It was a simple and elegant vanilla souffle, dotted with crunchy, fragrant vanilla pod seeds, arriving at the table all beautiful and steaming hot; a perfectly crafted crown of Gaul glory. The server gently crushed its top to ladle in a silky, warm creme anglaise. It was heaven. A moment I will never forget. Kind of like 1992, which was a magical year for me, all tucked away at Le Cordon Bleu, cooking and learning French cooking by day, absorbing every inch of Paris and France when I wasn’t cooking.
Since then, I haven’t seen them much in restaurants and have often wondered why. They are not expensive to make, are easily prepped and compiled at the last minute, and when well done (they are easier to make than you may think), are utterly impressive and utterly delicious. Any chefs dream dish. Perhaps it’s time to start a new French Revolution in our own home kitchens? That’s what I’ve been doing and the purpose of this post is to remind you how easy and rewarding it is to do the same in your own.
As a prologue to that, I thought I’d share some thoughts from the heroine in the culinary romance novel (hopefully series) I’m working on. She’s a chef and sees several parallels between souffles and her own life:
A Page from Today’s Journal – Prudence Sass
….”The way a souffle turns out, all depends on how it’s handled. The first step is to separate the yolk from the white, or put another way, separate the baby from its embryo. There are lots of important, pesky little things to do along the way (temperature, clean hands, clean bowls, etc.), but the most important of all is the act of denaturing the egg whites to make them stable, airy, and strong. Indeed, to create a beautiful souffle, the natural qualities of the egg white proteins must be altered or destroyed altogether. And, to do that, you beat the hell out of them and fold them ever so gently back into their other half, the yolks, which have been similarly beaten into a ribbon. Then, you pop it into the oven, cross your fingers, and hope it turns out all right. It is comforting to know that older eggs make the most stable souffles and that souffle, a very pretty French word (pronounced soof-lay) literally means ‘to blow’.”
Prudence is basically right about all that. But, to refresh my own souffle thoughts and skills, I spent some time with Greg Patent’s marvelous The French Cook Souffle’s Cookbook (Gibbs Smith, 2014), which is part of The French Cook series I also contributed to (Sauces, Soups & Stews, and Cream Puffs & Eclairs). Greg is a souffle master and his book is written with tender loving care and magnificently described technique, especially in the front of the book where he discusses all matters souffle (sweet and savory) in detail. Because a friend requested a savory cheese souffle for a cooking class I was planning for her husband, herself and some of their friends, I sharpened up my skills using his cheese souffle recipe. Like Prudence, I was crossing my fingers until the very end, but in following Patent’s directions to the letter (except for making the bechamel base ahead and bringing to room temperature before folding in the egg whites) it turned out perfectly.
Classic Cheese Souffle
(from The French Cook Souffles by Greg Patent, Gibbs Smith Publisher)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for mold
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, for mold
1 cup whole milk, plus 1 tablespoon divided
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
6 large eggs, separated, room temperature
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Gruyere, Comte or P’tit Basque cheese
Adjust an oven rack to lower third position and set a baking sheet on the rack. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter bottom and sides of a 1- 1/2 quart, 4-inch tall charlotte mold and coat with the Parmesan.
Heat 1 cup milk in a small heavy saucepan until bubbling but not boiling; keep warm. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove pan from the heat and whisk in the hot milk; sauce should be smooth. Return pan to medium-high heat and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Cook and whisk until very thick, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and whisk in the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Whisk in the egg yolks one at a time. Film the surface of the bechamel with 1 tablespoon milk.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Increase speed to medium-high and continue beating until moist stiff peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir about one-fourth of the whites into the bechamel to lighten. Gently fold in remaining whites, sprinkling in the shredded cheese as you fold. Fold until no white streaks remain. Transfer the batter into prepared mold, filling it about 3/4 inch from the top. (May be made to this point about 1 hour ahead. Cover mold with a large, upturned bowl.) Set the souffle onto the baking sheet in the oven and bake until well browned on top, puffed about 2 inches above the rim, and a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean but moist, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.
We served this with a simple salad of tender greens tossed with a simple orange and mustard vinaigrette. It was the bona fide hit of the evening. The revolutionary and unexpected winner on all counts. If you ever want to come cook with me and learn all about cooking delicious food and having a great time while you’re at it, click on this link for more details:
In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out Greg’s book and start making your own souffles. Wishing all a safe and happy Labor Day weekend.
A Fresh Take on an Old Friend
No matter how wonderful, perfect, or beautiful a person, place (i.e. Charleston), job, relationship, or just about anything starts out, it’s easy to take any of these for granted and fail to really see or recognize why you fell in love with them in the first place. Stress, rushing, bad attitude and plain old not stopping to smell the roses can take its toll on perspective. As wonderful as the last two years have been in my life, they have been very busy. So busy, I was starting to feel grumpy and rushed about too many things, including the city I fell in love with at first sight and have called home for nearly twenty years. Recognizing this, I made a personal vow to take some time to recharge my spirit, mind, soul, take better care of my health, and more time with family, friends and my pets.
Nearly two months into my self-prescribed recharge initiative, I’ve lost seven pounds, am sleeping better than ever, feeling extra creative and productive, and enjoying life and Charleston with renewed vigor. The other day, while walking down East Bay Street near Broad, the morning sun lovingly cast upon the mostly 19th-century roof lines, it seemed as if I had never seen them, really seen them, in their purest and most tangible form as I did at that moment. Later that same week, a friend I haven’t seen in thirty years came to town for a visit. Turns out, Deb and I are in the same place; re-assessing our lives and priorities. She’s looking for potential new places to live (at least part time), so thought she’d give Charleston a whirl. Naturally, I found myself wanting to show Charleston off, and in a most unexpected and delicious turn of events, ended up with a renewed appreciation for my hometown.
Friday morning began with a brisk walk on the beach with my dog Rocky and a spin by Bowen’s Island restaurant to show Deb the tumbledown seafood shack that embodies Charleston and especially Folly Beach with mollusk and hush puppy aplomb. She spied something I never had before, Charleston Outdoor Adventures and kayak tours. I’d never been on a kayak and had never even known about this location for taking them So, we signed up! I felt as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve. Next stop, was a walking tour downtown, and lunch at one of my personal favorites, Little Jack’s Tavern. I felt compelled to introduce Deb to the justifiably famous Little Jack’s Tavern Burger and the cool vibes of this neat little cosmopolitan spot with cheerful Charleston charm. All juicy and packed with flavor and glazed with its signature, secret sauce, it somehow seemed to taste better than ever as we laughed our way through thirty years of memories, some shared and some lived individually and shared over the meal and throughout the weekend.
A warm summer Friday night for two baseball fans seemed like a fitting way to wrap the afternoon at Joe Riley Baseball Park for some all American fun and (as Deb was hoping) a possible Bill Murray sighting. Well, the latter didn’t happen, but a magnificent pink and purple and blue cotton candy sunset did over the marshes at the rear of the park and we watched the likes of players with names like Gage Cunning (fodder for my novel’s lead character’s name) smash the ball around the park and mascots bumping into each other and acting silly. Beer and brisket sandwiches provided sustenance for our bellies, while the charming little park, feel-good sports fans, a rocking fireworks display, and witty banter fed our souls.
Saturday arrived in a flash and I was up before dawn preparing the our kayak tour with Charleston Outdoor Adventures. A quick tutorial with our handsome guide Josh and we were in the saltwater estuary waters behind Folly Beach. A rocky glide across open water went fairly well until our group of five kayak pros and kayak virgin me tried to negotiate our way through a narrow, serpentine slip of water. I felt like I was leaving an aorta and entering a capillary as my poor boat lined itself up horizontally in the flow, nose and tail firmly plugged into the marsh grasses. I was motionless, breathless, and slightly scared. None the less, I was not too proud to flail my oar in the air and meekly cry “help” to the group three turns farther down the path. Josh arrived like the kayak savior he was, pulling out a large hook and line to attach to the tip of my kayak. “Oh my God, you’re not my own personal kayak tugboat are you, Josh?” Yes, was the response, but don’t worry it wasn’t the first time.
Seriously humbled and blushed with shame and exertion, eventually I was able to figure out how to negotiate the rudder pedals and re-joined the group in the open waters, just in time to catch a grounded old shrimping boat and a pod of dolphins. Josh explained that female dolphins (what we were witnessing) typically live sixty years, while males live only fifty. The pristine world where we were watching them play was custom made for their lifestyle and playground, largely created and protected by the barrier islands that surround Charleston. It was a morning I’ll not soon forget and my arm and shoulder muscles, three days later, still possess significant recall.
Later that day, we headed back into town for a ride with Ross of Palmetto Carriage through the French Quarter and lower peninsula. Probably my 20th carriage tour, I learned some things I didn’t know, such as how a boat had smashed into two houses on East Bay during the hurricane of 1911, completely destroying them, and reminded myself again how beautiful the old mansions look in the ebbing light of day, cool afternoon breezes refreshing our spirits anew. There was more on our robust to-do list that got done, such as a “sip and stroll” to The Pavilion Bar, Anson, and The Blind Tiger, and breakfast at The Hominy Grill Sunday morning, enjoying what surely must be the best shrimp and grits and she crab soup in town, if not the entire world.
Three nights, two and a half days, several great meals, a massive lightning storm, Thursday night book club with delicious food and great gals, even more great adventures, and I don’t know how many laughs later, I’d re-found two friends. A Charleston I had partly forgotten and a friendship of thirty years refreshed. And, Deb made a new friend in my little puppy, Rocky Rocken Roll, who practically would not let her go home.
Lesson learned – remember to savor life and take no moments, no place, or no one for granted. And, when you come to or visit Charleston, savor all she has to offer.
Pork Chops, Applesauce, and my Mother and Mother-in-Law with Recipes and Such
In addition to being very near and dear to my heart, my mother (Margaret) and mother-in-law (Dori), share three things in common:
1) They were both raised in the Midwest (Kansas and Iowa, respectively).
2) They both have German ancestry.
3) The former is a good cook and the latter was (Dori passed many years ago) a great cook, but they both cooked the hell out of pork chops.
I never understood it, but I think it was born of a fear of trichinosis, as if the wheat and corn fields that surrounded their homes were threaded with diseased pork phobia genetic code. Mom, a Depression-era baby trying to feed four kids on a budget she never could forget even in good times, weekly bought those razor thin “chops” in value packs, layered them into a baking pan, seasoned with salt and pepper, and added a generous drizzle of barbecue sauce. She would then tightly wrap it with foil and bake at 350F for as long as she was sure it was done. My childhood memory wants to say at least two hours, and I’m not kidding. The result, God bless her, was flavorless shoe leather. A complete disservice to pork and not a favorite childhood food memory, though I sincerely appreciate the effort, and do to this day. Dori, meanwhile, was surrounded with gorgeous corn-fed beef and pig buying options and always brought the most gorgeous cuts. A lover of her pies and all the goodies that came from her very talented cooking skill set and kitchen, I remained ever hopeful every time she put them on the grill or in the oven. But, sadly, the trichinosis thing took over and even the most beautiful Iowa pork chop imaginable was cooked to death.
So, as I grew older and started learning more about cooking on a personal and professional level, pork chops (and all other chops) was the first thing I tackled after trying to master Dori’s pie crust. Making beautiful pork chops is not hard and there really are only a few rules to keep in mind. Begin with buying the best quality chop possible. All chops are cut from the loin that runs perpendicular to the pig’s spine. My favorite of these are the rip chops (cut from the rib portion of the loin) and the center cut pork loin with contains a T-shaped bone (as pictured here). Thick cut pork chops are about 1 1/2 – 2″ deep and usually weigh about 12 ounces, or 3/4 of a pound. Bring them to room temperature before cooking, removing from the fridge about 30 minutes before you begin. Season both sides generously with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 350. Using a seasoned cast iron skillet or an enamel-lined cast iron skillet or the heaviest, best quality, oven-proof saute pan you have, heat about 2 tablespoons each butter and olive oil over medium high to high heat. When sizzling, add the pork chops (leaving space, I do two at a time). Cook until golden brown and easily pulled from the pan, about 3 minutes. Repeat on the second side. Turn over again. Place in the oven, uncovered, for about 20 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center of the chop draws clear juices. The chops should be firm, but slightly pliable to the touch. (Note: If you prefer to use a meat thermometer, insert into the thickest part of the chop. You’ll want a reading no lower than 145F and no higher than 160F). I like to brush mine down lightly with barbecue sauce on both sides (I know, old habits die hard), rest on a clean plate drizzled with all the pan juices and loosely covered with foil, for about 20 minutes. The resting is one of the most important steps and not to be taken lightly. It allows the fat and juices and flavor to re-absorb into the meat where it will be waiting for your knife and fork and grumbling belly.
Pork Chops with applesauce are a common pairing for a reason – they’re smashing together. The sweetness of apples with the milky sweetness of chops are a match made in heaven especially when paired with the earthiness of sage (add that to your chop seasoning mix) and cinnamon in the applesauce. It may seem a little early to speak of apples and fall, but hints of its imminent (and always welcome to this New England girl’s soul) arrival are everywhere. Kids are going back to school, Halloween candy is in the stores, and that subtle shift of fall light has barely begun. This is a lovely recipe from one of my cookbooks, Mashed – Beyond the Potato (Gibbs Smith). Its simplicity makes it divine and it is both beautiful and healthy. Make it a day ahead and serve room temperature alongside your pork chops.
(Yields 2 1/2 cups)
Roasting apples with a bit of lemon juice and sugar ensures that all of the juices, flavor, and nutrients stay in one delicious place, and it also yields apples so tender they are nary in need of mashing. The McIntosh virtually melt on their own, while the slightly sturdier, sweet-tart Jonathan variety require a quick final mash. Perfect on its own, warm from the oven, this applesauce is lovely with a swirl of unsweetened cream over yogurt or ice cream, or as a side to pork roast and chops.
3 Jonathan apples, peeled, quartered, and cored
3 McIntosh apples, peeled, quartered, and cored
Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 400F. Toss all of the ingredients together on a rimmed baking sheet, coating evenly. Arrange in a single layer. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the apples are very soft and easily break to the touch. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes.
While still warm, place the apples and all of their juices into a manual bowl. With a hand-held masher, gently mash until the applesauce is chunky smooth. Serve warm or cold. Will store, refrigerated and covered, for several days.
Happy and delicious cooking out there, my friends. Cooler days are ahead and pork chops and applesauce season is almost here. If you’re ever in greater Charleston, SC, remember to look me up for a private personalized cooking class in my kitchen. I’ve just updated the link on this site with new details and pictures. Here’s the link:
If you’re looking for a wonderful gift for the Charleston lover in your life (and really, who isn’t one?), consider purchasing my latest cookbook, The New Charleston Chef’s Table (Globe Pequot Press, May 25, 2018) to learn more about the history and food traditions of this town, visit with 80 of her best chefs, and cook from their magnificent recipes. Available online at Amazon and major and boutique bookstores now. I can always sign one for you in person at any of my cooking classes.
Voila! She’s Finally Here and A Cookbook Give Away
It’s been a long time since I’ve visited. It’s been a very busy and wonderful year. In addition to a new cookbook (number nine), I have a now sixteen month-old puppy named Rocky (Rocken Roll) and have been enjoying writing press and news for a large Charleston restaurant group.
I deem The New Charleston Chef’s Table “number nine” with some hesitation, as I’m not sure exactly what to call a new edition of an old book (the original Chef’s Table came out in 2009). Is that really a new book? But since it’s essentially an 80% new book, that is almost all of the old book was pulled and new restaurants, chefs and recipes were added, I’m going to go with number nine.
The reason so much of it is new is that Charleston went through yet another massive restaurant renaissance during the past decade. What was delicious got even more delicious and the boundaries for types of food and restaurant locations and styles got even broader. Increasingly, Charleston taste buds veered farther from formality and more towards casual ethnicity diversification, but always, always with a demand for outstanding cuisine. Because, if it was not delivered, those restaurants went away in short order.
Reluctant at first to take on such a huge task, I was glad I did, and am grateful for the opportunity from Globe Pequot Press. The New Charleston Chef’s Table truly reflects the Charleston of now, which was my intention. I pursued recipes that were less structured and more adaptable for the home cook. Some of my favorites include Leon’s Whole Grain Spoon Salad, Fig’s Classic Arugula Salad, Crust’s Chilled Summer Corn Soup, Lewis’ Hatch Green Chile Corn Pudding, The Ordinary’s Fish Schnitzel, and The Daily’s Buttermilk Rhubarb Fool. In this book, more than in the original, I let the book morph with the commentary and thoughts of the chefs. For example, Matthew Niessner at Halls Chophouse didn’t want to share just one recipe, but an entire meal catered to this audience, just as he likes to do for groups when they come to Halls. So he shared recipes for creamed corn, iceberg wedge salad with blue cheese dressing, and how to perfectly prepare a restaurant style ribeye. Meanwhile, at Mex 1 Coastal Cantina I surfed with Ryan Jones into the Baja, California peninsula and cool surfer mentality with cantina chicken tacos and stewed lima beans slow and steady with Martha Lou Gadsen of Martha Lou’s Kitchen.
The design and editing team did a beautiful job of designing the book, which is verdant and fresh with lots of green color and beautiful photography, and has an equally more casual and modern look, reflecting an ever morphing Charleston.
The book was released this past week and is available at major bookstores and online now. I’m offering a signed cookbook to one of you. Just click like on this post or elsewhere where you see it and I’ll do a randomly picked number search on June 4 and announce the winner that day.
Wishing you a beautiful and soulful Memorial Day!