Holly’s recommended restaurants, reviews.
Holly’s recommended restaurants, reviews.
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.
Indaco Adds Sunday Brunch to Tasty “Dixie-talian” Menu
The burgeoning bunch of downtown Charleston restaurants serving brunch, especially on smokin’ hot Upper King Street, just got one restaurant bigger, and in my opinion, that much better. Indaco, popular for its sexy, sophisticated bar and dinner scene, added brunch to its menu line-up and kicked off last Sunday with a whopping 120 covers on the very first day.
The menu, co-created by Executive Chef Michael Perez and newly promoted Chef de Cuisine Andy McLeod, stays true to the restaurant’s self-described Dixie-talian roots, or as McLeod aptly describes it, “a broad use of local ingredients with an Italian spin.” Not surprisingly, the menu weaves a series of pizzas (both sweet and savory) from their celebrated wood-burning oven, egg sandwiches, pasta, and classic Italian “primi” courses such as an exquisite sounding Bombolini made with a Meyer lemon marmalata and lemon crema, smoked pork rilettes, and a prosciutto plate with Honey Crisp apples, honey and Parmesan cheese.
Here are some of my favorites:
While sophisticated, the space is also children-friendly, particularly the large, outdoor patio. Management anticipates adding live music to the entertainment mix in the coming weeks, once the brunch crowd has settled in. Bottomless Bellinis prepared with peach, a splash of pomegranate and Prosecco or a Mark it 8, Dude adult beverage featuring a blend of vodka, Borghetti, a cereal infused cream (last week it was cinnamon crunch!) and a pinch of cinnamon, will certainly suit Charleston’s vast apres church, libation-imbibing crowd.
526 King Street, downtown Charleston, 29403
Sunday brunch hours – 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
2014 – Charleston’s Year of Low Cost Deliciousness
Most of last year Charleston was showered with a small storm of low cost, casual eateries many of them sprouting up along Upper King Street, and to a lesser extent, downtown, and points west and east. Perhaps it’s because these little guys now outnumber the big, formal, high price point guys by a lot, that I found myself drawn to them more than any other category of restaurant in the past twelve months. Memories of a butter tender, ultra fresh zucchini blossom, lightly breaded and filled with lemon-seasoned ricotta one spring evening at Indaco compete with the recall clamor of a delectable milk poached pork loin at the utterly adorable and French Chez Nous. But, to follow is a list of the places that were so spectacular and relaxed that I found myself returning again and again.
I know it’s not sexy and it’s not hip and I’m certain you’ll never read about this in any national magazine about Charleston’s smoking hot food scene. To those in the know (and that’s largely a James Island-based clan), they’re onto the gutsy, Italian American goodness you can find here – lunch and dinner. I’m almost hesitant to give this preferred secret destination away, but the staff here deserves high praise. A glorious, three-meat, slightly sweet, slightly acidic Bolegnese wraps its way into every bite of the ultra cheese lasagna that comes with an oregano-smacked house-made vinaigrette and a crunchy, cold house salad. The service staff practically sings with affability and good service.
This place is sexy – and sleek. Fantastic oysters with clean, bright sauces are shucked at the bar and the fried local fish platter is another local secret. If you get bored (and you won’t) check out the oyster chandeliers that adorn the high ceilings.
Like Chez Nous, Brasserie Gigi gave Charleston a warm gustatory Gallic hug this year with authentic, casual brasserie fare. Where Chez Nous feels more like a gem you might find in a small French village, Gigi feels more like Paris. Though Executive Chef Frank McMahon is Irish, his training is classical French and I contend he’s one of Charleston’s best. You can especially taste it in his rendition of calamari – light, airy, tender and served with a fluffy saffron aioli. For reasons I cannot understand, it’s only served on the Happy Hour menu, Saturday through Sunday, 4 to 7 p.m.
Craig Deihl’s spent years behind the scenes at Cypress mastering the complex crafts of curing, smoking, charcuterie and pate and this year he proudly brought it to the fore at a a brand new store front that carries it all, and puts some of it on fresh bread adorned with gorgeous condiments to produce some of the best sandwiches around. I love the Italian and the the minty pea salad.
It’s hard to resist the ease of the drive away from the bustle of downtown’s increasingly congested traffic and the ease of parking at this hot spot at the corner of King and I Streets. More than any other restaurant around, this has been my reliable destination whenever I need a slice of urban sophistication, relaxed neighborhood feel-good service, and some fryer fresh, crunchy, fried chicken. Broiled oysters and all salads, especially the stacked iceberg lettuce with lip-smacking buttermilk dressing never disappoint. Come hungry and finish it off with a soft serve ice cream and a confetti of colorful sprinkles.
For fantastic, casual dining at reasonable prices, also consider these personal favorites from 2014 and likely for years to come:
Wishing you all a wonderful, healthy, happy and delicious 2015!
Boxcar Betty’s Fried Chicken Sandwiches vs. Chick-fil-A
Initially, it may not seem fair to draw parallels between seven month-old newcomer Boxcar Betty’s and beloved southern fried chicken sandwich and decades-old restaurant chain, Chick-fil-A. However, both restaurants’ staples are fried chicken sandwiches, Boxcar Betty’s is located just a few blocks away from one of Chick-fil-A’s restaurants on Savannah Highway, and both draw legions of dedicated fans, particularly during their mutually packed midday lunch services. And, as Boxcar Betty’s co-owner Ian MacBryde told me, he and business partner Roth Scott built their business model on Chick-fil-A’s “excellent service” (and Five Guy’s and Chipotle’s specialized menus).
Early out of the gate, Boxcar Betty’s is displaying serious pluck with chicken breasts that spend no more than 24 hours in an (undisclosed) brine blend that renders them impossibly tender and flavorful before they even hit the fryer. Sourced from a free range, hormone and antibiotic free, SC-based chicken farm, they’re already off to a running start. Battered and fried to order and served on daily, morning bread deliveries from local bakery Pane Di Vita, they’re hitting them out of the park. Add on styling, sassy and well-paired house-made condiments like pimiento cheese, bacon jam, maple bacon, and pickled green tomatoes, they’re hoisting the unmatched fried chicken sandwiches prize – for prices dangerously close to their relatively mass-produced colleagues down the street (most around or under $7).
In addition to the sandwiches, BB’s offers an imaginative array of salads (especially the impressive Chopped Fried Chicken Salad topped with a series of inventive yet appropriate finishes, and lightly cloaked in a pert Agave buttermilk dressing) and awesome stuffed mushroom caps.
Oh, and they’re open on Sundays.
Boxcar Betty’s Fried Chicken Sandwiches
1922 Savannah Highway
Charleston, SC 29405
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Note: Evening hours planned to stretch to 9 p.m. after the New Year in 2015). Website: www.boxcarbetty.com
PS – Remember to look for my new website design coming soon – with updated fonts, layout and photography.
A very authentic taste of France has arrived in Charleston. Chez Nous is authentic, charming and delicious. And, she joins a gaggle of tasty new French enterprises in town.