Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist

biscuits

Best Four Charleston Restaurants and Their Best Dishes

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.

FIG

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.

Charleston Grill

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.

Exquisite Charleston Grill Crab Cake with Creek Shrimp and Lime Tomato Vinaigrette

Little Jack’s Tavern

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.

Hominy Grill

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.

Hominy Grill’s world-class and utterly authentic shrimp and grits is served all day. Get some!

Quite possibly the world’s best biscuit. Feel free to slather with the succulent house made preserves.

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.

Holly

 

 

 

 

 

Share

“Holly”-Day Foodie Shopping List Helper

A Few of  My Favorite Things

It’s hard to believe Christmas is already less than two weeks away and that holiday shopping season is well underway in its typical mid-December fervor.  A friend of mine was  opining yesterday on Facebook about her growing apathy towards the whole commercial side of the holidays, and I have to agree with her. At times, the task of finding and giving affordable and meaningful gifts to the loved ones in our lives can seem daunting and overwhelming – especially with so many different things to buy and from so many different online and retail sources. Especially as we get older and more seasoned by the season, the more important it becomes to find a meaningful gift for each person on your list. So, in a hopeful effort to streamline and simplify your shopping tasks for the Charleston-loving, foodie/chef in your life, I’ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite things that are sure to please. These are certainly all things I would be happy to receive and to give and each and every one of them are homegrown right here in Charleston.

Middleton Made Knives

I’ve been admiring bladesmith Quintin Middleton’s hand-crafted, high carbon steel knives for years. Equal parts utilitarian and art, each knife is customized to order and meet the needs of the home or professional chef who will be putting it to use.  Not surprisingly, his tiny little business has morphed into a fast-growing enterprise and his beautiful knives can be found locally at Southern Season and Charleston Cooks! The price range is not for the timid of budget (sets and knives range from $100 – $820), but these are the kinds of knives that, when properfly maintained, will literally last a lifetime and deliver year after year of cooking joy. It’s too late to customize an order for Christmas and the holidays, but $100 gift certificates are available now at middletonmadeknives.com.

MIddleton Made Knives 6"- Damascus Chefs Knife. In a perfect world, this would be in my stocking Christmas morning.

MIddleton Made Knives 6″- Damascus Chef’s Knife. In a perfect world, this would be in my stocking Christmas morning.

Callie’s Charleston Biscuits

Another Charleston homegrown business, this one started in owner Carrie Morey mother’s kichen when mom Callie White was building her wildly successful catering business twenty years ago. Carrie picked up the rolling pin and the recipes where her mother left off and has grown the business into a nationally distributed brand. Still, the buttery, flaky southern staples, each and every one of them, taste as if they were just mixed and cut in the kitchen next door. The brand list now includes a seven-fold product line; my personal favorites include the impossibly chunky and simply authentic pimento cheese and bacon and cocktail ham biscuits. But, why stop there? Just in time for the holidays, Callie’s has packaged a Christmas Kit ‘n Caboodle bundle which includes both of the aforementioned treats, cheese and chive biscuits and Fat  & Juicy Bloody Mary Mix – all you really need to get through your holiday entertaining and early morning Christmas Day munchies for $79.95. This nifty package and all other products are available to order now at calliesbiscuits.com. Delivery dates can be set to fit your schedule.

Callie's Christmas Kit 'n Caboodle will satisfy the biscuit lover in your life in a big way - and then some.

Callie’s Christmas Kit ‘n Caboodle will satisfy the biscuit lover in your life in a big way – and then some.

Speaking of biscuits, did anyone say Big Fat Nasty?

In recent years, Charleston’s beloved Hominy Grill has reached national acclaim for its soulful, southern fare so perfectly executed in the hands of Chef/Owner and James Beard winner Robert Stehling. Of late, most seem to know “Hominy” from television and other reports on its staggering fried chicken, biscuit and gravy sandwich – The Big Fat Nasty.  But, I love it and always have loved it, for anything on the menu. Everything is astounding, whether you’re going for breakfast, lunch, dinner or the now epically popular weekend brunches. Try the vegetable plate or the shrimp and grits (the best in town, hands down) and at night, if you’re lucky, the corn pone and friend chicken will be on the menu. Chase it all with buttermilk pie or the darkest, smoothest richest chocolate pudding you’ll ever sample this side of heaven – both served with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. No visit to Charleston is complete without a visit to Hominy Grill. Why not get your loved one started with a $10 gift certificate (or buy a few!), one of HG’s signature, heavy-bottomed coffee mugs ($10.95) or a recipe book full of some of their most cherished memories ($12.95). All available now at hominygrill.com.

Hominy Grill's Recipe Book will become a staple in your HG and southern cooking fan's cookbook repetoire.

Hominy Grill’s Recipe Book will become a staple in your HG and southern cooking fan’s cookbook repetoire.

This suggested shopping list will be continued in the coming days with more ideas for your Charleston foodie’s shopping list just in time for the last safe mailing dates of the season. Until then, happy shopping, happy holidays, and remember to take the time to stop and savor Charleston’s magnificent holiday finery or a dashing, majestic winter sunset – gloriously gratis and wrapped with a big, fat, beautiful Lowcountry bow.

Bon appetit!

Share
Latest from the Blog
Books
Never Miss a Post!

Sign up for my newsletter and never miss a post or give-away.