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.
Musician Zac Brown and Executive Chef Rusty Hamlin’s ten year-old friendship was forged on two things the men both love – food and music. This weekend, they’re bringing it to Charleston in the form of The Southern Ground Food & Music Festival. Country music and good-food fans will tap toes to the like of Brown, John Mayer, Gregg Allman and many more while supping on some of Charleston’s best at Blackbaud Stadium.
And, Rusty can hardly wait. “I’m really excited to be in Charleston and doing what I do. Feeding people, especially at this level, it’s a gift and I love it. If I start calling this work, then I’m outta’ here.”
The enthusiastic, jovial chef has got his work cut out for him, but he’s done it many times before as executive chef for the band. He logs countless miles in his traveling kitchen he calls “Cookie,” completing ninety shows a year at at least four festivals. His job? Simple. Feed the people, all of them – guests, musicians, anyone and everyone.
But, he’s got help – great help for the festival. An outsourced catering group, Dega, will tend to the feed-needs of the crew, musicians, and stagehands – all 250 of them.
Charleston’s own Home Team BBQ will serve the guests in the VIP area. The real star of the food show will likely be the Front Porch Stage Boxes. Five boxes on each side of the main stage, will house four tables for six persons. A total of 250 fans will be served a five-course feast as they take in the very front and center sights and sounds of the show. To get the job done right, Chef Rusty is calling in his chef friends R.J. Cooper from Rogue 24 and David Guas from Bayou Bakery, both located in Washington, DC. Local chefs Michelle Weaver (Charleston Grill) and Kevin Johnson (The Grocery) will also be cooking. The menu’s not set in stone until the meal is actually served, but Rusty always relies heavily on local, fresh produce and farmers’ markets.
The chefs will all work together in a massive prep tent on the grounds to get the job done right. Working together is a big part of the fun. “The reason I invite chefs to help me is the chef comradery. There are a lot of chefs that don’t get to get out and meet other chefs, laugh, and learn. I let everyone come up with their own dish. Each chef makes something that represents themselves, ” says Rusty, who will be creating an appetizer one day and an entree on the other.
Meanwhile, back aboard Cookie, a 54- foot traveling complete professional kitchen wonder, Rusty and his staff of eight cooks (hired locally), will be whipping up the goods for the concession area. Guests can expect Smoked Beef Tendererloin Sliders on Pan-Fried Cornbread Rolls, Pork Tenderloin with a Brown Sauce (a recipe created by Zac Brown), Chocolate Peanut Butter Biscuit Pudding, and Creole Jambalaya.
“My main focus will be on the thousands of people that will be here this weekend. My hope is that they have an amazing time and are over-served deliciousness and great music. I want them to forget all of their worries when they come in that front gate and let us take care of them. And, maybe, I’ll get to show off my tail-feathers a little bit,” says Rusty with a hearty laugh.
For informations and tickets, visit www.southerngroundfestival.com.
In the middle of a week riddled with the specter of dangerous Hurricane Irene and the reality of a 5.9 earthquake felt along the East Coast (including Charleston), the fate of last night’s Ultimate Critics Dinner seemed as shaky as Ft. Sumter’s dark days dating back to its April 1861 Union occupation and subsequent Confederate take-over.
Painstakingly planned by the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival staff and board, and mightily supported by local chefs and the Charleston community, the first ever after-hours gourmet supper and fundraiser was in peril of weather-related postponement right up to the final hours before its “ultimate” impeccable and delightful debut.
The evening featured the food of five chefs (Marc Collins of Circa 1886, Mike Lata of FIG, Jacques Larson of Wild Olive, Sean Brock of McCrady’s/Husk, Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca, and Emily Cookson of Charleston Grill) to be paired with wines selected by “ultimate” sommelier, Clint Sloan of McCrady’s. “Ultimate” Host Mickey Bakst of Charleston Grill kept the crowd informed and entertained. All of the above were the highest scoring winners of a best-chef/F & B survey completed weeks ago by a panelist of food writers and critics (myself included, it should be noted). Considering the extreme logistical complexities and cooking limitations presented by cooking in the middle of a large port/harbor in an antiquated antebellum fort with virtually no electricity, what they accomplished was nothing short of a coup. Bravo, bravo, bravo to all involved!
The Spirit of the Lowcountry, a mostly open-air boat, ferried 130 eager guests across the harbor from the South Carolina Aquarium, where re-enactors in period dress greeted all who came their way. A hush seemed to descend upon the entire audience as we approached the historic fort. Dolphins frolicked in the water just ahead, as the vast expanse of the Atlantic waved just beyond and the proximity of Morris Island, James Island and Sullivan’s Island – where so much Civil War bloodshed occured – closed in tighter and tighter, until finally the fort which looms so large from the peninsula seemed suddenly fragile and exposed, yet somehow all the bolder for the bravery it and its inhabitants enduring for four long, embattled years.
Refreshed with the exceptional first-course appetizers provided by Marc Collins, including a mouth-popping salmon jerky drizzled with creme fraiche and fresh herbs and “Leftover Libations,” a potent brew of bourbon and fresh peach infused syrup, guests descended to greet the night – the first ever of its kind at Ft. Sumter.
A post-thunderstorm brilliant sky of puffy white clouds and waning afternoon sun set the stage for sparkling wine and Pickled Brown Shrimp, Vermillion Snapper Roe & Heirloom Roe, prepared by a straw hat-capped “incognito” Mike Lata (pictured right) and his staff on the upper level of the fort, overlooking breath-taking, 360 degree views of the harbor and ocean. The vinegar bite of the sweet shrimp seemed to cut the sharp breezes, while the crunch of the pickled vegetables and smooth butter lettuce cooled the last breaths of the late afternoon August heat.
Several courses would follow, each expertly paired with wine. Clint Sloan greeted guests at all of the tables explaining the logic of the pairings, while chefs intermittingly described the extensive thought and research they put into their original dishes, all of which had been inspired by the mid-19th century and authentic Charleston dishes/ingredients from that period.
For example, Jacques Larson’s toothsome and satisfying Carolina Rabbit with Barley, Mepkin Abbey Mushrooms, Balsamic and Black Truffles (pictured right), reflected the heavy consumption of both game and barley by Charlestonians of the time and also focused on local mushrooms, foraged and consumed as they have in days past and increasingly do now in our local restaurants. Larson jokingly conceded that black truffles and balsamic vinegar would likely not be on the menu then, but he felt that guests deserved a little something extra special to help justify their $300 (each) passage to this special fund-raising event.
The delicious food just kept coming. My cheerful table-mates and I couldn’t help but notice that each dish seemed to trump the last, but maybe it had something to do with the wine. I think there was magic in the air, too. It was mystical, taking a breath and a moment between bites and sips to look up at what had become a star-filled, cool evening and scan the remnants of this formerly formidable fortress and imagine the voices that once echoed here, the feelings that were felt here; love, fear, pride, hunger, and what must have been, at times, panic. The pathos of war was palpably embraced by the late summer night and the humbled walls of the historic fort. Yet, all around there was joy and an irrepressible sense of community. Witnessing Charleston’s amazing chefs help each other plate their respective dishes and laugh in genuine fraternity was a heart-warming sight to see. It was a night to remember, indeed.
As I prepared to put my head on my pillow before I retired last night, all of these emotions kept washing over me which was a sweet lullaby for someone who loves Charleston, history, and delcious food as much as I do. The final note before slumber, though was the memory of Ken Vedrinski’s Lightly Cured & Smoked Grilled “Deckle” of Kobe Beef, Warm Lobster, Peanut Potato Salad, and Barolo Vinaigrette. The fork-tender beef held the smoke of the grill that was buffeted with something silky and so smooth, quite probably olive oil. A background of acid in the vinaigrette, firm/tender buttery new potatoes, and swaths of lobster – it matched the night in every ounce of its perfection.
FOODIE’S NOTE: Tickets for the world-class BB&T Charleston Wine and Food Festival go on sale next week for next spring’s festival. For more information and to order your tickets, go to www.charlestonwineandfood.com