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.
In many ways, 2011 was a truly calamitous and difficult year, a year many of us would rather forget. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, war, and the ongoing drudgery of the economy seemed to bombard the world with relentless, reckless cruelty and destruction.
This had to have had a powerful effect on our collective humanity consciousness. I feel like levels of compassion, kindness, and simple goodness were higher than I’ve sensed in a long time, and a lot of that was expressed through the many restaurant kitchens and meals I enjoyed this past year. Let’s face it – there was a lot on my plate in 2011 and a lot of mandatory eating in both Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA as I was researching Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah and the upcoming Savannah Chef’s Table.
Time and again, my palate kept going back to simple things. The stuff that really wowed me was not necessarily “haute”, but down-home, done really, really right. Think fried chicken and panna cotta, burgers and pimento, crispy, crunch salads, pickles and fried pig skin, and you’re sort of on the same track I’ve been following all year here in the south. I call the style “Southern rustica” and I’m thrilled that chefs like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Craig Deihl and so many other are bringing it home, again and at last. Local, national, and international chefs heard our collective call for comfort and answered with a potent brew of meticulously sourced produce/products, prepared with simplicity and precision, and a generous dash of love.
I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite dishes that I’ve eaten this year, and the dishes that follow below are the ones that I’m still thinking about, in some cases, many months later. That’s some powerful goodness. Thank you to all who helped make that happen!
What is it about this cooked cream that almost immediately transports me to that cocoon of safety and comfort that was my childhood? It seems like it was everywhere this year and that is a good thing. I don’t have a photo of the creamy, just right panna cotta layered with silky butterscotch and a mountain of whipped cream that I enjoyed at Husk, just a few short weeks ago, but it’s one of the best things I had all year. A close second was this slightly more elegant version I had at sister restaurant, McCrady’s.
The panna cotta barely quivered, just as it should, and was infused with the subtlety of bay leaf. Crunchy bites of freeze dried white chocolate and ruby red, tart/sweet pomegranate seeds were exquisite, and talk about beautiful to look at.
Simply Salads and Crab Cakes
EVO in Park Circle, North Charleston is nationally celebrated for their amazing, wood-fired pizzas, but their salads, always composed of the freshest ingredients from local purveyors and idyllically dressed, are some of the best around. This white melon beauty, dressed ever so slightly with ribbons of salty, savory prosciutto, fruity, extra virgin olive oil and a dash of freshly ground black pepper, was a late summer menu special that remains perfectly fresh in my mind some six months later.
Another memorable salad moment was enjoyed on the sunny, back porch of The Starland Cafe on a hot, hot August day in Savannah, GA. This colorfully painted Victorian house on the south side of town is widely recognized for its veggie/vegan magic, and The Kitchen Sink salad, dressed in a succulent Tomato Oil Infused Buttermilk, miraculously marries ingredients as diverse as red grapes, artichoke hearts, asparagus, golden raisins, red onion, green apple, crunchy noodles, fire roasted tomatoes and more into a unified, heaping bowl of garden fresh deliciousness.
Just because, I’ve indulged in Michelle Weaver’s of Charleston Grill fame quite-possibly very-best-in-the-world crab cake on several occasions this past year. Binding-free chunks of sweet lump crab with a crackling, crunchy, caramelized sear and a puddle of a silky beurre blanc, fresh herbs and candy sweet tomatoes are all great reasons to give this beauty a try!
Crazy for Fried Chicken
Though I was born in ‘Bama, I was deprived of real-deal fried chicken until I moved to Charleston 11 years ago. Its prevalence and perfection in these parts is one of the reasons why I personally thank God I live here at least 12 times a year, and that usually happens after I’ve visited Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, or Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah. One as succulent as the other, both are custom made to order, have a light, yielding but toothsome crunch, and are deeply seasoned down to the very last bite.
This year, Husk and The Glass Onion, started doing their own versions of the stuff. I haven’t sampled either yet, but the crispy fried chicken leg at The Glass Onion is always delicious and one of the best things I ate this year. Perched on a generous bed of whipped mashed potatoes and sauteed turnip greens, it’s as good as fried and served piping hot from the pan with a zippy sauce that changes with the day and what’s available.
Brandade Puffs and Alabama Barbecue Sauce
Brandade, a virtual French peasant food composed of salt cod and potatoes, takes on a new, rustic, elegant twist at The Macintosh, one of Charleston’s newest and best restaurants. In the hands of super talented executive chef Jeremiah Bacon, the brandade is formed into individual little balls and puffed into ethereal lightness, breaded and fried. Served with a creamy, vinegar rich sauce, it’s another one of the best things I had the pleasure of eating this year.
Some of the best things in life are surprises, and that includes finding exquisite food at a time and a place you weren’t really expecting it. That happened to me this year in a big way at the brand new Butcher & Bee. Predominantly a sandwich shop with a hyper fresh and local angle situated well uptown, I visited on a sleepy, lazy Sunday for what turned out to be the best meal I had all year, and with two of the best dishes in ONE place. The artist in the kitchen? Chef/Partner Stuart Tracy, and does he ever know and love his cooking stuff.
The burger, a softly packed patty of grass-fed beef is sandwiched between oven-fresh brioche they bake in house (along with many other types of bread) and topped with an oozing layer of gorgeous pimento cheese and an inch of cold, crunchy, tangy pickles. It is insanely delicious. I think it’s the best burger I’ve ever had in my life.
As if all that weren’t enough, the ketchup is made in-house!
Before the burger, I enjoyed a gorgeous plate of nutty, roasted Brussel sprouts graced with a bit of bacon, crispy, tart Granny Smith apple slices, browned butter, a dusting of salty peanuts and a sweet/spicy vinegar.
Dessert was a cream puff dream. C’mon! Talk about comfort done right.
It’s been a wonderful year for food and friends. Thank goodness, they’re always there for us, even when the rest of the world gets crazy. Wishing you a healthy, happy and delicious 2012!
Book Give-Away – Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah
What were your favorite food finds in 2011? I’d love to hear about them in the comment section here. The most compelling entry, submitted before the end of New Year’s Day, January 1, 2012, will receive a signed copy of my just released new book. The winner will be notified on this blog.
Food Favorites in order of appearance in this blog post: