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.
I’ve got it BAD for this new oyster and poultry destination on Charleston’s increasingly
“upper” Upper King Street.
Here’s a picture of the fried chicken:
Please remember to pick up a copy of my latest cookbook release, The French Cook – Soups and Stews (Gibbs Smith, Sept. 1, 2014). I’m happy to send signed book plates to anyone who asks for one to afix to their new book!
As always, bon appetit!
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:
Round four of my Savannah restaurant/scouting research trip for Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah proved to be the most delicious to date. I love how Savannah keeps surprising me with her breadth and depth of deliciousness all across town on each and every side of her myriad squares and gardens. I think it’s safe to say I’m falling in love with The Hostess City. She’s definitely growing on me and in more ways than one! Look for an updated list of new Savannah favorites under ” Holly’s 4 & 5 star favorites that won’t break the bank” on the blog page. The list is by no means complete, but we’re getting there. I’ll be adding more later this week.
In the meantime, let’s take a peek at some of what I savored in Savannah last week and where I think you can and will do the same when you’re in town!
218 W. Broughton Street, Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 232-1881, www.papillote-savannah.com
French goodness is completely in the bag at this darling little nook of a French bistro/gourmet-to-go jewel. Named after a method of cooking/steaming food (usually fish, vegetables and wine) in a bag or pouch, Papillote is owned and operated by French native Herve Didailler and American Ann Marie Apgar. Every edge of this cheerful bright spot on one of the quirkiest, best shopping stretches of Broughton glimmers with spotless attention to every detail, from the lavender macarons ($1.85 each) to the goat cheese and tomato pie ($8.99 per slice). But, it’s the Croque Monsieur ($8.50, pictured left ) that may very well break your heart. Savannah-based cookbook author and food writer, Damon Lee Fowler, was kind (or should that be cruel?) enough to tell me all about it. Basically a souped up ham and cheese with the French kiss of a bechamel, a “croque” is one of those things that’s so simple to make, it’s difficult to knock it out of the park. But, Didailler does just that, coating the thick, fresh bread with a toasted crunch and spreading it with a thick layer of milky bechamel, topping it with cheese that’s broiled to bubbly, brown, nuttiness that plays ever so sweetly with the saltiness of top grade ham and swiss cheese in the center. There is always a long list of tasty specials posted if you can get past the lure of the large photo of Papillote’s Croque Monsieur posted on the pretty brick walls.
Long Lines at Mrs. Wilkes’ are Worth the Wait
Maybe it was all of those trips to Walt Disney World when I lived near it during the junior high and high school years, but I have a serious aversion to waiting in very long lines. That is, unless it proves to be well worth the wait. Pirates of the Caribbean always did the trick at Disney, and I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Wilke’s makes it happen in Savannah.
Being very familiar with the kind of herd, tourist mentality that seems to surround a couple of line-waiting destinations in Charleston that I don’t particularly favor or recommend, I was reticent about Mrs. Wilkes. This reticence was further strengthened earlier in the day of my visit. I had stopped by about 9:30 a.m. to get the lay of the land and figure out how to best negotiate the notorious line. At this time, a lady was walking her cocker spaniel and was kind enough to share her input. “Well, Savannahian’s don’t really go there, dear,” she said. Not really a good sign, but the air already smelled sweet with cooking goodness and really, I had to go, since Mrs. Wilkes’ is a Savannah institution. Another kind lady told me the key to avoiding the line was to either go early (about 10:45 a.m.) or later (about 1:45). Mrs. Wilkes’ serves from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., but they will honor any stragglers left in line after 2 p.m.
Here’s the way it works at Mrs. Wilkes’. The restaurant is situated below a huge house that used to be a boarding house where a Mrs. Sema Wilkes served hungry laborers and blue color workers and the like that rented rooms there starting back in 1943. Twice a day, they would descend into the dining room and be seated at large community tables to be served heaping bowls of Southern comfort food classics, cooked home style. The tradition continues today and is amazingly well-orchestrated. There is indeed a line, but it moves quickly, as the host ushers in new diners as complete tables of ten become available. Then, and quickly, an array of twenty dishes (the mix changes daily) arranged in large bowls and heaping platters are served, along with sweet tea (or water if you like) and a smile. It’s finished with your choice of two desserts. You are sweetly asked to remove your plates, vacate your seat at your convenience, and pay a mere $16 at the door as you exit.
I arrived at about 1 p.m. and ended up waiting about an hour before I found my seat. The air was infused with the most alluring fragrance of freshly fried chicken that had my stomach rumbling by meal time. That fried chicken was one of the first things to arrive at the table, steaming hot and made to order. It was delectable, deep, down to the bone delicious – some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. I had to chuckle when I noticed a tee shirt near the register that says “If the colonel made chicken this good, he’d be a general”. They should have added “five star” somewhere in there.
My table neighbors and I became fast friends and soon were chatting as if we were family. Much to my happy surprise, Mrs. Wilkes’ exudes a sincere, completely natural and enjoyable familial friendliness, that alone, makes visiting here worth the wait. Throw in stewed rutabaga, cabbage, okra, baked beans, buttery, fluffy mashed potatoes, house gravy, dressing, pickled cuke salad, biscuits, banana pudding and cobbler and you’ve got one heck of a deal – maybe the best in Savannah. Either way, it’s one worth re-visiting time and time again.
For now, it’s back to salads and carrot sticks, as I get in working shape for the next visit. But, I’ll forever dream of Mrs. Wilkes’ fried chicken.
Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room
107 West Jones Street, Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 232-5997, www.mrswilkes.com