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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beautiful Charleston is full of wonderful things to do and delicious places to eat. Whether history, gardening, beaches, cuisine or architecture is your passion, there really is something for everyone here.
The link below looks at local places to take in romance in a casual, easy way, that I enjoyed with my boyfriend visiting from Williamsburg, VA.
Enjoy! We surely did.
Meanwhile, remember that The French Cook – Soups & Stews (Gibbs Smith), my seventh and all time favorite cookbook (I love the recipes) officially releases on September 1. Follow me here for updates on upcoming signings and look for it in bookstores near you and on Amazon.
Sundays are all about Sticky Buns at WildFlour Pastry in downtown Charleston.
Here’s the link from yesterday’s The Permanent Tourist Charleston
post to learn more about this special weekly event:
Bon appetit, and remember to come visit me there and invite any friends who may be interested in learning about all of the wonderful things to do, places to see, and wonderful restaurants in beautiful Charleston.