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.
Nothing makes me happier to see talent and hard work finally get their due. For a decade in New York and another near decade subsequently in Charleston, Jeremiah Bacon has been quietly and diligently honing his craft and defining his style. Locally, first at Carolina’s, where he made a deserved splash, but it wasn’t big enough to turn the James Beard heads in New York, as the respective splashes of local super chef talents Mike Lata (FIG), Sean Brock (Husk and McCrady’s) and Robert Stehling (Hominy Grill) have in recent years. Then, Bacon took over the reins at OAK, where once again, he carved a niche in the steak kitchen, etching it with his extreme dedication to locally-sourced product and pristine classic French technique. Tongues started wagging in deserved praise. But, it wasn’t until the opening of The Macintosh six weeks ago, that Bacon finally donned his ultimate culinary crown, his very own restaurant baby where he can truly stretch his personal chef legs and showcase his immense talent.
Bravo to The Macintosh’s Managing Partner Steve Palmer for recognizing Bacon’s huge talent and helping create this spotlight under which he can shine. As Executive Chef, Jeremiah Bacon orchestrates a small army of hand-picked talent (many coming over from his days at Carolina’s) in a kitchen-in-the-round that operates like a well-conducted orchestra. It’s all visible from the dining room, a beautiful blend of rustic, antique wood tables and copper and mirrors, the latter elements providing just the right urban edge to render Macintosh equal parts rustic and equal parts urban. It’s the perfect balance mixture of visual and mood candy on this block of increasingly hip and sophisticated Upper King Street.
Though The Macintosh serves a more steak and seafood-intensive dinner and late night menu (also slightly more pricey with entrees running from $19-$28), I visited for Sunday brunch, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.
At 1:30 p.m., the house was packed, with a lively, mostly young and local crowd, clamoring for the Bloody Mary bar, Bottomless Mimosa’s, and, of course, Bacon’s stick-to-your-ribs fare with a go-ever-so-lightly, classical touch that is the soul of his culinary style. For example, the grouper brandade ($8), pictured above. Typically a rustic French dish prepared with salt cod and potatoes and served in a gratin dish, the Johns Island native puts a local twist on the matter, using local, fresh grouper (which is briefly brined in salt), purees until chunky smooth and folds it into the lightest, whipped potatoes. These get rolled into chunky balls, lightly rolled in breading, and are fried to order. The result, especially when dipped in the creamy, vinegar-laced, slightly garlicky Alabama white sauce, is absolute flavor and texture nirvana. And, like so many things at The Macintosh, they come served in precious, fire-engine red, miniature Le Creuset Dutch ovens.
Bacon’s “Mac Attack” ($13), which features his signature bone marrow bread pudding, pork belly, and a quivering poached fresh egg, heaping plates of fried chicken served with waffles ($12), and sizzling plates of Bacon’s (also) signature Pecorino truffle frites ($5) were being plated and served literally left and right. All looked and smelled divine, but my appetite was leaning towards lighter, so I ordered the Sauteed Scallops with Cauliflower Puree, Arugula and Brown Butter Meuniere ($13).
Pure beauty, this dish is Bacon’s style personified: restrained perfection with major over-tones of his classical training swirled with youthful whimsy and homegrown roots. The scallop, sweet, milky and massive, was so fresh it could not have been off the local boat for more than a few hours. The gorgeous seared, caramelized crust yielded sensuously to pressure from my fork to an opaque cushion of crustacean deliciousness. The cauliflower base, simply roasted and ultra-aerated with a bit of cream, was practically as light as a souffle, but bore the deep, rich flavors of autumn. A flash saute of green in the peppery arugula and a swath of nutty brown beurre Meuniere sealed the entire dish with huge aplomb.
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sean Brock and Jeremiah Bacon. Both young, both Southerner’s, both humble, passionate, talented and extremely hard-working, both overseeing two kitchens and restaurants, and both backed by successful restaurant groups with proven track records, their paths have been similar. Like Brock, I do believe it’s Bacon’s time to shine and he’s found his ultimate polish at The Macintosh.
479-B King Street (near the corner of Ann Street)
Charleston, SC 29403