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:
It took me three drive-by’s and lots of recommendations to finally take the proverbial stab at The Crab Shack on Tybee Island. With all of its endearingly cheesy fishing kitsch (complete with an alligator pond and a giant red crab at the entrance), it just smacked of one of my least favorite two words: tourist trap.
So, finally, on a crystal clear blue sky, perfect late summer afternoon, I took the scenic drive along Highway 80 East from downtown Savannah out to historic and beautiful Tybee Island. The tide was so high it hugged the road, just a sliver at times, so tightly it almost felt like I was steering a boat rather than a car.
Even though The Crab Shack bears the same name as a local Charleston restaurant chain, it actually has a lot more in common with celebrated Bowen’s Island. It’s near a funky beach community, its on a dirt road off the main highway, there is a large sign off the main road to let you know it’s there, there are magnificent water views, and the food is fabulous.
Like Bowen’s, The Crab Shack began as a fishing camp, though much more recently. It’s owned by former fisherman Captain Jack Flanigan. The entire place ambles along like an old, covered, pier and is decorated with lots of colorful love, from the upside down wooden crate lamps to whirring fans and mist machines. Food comes out on styrofoam plates and an ample supply of paper towels while seabreezes from water so close you can practically touch it with your toes seasons the space with salty air.
Lowcountry staples like a chunky Lowcountry boil with corn so sweet it tastes like its been basted with buttered sugar, and huge chunks of corn and sausage, snow crab, Alaskan king crab, blue crab, Dungeness crab and stone crab platters form the backbone of the sizeable menu. Surprisingly, The Crab Shack also turns out some amazing smoked in-house, barbecue ribs, chicken and pork platters. Plastic fork tender and steeped in flavor, all come as a surprise bonus at a seafood shack, in particular the ultra-tender, smoky chicken.
I was in a delicate appetite mood, so opted for the shrimp salad (pictured above). As you see, it was full of fat, absolutely local Wild Georgia shrimp, that was simultaneously sweet and briny in each bite. It was barely cloaked in mayonnaise and strongly seasoned with Old Bay Seasoning enhanced with the crunch of the occasional bite of celery. Truly delicious and reasonably priced ($12.99) it was enough to easily feed two hungry souls and offered definite proof in the authentically local seafood pudding.
The Crab Shack attracts a diverse crowd, from blue-colored workers to little old ladies and boisterious tots, that all share in the fun together. That’s what eating at The Crab Shack feels like – pure, unadulterated fun that grows on you with each delicious bite and each Jimmy Buffett tune that cranks from the sound system. Give the shack a crab crack or two!
While you’re in this part of town, you also want to be sure and check out:
The Sundae Cafe (lunch/dinner – dinner reservations recommended)
Ele Fine Fusion (dinner only – reservations recommended)
As always, bon appetit, Savannah style!
It’s not supposed to happen this way! After five months of combing Savannah for her best dining establishments as part of research for Savannah Chef’s Table (Globe Pequot Press, Fall, 2012), I would have expected that my list of food targets would be getting smaller, not virtually never ending. I shouldn’t be surprised, really. That’s what it’s like in any good food town, and Savannah is certainly all that and more.
On each visit, I keep finding new gems to write about. That was especially true on a very tasty and successful mission last week. Here’s just some of what’s worth checking out next time you’re in The Hostess City…..
Burton’s By the Beach
Tybee Island, a.k.a., Savannah Beach
Talk about a blast from beaches past. Located about 20 minutes east of downtown, Tybee offers a nostalgic nod to the good old days with its eclectic architecture and cohesive, sandy Southern beach theme. Surfers and skateboarders race by the otherwise slightly sleepy main drag, at least it was sleepy on a weekday visit. I imagine Tybee’s hot at peak season on weekends. I’ll return to check it out, and will definitely re-visit Burton’s while I’m there.
Burton’s practically commanded me to its order window with its eye-grabbing, bright yellow, red, and green colors and enticing, wafting aromas. The owner is from Mexico City, but in addition to mastering Mexican street food, he’s also aces Cuban and Spanish from this endearing take-out (or eat out at the picnic tables) beach joint.
The fish tacos ($7.95), grilled, sweet fresh tilapia wrapped in soft flour tacos and topped with a sweet/hot, creamy chipotle sauce, more than lived up to their “highly recommended” billing from the cheerful woman who took my order through a sliding glass window. Chunky, chewy black beans and fragrant yellow saffron rice made it a meal – to remember! So, too, is the Reuben Cubano ($7.50) which features grilled chicken, not the usual pastrami suspect.
The Ultimate Tea – Afternoon Tea at The Tea Room
All worry and concerns melt away with each soothing sip of one of the 40+ equisite tea blends offered and each bite of the round, soft, cream cheese, chive and cucumber sandwiches somehow bring home another time and place in the most inviting way.
It’s too much fun to half a scone and fill it with some of the house made raspberry preserves and then add a generous dollop of slightly sweetened whipped cream. The short bread cookies crack and crumble into buttery, baked decadence with each bite.
Outside of the rear, dimly lit library-like dining area (the area I most prefer), the shop virtually tinkles with authentic Southern charm. Proprietar Elizabeth Ruby can usually be found at the front counter, chatting congenially with one of her many regular customers, and the front of the house is decorated with a fine collection of tea pots, tea cups, tea cozies, cookbooks, children books and more.
Afternoon teas are by reservation only. If tea is not your thing, The Tea Room also serves a broad assortment of outstanding sandwiches, salads, soups and quiches.
Other places well-worth a visit:
Rocks on the Roof, Bohemian Hotel
17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant (revamped and delicious – especially for lunch!)
Thrive A Carry Out Cafe
Tangerine Fusion & Sushi Bar
11215 Abercorn Street, Suite 10-11, Savannah, GA 31419
There are many more on my must eat and visit list. Look for them here as I discover them, so that you may, too! In the meantime, please visit the Savannah section of recommended restaurants on the 4* and 5* Restaurants That Won’t Break the Bank to the right of the blog section of this page.
As always, bon appetit and remember to embrace your inner-Savannah. It will make you feel oh so good!
I’ve finally found time to update the still partial list for my recommended lists for dining and general noshing and sipping in Savannah now that Food Lovers’ Charleston & Savannah is off to the publisher. Please feel free to use it when navigating The Hostess City for the best possible dining experiences. Happy and delightful eating, Lowcountry style!
Just this morning, I was discussing with a friend that I’m generally more comfortable when I’m slightly under-fed than when I’m slightly over-fed. My job, as lovely as it is, requires, at times, that I eat more than I’m comfortable eating. It goes with the territory, as it did last week when I found myself turning the corner on my final eating research week down in Savannah. I was there, as I have been for months, to eat my way through town in search of the best food for inclusion in Food Lovers’ Charleston & Savannah (Globe Pequot Press, December, 2011). This meant eight to ten eating hits per day of what I’ve since been calling, rather jokingly, a “nibble and scribble” fest.
All joking aside, Sammy’s was a place I had spotted several weeks ago. It’s completely unassuming and stands out from its small post on Abercorn Street mostly due to a glaringly bright yellow and green awning. Not many people I had talked to knew about it, even though it’s been there several months.
The menu, mostly an interesting array of sliders and dogs, was compelling enough to give it a go. So, on eating round five last Monday, I approached the small counter to place my order. Briskets really are the order of the day here. Roasted beef brisket (flat and tip) melt with just a bit of fat and deep, beef flavor into petite, buttered, toasted buns. They’re served with whimsical (but not over the top) sauces like a cooling tzatziki paired with the hot kiss of sriracha in the Doner (pictured right, above) and oozing, smooth American cheese and crisp, sweet onions atop the Chee Booger (pictured left above). The latter tasted like a gourmet burger on a sweet little toasted bun. Much to my surprise, I ate every last bite of both sliders – belly busting budget be damned! These babies go down that smoothly with a cool, bubbly soda and friendly service from the young staff. At just $2.50 each (they can be mixed and matched) they’re a true bargain and a delicious delight. Pork and chicken sliders are also available, but I recommend the brisket sliders all the way to the flavor bank.
The setting is relaxed and well-suited to the SCAD students that populate this part of town near The Starland District.
1710 Abercorn Street, between 334d & 34th
Savannah, GA 31401