May 17, 2012

Dennis and I ran away to Charleston last week. The Holy City. The Ghost City. We thought it was a delicious city.

It was a great getaway.

McCrady's Anson Mills corncake, blueberry jam and sorrel snow

Three days was hardly time enough. Frankly, I could have stayed a month. Everything about Charleston is wonderful. The architecture. The breezy sea salty smell at the park at the end of the peninsula. The earthy Gullah dialect. The lovely wooden swinging benches that look out at the sea at Waterfront Park. And oh, the young, focused, inspired vibe evident everywhere – all those students keep the place impossibly, wonderfully hip and chic. The shopping looked great, but I’ll need to go back on my own to tell you for sure. (Shopping and husband are not compatible.)

2 Boroughs Larder with rockin ramen in spicy pork broth. Take that, Momofuko.

And above it all – the food. the food. the food. Good golly, this is a great place to eat. There is extraordinary food energy here in this little town of 180,000. We had some exceptional meals.

Fig (Food Is Good) is spectacular. Chef Mike Lata crafts beautiful food. From drink to appetizer (oh, mercy. the coddled egg is desert island food if ever I tasted such a thing) to farro with spring peas and tiny butter beans. A Rhuby cocktail called the Daisy Cutter. Ricotta gnocchi that were somehow still creamy in the center. As our charming dining companion, Food52 friend Emily, said “Like tiny burratas.” The dozen or so gnocchi were sauced to perfection with Border Springs lamb bolognese – it was just enough sauce, but not too much – we were still able to swipe the bread through, for a last momentous mouthful. And then there was the salmon tartare. Hand cut into a perfect tiny dice with the sharpest of knives, a tiny quail egg yolk rested on top, accompanied by one of those oval shaped scoops made with two spoons. Creme fraiche. Was it housemade? Imported? It was sensational. That’s the thing. Each and every detail was perfect. Garnishing the tartare was a tiny new lettuce salad, green leaf and transparent fried rounds of tiny purple potatoes.

Coddled pullet egg, cream, leeks, peas, lump crab.

I could go on…

But I might run out of adjectives before I have a chance to describe the dinner we enjoyed at McCrady‘s. I was delighted to have a chance to eat at one of Sean Brock’s restaurants, amid all the Sam Sifton, Food and Wine and No Reservations fame.  Admittedly, McCrady’s is known to be the more foamy, liquid nitro, sous vide, fancy pants stuff with which I have had little experience.. but I studied the menu and felt confident Dennis would have an elegant vegetarian experience and I would get an education.

Chicken cooked in hay.

There was a four course tasting menu (appetizer, fish, meat, dessert) with which the restaurant was very accomodating, so Dennis could choose two fish, or two appetizers. And each and every dish we had was exceptional, exciting, new textures, flavors delivered in new formats (sorrel snow!) Our lovely server was positively rhapsodic describing the foods, and the source for everything. Many of the flavors were herbal, from the restaurants’ seemingly expansive rooftop garden. I loved the octopus dish, sous vide to tender perfection, then grilled fast. Served with a deep emerald green basil foam and peas, textured with liquid nitrogen. I liked it very very much.

While many other menu items caught my eye, I decided to try Brock’s famous chicken cooked in hay. I was thrilled with the depth of flavor, the not quite smoky, more than grassy, velvety textured chicken breast. Dessert was my biggest takeaway, the corn cake (Anson Mills) with a tart blueberry jam, warmed, and that sorrel snow I mentioned. I’ve got sorrel. Blueberries are coming. I see a jam-portunity. McCrady’s is a gem and the experience is memorable: the service, the setting, all wood and texture, and great acoustics make this one of the best restaurant experiences of my life.

Craig's award winning 18 month salami is mixed with lardo. (upper left)

For Charcutepalooza friends, I had the chance to spend an hour with Craig Deihl, chef at Cypress, and a true American Charcutier. I got a tour of the curing operation (O.M.G.), saw his process and the space where proscuitto, salamis of all types and sizes, whole muscles – a whole world of curing were suspended … and then, Craig gave me a little taste tour of his work. I tasted cured meats as complex, earthy, and piggy as I’ve ever had. The cured lamb leg, lamb ham, was ridiculous. And charred over wood on a grate? Seriously? So incredibly gamey and meaty. His charcuterie tastes of the pig, or the lamb, not overly spiced, but complex from curing – there’s a dance of smoke, humidity, grinding and long long curing times. It’s clear this Chef has worked with his farmers.  Craig Diehl? He’s the real deal (sorry, had to do it) If you love charcuterie, go to Charleston and go to Cypress. Seriously. Worth. The. Trip. (You can read more about Craig in my recent Washington Post article on butchery and chefs.)

Coppa from American Black Guinea Hog

We had a terrific dinner at Grocery (chef, Kevin Johnson was so lovely to come to say hello) our first night. And we had breakfast at Toast, an institution, according to a review from the New York Times, proudly displayed on the wall. It’s the sort of stoner food institution in a college town. The kind that makes you take a nap afterwards. So good. So much. But it’s vacation, it’s okay! Our last minute stop at 2 Boroughs Larder was heavenly. The bowl of ramen was spectacular – the noodles homemade and the soft boiled egg peeled, somehow, magically.

Craig Deihl and his award winning 18 month cured salami.

Another morning, we stopped at Glazed, the new-ish and fabulous doughnut shop. It was all shiny and pretty in there, and smelled like spun sugar. The raspberry glazed was perfectly tart and fruity and light, while the sweet potato candied pecan doughnut was the rustic favorite.

I liked traveling in both directions on King St. from our perch at the Francis Marion Hotel (Four Thumbs Up from the Barrows) as there was excellent window shopping and people watching for blocks.

Loved the meet up with Food52 pal Midge at the Cocktail Club, where Wednesday nights are $5 bourbon nights – anything but Pappy. It’s a dark bar, high ceiling’d, but not so that it echos, even with the after work party rockin’ in the room next to the bar, we could chat.

Bald cypress trees and knees.

We spent a leisurely morning at the Audubon center at Beidler Forest, a Bald Cypress swamp where we saw 1,000 year old trees, turtles, snake habitat, but no snakes (thank heavens) and a very pretty yellow warbler with a distinctive call. The swamp was full of these charming birds flying around, singing, and dancing in the air when they met up. And oodles of dragonflies and damselflies in blues and purples. The day was perfect, breezy and the dappled sunlight made the two mile boardwalk stroll a very pleasant way to understand the natural state of South Carolina. And I learned an important new cocktail party tidbit. A swamp is forest that is flooded. A marsh is grassland that is flooded. And bald cypress have knees. (And promontory warblers nest in the knees.)  Trees, swamp, Spanish moss, bird. They play nicely together.

The cypress knees.

And while most of our experiences in Charleston were fantastic, we did have a very very disappointing stay at the Inn at Middleton Place. ‘Nuf said.

I would go back to Charleston in a MINUTE. I loved it there. In fact, I hope to head back there February 28-March 2, for the 2013 Charleston Wine and Food Festival.

Hat tip to Craig Rogers of Border Springs Farm for all his helpful tips on eating our way around Charleston! I was in no way sponsored or reimbursed for any part of this trip, but Craig was kind enough to call the restaurants to let them know I was coming. Made for a very nice experience, indeed.


28 Responses to “doing the charleston”

  1. Carol Sacks

    I’m marking 2/28-3/2/2013, and joining you in Charleston next year. Wow, terrific post. Informative, fast-paced, and it was clear you had a ball.

  2. Beth (OMG! Yummy)

    Oh my – you just made my short list of what American city to go explore this summer a little longer! Lamb ham – oh you lucky lucky lady!!! Thanks for sharing Cathy!

  3. abby dodge

    Cathy, what a wonderful exploration through one of my favorite places! I haven’t been in a few years and, judging from your wonderful reviews and reccos, I’ll need to head back soon.

    • Cathy

      Yes, you do! Abby, the desserts everywhere were amazing. That glorious Southern sensibility, molasses, sorghum, and light as air cakes.

  4. Sally

    It’s a place that’s been on my radar of late, can’t say why, but now I REALLY want to go–great to read all your recommendations!

  5. gluttonforlife

    My Lord, that sounds like quite the food extravaganza! Sorrel snow, indeed!! I think I may just have to try that salmon tartare at home, complete with the creme fraiche “quenelle.” Thanks for sharing all the food porn.

    • Cathy

      Quenelle!!!! I just could not dig up that word from my brain yesterday.

  6. Linda

    Cathy, you always seem to find the best food! I almost wish I were still living on the east coast, just to visit all those places you find. At the moment, I’m in Canmore, Canada, just outside of Banff and I think I’ll have to find me some really good rocky mountain food!

    • Cathy

      We were there two years ago. It was a food desert. But isn’t it spectacular? The views. Ahhhhh.

  7. dymnyno

    Charleston is one of my favorite cities to sell wine. And I have done a wine dinner with Sean Brock during the Sun Valley Wine Auction, so I know first hand how talented he is. Charleston is one of the best walking cities. After you have gotten to know the city a little, be sure to read Pat Conroy’s South of Broad…you will feel that you really know your way around the neighborhood.

    • Cathy

      I just wish I had gotten to have lunch at Husk. But now there’s reason to return!

    • Cathy

      Kids would love all the little alleys and walled gardens. Just to peer between buildings, or through a peekhole in a garden gate!

  8. Jayne

    Great post about lovely Charleston Cathy! I went with my husband a few years ago and we also had a swing on those wooden swinging benches.

  9. Somerset

    I love hearing your point of view of my hometown, you put into words exactly how I feel. It’s actually hard choosing where to go out to eat. FIG is next. Only been there for cocktails. Each restaurant is like a present waiting to be opened and it never gets old! So glad you loved it too!

  10. joy

    Great post! I was at the Food and Wine Festival this year and it was terrific! (Just make your dinner reservations weeks in advance.) I would really recommend Bin 152 (a wine bar at 152 King St) for pre-dinner drinks and snacks–it’s an amazing spot owned by a French woman and her American husband. Also, lunch at Husk is amazing–don’t miss it on your next trip! The buttermilk rolls with local sea salt are to die for–and that is even before you get your meal!

  11. Barbara | Creative Culinary

    I lived in Raleigh, NC for 10 years and Charleston was a favorite place to visit; your trip stirred up some wonderful memories and make it obvious I should plan a trip back, it’s been far too long. I used to loved bird watching; Colorado’s altitude is not a favored place for a lot of birds so feeling a bit nostalgic for all of the beautiful birds of the south. Sounds like you had a lovely time.

    • Cathy

      I hadn’t been to Charleston in almost 30 years. Much was the same, but a huge amount has changed. Overall, it’s just completely vibrant and alive.

  12. val

    So smart of you to get into the swamp!
    I am a vegetarian (eat local fish) married to a meat lover, so I took your restaurant recommendations to heart. I seek out nose to tail places for my husband that also do vegetables justice (for example Incanto in San Francisco did this perfectly). How was 2 Boroughs Larder for your husband? I considered it last time I was in town but worried it would be too meat-centric.


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