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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.