Dreaming of Charleston

I’d spent the afternoon on the island Fort Sumter, where the opening shots of the American Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861, when I realised that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and trapped on a boat on the Ashley River, I had some time to pass before I could sate my appetite in Charleston, South Carolina.

This grand southern belle of a city is no stranger to revolutions, having been at the centre of several in the past three centuries; the most recent however, is an altogether different beast. A food revolution, and a good one at that. It saw its dawn in the early 1990’s, and over the past two decades has gone from strength to strength.  Today the city boasts a restaurant that holds the prized possession of the name ‘Best New Restaurant in the Country’ and in a place as vast as the USA, that takes some winning.

Charleston is a city of grand beauty. Its boulevards and avenues, cobbled lanes, and shuttered mansions are apogees of the classic imagery of the American Antebellum South. The streetscape is punctuated with piazzas and hidden gardens, behind intricate wrought iron gates. Trees are draped with Spanish moss, church and chapel spires stretch upwards in the sky as far as the eye can see.

On the boat ride back to the downtown district of Charleston, I recalled a quick conversation I’d had that morning with Edward Gamard, the concierge at my hotel, the Charleston Marriott. That had left me in no doubt that historic Charleston was a good place to be hungry.  Sightseeing was important but his voice had added substance when he urged me ‘Eat, eat, eat, and eat some more – go to as many restaurants as you can – and eat, eat, eat’ as if it was the most important thing I could do in the city.  He’d given me the names of some very good places to go, my concern was where to start. It seemed that in Charleston, there is a restaurant in every other corner.

My walk from the dock back downtown was accompanied by a raising moon, and a sky streaked with vivid hues. It naturally took me to East Bay Street – Charleston’s own restaurant row, a hubbub of eateries, bars and coffeehouses.

As I walked along East Bay I felt like I had been anointed in sugar. Baked, broiled, in brisket and brine; sweet, succulent and smoked – the air was thick with the glorious smell of caramel, of a rich, dark brown sugar with a deep, earthy smell. It had been rubbed onto racks of ribs, or boiled into a praline bursting with walnuts or baked into a Pecan pie thick with caramel, or the sticky glaze glimmering on chicken wings in small wicker baskets.  This is the locally grown sugar cane sugar of the South: heavy, thick and sweet.

Restaurants, with their shutters open, the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses spilling out onto the street, beckoned me to come in. I stopped at Social Wine Bar, (188 East Bay Street) a very hip place, with a great wine list and an interesting menu, with dishes starting at around $10. Sitting at the bar under chandeliers made out of champagne bottles, I was given the Happy Hour menu (from 4pm-7pm) where everything cost just $3. This was no bargain basement, the food, and wine were both excellent.  I know this for sure, y’all as they say down south, because I ordered one of everything.  At $3 a dish, and five dishes to choose from on the menu, it would have been a crime not to.  After this bit of research I can tell you that this is without doubt the best happy hour in Charleston.

La Bubbles was a crisp, dry and light sparkling wine, a perfect thirst quencher – it was hard to stop at one glass. The white wine tasted full of minerals and fresh with hints of lemon. The red wine was medium bodied and very drinkable. Yukon Chips with blue cheese fondue were homemade crunchy crisps, smoothed in a scallion flavoured blue cheese that was full of flavour. Truffled risotto balls were velvety and rich, pleasantly spiked with a tangy tomato jam.

The pizza was one of the best I have ever eaten, with that perfect ratio of crisp to chewy in its crust, a light scattering of fresh toppings that had bubbled up under the intense heat of a wood-burning oven.  Zach the manger showed me round the glass- walled wine room and we did an impromptu wine tasting.  With over 200 wines to choose from and plates of food perfect for sharing, it would be hard to find a better place to spend the evening with friends.

Just up the street from there, I found a shop I could spend hours just browsing in, whiling the time away – Charleston Cooks Maverick Kitchen Store (194 East Bay St) – a cook shop that also offers cookery classes, such as ‘A Taste of the low country”.

When I left it was cocktail hour, and there was nowhere better to pull up a chair than the Gin Joint.  My chosen tipple was a Mint Julep, served with flourish in a classic silver julep cup. My seat at the bar meant I was close enough to watch mixologist James in action as he slung, stirred, shook, swizzled and mixed traditional pre-prohibition style cocktails. This is not the place for the modern cocktail, but there is plenty of room for Old Fashioned’s, Reverses and Manhattan’s.  I highly recommend their gin and homemade tonic – a heady mix of quinine, neroli, lavender, lemon and lime.

I was in a southern state of mind.  And, it was time for pudding, and what could be more southern than a slice of Pecan Pie.  For this I went to Magnolias, a restaurant that has drawn accolades from patisserie cognoscenti worldwide since the beginning of the Charleston food revolution. Packed out on a weeknight, I was offered a place at the bar.

A glass of sweet tea in my hand, I was joined by three sisters bound by their love of food who had travelled from Oregon, Florida and Los Angeles to Charleston to hang out for a few days. We all ordered dessert – Pumpkin Crème Brûlée, with a graham cracker cookie, a Spiced Rum Raisin Bread Pudding  and caramel swirl ice cream, Magnolias’ Warm Cream Cheese Pecan Brownie with white chocolate ice cream and fudge sauce and the queen of the south, my Pecan Pie, with bourbon caramel, and vanilla bean ice cream. Depth of flavour, and texture reigned.  My pie was warm, the pecans were crunchy and bound in a shimmering caramel sauce, that tasted of autumn, with just a hint of bourbon, all held in firm pastry with an undertone of salt that was the perfect antithesis to all that sugar.

Charleston chefs are extremely proud of the excellence of the area’s food producers. Husk – the winner of Bon Appétit magazine’s new best restaurant in America (September 2011) has a strictly southern supplier system because every single one of the ingredients used in its kitchens must be created south of the Mason Dixon Line. Everything in Husk (76 Queen Street) is local, seasonal and of known provenance and this is celebrated by  the huge chalk board in the restaurant’s galley entrance referring exactly where the produce featured on that day’s menu comes from to customers.

Meals were served on wooden boards and iron skillets and cold water was served in thick green glasses. I had a corner table overlooking the second floor. The bread was as light as brioche and as flavourful as sourdough, covered with smoked salted sesame seeds and served with a soft honey and pig fat butter.

I then ate Capers Inlet Blade Oysters on half shell with Apple Sorrell Vinegar Mignonette, Bev Eggleston’s Heritage Pork chop, with creamy Anson mills faro and cabbage from J. Fields, with pickled peach jus, cooked grits with creamy Carolina mushrooms served with melted cheese and a corn bread that had a centre that was soft and springy, quite similar to a sponge cake, tasting of real corn and good rashers of bacon.

Instead of dessert wine, each of the puddings had a whiskey recommendation. Mine was a Knob Creek Single Barrel to accompany an Oatmeal Pie, which was not unlike a treacle tart; only the pastry was made with whole oats. The filling was gooey and thick and each bite left a rich praline fudge taste lingering on the palate. What amazed me was that the oat pastry shell stayed crisp to the bite while the centre oozed with creaminess: a difficult consistency to achieve.

Charleston is a city that celebrates food and its producers, cooks and retailers. It’s a real foodie town, a culinary destination that rightly prides itself on its diverse restaurants, its warm and enjoyable southern hospitality and its respect for good produce, served well. It is a place that I very much look forward to return to.

Further Information

Nicky Cahill’s Blog: www.saltandsparkle.com

Follow Nicky on Twitter @saltandsparkle

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