It’s been over a week since the Charleston Wine & Food Festival ended, and my hangover/permabuzz has relatively subsided, so it’s time I get crackin’ on some blog posts. I owe it to the festival coordinators who comp’d my admission, and to the many bartenders and waitstaff I annoyed with my camera.
When I asked for a media pass, I stated that my intention was to see how the Charleston festival (which I’d never attended) compared to our recently installed hometown version. The goal wasn’t to label who’s best; I wanted to see how similar or not the format was, examine local interest, check out their indoor & outdoor setup, breadth of offerings, and overall fun, intrigue, and value.
I’ll address this in my next post, but for now I wanted to cover an ulterior motive for visiting Charleston – the restaurants. Charleston’s restaurants always excite me; there always seems to be a popular new shop with lots of attention, and a bevy of classics of which I still have many left to visit. I admit it’s a bit of a grass-is-greener sort of deal, but the scene seems to be really developed in Chuck-town. They have lots of aspiring chefs, wonderful local product (being on the ocean doesn’t hurt), a walkable downtown, and an active community that seems to embrace many of the restaurant styles and trends I enjoy.
From the not so great to the stupid good, I sampled quite a bit in a two day span. I won’t recount my full experience at each restaurant, just a photo and a sentence or two. Though my full photo collection can be viewed here.
Get ready for a long post.
My chronologically ordered eating marathon begins at The MacIntosh, a popular and relatively new spot. Triggerfish brandade was a well done bar snack and a clever use of a local fish.
Ricotta gnudi with stone crabs are a decent appetizer choice, though not a superlative example; not quite light enough, with too much stringy (no longer lumped) crab. The braised rabbit with potato cake was worth trying, if for the crispy and graceful potato cake alone.
I think it’s worth noting that both my cocktails were quite disappointing. So sweet, they were too out of balance to enjoy, which I found surprising for such a popular bar. Get ready to fight for a seat.
The cocktail failure was quickly remedied at FIG, where I had a tough time choosing from their special Negroni inspired cocktail menu. I tried a few over the course of the weekend, it really is a spectacular ode to the famous Italian apéritif.
I sampled some killer local Capers Blades Oysters that made me rethink South Carolina oysters. They were as good as anywhere on either coast. Then I couldn’t help but order the “porchetta tonnato” – a thin sliced pork take on the famous veal dish, with a tuna aioli sauce. The pork was crazy tender, with a few pops of sharp flavor over the creamy aioli. A fun idea, and just damn good. After this weekend I confirmed FIG is one of my favorite restaurants in the country.
Breakfast was at Hominy Grill. They’ve reached classic status in Charleston, but I’d never been, thus I’d never ordered their most famous dishes, like the shrimp and grits. Lemon, bacon, mushroom, al dente grits, with shrimp that still have me cursing my landlocked status. This dish sets the bar.
But I couldn’t shy away from the Big Nasty. Not my favorite style of biscuit, but nothing cures a long night like a few swipes of the thick, greasy, and crumbly fried chicken crust through their light peppered gravy.
Late lunch was a sampling of a few dishes at Butcher & Bee with some wine distribution and food writing acquaintances (I’m lucky they let me tag along). Unfortunately I wasn’t too impressed with the few things we tried. I don’t know if it was because they were pushing out food at an odd hour, and we were late to the get together, but nothing elevated to my expectations. Everything looked excellent though, perhaps that’s part of the dissatisfaction.
But what do I know? I met Kat Kinsman at the lunch (editor of Eatocracy for CNN) and she loved their pulled squash sandwich.
Fried chicken sandwich at Butcher & Bee.
After B&B we went for another late lunch (pre dinner?) at Two Borough’s Larder. At 4PM, of the fifteen people in there, two of them weren’t famous chefs or writers. A quaint place, it has a menu that’s quite difficult to navigate, as everything sounds amazing. Kung Pao sweetbreads didn’t disappoint. While my friend Bill wanted more of a sear, I was amazed at the light, puffy texture.
Clams, pork belly, broth, bread…direct route into the face. This place is so good, I want to eat everything on the menu. Go here now.
Dinner a few hours later was the “Perfectly Paired” meal at the The Grocery, featuring the wines of Au Bon Climat with guest chef Aaron Deal, formerly of Tristan. They really did an excellent job, which always impresses me when we’re talking about a fixed meal for over one hundred people. Of the many excellent dishes (Border Springs lamb duo!), a crudo of local swordfish with breaded, plump sweetbreads was an impressive and unexpected pairing.
Fast forward to the next morning, after the after-party at Cypress (where I stuffed my face with pork buns and charcuterie from Chef Craig Deihl) I made my way to Glaze for breakfast. A rosemary sticky bun was nice, but I didn’t get the sweetness I wanted from the raspberry donut.
Lunch was at Monza Pizza. It’s fine but uninspired; not up to our newly acquired pizza standards in Atlanta.
Dinner was at Husk Bar, where I sampled some damn tasty country ham.
And a bar burger in the same vein as H&F. It’s a damn greasy and gluttonously good burger. Potato wedges are well done and a welcome change from fries.
And I made friends with my neighbors (and bartender Weaver), splitting a few samples of some Pappy Van Winkle, including a rare bottling exclusively for Husk.
It was quite the weekend of consumption. Long nights too. From Husk I went to the FIG after party and ate a bunch of oysters, Craig Deihl slipped me some n’duja (no euphemism here), and I had a few drinks.
I’m sure my over-served ass made a fool of myself. I need to take it easier at these events, it’s easy to get carried away with so much good stuff available. And thanks to everyone who let me join them at this event. I very much realized I have a long way to go before I can call myself a writer, or a photographer, and I’m certainly not a cook like these guys and gals, so it was quite humbling and inspiring to be surrounded by these people all weekend.