Every year I visit a number of South Carolina cities in a dizzying week of work related ‘fun’. I make the most of the tedious travel and computer repair and asset depreciation reconciliation by visiting SC during its most beautiful season of the year. Naturally, I create a game with myself where I see how much good food I can digest within each city and in between. Similar to last year, I put up a solid showing.
Myrtle Beach is always the toughest. We’re talking about a city where Planet Hollywood is not only viable, but crowded. It’s an insane NASCAR-jort-heehaw microcosm that will one day be studied by anthropologists and TV re-run fanatics. For dinner I visited Mr Fish, and as on my last visit, I sat at the tiny sushi bar, secluded from the hush puppy face smashers. The sushi isn’t bad, insofar as the fish is of good quality, but they could use a lesson on nigiri rice composition. I also sampled a serviceable ceviche over rice (ceviche-don?) with shrimp, mahi, and scallop which had not quite “cooked” in the acid.
But my best find was near my office, between Conway and the beach – Habibi’s Cafe & Market. A solid Lebanese market with a restaurant inside, they offered a commendable and relatively well done smattering of lamb, chicken and beef kabob, tabouli, falafel, and baba ghanoush – a welcome change from the normal Myrtle Beach food scene.
The drive down the coast continues. Upon doing research I found that Louis Osteen is back in Pawley’s Island, having partnered up with an existing restaurant (Sanford’s) and some other investors from Greenville. Louis was one of the first chefs to really popularize low country cuisine on the national food scene, winning the James Beard award in 2004. Shrimp and grits on white table cloth? One could argue that movement belongs to Chef Osteen and the time he spent cooking at the Charleston Place Hotel in the late 80′s and early 90′s.
After the JBF award and his cookbook, Chef tried to capitalize on his success with a couple restaurants in Vegas, but when they fell during this most recent recession, his Pawley’s restaurant (Louis’ Fish Camp) closed as well and he ended up in Nashville for a few years. The partnership with Sanford took place in February so Chef has only been back in the Carolinas a few months.
While there’s no menu on their new website yet, I’ll tell you I was quite impressed at the breadth and level of intrigue. A “proper” shrimp roll, preserved duck, sliders, raw bar, BBQ, an insane looking burger, and plenty more – it’s an ambitious menu and tough to decide what to choose. If my soft shell crab is any indication, the food is darn good. The subtly Asian glazed crab (not sticky or syrupy!) was fried and flavored with the finesse you’d expect of an experienced chef.
Chef Osteen came out to the bar mid-way through my meal and sampled me on his bar snack – boiled peanuts – because he wasn’t happy with his current preparation, finding them too mushy. Details.
My next “meal” was upon my southwardly approach of Mt. Pleasant, at the relatively new Next Door. I really wanted to try some of their homemade pasta, but needed to save room for my foray into Chucktown, so I sampled a cocktail (the program shows promise) and sweetbreads with a fried, soft egg. It’s a solid dish, a juicy and flavorful preparation of thymus I’d recommend to even the squeamish. This is a place I’d like to revisit.
I don’t have any pictures from dinner, but I spent my evening at FIG, which I’ve affirmed is hands-down my favorite restaurant in Charleston. Ambience, cocktail program, innovation, local support, and overall deliciousness - they are the total package. My beef tartare and coddled egg were righteous. The negroni menu is dangerously drinkable. Oh and the staff, from the maitre’d to the bartenders (thanks Andrew) is impeccable and approachable.
Lunch the next day was near our office in North Chuck. Silva’s Spoon “Soul Food”.
Have you ever had a fried hard shell crab? I didn’t know that existed. You don’t eat the shell, but they are tasty to gnaw on and the batter does just fine in the buttery hot dipping sauce. This is a revelatory dish. So good, and unique. $3.50 for one, $6.50 for two.
I also sampled the jerk chicken and oxtail, both really nice. The buttery, filling rice is worth every empty calorie.
Dinner #1 the next evening was at The Glass Onion in West Ashley. I sampled the gigantic pork shank with grits and tomato jam. It is a treat for the eyes, and while the texture and tenderness were spot on, I found it to be drastically under-seasoned. I wonder if it was brined? The tomato sauce also lacked the acidic zip I desired to contrast this beautiful hunk of pork.
Dinner #2 was Trattoria Lucca, a quiet little place on a quiet little street in downtown Charleston. I sampled a tuna crudo with orange, capers, and pickled garlic, which was a right tasty and unexpected marriage of flavor, and a huge portion, though the novelty of the unreasonably large amount pickled garlic wore off as indigestion kicked in.
Then I picked three antipasti ($9 for one, $12 for three – a heck of a deal), including the famous cauliflower sformantino, a cake-like puree of cauliflower wrapped around a runny egg, topped with crispy pancetta – sublime.
I managed a few bites of beets (there’s that pickled garlic again) and mushrooms, but I was wiped out at this point. Hell, I’m wiped out just typing all this up.
I do recommend Trattoria Lucca, and as at Next Door, I wish I had room for pastas – the couple next to me had a couple of killer looking contenders.
Thinking about it in summary, I don’t think there’s a single one of these restaurants I wouldn’t visit again. Promise abounds. I’ll see what I can do next year.