And we're back in Charleston...back in the South, where the summer days are languid in this semi-tropical clime, and the only way to cool off is on a side porch or inside under a ceiling fan with a cool drink.
Hominy Grill is just about the best place in town to relax with a laid-back lunch, either on their cute outdoor patio, or inside under their white painted pressed-tin ceilings and aforementioned spinning ceiling fans, pictured at left.
The blackboard specials are sure to entice, but of course one comes here to enjoy the southern staples of low-country cooking.
Their version of shrimp and grits is a beautiful, simple thing: a bed of stone-ground creamy-white hominy, with plump gulf shrimp, crispy bacon, sauteed mushrooms, and scallions on top of the grits. Served with a lemon wedge to squeeze over top, this is the ultimate in southern comfort food. It's filling, but it doesn't overwhelm. Which is a good thing, since you can't order just one dish at Hominy Grill.
The boiled peanuts we got to munch on while waiting for our appetizers (yes, that's right) were so flavorful they practically defied culinary explanation. They were meaty, in the best sense of the word, and I'm guessing they were cooked in ham liquor -- the brothy goodness made with ham hocks in which collard greens are boiled in the southern kitchen. They were unbelievable.
The picnic plate appetizer consisted of delicious southern ham, pimento cheese (another southern staple), pickled okra, and beet-pickled hard-boiled eggs, served with garlic toasts.
It's a fun and eclectic selection of the various flavors of the region. Of course, the she-crab soup needed to be sampled, in all its sherry-laced glory.
And one of the specials of the day happened to be cheese-stuffed jalapeno poppers -- here done one better than standard bar fare style, as the peppers were served with whipped sorghum butter, a rich, sweet counterpart to the spice and sharpness of the peppers and cheese stuffing.
All of this was washed down with iced tea, of course, but I did feel it necessary to try one of the house cocktails, since so many of the ingredients used were local and terribly enticing. I selected the Blackberry Collins, which was refreshing and tart with a nice vodka kick. I had to reel myself in so I didn't start day drinking with multiples of this cocktail! But the indulgence continued, of course, with a special dessert of the day: a coconut pie with dark chocolate ganache, sort of a Mounds bar (love) in pie form.
The ganache was super dark and rich, the coconut textured and just sweet enough, with an expertly-made pie crust that was thin, flaky, and fell on the savory side, which I love as a nice counterbalance to a sweet pie. It was topped with fresh, unsweetened whipped cream on top. I mean...come on! I left Hominy Grill a very happy camper. And full doesn't even begin to cover it.
Once you've had a filling lunch like that, you may want to find a hammock somewhere and nap (I wanted that desperately). But instead, your time might be better spent on a lovely carriage ride around town to see the sites around historic Charleston, from King Street on down to the Battery. You could also take a River Boat Cruise on the water down to Ft. Sumter, which is a relaxing and informative way to spend a few hours (some tours allow you to get off at the Fort, some just swing by the island on the water).
You can go to the old slave market and museum, where America's slave trade was essentially headquartered. I know -- all of this is pretty hard to swallow, no pun intended.
But as much as it all leaves a bad taste in your mouth (ahem), it's all part of America's history, and important to witness and to study.
Even the beautiful houses that participate in the Charleston House Tours -- historically registered and restored, explained by well-versed tour guides, and lovingly kept up inside and out by gardeners and caretakers...sometimes I felt like paying money to see these things was contributing to the upholding of something sinister. But really, it's much better that these places remain, not just for their historical significance, but also for their aesthetic beauty and the current Charleston community that survives based heavily on its tourism appeal. Much as its history is checkered, there's no denying Charleston's present day charm. There are a few weeks a year when houses that are not usually open to the public, open their doors. The city tends to get crowded during these weeks, and hotel rooms can be hard to come by, so book ahead if you can. One house that is open to the public year round is the Nathaniel Russell House. Built in 1808, It's possibly the town's finest example of Federal-style architecture, with a free-flying staircase and beautiful garden.
And speaking of palatial digs, we spent the second half of our stay in Charleston at the gorgeous Charleston Place, in the middle of much of the city's center, with one side on King Street, the city's shopping epicenter and a hub of restaurants and bars. This grande dame was recently refurbished, and it shows. The huge lobby chandelier and sweeping staircases make for a dramatic entrance, and the rooftop indoor pool, gym, and outdoor lounge area give you a bird's-eye view of Charleston. One of the top restaurants in the city, Charleston Grill, is contained within the hotel, and many shops, if not in the hotel proper, are very nearby, as are so many restaurants and bars of note. The renovated rooms are spacious and beautiful, tranquil, with large marble bathrooms and a gigantic shower: a real treat.
We had one of our best meals the evening we moved to Charleston Place, at the nearby FIG, which had come highly recommended to me by colleagues in the food business and various culinary publications as well. I have a weakness for places with "fig" in their name, but in this case it's an acronym for "Food Is Good." Direct and to the point, you can't argue that. But it's deceptively simple for a menu seemingly straightforward, but executed with a sophisticated flair and a spot-on chef's palate. Our server was incredibly thorough in his explanations and well-versed in the preparation of the dishes, their ingredients, and the wine list as well.
I started with a vegetable salad, a cornucopia of various fresh veggies of all colors, shapes, and sizes, bright and springy and left to taste the way they're supposed to taste -- everything from cauliflower and beans to French finger radishes and crisp peas. Refreshing. The hands-down best dish of the evening was one that The Big Guy ordered, and it was a rare occasion that I suffered order envy. The pork schnitzel over farro with spring peas was exactly what the English dub as "moreish": you want more and more of it. The delicate lettuce leaves on top and the peas kept their snap, as did the crunchy crust of the schnitzel itself, but the meat inside was juicy, the farro was nutty-toothsome, and the sauce was one the most flavorful kinds of savory, enriched jus I've ever tasted.
I would like this dish right now, actually. All this is not to say that I didn't enjoy my dish, because I most definitely did: triggerfish (a local fish we saw all over the menus of Charleston, which is delicious) over broken rice grits -- that is, broken bits of rice grains cooked in the manner of grits, another thing you see on menus in these parts -- with a vibrant green sauce and broccoli.
It was a delicious, light, springy dish, local.
Tasty. But it was no schnitzel! The sides were delicious as well, and included a silky potato puree and earthy roasted beets with a vinegar kick. The portions don't look terribly huge, nor are they miniscule -- but they're actually much more filling and hearty than they look. By the time we leisurely made our way to dessert, we were absolutely stuffed. And yet. A chocolate almond cake with mint chocolate chip ice cream beckoned to the 9-year-old inside of me. The port tasting, to accompany the dessert, beckoned to the adult, real-time me. It was almost -- almost -- too much. But the richness of the chocolate cake was cut by the minty freshness of my favorite ice cream flavor. It was an excellent way to cap off a meal that exceeded expectations, even if those expectations were pretty high to begin with.
Did I mention we were in town during March Madness? My alma mater's team was doing quite well in the tournament, something UVA had not experienced since I was in college (!) in the early-to-mid-nineties. So we were all very excited to be able to root for the Cavaliers once again. The ACC is quite a competitive group of schools, many of which are in the South, so we had our competition just to watch the UVA games in Charleston. But there were establishments that showed the game, and we found them.
They were often the more casual joints around the city, serving burgers and beer, or fish and chips -- pubby, but still really focused on good quality food. The first place we viewed a game was a pub next door to our first hotel, The Vendue Inn, called The Griffon. It was a small place that felt authentically English, with a great beer selection and a big screen (literally. Not a TV. A big screen) showing the Virginia game, with lots of UVA fans mixed with local Carolinians rooting for their team.
We were winning, but we got there late, so they'd stopped serving dinner fare. We hopped over to the Pearlz Oyster Bar around the corner off Meeting Street, as the kitchen is open late. They also indulged us and let us change the channel on the bar TV to the UVA game. We were happy with a great beer selection and some very legitimate fish and chips, as well, served in newspaper with homemade tartar sauce and all. The only drawback was that the 'chips' were American chips, potato chips. They were homemade though, so they get some points back.
The next memorable meal we enjoyed was a brunch at The Grocery, in a converted loft-like space off of Upper King Street. Again, this place features local ingredients, and since Southern style breakfasts are a strong suit in the low country repertoire, brunch offers numerous possibilities for this revamped local cuisine to shine. Examples?
Take, for instance, the playful "Green Eggs and Ham": poached eggs rolled in parsley bread crumbs (hence the green), over smoked ham, on cornmeal-cheddar griddle cakes, drizzled with a mustard vinaigrette.
Or, their upscale update of chicken and waffles: fried quail and french toast (made with thick country bread), with an orange-sorghum syrup. I wished there was more of it, as quail lacks the meaty quality of good fried chicken, but it was flavorful, with a nice batter, and of course the interplay of super-savory and sweet was there in all its glory. It's one of those places with a menu that begs you to try everything on it. Next trip, I'm eager to try their Hangtown Fry (fried oysters and green tomatoes with a farm egg and bacon frittata, with remoulade) and the Duck Confit Hash with potatoes, apple, fennel, a soft egg and dijonnaise. I'd also like to return for dinner, especially at this time of year, when their Soft Shell Crab 3 Ways has my name written all over it. After brunch, one might head out to see a nearby plantation.
Middleton Place is highly recommended for its gorgeous grounds and architecture, a short drive outside of Charleston proper.
There are several great cocktail spots in Charleston for aperitivi, or pre-dinner drinks. One of the best is the rooftop at the Market Pavilion Hotel. It's decidedly less formal than their old world, beautiful dining room downstairs.
You take the elevator to the rooftop and get some gorgeous views at sunset, with an expansive cocktail list to boot.
The rooftop at the Vendue Inn was, sadly, under renovation while we were in town and staying there ourselves, which was a real shame. But I hear it's fabulous, and our experience at the inn was great in general, so I'm sure the rooftop is an excellent spot.
Another game night, another sports-viewing-friendly establishment...but again, with some good food. We headed to the oddly-named Closed for Business, which was open for business and showed the UVA game. Their craft beer selection met the approval of The Big Guy, and we selected our beers according to our divergent tastes in brews...and with glass sizes to match our actual sizes! After this mellow game night on Upper King Street, we headed for a change of pace to Bin 152, on lower King Street near our hotel. Their wine list is long and varied, and the atmosphere is mellow and rustic. We could have shared a lovely cheese plate, but were too full to have been able to enjoy it, so we sipped our wine and reflected on our time in Charleston. I was happy to have finally made my first trip to this charming southern city, and swore it would not be our last. With a flight under 2 hours and a temperate semi-tropical climate, popping down to the palmetto state is a very enticing option. The food and drink? That's the icing on the cake.
207 Rutledge Ave. (Canonboro)
232 Meeting Street
18 Vendue Range
Pearlz Oyster Bar
153 East Bay Street
4 Cannon Street
Rooftop at the Market Pavilion Hotel
225 E. Bay Street
Closed for Business
453 King Street
152 King Street
205 Meeting Street
Nathaniel Russell House
51 Meeting Street (South of Broad)