I’ve always been a fan of lowcountry cooking, but as much as I would see a deviled egg here or some pimento cheese elsewhere, I had never really spent any significant time in the South, with the intention of purely eating. In Charleston for work last week, I had an opportunity to have a couple of meals – both high-end and down-home, and I have to say that I came away impressed with the what the terroir is yielding, not to mention what local chefs are doing with it (pickling, smoking and curing just for starters).
My first lunch was at The Glass Onion, a non-descript diner about 10 minutes from downtown, where the menu changes practically everyday.
Just glancing at their menu made me long for another stomach. There are strong reminders you’re in the South – po’ boys, pimento cheese and pickled peaches – but also a clear determination to make this food from scratch, rarely taking shortcuts. I had asked, rather skeptically, about the bread used for their po’boys, knowing that it’s practically impossible to duplicate a proper one outside of New Orleans. When they told me they get NOLA’s legendary Leidenheimer bread delivered par-baked three times a week, I knew the kitchen’s heart was in the right place.
We asked if the chef wouldn’t mind just preparing and sending out whatever he liked that day, to give us a sense for what the restaurant’s true strengths were. He didn’t disappoint. Plate after plate of Southern charm kept wowing us: chicken livers done two ways, both fried as well as in a delicate, fluffy mousse, accented with their homemake sweet pepper relish; fried chicken with pickled and fried okra; mounds of tart pickles saddled next to a sausage link made from the whole hog (I noticed “cream” was the second ingredient listed on the sausage’s label that they showed me). Every dish was more delicious than the next, and I was regretting not taking a more moderate approach; I just kept devouring everything set before me.
My dining companion and I kept stopping ourselves, as we ate in near silence, savoring every bite. The field peas used to make their falafel – as tender as any I’ve had in a Middle Eastern joint – paired exquisitely with fresh watermelon and cucumbers. I wish I could have had stomach space to come back for dinner…
The next two days were a series of southern highlights, such as the crab cake in the staid, more formal Charleston Grill, where the menu is divided into four different quadrants (Lush, Southern, Pure, Cosmopolitan) allowing you to mix and match as you wish. Since my time here was so limited, I stuck to the Southern menu, opting for a hearty Frogmore Stew, kind of a like a lowcountry cioppino, as well as a crabcake that can more than hold its own against one of my barometers at Shaw’s Crab House:
I also hit two of suddenly-he’s-everywhere-chef Sean Brock, owner of McCrady’s and Husk. Brock is a recent Beard Award winner for his work in Charleston (ironically, the first night in town, I was watching a “No Reservations” episode in my hotel, and Brock just happened to be on with Bourdain, at the Cooking Raw event in Japan). Brock has become Charleston’s David Chang, exploding on both the local and national food scene in a big way. McCrady’s is a handsome space; I sat at the bar for a few of the bar snacks, including ridiculously good fried chicken skins and somewhat elegant shrimp toast. The calling card – as it is at most Charleston restaurants – is the deviled egg, which is executed as good as anywhere I’ve been.
I loved the space at Husk. With a casual little bar across the alley, the restaurant itself is housed in an antebellum mansion that exudes Southern charm.
Obviously, I had heard a lot about this place before going, and so I over-ordered a bit when it came time to make decisions. I loved pretty much every starter I tried – including this fantastic local shrimp bowl, embedded with stewed tomatoes and okra, paired with Anson Mills rice, as opposed to the better-known grits:
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the two entrees I tried – bland, overcooked pork belly and a raw-in-the-center amberjack that managed to be tough outside. Desserts were just o.k., but nothing to write home about. Still, this is a restaurant worth checking out, if only for the educational reading about local farmers, ingredients and techniques. My server was a fountain of knowledge when it came to any detail about the menu – a sign of great training and also respect for what they are serving. Next time I’m going to plan an extra 36 hours in Charleston, just so I can hit Fig, S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad) and the Hominy Grill.
But I have to say, I’m somewhat giddy at the prospect of The Carriage House opening this week in Wicker Park, where local chef Mark Steuer (The Bedford) will recreate the flavors of his native South Carolina in earnest. Bring it.