Tippling Dixie

Sure, I took a nip on my trip this week to Charleston, South Carolina, not on the basis of “When in Rome …,” though there was a bit of that. No, I just like a good cocktail or Scotch or beer, particularly in a nicer establishment, like a fine restaurant or stylish bar/saloon. (Or salon: Where I get my hair cut, they serve free Prosecco, a nice Kardashian flourish.)

And, as part of what became something of a foodie journey (see that part here), I hit a lot of those places. My slogan: No driving, no hangovers, no regrets.

Right before my three-day trip to Charleston, I blogged about the award-winning small-batch boutique distillery I had my sights on, High Wire Distilling Co., on bustling — one might say boozy — King Street.

I made it, and took the short tour — the place is fashionably cozy and drips with hip — and partook in the tasting flight. The tour was $5, as was the tasting. (I also bought a bottle of the Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin for a reasonable $27.)

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The High Wire tasting flight. Left to right: Hometown VodkaHat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical GinHat Trick Barrel Rested Gin; and New Southern Revival Brand Rye Whiskey. Especially for how early in the day these were imbibed — noon shots on an empty stomach? — each libation exerted kick and fire and were exceptionally complex.

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At this upscale bistro I sipped the Nordic Witch — “bright and herbal, this witch is ready to head south for spring” — made of Old Tom Gin, Strega, Linie, Aquavit, Lime and Peychaud’s. It was superlative, swirly and tangy, but it was so small, I didn’t even take a picture of it. 

With dinner I had a Classic Whiskey Sour that hit the spot:

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Husk has one of the coolest, most coveted little bars in the city (big patio for you patio people), with potions to match. Waiting for a dinner table, I ordered a tasty Gin-Based Drink Special, whose name and ingredients I foolishly didn’t commit to memory.

But here it is:

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During dinner I got the toothsome and bracing Option Bee: Earl Grey-Infused Local Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Honey, Lemon and Egg White. Below:

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My penchant for gin is glaring and at this classy, streamlined drinkery I stuck to my beloved botanicals with the assertive “Clover Club” — Hendrick’s Gin, Raspberry Preserves, Dry Vermouth, Lemon and Egg White — followed by the satisfactorily simple PGT (Proof Gin and Tonic)” — Hendrick’s Gin, Lemon Bitters, Cucumber.

Proof’s a neat place on crawling King Street, and I would have returned with more time.

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Slathered in ersatz grunge and lacking snarly attitude, The Griffon touts itself as the authentic dive bar in Charleston, and apparently a lot of people who haven’t been to Charleston’s The Recovery Room or Dirty Franks in Philly actually believe this. This bar is a poser dive if ever there was one, a faux dump made to look beaten and badass with floor-to-ceiling wallpaper compiled of signed $1 bills. It tries awfully hard, and it made me kind of sad. The Griffon is the Planet Hollywood of dives, a cosplay simulacrum, a movie set. Spotless bathrooms? Yep. Tourists only. I had a $4 bottle of Miller Lite. Then I skedaddled.

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  • Finally, for non-alcoholic, caffeinated elixirs I spent mornings at the sleek, slightly industrial, mid-century and mini-menu’d Revelator Coffee Company on — where else? — King Street. Fully recommended. Free WiFi, tip-top drinks, cheery baristas.

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Chewing through Charleston

I did it right, I nailed it. During my quick foodie tour through Charleston, South Carolina, I sidled up to the bars at five restaurants I urgently wanted to hit, the places that songs are written about, that journalists spill fragrant ink over, that Uber drivers gasp in amazement, “You got into (restaurant name here)?”

I researched and read. The internet was my friend. I watched Anthony Bourdain and “Chef’s Table” and “The Mind of a Chef.” I emailed eateries for the tricks and maneuvers that would guarantee I’d get in without a dinner reservation. (Simple: Arrive well before 5 p.m. Wait outside. When the doors open, nab a seat at the bar. Eat. Drink. Rejoice.)

Charleston is a powerhouse food destination, cutting-edge and farm fresh, and not one thing I ate was less than exemplary. Vittles vaulted me to that pleasure zone, a kind of palate paradise, where you sigh and go, Yeah.

Where and what I ate:

(Assume I loved every dish, passionately, and click the restaurant name for more info.)

  • HUSK, 76 Queen Street:

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Wood Fired White Stone Oysters, Green Garlic Butter, Lemon Vinegar, Fermented Chilies, served on a bed of rock salt

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Confit Duck “Cassoulet,” Heirloom Peas, Lowland Farms Brassicas, Pot Likker Broth, Pan Fried Farm Egg

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  • FIG, 232 Meeting Street:

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Ricotta Gnocchi alla Bolognese Parmesan, Mint

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A dazzling Chicken Confit with Brussels Sprouts and Fig (and lots of other complex goodness I can’t remember) over Polenta

A little about FIG: “The name is an acronym for ‘Food Is Good,'” writes Bon Appetite, “a simple epithet that doesn’t do justice to the level of cooking set forth by Mike Lata, the godfather of Charleston restaurants (he also owns The Ordinary).” 

Speaking of The Ordinary …

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A quartet of immaculate, sweet and salty raw oysters, hand-chosen by the suave server/bartender. The orange beverage to the right is the zesty House Daiquiri: Plantation Old-Fashioned Traditional Dark Rum, Plantation 5-year Rum, Cane, Lime.

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Crispy Oyster Slider with a whisper of jalapeño (unbelievable)

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New England Style Fish Chowder with Oyster Crackers — better than you think. A knockout loaded with generous chunks of white fish and potatoes.

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Spicy Two-Piece Dark Meat Fried Chicken with Cole Slaw: Buttermilk Dressing, Currants, Seeds 

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Second visit: Four Raw Oysters (only one shown here), Signature “Old School” Scalloped Potatoes (divine) and a Gin & Tonic

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The famous Tavern Burger, a 4-ounce Patty Topped with American Cheese, Tangy Tavern Sauce, Griddled Onion on a Sesame Bun, with House Salad. This glorious, glorified slider goes for a mean $15, and it’s worth it. So hypnotic I couldn’t even focus the camera. My eyes were crossed. 

Doing the Charleston

History throbs and threads through Charleston, South Carolina, a city I haven’t visited for about 16 reasons, the biggest being I just haven’t made it down there yet. Part of that is because I feel I got my Deep South fix some years ago during a greatest-hits southern road trip with my brother in a brazenly purple Saturn sedan rental. It was a blast.

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Filled with barbecue, catfish and boiled peanuts, we shoehorned as much as we could into five days, pit-stopping in Nashville; Memphis; Sun Records; Graceland; Asheville, N.C., which is tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Montgomery and Birmingham; the dewey-eyed Dollywood Theme Park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; as well as Thomas Jefferson’s digs at Monticello in Virginia on our way back north to Brooklyn. For much of the journey we listened to the operatically twangy “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr., an aching ode to hillbilly pride suddenly apt for these puke-making MAGA days, which dominated the local airwaves. (Listen HERE. It’s impossibly catchy.)  

A native Californian who survived more than a decade in Texas, I’m now an inveterate Yankee. As much as that maiden journey was an eye-opening kick, the South doesn’t come naturally to me. On a later road trip I circumnavigated coastal Florida, from St. Augustine to Miami and the Keys, St. Petersburg to Panama City. (We cut through Alabama and landed in New Orleans, La.) I found Florida gauche, grubby and at times noxiously racist. You couldn’t bribe me back.

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Enter Charleston, S.C., above, a stately midsize city swathed in Civil War lore and, just as intriguing, boasting gourmet gold. I leave in two weeks for a fast three-day trip. Here’s Lonely Planet on the burg’s historical heft:  

“Cannons, cemeteries and carriage rides conjure an earlier era in this lovely city. Signers of the Declaration of Independence puffed cigars and whispered of revolution in historic homes, and the first shots of the Civil War rang out over Fort Sumter. The city was built on slave labor, and several sights are among the nation’s most important educators on the long-standing oppression of African Americans.”

This is a small jaunt — a two-hour flight (free, thanks to airline credits) and a reasonable if flavorless midrange hotel in the Historic District. I’m taking a walking tour of the cobblestone-paved historic hood, including the French Quarter, but I’m not overly excited about the glut of antebellum mansions — silk sofas don’t thrill me — sprawling parks or even fabled Fort Sumter, surefire soporifics I’d rather read about than actually visit.

In my sights is the Old Slave Mart Museum, which “recounts the story of Charleston’s role in the interstate slave trade by focusing on the history of this particular building and site and the slave sales that occurred here.” And I’ll meander through and photograph the history-rich spreads of St. Philip’s Graveyard and Magnolia Cemetery, morbid musts.

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Called the Holy City for contested and not necessarily pious reasons, Charleston keeps accruing accolades as the “friendliest city” and “best city to visit” and other breathless superlatives glossy magazines can’t help bestowing on every cool town (hello, Austin). 

Part of its cachet derives from its evolution as a culinary epicenter, with drooled-over fine dining spots like Fig and McCrady’s, which offers a rarefied tasting-menu experience — “inventive cuisine fresh from the farm” — with only 22 seats.

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Supreme southern chef Sean Brock

The McCrady’s kitchen is run by award-winning chef Sean Brock, who’s been extensively profiled on “Chef’s Table” and “The Mind of a Chef” on Netflix. Brock also co-owns the more casual Southern food destination Husk, where the crispy fried chicken skins are legend (and not always on the menu, drat). Brock and his famed dishes are a big reason I’m going to Charleston. Oysters are also a pull, with Leon’s Oyster Shop and its exalted shellfish and scalloped potatoes firm on my gastronomic itinerary. 

Call it my foodie expedition, brevity be damned. It’s also my overdue return to the South, a region rather alien to me, a cluster of unvarnished Americana, verdant beauty, rampant Republicanism and Confederate fervor that, if nothing else, will impart salutary exposure to the unusual, surprising and startling — a whole new world, exactly why I pack up and go.

A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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Pushing for Paris

I once knew someone who actually said this when I mentioned that my favorite city is Paris: “Huh? Even Munich is better than Paris.”

Deathly silence.

Munich?

Munich?

Thunderstruck, I retain this memory with terrible clarity. I crossed that person off my Christmas card list. 

(Now, nothing against Munich. Munich is neat-o. I thoroughly enjoyed Munich, if I didn’t fall in love with it. I like beer. And cuckoo clocks.)

When I was in Amsterdam in May, I was on a boat tour through the lovely canals and, coaxed by the pushy skipper, I was evidently dumb enough to say the city was beautiful, much like Paris, wherein the whole boat, about eight people, groaned, “Whoa! Amsterdam is waay better than Paris.” Murmurs and whispers ensued. (Oh, those awful French people, groused a ditzy Brit, echoing the laziest cliché in the history of world travel.)

I had to, first, snuff my indignation, then muffle my bemusement, then muzzle my laughter. Were they serious? Amsterdam is gorgeous and fun and historically and culturally robust, but it doesn’t hold a flickering little paper match to the overwhelming majesty of sprawling, art-encrusted, haute cuisine-infused, history-convulsed Paris, which boasts its own sinuous canal in the knockout, 483-mile Seine and all of its inviting, ancient quays. 

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The last thing Paris needs is some doltish American offering injured and angry apologias for the grand, gilded metropolis. Paris stands supreme, proudly independent, unimpeachable, a dazzling European peacock, plumage in full splay. Perhaps not everyone’s favorite destination, it remains high up, cleanly above Munich and Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam, which I adore for so many reasons, over Munich, for the record.)

Central Paris, that masterpiece of urban planning, conflates the antiquated and the contemporary for stunning treelined strolls. Magnificent parks, gardens and cathedrals stipple the cityscape and some of the most august art repositories in the world — Musèe d’Orsay, the Louvre, Musèe de l’Orangerie, Musèe Picasso, Centre Pompidou — unfailingly spellbind. Food, fashion, film — Paris is a throbbing epicenter for it all.

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Musee d’Orsay, November 2015

But we know this. Here I am describing, a mite defensively, the patent pleasures of this great city. All of it world-renown. For a reason.

While Paris preens and beguiles, some of my other eternal boldfaced cities include New York, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Krakow and stately Istanbul, where I return this month, giddily. 

Reader: I’d love to hear about your favorite travel spots. Drop names in the comments section and be as brief or windy as you’d like. I’m curious if Paris makes the cut or not, or if I’m crazy, and if I’m overlooking other star locations, be it Botswana or Buenos Aires. Type away … 

Fourth of July: slightly better than you think

So they do the big community fireworks show in our exurb the night before the Fourth of July — that is, today, the third — presumably so they don’t have to compete with the real fireworks shows, the mega-extravaganzas detonated by the nearby big cities. Makes sense. Can you imagine if every town and city shot off their arsenals at the same time on the same night? The skies would be pyro pandemonium. (Would that be so bad?)

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For our country-fair version of neon-blooms and sky-borne booms we’re granted largish park space, hot dog and churros stands and only slightly embarrassing cover bands with names like The Rolling Clones doing their best not to asphyxiate classics by CCR, the Beatles, Journey, Foreigner and scads of other woolly ‘60s-‘70s supergroups. The music and fireworks are free. The hot dogs are not. Parking is combat. There is no alcohol. 

This is not a recipe for delight. The Fourth is kind of a dead-end holiday to begin with. Perfunctory plastic flag-waving and high-school-band parades aside, I don’t think many Americans are actually reflecting on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You might be, but really you aren’t. It’s all very patriotic, in a face-painty kind of way.  

th-1.jpegThat said, it’s a good summer holiday, sort of the kickoff to the season (which happens to be my least favorite season, just saying), that is strangely rife with hot dogs. They’re all over the joint.

A good holiday, but not the best. That honor goes to, well, just about every other American holiday. Easter, with its gobs of chocolate, is almost better than July Fourth. Thanksgiving is better. Certainly lawless Halloween and the gift-bloated Christmas surpass it. Hell, even my birthday beats out Independence Day, which is kind of like the special little brother of holidays. Sacrilege? Sorry.

But we settle. The Fourth has its fun. Fireworks, especially from the stance of this recovered pyromaniac, are glorious. Even the rinky-dink version in the ‘burbs, with rampant children, grassy blankets, hot dogs, snow-cones and long-in-the-tooth bands belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” casts a pleasant spell — and gundpowdery smell.

Away from the park, beer flows and barbecues flame. Small gatherings happen in backyards. Kids squeal and peal and dogs slalom around bare legs and sandaled feet. (Those dogs want … hot dogs.) The occasional dancing sparkler is unveiled to the astonished eyes of youngsters.

I have indelible memories of the holiday as a kid on the beaches of Southern California. It was magic: illegal firecrackers, smoke bombs and Roman candles, lit from inside huge sand pits we dug that sat four or five friends. We were there all day until the city’s big fireworks show unfurled in the night sky, over the ocean, popping, bursting, crackling, streaming. And there we were, watching below, aglow in a thousand sizzling colors.

* Update: The local fireworks shebang was rained out on July 3. They rescheduled the big party for, get this, July 13 — a wee late. And it’s Friday the 13th. Isn’t that its own wild holiday?

Ambling across Amsterdam

Amsterdam prevails.

Weighing Budapest against Amsterdam for my next trip, the Netherlands won out ably after effortless contemplation that sprung to mind peerless European art, worldly cuisine, cobblestone, canals and cannabis. 

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Compared to the striking Hungarian capital, there’s more to see and do in one of Europe’s most bristling cradles of culture, a smallish, quintessentially Old World setting marbled with a pungent contemporary tang. (And naughtily dubbed Sin City for its legal prostitution and lax marijuana laws.)

Once, in the 1600s, it was the world’s richest city; port-centric commerce flourished. Now, it’s a reservoir of humanistic riches — art, food, style, architecture. Friends of mine are so taken with the city that they’re moving to Amsterdam from Manhattan ASAP.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Amsterdam, and those times had the brevity of stopovers. Budapest’s Gothic spikiness and post-Soviet chill can wait. My destination offers popping pastel charms, including an iconic fretwork of canals lined by trees and spindly, leaning houses that seem to be jostling for room on the banks. And now there’s a lot more time.

No tulips or bicycles for me (and, alas, no Anne Frank House: tickets are plum sold out during my stay, though I’ve been there twice before), but I’m all about the hazy gold and brown Rembrandts, those Vermeers and the cornea-sizzling Van Goghs gracing the majestic Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, plus the spread of classic modern art — Haring to Kruger — at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. 

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Gourmet stuffed pancakes, Indonesian bites (of which Holland is a hotbed), Dutch dishes, frites with mayo, pickled herring, European lagers and gin, or, in Dutch, jenever — that’s my menu. Cafes, pubs, maybe a sooty “coffeeshop” — those are where I will recharge. 

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Museum Vrolik, grisly, glorious.

Out of touristic obligation I’ll trot the tawdry and corny Red Light District, which stings the nostrils with damage, despair and possibly disease, and get out fast to catch a 90-minute canal boat tour run by the cheeky Those Dam Boat Guys, who encourage you to bring whatever ingestible vice you’d like. “Bring all the wine you have,” they exclaim. “Sure, it thins the blood and will kill you quicker, but I’ll be damned if it don’t make you forget the nippiness. We’ll provide the best cheap, shitty, plastic cups not very much money can buy!”

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After that, a heady spin through the Heineken brewery seems mandatory, as does the Museum Vrolik, a shuddery repository of the “normal anatomy of humans, but also pathological anatomy and congenital malformations.” Meaning, contorted skeletons, chubby jarred fetuses, outlandish taxidermy and all things squishy and wrong. 

I blush at how this reads like a breathless brochure by a lackey at the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. Part of the unseemly boosterism, the unbridled optimism, comes from the vim of nailing down a destination and the kick of anticipation. Of the simple notion of travel and gulping the exotic. Of being able to finally say: Amsterdam. Yes.