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.