Writer Daniel Browne isn’t necessarily a food writer, but the topic pops up frequently in his work (his latest story, in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, is now available as a free download). I’d tell you why, but I’d spoil the story. Let’s let him explain how he ate so damn well on his latest trip to Charleston, South Carolina.
When your wife is a seasoned food professional (or rather a seasoned professional in the food world, not a professional who deals only with seasoned food—although, I’m sure all the food Lisa writes about for work is well-seasoned)…Let’s start again.
When your wife is a food writer and editor, you tend to eat well on vacation. As usual, Lisa had planned the itinerary for our long weekend in Charleston to a T: a few reservations at respected restaurants, a few lunch options, plenty of opportunity to play it by ear. So I was fully expecting to eat well.
What I wasn’t expecting was a food town to rival Portland, Oregon, my favorite eating destination in the country. Not only was every single meal in Charleston remarkable, just about every server we encountered was warm, knowledgeable, and serious about their food. Charleston doesn’t seem to have the same reputation in the gastrosphere as Portland, but that may have more to do with a lack of hipster signifiers than a lack of worthy eats. Here are a few of the highlights:
Hope and Union
For years, my favorite coffee spot has been the lobby of the Ace Hotel in Portland (last Portland reference, I promise!), but Hope and Union (199 Saint Philip Street) gives it a run for its money. As at the Ace, the coffee is Stumptown and the drinks are made with care by friendly, good-looking youths (or as a New Yorker visiting the South is obligated to say, “yoots”). The difference is that Hope and Union, like so many things of interest in Charleston, is located in an old house on a quiet side street—a house with a wraparound porch. Sitting on that porch, nursing a latte while regulars drift in from the beach…it’s the kind of experience that gets you thinking seriously about relocating. [UPDATE: Hope and Union is closed as of August 2012.]
Caviar & Bananas
The Market Street Great Hall is one of those landmarks that sounds cool when you’re researching your trip but turns out to be a tourist trap best avoided. Historically a covered produce market, it’s now basically a showcase for souvenirs like traditional sweetgrass baskets, surrounded by suspicious “#1-ranked” restaurants and odiferous horse-drawn carriage tours.
The Great Hall does have one thing going for it: an outpost of the popular gourmet shop Caviar & Bananas—an ideal option for a quick coffee and sandwich break during a day of sightseeing. All weekend, I kept eyeing the pimiento cheese BLT on the menu board, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, Lisa and I split a lighter variation on a po’ boy with grilled shrimp and pickled green tomato. Good stuff. Note: The main store on George Street has a different menu, so if you’ve already got your (soon-to-clogged) heart set on that BLT, plan accordingly.
When we peered in the window and saw a large, elegant dining room, we assumed we were in for a somewhat formal brunch experience (I decided to wear pants). In fact, The Grocery (4 Cannon Street) was pleasantly easy-going. We had our most traditionally Southern meal here, Lisa opting for shrimp and grits (which were delicious), and me for a sausage and cheese sandwich with a mustard cream sauce that was tasty but terrifyingly huge (the sausage patty was the size of a burger). This was our only meal that conformed to the Southern stereotype of heavy, meaty indulgence, but I think that had more to do with what I ordered than the menu as a whole, which also featured a noodle bowl under the name “redneck ramen.” Can’t wait for bloggers to start arguing about the most traditional ramen in the South.
So Sean Brock is Charleston’s designated celebrity chef, and McCrady’s (2 Unity Alley) is his flagship restaurant. Tucked down one of Charleston’s many narrow brick-paved alleys, the space is a beautiful, warmly lit blend of wood, stone, and glass, but again, there’s no unnecessary formality. The $60 four-course menu has to be one of the best deals I’ve ever come across at a fine dining restaurant. McCrady’s has been vaguely associated with the whole molecular trend, but the only evidence of it was frozen blueberry “snow” in my chilled cucumber soup, which, frankly, was the only off note in the entire meal.
The highlight was a grilled shrimp dish with black eyed peas and cauliflower in a porky broth (okay, there was some foam, too, but I swear it worked!)—a virtuoso melding of flavors and textures. Lisa loved the peach sorbet and shiso biscuit, and even got to polish off the meal with her favorite cheese, Humboldt Fog. At the price, you really can’t afford not to eat here.
The Bar at Husk
Typically, by the end of a vacation, Lisa and I have fancy dining fatigue, and that was the case in Charleston. So rather than try to snag a table at Sean Brock’s other celebrated restaurant, Husk, we headed straight for the bar (76 Queen Street), which, housed in its own building, is a little speak-easyish world unto itself. We watched the two bartenders rib each other as they competed to finish their prep for the evening, shuttling between countless jars of homemade extracts and pickles. Our bartender/server, a straight-faced, quietly sardonic dude wearing jeans and a bow tie, mixed up a mean citrusy Ford Cocktail for Lisa. I’m not a drinker, so I was pleased to see the female tender improvise a fruity mocktail for the old Southern dame sitting beside us.
For dinner, we—Lisa, not the Southern dame, and I—split a pulled lamb barbecue sandwich (a new one for me) and a cheeseburger, which after one bite, vaulted straight to the top of the burger pantheon. We’d been tipped off to the bacon ground up with the beef, but even that knowledge didn’t prepare us for the perfection (size, sauce, pickles) of this burger.
One More Tip
Charleston has a big, bustling farmers market (Marion Square) every Saturday, not quite as vibrant as the one in Portland (sorry, I did it again!), but miles better than the one in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. In addition to the farmers, growers, and musicians, there’s an intriguing food court that Lisa and I didn’t have the time (or stomach space) to try. Canadian bacon and egg bahn mi? Maybe next time.