Monday, April 9, 2018

Till We Eat Again - Charleston Edition

Ricotta Cake at Chez Nous
As I mentioned in an early 2018 post, Charleston, SC was one of the trips we had on our calendar for this year. We just returned from a terrific few days in the holy city (so called because of the many churches there). 

It’s been 4-5 years since our last visit to this beautiful southern city and man, it is just exploding with growth! We saw new construction and rehabbing of older buildings all over town. Of course, with that comes many new food and hotel venues that were not in place during our last visit.

So, let’s start the tour! 

Day 1: we actually got an extra day in Charleston due to the snowstorm that was forecast in the northeast for our original departure date. In fact, our airline encouraged us to revise our travel plans, offering no change fees. Unfortunately, the hotel we had booked could not accommodate us a day early, but luckily their sister property had space. And it turned out to be a very pleasant happenstance. After scrambling to pack and change hotels, car service reservations, pet sitters, and everything else you do before a trip, we landed in a very wet, cold, and windy Charleston (my hopes of escaping the frigid NJ temps faded fast). 
Whole Hog BBQ at Rodney Scott's BBQ

After arriving at the French Quarter Inn (our home for night one in Charleston), we realized that since we flew in a day early, we had no restaurant plans (horrors!). We quickly hailed an Uber and raced over to Rodney Scott’s BBQ. This place has been on all the “must-eat” lists, not just for Charleston but for BBQ in general, so this was on our agenda anyway. However, to our profound disappointment, the person on line in front of us got the last order of ribs! AAAAAHHHH! Not to be defeated, we ordered the Whole Hog BBQ sandwich and platter so we could also try a couple of different sides. WOW! This was pulled pork to the nth degree - moist, smoky, succulent. Sometimes at BBQ joints, the sides are an afterthought - not here. The baked beans were tender (not mushy) and spicy, and the cole slaw was light and flavorful. We would have to come back later in the week to get those ribs!

Lovely ham biscuits and croissant from hotel
We returned to the hotel and were delighted to find a night cap of port and cookies waiting in the lobby. I would describe the French Quarter Inn as having an “old world” gentility, as one might expect to find in the South (hospitable, warm, gracious - without being fawning). The hotel does not have an on-site restaurant, but they offer a continental breakfast either delivered to your room, or available in the lobby. We took advantage of room service & enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before heading out for the day. Another nice feature we loved here was a coffee station on every floor for emergency refills.
Shrimp Bog at Hominy Grill

Around lunchtime, we made our way over to The Hominy Grill, a long-established venue in Charleston, that we had enjoyed during our last visit. Opened in 1996 by chef Robert Stehling, one of the pioneers of the low country food movement, this popular restaurant serves up traditional southern dishes such as shrimp and grits, biscuits, and fried catfish. Since I was on vacation, I opted for a New Old Fashioned made with Old Overholt rye, orange bitters, and vermouth; and the Low Country Shrimp Bog with Andouille and Carolina Gold Rice, with a side of cornbread. Mr B chose the Country Breakfast (eggs, grits, and biscuit), which was just OK.  My dish was well done, but I couldn’t help the feeling that the restaurant that was ahead of it’s time in Charleston had become something of a tourist trap. 

Lest you think all we did was eat and drink, we managed to do quite a bit of sightseeing. There is so much history to soak up in Charleston that if you are a civil war or American history buff, you should definitely add this city to your travel plans.

Fabulous fried chicken at Leon's Oyster Shop
We checked out of our night one hotel & checked in to The Spectator for the rest of our trip. If the French Quarter Inn can be described as the “old” South, the Spectator is definitely the “new” South. Sleek, modern, and luxurious, this hotel is also all about gracious service. Upon arrival, we were greeted with the drink of the day (a refreshing Paloma) and introduced to our butler, who escorted us to our room and gave us an overview of  the hotel. The hotel has a very nice bar off the lobby and offers a “butler’s happy hour” every afternoon with a lovely selection of cheeses, olives, nuts, etc.
Oysters Casino at Leon's Oyster Shop

We planned this trip with our friends from Austin and when they arrived after a long travel day, we visited Leon’s Oyster Shop for an early dinner. Obviously Leon's specializes in oysters, but they are also famous for their fried chicken (which did not disappoint). This is a funky little spot with a very popular bar. People were crowded in waiting for tables, enjoying a nice selection of beer, wine, or cocktails. We got a table pretty quickly and immediately ordered up raw oysters, fried oysters, and that crispy, moist fried chicken (dark meat, thank you very  much!). Good results all around, our only negative was the noise level.

Sunbathing Alligator at Magnolia Plantation
Charleston has several antebellum plantations within 30 minutes of downtown. After reading many travel articles about these sites, we settled on a tour to Magnolia Plantation. I would have to say we did not choose wisely. This plantation, established in 1676, is more about the extensive gardens than the history of the founding Drayton family. After a 45 minute walking tour of the gardens (on a cold, windy day), we were herded onto a tram (ok, they call it a “nature train”) for a 30 minute ride to look for alligators, birds, turtles, etc. We did see several alligators trying to warm up on specially-designed alligator ramps in the ponds. Finally, we arrived at the house where we got a speed-of-light tour and were hustled out the door. For the rest of the week, we referred to this as the “Disney” plantation tour, as it was expensive and provided a glossed over version of plantation life. We made up for it later in the week with tours of more historically accurate plantations (read about them later in the post).

Being food-obsessed people, we had booked our dinner reservations prior to arriving. Charleston is known as one of the country’s top food destinations and we did not want to get shut out of specific spots. 

Husk was first on the list. Opened by chef Sean Brock (one of the early leaders of the authentic Southern food movement) in 2010, it still reigns supreme as a temple to Southern ingredients. Husk only has a service bar in the restaurant but next door they have a great little cocktail lounge where you can while away some time waiting for your table (which we did). 
Dinner Rolls at Husk

Relaxed, professional, friendly service is a hallmark of Husk and our server was all that. After reviewing the menu with us, he went off to grab our next round of drinks and a basket of benne seed dinner rolls with PORK-infused butter (these were off the hook!). I, of course, started with the Broadbent Country Ham with Buttermilk Biscuits, Dijonnaise, and House made Pickles. The fabulously flavorful ham came arranged on a large wood hunk (great presentation, but a little unwieldy). Loved the dijonnaise, a combo of Dijon mustard and mayo (I don’t know for sure, but given Chef Brock’s dictum that everything at Husk be of Southern origin, I bet the mayo was Duke’s, which I use at home and it has changed our mayo habits forever!). 
Country Ham at Husk

Biscuits, Dijonnaise, Pickles at Husk

Mr B ordered the General Tso’s Glazed Pig Ear Lettuce Wraps with Sweet Vinegar Cucumber and Red Onion. The consensus was this was a great concept, but the glazed pig ears were overdone, way beyond crunchy. 

My main course was the Carolina Heritage Pork with Pit Smoked Butterbeans, Collards, Cornbread Croutons, Sweet Potatoes, and Pot Likker. The pork was sort of a roulade of pork with tender pork belly wrapped inside. The dish sang with intense flavors!
My adorable Sweetgrass Basket

Day three saw us up bright and early, and after coffee and biscuits in our room (same continental breakfast offerings as their sister property), we were off to find real plantations. But not before stopping to see Corey Alston of Gullah Sweetgrass Baskets at the Meeting Street entrance to the City Market. Sweetgrass baskets are a significant part of the African culture that was transported to this country by enslaved African people (this was a way for them to keep a connection to their beloved homeland). Originally, the coiled baskets were used as a tool of rice production on plantations. The basket sewing handcraft tradition is passed down from generation to generation. In fact, the beautiful little basket I purchased was made by Corey’s daughter. Today, examples of sweetgrass baskets are on display at The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and art galleries around the world.

We began our day by visiting the Charleston Museum, which showcases the complicated history of Charleston, including pre- and post-Civil War life. In addition, two homes are owned by the museum and are well worth your time for an in depth look at how plantation owners and their slaves lived. We started with the Joseph Manigault House (directly across the street from the museum), built in 1803. This was the home of a wealthy planter family and the house features many historic pieces from the family (current generations of Manigaults still live in Charleston).
All that sightseeing makes you hungry! Luckily, I thought ahead and made a lunch reservation before we left the hotel for Chez Nous. Tucked away down an unassuming alley in an out of the way Charleston neighborhood, this charming bistro took my award for “best meal” of the week. 
Chez Nous 

With a menu that changes daily, and consisting of only two choices for each course, along with no chance to peruse the menu beforehand, a meal here is sort of like a mystery train ride. Chez Nous is housed in a small, cozy building which makes you feel like you’ve somehow been beamed to the south of France. But it’s the Mediterranean influences (southern France, northern Italy and Spain) that really transport you.
Mushroom Salad at Chez Nous

The day we visited the appetizer choices were a Raw Button Mushroom Salad or a Tuna Nicoise Salad. We shared the mushroom salad, which sounded very mundane in print, but was a joy to eat. Fresh, thinly sliced mushrooms, simply tossed with shaved Parmigiana Reggiano, bright parsley, and one of the best olive oils (Molino la Condesa) I’ve ever had. This salad was sublime. 
Stewed Octopus at Chez Nous

Our main course choices were Stewed Octopus with Butterbeans and Potatoes, or a Roast Chicken with Sautéed Radicchio. To fully experience this charming restaurant, we ordered one of each and shared. The chicken was “roast chicken perfection.” When you dream of the ultimate French countryside roast chicken with crisped skin and super moist meat, this is it. And the stewed octopus? One of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Ever. I’ve never had such tender octopus. The broth was so delicious we asked for extra bread to sop it up. Our server suggested two lovely wines to accompany our dishes, and we indulged in the kind of long, relaxed lunch that don’t come along too often.
Luscious Ricotta Cake at Chez Nous

Dessert?  Lemon Mousse or Ricotta Cake with Fresh Berry Compote? No decision dilemma here - definitely the Ricotta Cake. Fabulously light, creamy, flavorful, with a side of sweet berries. This is the kind of lunch you do not want to end. 
Gardens at the Heyward-Washington House

But end it must, as we had tickets for a tour at The Heyward-Washington House. Through a stroke of luck, we were the only people for the afternoon tour so we had a friendly and knowledgeable docent all to ourselves. Built in 1772 by Thomas Heyward, Jr, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it is loaded with beautiful examples of fine furniture craftsmanship from that period. It’s called the Heyward-Washington house because the city of Charleston rented the house for George Washington to stay in when he visited the city in 1791. The property features the only 1740s kitchen building open to the public in Charleston (something we really wanted to see), as well as beautiful formal gardens, which were just starting to bloom when we were there. The house was opened as Charleston’s first historic house museum in 1929.

There is too much great stuff going on in Charleston to cram it all into one post, so 
next time on The Cook’s Tour: our visits to Fort Sumter (where the first shots of the Civil War were fired), historic McLeod Plantation (established in 1851 and definitely not a "Disney" version); meals at FIG, and The Ordinary, drinks at the very cool Felix Cocktail Lounge, and more about those fabulous ribs at Rodney Scott BBQ. Stay tuned!

Iris bloom at the Heyward-Washington House 
Beautiful tulips- Heyward-Washington House 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated and will not appear until the blog publisher has approved them.