I normally research where I’m going when I travel, but for whatever reason I did no research whatsoever on Charleston. I relied, instead, on the recommendations of my wife’s friend who knows more about that town than most folks do about their own hands. She gave Valerie a list of good restaurants and stuff to see and do, and off we went, neither of us having been to Charleston before. What I didn’t know was that Charleston is a serious food town. Sure, lots of it is the kind of traditional southern coastal fare you might expect – crab cakes, oysters, some kinda seafood bisque, shrimp and grits, and so on – but there were a few surprises that caught me off guard in the best possible way. So rather than walk through every dining experience I had, I’ll give you the highlight reel, which could be long enough on its own.
We had lunch on Saturday at an excellent little out-of-the-way place called Cru Cafe on Pinckney St. One of the specials that day was a house-made pastrami sandwich. House-made pastrami! In South Carolina! I had to try it, and I didn’t regret it. I’m not kidding when I say this was some of the best pastrami I’d ever eaten. Smokey, salty, richly-flavored, and sliced up super thin in a generous pile on marbled rye bread. I could eat this sandwich for lunch almost every day. Valerie had an arugula salad with duck confit and fried onions, and we both thought the sweet tea was the perfect level of sweetness. Dinner that night at Slightly North of Broad (figure out the acronym on your own) was good, but not memorable.
We had Sunday brunch at Magnolias on E. Bay St., and while Valerie thought her smoked salmon frittata was okay, my meal was quite delicious. It was a variation on “pigs in a blanket,” but in this case was made up of buffalo chipotle sausage wrapped in orange buttermilk pancakes. A fine elevation of a diner mainstay.
Sunday dinner was at Poogan’s Porch on Qeen St, and it was absolutely tasty. And speaking of “a fine elevation of a diner mainstay,” I can’t recommend the macaroni and cheese appetizer enough. The menu stated, simply, that it had Tasso ham and smoked gouda, but the more-than-an-entrée-sized pile that arrived was the richest and creamiest macaroni and cheese I’ve eaten. Valerie, who’s not a huge fan of macaroni and cheese, had to force herself to stop eating it in order to have room for her main course. I thought it was so good that I attempted my own variation (with Serrano ham) once I returned home.
Monday was our last full day in Charleston, and while we had a nice-enough lunch at Melvin’s BBQ, our best eating and drinking of the trip lay ahead of us.
Neither Valerie nor I brought anything nicer than jeans, sneakers, and comfortable shirts, so while many of the restaurants downtown looked nice, we felt underdressed for most of them. We shared this concern with our cab driver that afternoon, and he assured us that with the exception of a handful of establishments in town, we had naught to worry. Armed with this advice, we made reservations at McCrady’s Restaurant on Unity Alley. I double-checked the dress code and the host assured me that we would have no trouble. So wearing a long-sleeved New York Giants t-shirt, jeans, and running shoes, I showed up at the restaurant of James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock. Not only has Brock worked under Alinea’s Grant Achatz, but he also worked his way up to executive sous chef at Lemaire in my beloved Richmond’s own Jefferson Hotel. The food was almost all local/regional, with many of the ingredients coming from the restaurant’s own farm in nearby Wadmalaw Island. While credentials are nice it’s the food, of course, that matters. Valerie and I both agree that McCrady’s was the finest meal we ate in Charleston.
This was modern haute cuisine without a doubt, executed masterfully in preparation, appearance, and flavor. We shared a first course of butter poached lobster and sea scallops with “sorrel bubbles” (an airy green foam) and a little parsnip croquette in the middle made up of a parsnip slice, parsnip puree, and coated in panko bread crumbs. The entire dish was also sitting in a popcorn purée and had little pieces of spiced popcorn as well. Valerie’s dinner was grilled swordfish with shaved root vegetables, and she enjoyed it. My entrée, though, was called a “duo of pork.” It looked like a zen garden with a little meat hill in the corner, and it was extraordinarily enjoyable in every respect. There was an exquisite peanut “granola,” banana purée, and a number of preparations of salsify root. There was braised salsify that was savory and rich, a deep-fried stick of salsify that looked like a miniature log (but tasted much better), and an intensely flavorful salsify purée. The pork duo turned out to be a small piece of deep-fried pork belly from the restaurant’s own farm, along with succulent slices of pork loin from the same. A little stream of cooked-down jus flowed under the pork across the plate. This dish was so good with all the flavors combining perfectly, and Valerie was completely distracted by the striking visual arrangement of my plate of food. Such inventiveness, attention to detail, and execution make me weak at the knees.
Bellies full of awesomeness, we shambled up the street to check out The Gin Joint, our final destination before heading home the next morning. This place is what would happen if you took the craft bar of Acacia here in Richmond, and mixed it with the casual small-plates atmosphere of Secco. Looking at their food menu made me wish I’d discovered it earlier in the weekend (I was too full for any more food), but the cocktails were some of the best I’d ever consumed. Whether it was the house-made cola syrup or the perfect proportioning and mixing of ingredients, or just the right amount of ice, this place knows how to serve some booze. I appreciated the careful pairing of the right gin or whiskey with the right juices and syrups, too. Be sure to check out the short video of the owner mixing up a libation (and ignore the cheesy Acoustic Alchemy music). Details, my friends. You know what? It’s probably better that this place is 7 hours away or my friends and family would think me an alcoholic.
So there it is. I drove further south looking for nothing more than relaxation and a change of scenery, and I came back with a few extra pounds (like I needed that) and a well-satisfied palate. We saw some interesting historical sites in a beautiful town, but I’d go back to Charleston in a heartbeat just for the food.