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Charleston honeymoon report-- quite long: ocean room, al di la, FIG, and others

h
HeelsSoxHound Sep 3, 2006 01:51 PM

Just got back from a week in Charleston for a short honeymoon (going to Italy next summer, but that's another story...). We ate at some pretty fantastic places--Charleston is definitely in the top tier for food cities, right behind the big three of NY, SF, and Chicago. Thanks from the top to all who helped with your recommendations--you know who you are...

Monday night--the Ocean Room at the Sanctuary, Kiawah Island. For our wedding present, my aunt and uncle gave us the keys to their beach house on Kiawah and a gift certificate to the Sanctuary, which is a two year old golf resort/hotel. We were prepared to be underwhelmed by the food (you know, hotel restaurant, golf resort, etc.) Boy were we wrong...
Amuse Bouche--Mustard crusted lamb flank with a cool cucumber/mint soup. Lamb served in one of those asian noodle spoons, with the soup right behind it in a demitasse. Super flavorful meat, and the soup was a nice, refreshing foil.
First course--my wife started with gazpacho since it was so hot. pureed until silky smooth--it must have been passed 3 times through a chinois. clearly also used bread as a thickener, a la andalusia. very flavorful and summery. three grilled U15 shrimp topped things off very nicely-- a touch of heat on the shrimp brought the dish around very well. i started with seared foie gras, which came served over a fanned zucchini bread mini-loaf. around the rim of the plate was some spicy tomato jam, and laid over and around the foie was a grilled zucchini blossom stuffed with little zucchini buttons that were dressed in a delicate vinagrette. the vinaigrette gave a really high note of acid that played off the fat of the foie and the sweetness of the zuke loaf and sauce. a real study in texture and flavor, and really well thought out--echoes of zucchini all over the plate.
second course--my wife had the piece de resistance of the meal, and almost the whole week. one pristine seared scallop served over a sweet potato puree with black truffles and trout roe. this was finished at the table with a healthy pour of lobster cream (had to have tomalley in it--what a beautiful color.) i smelt the dish coming halfway across the dining room. opulent to the max. i had what was listed as crab and watermelon salad. what came was a perfect cube of the ripest watermelon (no seeds, of course) with what had to have been a third of a pound of crab stacked on top. black volcanic salt adorned the plate and the top of the crab. this was beauty in simplicity. the watermelon was dressed in a bit of lime and what tasted like mint, or tarragon maybe? something cool. the crab was so superfresh, and whoever picked it knew what they were doing. i found several thumb-sized pieces of crabby lusciousness, lightly dressed with a white truffle vinaigrette. the salt provided a smoky note that really drew out the other flavors (sweet, briny, acid) in the dish.
third course-- they sent us wagyu beef hangar steak with a roasted roma tomato "nage" (not what i would have called it), pillow soft basil gnocchi, and fried basil over the top. very good, although not my favorite out of all of it.
fourth course--my wife had crispy duck confit with blueberry compote and a blue corn crepe. pretty good, but a touch dry--i've had better confit. good flavors, though. i had a lamb duo--seared tenderloin and grilled loin, with minted wax beans and baba ghanoush. nice play on temperature here--the salad and the baba ghanoush were both quite cool, and worked really well with the lamb. i had hoped with a lamb duo that i might get a greater variation in cut and technique between the two lambs, but a minor quibble for a very good dish.
after a fifth mini-course of creme brulee, we were ready to be done with it, but they sent us two desserts with "congratulations" on my plate and "best wishes" on hers. nice touch. mine was goatcheese cheesecake with sour cream/kiwi icecream and sour cherry sauce. delicious, and beautifully presented. hers was chocolate souffle cake with salted caramel and malted milk custard. also very very good, although we were both full to the point of bursting at this point. oh--that's another thing. the bread was the best i've had outside of one or two super high end places in new york. three kinds of bread with three condiment options, which included an excellent olive butter. all in all, impeccable service and excellent food. we'll be back (on someone else's dime; close to $500 with wine, tip, tax).
tuesday--lunch at SNOB. They were rockin and rollin on a tuesday at 1pm--a good sign. we sat at the bar to avoid the wait, and had a very good meal (although heavy for a hot day). my wife had her shrimp and grits, since she'd been craving them since sunday night. so much better than anything around here. big, fat shrimp, nice fresh mushrooms, and well-made grits. i had a house-made charcuterie plate, which was comprised of pork rillettes (holy s*** they were good) chicken liver (and i think it had foie) pate, italian sausage, and pork country pate. nice grilled sourdough crostini, and some great pickled accompaniments, including the requisite okra. all were really really good, although the silkiness of the chicken pate was awesome, and i think i mentioned the rillettes as another highlight.
tuesday night--drinks at voodoo lounge, followed by dinner at al di la. on the recommendation of the bartender at SNOB, we went to drinks prior to our planned dinner at al di la at a lounge right down the street. sort of a cool, kitschy decor--very much a hipster place. we noticed they had lots of "gourmet" tacos on the menu; among them was bbq duck. alas, we didn't want to fill up before dinner, so we demured. next time. we did, however, have a couple of knockout drinks--a very strong, but good dark and stormy (i know, tough to screw that up); and what i've been calling a loco-pop margarita. chili infused tequila with mango puree, lime, and cointreau. spicy, sweet, acid, awesome. if i had gotten two, i'd have been a little too loose going to dinner--the sign of a good drink, imho. dinner was great, authentic trattoria style italian. all wine served by the glass and in quartino (batali-style mini decanters, about a third of a bottle). we had several small plates--i'm going highlights now for the sake of space. salumi plate (including bresaola, my fave) was awesome. very good olives, too--tough to find these days. duck confit pizza with tome, duck cracklings and creme fraiche was something i ate in a dream once--great texture, nice crispy crust--salty, earthy, slightly gamy and oh so good. gnocchi with shrimp was simple and very well executed. risotto with scallops i didn't love, although my wife really liked it. to each their own.
no wednesday--i'm not reviewing my own cooking. ask chapelwill and sarah jane.
thursday--lunch at basil. very cool little thai joint downtown. we sat at the kitchen bar, at which you can watch the glass-enclosed open kitchen. i love doing this in any restaurant, especially one with wok burners. we had tom ka gai, my wife's fave thai soup, to start. absolutely delicious. nice hot and sour notes. i had pork larb to start, which was a touch dry, but otherwise very good. then she had basil beef... spicy, fresh, good sauce not overwhelming, and i had red curry pork. this was great, although i had asked for it "thai spicy" and it wasn't hot enough still for my tastes. the server very graciously brought me sides of red curry powder and chili sauce to heat it up to my liking. altogether very good--not too sweet on the curry.
thursday dinner--FIG. This was probably my most anticipated meal, as i am a huge proponent of slow food cooking, and chef lata is all about it. let the ingredients shine. our intro to the restaurant was a thursday afternoon "walk by" to see the menu only to see chef lata outside being photographed for a new food network show airing in october. nice to see buzz being created about food like his. upon our return, the photographers were gone--they returned for dinner halfway through our meal. back to dinner. i must say, this was the first menu where literally every item popped out. onion tart with white anchovies was one that i have to go back and try...so much food, so little time. first course--my wife had a roasted beet salad with goat cheese, mache and walnuts. sort of cliche in this day and age, but this one was exquisite. perfectly cooked beets, just enough crunch from the walnuts, and tender, delicate mache. very nice. i had the classic frisee salad with a poached egg and lardons. again, all about ingredients and perfect execution. great foil of acid in the vinaigrette, beautifully poached egg that properly dressed the salad when punctured, and thumbnail sized lardons with the right mix of crunchy and chewy. for entree, my wife had black grouper with braised artichokes and lemon-- so fresh, so simple. excellent. i was torn between suckling pig and portuguese fish stew. in the interest of wine, i went with the stew. this is one of the most beautiful, soulful dishes i have ever eaten. literally brought me to the point of tears. every piece of fish (and there were many; squid, clams, grouper, shrimp, mussels) was cooked perfectly, which is very tough to do in a dish like that. the broth was so flavorful--smoked spanish paprika, fishy, and the right heat from the chorizo. so many textures and flavors, and every one was playing its part at the right volume and tempo. i can only imagine the attention to detail that chef lata must demand in his kitchen. okay, i'll shut up now. this is the place i'd eat 2 or 3 times a month if i lived in charleston, though-- a real gem.
friday dinner at charleston grill: i'm going to gloss over this place to make a point. if you are a landmark place, and you are known for amazing food, the food should stand out and be memorable. sadly, this was not the case. the service at the bar and the table was outstanding--efficient, knowledgable, and friendly. the wine service especially was cool--the sommelier and his assistant (who happened to be waiting on us) were eager to have us try some off the beaten path stuff, and we had a great bottle of rhone vdp that was sexy and well-matched with the food. sadly, though, there were only a couple of highlights in food, both in first courses. my wife had a big, beautiful crab cake, devoid of filler, that was really really good. i had an oxtail and foie gras raviolo with sauteed sweetbreads laid around it, pickled chanterelles and oxtail consomme to finish things off. an offal-lover's dream--really well executed. both dishes were awesome. the rest of the meal, unfortunately, was not as good. oh well.
well, if you've gotten to this point, thanks for reading. and thanks again to everyone who helped plan the chow portions of our trip--wouldn't have been the same without the recs.
sweetbreadpants out.

  1. d
    detlefchef Sep 9, 2006 05:57 PM

    Nicely done! Honestly, all I've heard since I moved here was that Charleston food wasn't really all that. So much for that theory. We are long overdue to check it out, apparently.

    1. danna Sep 5, 2006 02:04 PM

      Fantastic report. thanks so much for taking the time to write it all down. It really sounds like you did so much better than the average tourist who comes to Charleston in picking good restaurants. (including me)

      I'll be in Kiawah this December. Time to start saving up for dinner apparently!

      1 Reply
      1. re: danna
        h
        HeelsSoxHound Sep 5, 2006 02:08 PM

        if you're going to kiawah with a significant other, danna, see if you can request one of the side-by-side loveseat banquets that overlooks the terrace at the ocean room. one of the most romantic tables i've had in any restaurant. (didn't mention that the first time... sorry)
        as far as my picks, CH was a huge help, as was the charleston city paper; the latter had just published a dining guide (which is still available on the internet). i think they're like the indy in the triangle, with better food writing.

      2. l
        lpeter4 Sep 4, 2006 08:12 PM

        I got engaged in Charleston back in April. All the food we tried was amazing and overall the whole experience was incredibly romantic. I am sure I am not as much of a food expert as HSH, but I can confirm his opinion about SNOB and Charleston Grill. One of the top 5 most delicious meals I have ever had was shrimp & grits at SNOB -- out of this world! However, I also tried some asian dish with kimchee which was super, super salty, as if someone had loosened the lid on the salt shaker. When I mentioned this to the waitress she said maybe it was the sauce on the meat, and that kimchee is always salty. I've eaten plenty of kimchee in various Korean restaurants in NYC, and it never tasted like that! However, the shrimp & grits was so good that I didn't care about the rest.

        At Charleston Grill, the service was superb. The food, while very good by my standards, was not incredible, especially considering CG's reputation. We tried a ceviche or some kind of seafood (scallops I think) appetizer, which was excellent and I really loved my Tahitian vanilla-bean infused creme brulee, but I have no memory of the rest. The atmosphere was perfect, however, for the proposal I received later that evening!

        1. 1
          1 wiener hound Sep 4, 2006 04:28 AM

          Sweetbreadpants Oh My!
          I too am so glad that you enjoyed our City and its cuisine. Hope you will come back soon there are other spots to try. It was nice to enjoy the dinner at the Ocean Roon through the magic of CH and you descriptive ability. I wish you both a happy and healthy life.
          1WH

          1. Low Country Jon Sep 3, 2006 03:55 PM

            HSH,

            Thanks for the report! I'm glad you had a memorable Charleston food experience. I agree with your ranking of Charleston in the top 5 US food cities, but then again I am clearly biased!

            As it happens, I had dinner at FIG last night, and my love/apathy relationship with the place continues. We tried the onion tart appetizer, but it proved to a non-winner with our group of 4. Definitely a case where the whole seemed less than the sum of the parts. The anchovies, olives, sweet onions combination just didn't seem to come together. I had a stuffed lamb special as my entree which proved to be just okay--the flavor was fine but there was a little too much fat in the cut of meat they used, and it made eating the dish somewhat of a chore. I also hit a nice chunk of grit in my side of spinach, which of course happens to the best of us, but when it happens to you and in a restaurant where you can't very welll spit it out, the experience can dampen one's enthusiasm. Two of my group ordered the suckling pig, which is definitely my favorite dish at FIG and one I highly recommend. I always feel obliged to try something new when I go, but then I always regret not ordering the pig.

            I sort of know what you mean about Charleston Grill. I think I like the place more for the high-touch service than the food, which is good but not mind-blowing by any means. My wife and I went there about three weeks ago, and the item that stands out most in my memory is an amuse bouche, which says something about the overall meal, I guess.

            Again, thanks for the report, and many happy returns to our fair city!

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