Honeymoon in Charleston: long post!
Here's the report on our honeymoon trip to Charleston:
-The Boathouse - Drove out to Isle of Palms from our hotel in Mt. Pleasant for our first dinner. Low-key atmosphere, typical resort-area sort of thing, laid back with lots of rich folk. Really good food, perhaps a bit over-priced, but very fresh and well-prepared, nothing over-sauced, just honest fresh seafood. Had the local bass, some fried oysters, and a few tiny lobsters tails. Very tasty, great service, good wine list, and REALLY good views from the deck if you get there before dark.
-Fast & French (G&M) - Loved this place last visit, not so impressed this time. We were ignored in the newish back room for fifteen minutes. Very busy little place, with very flustered servers. We had a white bean soup with a couple of sandwiches and a salad. Our bill was wrong, and we had to witness a squabble between the manager and the server on our way out. Good food, good house wine, and good coffee, but nothing special, and the chaotic service was a major turnoff. Probably wouldn't go back. There's just too much good food in Charleston to put up with that sort of service and merely-decent food...
-SNOB - Good lord have mercy, that was good food. They have a really lively and beautiful yet casual atmosphere; jeans and clean tennis shoes are okay. Service was impeccable, friendly and relaxed, but on point at all times. We had the charcuterie plate, a selection of house-made pate, terrine, suasages, rilletes, pickles, mustards, a nice fruit preserve, and toast points. Divine, but probably a dish best reserved for 4 people, as it is rich. The house-cured salmon was also divine. The carpaccio was perfect to me, though it was my first time trying raw beef. The duck dish (confit of the leg and a seared breast) was very good, though perhaps a tad under-sauced. Obviously it was a very rich meal, but it was so good. All the dishes came with various sorts of greens and such, so it was a pretty well-rounded meal.
-Pho Bac - This is a clean little Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall in Mt. Pleasant run by a friendly, chatty little guy who regaled us with facts about Pho. Let me make myself very clear: the fact that this place isn't swamped with business is a shameful commentary on the Mt. Pleasant area. The Pho (Vietnamese beef broth with noodles, veggies, and your choice of meat) is amazing. I have never had such subtle and multi-layered soup in my life. The Bun (noodle bowls with veggies, your choice of meat, and a wonderful sweet vinegar sauce) is amazing, so light and fresh and fun to eat. The Cha Gio (fried sausage rolls) are not the best I've ever had, but were very good. Upon walking out of this almost-empty restaurant after lunch, we were dismayed to see a packed Chic-Fil-A across the street. Shame, shame, shame. Eat this food, Charleston, it's healthy and beautiful and exotic without being scary. BTW, don't be afaid to slurp! It is expected in Asian noodle shops. Anyway, the owner would do well, I suppose, to decorate a little better, which brings us to...
-Basil - Wow. Best Thai food I've ever had. The atmosphere is perfectly and inexpensively designed to make mainstream Americans comfortable, the buzz is chatty and vivacious, and the food is simply awesome. They have a remarkable little operation in the exposed kitchen, well worth paying some attention to. The coconut milk soup is delightful, though they did overcook the chicken. The basil rolls were perfect, and the Pad Thai difinitive, with that subtle smoky "wok breath" that is unique to professional wok setups and expert chef skills. We returned for a second visit on our last day and had the Larb, miced beef with spices and veggies, which was excellent as well. Very highly recommended. These kids have their game really, really tight, and they get all the business that Pho Bac seems to lack. Some of it has to be decor and location, but some of it might be the fact that Americans know Thai food, but are generally ignorant of Vietnamese cuisine.
-Al Di La - Authentic Northern Italian in West Ashley. The food here is out of this world. Best dining experience of our lives. We had the olive plate with thin-sliced foccaccia (wow), the fettucini bolognese (unholy good), the roast pork (melt-in-your-mouth), and a bruschetta with house-made mozzarella and tomato salad (absolutely the best dish I've ever had; highly recommended). The atmosphere is casual and intimate, the service impeccable and enthusiastic, the food just outrageously good. My now-wife spent a summer in Cortona years ago and has always pined for the food; she was very impressed with Al Di La. It's a treasure, and Charleston is very lucky to have it. It compares very favourably with the best of its kind in America. Can't wait to try the pizza, made in a wood-fired oven in the sister bar next door. Funny enough, the place was packed with savvy, sophisticated seniors when we dined there; it was early, so I wonder if the crowd grows more youthful as the day passes to evening...
-Bowen's Island - Out at Folly Beach, very beach-bum, shovel-fulls of steamed (slightly muddy) oysters, crackers, and beer. Very good hush puppies. We prefer raw oysters, but this place is very charming and fun, and the views are spectacular at sunset.
-City Lights Cafe - Downtown, small pace, superb coffee. Best espresso I've ever had, and I know the coffee business very well. Extremely friendly staff and ownership. Perfect for an afternoon break while sight-seeing. I want try their sandwiches next time.
-82 Queen - Please do not read this if you are a fan, as I have no desire to offend anyone. A friend gave us a gift certificate for our wedding. This is absolutely the worst restaurant experience we've ever had, a complete rip-off. It's a total tourist trap, with incompetent waitstaff and inept and uninspired food preperation. Cold fried food and sickly-sweet salad dressing, nasty coagulated room-temperature soup, cold biscuits, poorly-prepared martinins, etc. The shrimp and grits? Well, that ain't the way shrimp and grits is supposed to be, ya'll. Grits should not run rapidly through the tines of a fork, for one thing. It's not that the food was completely awful, but that it completely fails to live up the restaurant's self-trumpeted hype. I've had worse food, but 82 Queen expends a great deal of effort and money marketing itself as amongst the best fine dining restaurants in Charleston, which is absolutely absurd. 82 Queen isn't even remotely comparable to the great Charleston restaurants in any way. The whole place was dingy and sorta dirty, for goodness sake. The well-mannered couple near us were visibly and audibly angry within five minutes of sitting down, sending back a plate a cold french fries and begging for water and drink multiple times. This a severely shoddy operation that in no way belongs anywhere near the list of top Charleston restaurants. We felt ripped off and insulted. The fact that 82 Queen has a dress code while SNOB does not is simply laughable, if not surreal. Perhaps 82 Queen has fallen from previous heights, I wouldn't know. But as I have said in another thread, avoid, avoid, avoid. You have been warned. Sorry to be so terribly negative and noisy, but I have a thing about truth in advertising, not to mention having my intelligence insulted....
Anyway, Charleston was mostly delightful. The locals are gracious to a fault, the town is lovely, and the restaurant scene seems to be rapidly reaching the highest levels in America. It's almost absurd to have so many top-notch restaurants, of such variety, in such a small city. Can't wait to go back! Stay classy, Charleston!
Thanks for the report! As one of the bigger Charleston boosters on these boards, I sometimes wonder if I've lost my objectivity. It's always nice to get validation from visitors to the Holy City.
I also agree with you about Fast & French. I've never understood what the fuss was about there.
I'm loathe to admit I still haven't tried Al Di La yet. The problem is I live pretty close to Sienna, which also has awesome Italian food, some of the best I've ever had. Last time there, I had local grouper served with a warm white balsamic, tangerine, and smoked bacon vinegrette with fingerling potatoes. I'm still dreaming about it Has anyone been to both restaurants who would like to offer up a comparison?
re: Low Country Jon
An attempt to reply to several posts:
You kids are great! Charleston is an absolutely amazing food town, and only 4 hours from my po-dunk little home. I feel lucky to have it as an easy option, honestly.
Didn't try any cool bars, though I like cool bars. We were so much happier just snuggling on the couch back at the hotel. I said snuggling, and I meant it, you naughty people! But will try Voodoo next time!
Al Di La is is amazing, and would thrive in any civilized town. Sooooo good. I hate myself for not eating like that every week or so. Damn you, Georgia! You don't know great food!
The Holy City is a wonderful place, I just hope it's not temporary. Charleston has had a long and arduous history, and I wish it well.
As I said, Charleston must now rank amongst the finest food towns in America. Per capita, if you wish, but easily amongst the best. We had a wonderful time, and might return for our second honeymoon in June. I just hope the beaches aren't too crowded then...
re: Low Country Jon
Up until I read your 82 Queen review, I was thinking you might be a little bit addled by the excitement of a honeymoon and the proximity of your no doubt beautiful bride. I note you had no less than 4 things that were the best of your life ;-)
But since you hated 82 Queen I guess you weren't wearing rose colored glasses after all. I'm happy that Charleston gave you such fine experiences. And thanks for the reviews!
Charleston is easily amongst the best food towns in America, I'd warrant. We ate a lot of good food, that's for sure. If our impressions were colored by anything, it's not living in a very good area for food.
Also, I think that, by and large, we chose, with the help of Chowhound, some very, very good restaurants. It's hard to find things to complain about when you choose the right places, right? ; )
re: uptown jimmy
Yeah, I live in culinary hell, too. keeps me reasonably skinny so I can eat piggishly when I get out of town ;-)
Yeah, you really did hit some highlights. I went to NYC recently and had some gelato that was no better than Modica in Chas, and had an Italian meal that was no better than Al Di La (not that it wouldn't be possible to do better, I just didn't manage it at the last minute). That bolognese is something, and the shrimp gnocchi is impossible not to order again once you've had it.
Thanks again for the helpful, detailed post.
re: uptown jimmy
i confess that we had a very similar reaction upon returning from Charleston-- and an equally long report post! i noticed you hit al di la-- we really really enjoyed that. no report on drinks at voodoo, though... :( that place was really excellent for cocktails if not for food. glad you had as good a time as we did!