charleston trip report - a so cal hound visits the south
thanks to all who helped me hone our restaurant list! let me preface by saying that i was born and raised in southern california. trendy restaurants and gimmicky spaces are the norm, so much so that 'trendy' has become passe. an oxymoron i know, but come to so cal and you'll see. restaurants come and go and try to woo us in their doors with their flashy menus and minimalist or zen or miami beach decor. philippe starck's style has been so mimicked here that we all yawn when another trendy spot opens. we eye it as suspect until the food says otherwise. we yearn for meaningful food, served in a thoughtful space, made by thoughtful chefs.
that being said: here was our lineup for the four nights we had to dine in charleston:
SATURDAY: F.I.G. - we were seated right away and taken to two-top table with comfy seats. we found the decor and ambience quite nice - nothing flashy or over the top or contrived. after perusing the menu, we decided on the ricotta gnocchi with chanterelles and fresh sweet corn for an app, which we split. very simply and elegantly prepared, each ingredient really shined through. for dinner i had the triggerfish over wilted arugula which was delicious. the creaminess of the fish and the bitterness of the arugula were a perfect match. the husband had pork shoulder with beets and fennel, which was equally delicious. i love me some beets, and these were quite yummy! we split a pear cobbler for dessert, which was fairly blah. the crumbly topping was the best part, but the pears were quite bland.
SUNDAY: we're huge san diego chargers fans so of course we spent the day at a sports bar: KING STREET GRILLE. food was decent for a sports bar... don't think i need to go into detail though. i will say that they massacred the one fried item we ordered: tex mex eggrolls. how hard is it to fry something?! after the games, we showered and headed over to CHAI'S TAPAS LOUNGE for dinner. we thought the decor and ambience were nice, but reminded of some place we'd find back home. we shared a mango salad, which was really good. julienne strips of mango, green papaya (i think), pork and shrimp, accented with thai chilies. really light and refreshing. we also shared saffron arancini, which were really good! kind of random that this little italian gem showed up on their menu, but whatever.
MONDAY: we left this day open for dinner and decided we'd go wherever the wind blew us. after seeing an ad in the city paper for PEARLZ OYSTER BAR and their happy hour menu, the wind blew us straight through PEARLZ' door. we shared the beer boiled shrimp, which were large enough to be prawns. they were served chilled and were peel and eat - quite yummy with our cocktail sauce spiked with horseradish root. the corn fritters and seafood sliders were all delicious as well. we sat at the raw bar and made friends with everyone around us. a really great place to socialize! whilst making friends with our neighbor on the barstool next to us, we explained that we were vacationing and that we were saving our best restaurant for last: mccrady's the following night. our friend excitedly revealed that she was a cook there and was glad we were going to her restaurant, especially because we'd put so much thought into our selections. after hanging out the rest of the night and talking food, the dreaded subject of foie gras came up. let me back up and say i work for a catering company and it's my job to know food and our menus. i had to try foie because i sell it. begrudgingly. i think it's criminal how those poor creatures are treated. i shared my opinion with her and the night carried on to other subjects and the wine and oyster shooters kept flowing.
TUESDAY: after nursing our hangover all day, we excitedly got ready for our anticipated dinner at MCCRADY'S. we were seated immediately and i tore into the wine menu with vigor! after being unable to decided between a white or red, i decided on a lovely french rose. we scanned the menu and then the chef's tasting menu and without question opted for the tasting menu. this was our last night and we wanted to be wowed. what started out as a 7 course menu, turned into ten courses as the chef and our cook friend from the night prior kept inserting surprise courses into our meal. most notable: black truffle soup w/black truffle emulsion and shaved black truffle, twice cooked scallop on corn puree w/ chanterelles and chorizo 'gnocchi', matsutake mushrooms on butternut squash puree with an herb foam (can't recall the herb!), summer vegetables on a poached (quail?) egg with an egg foam, and grass fed beef and stacked potato with maple smoke. i'd be happy to expand on the presentation of any of these but feel at this point like i've rattled on enough in this post!
i should note that our third course was foie, yes the dreaded foie. i would never order the chef's tasting menu and make alterations. i think it's equivalent to saying you know better than the chef... that being said, i was blown away when our server presented the foie course and announced that in lieu of foie, i was receiving pork in its place. i was SO impressed that our friend from the night prior had remembered that i don't eat foie! the attention to detail was amazing. anne, you get big kudos sister! you knocked my socks right off that night.
at the end of our meal, chef sean brock came out to greet us and chat. he is exceedingly bright and clearly passionate about food. he humored our endless questions with cheer and talked about mccrady's becoming a sustainable restaurant, and their plans to purchase acreage to grow their own vegetables.
i had read in previous posts that some thought his food to be contrived and over the top and i think he gets unfairly characterized as a mad food scientist if you will. what we found was an incredibly creative and amazingly talented chef, who is particularly interested in food molecules and temperatures and making great food. food that does their historically important space justice.chef brock rocks.
lastly, we were treated to a grand tour of the restaurant. the kitchen, the dining areas, banquet room, wine cellar and the chef's dining room - one of the most elegant spaces ever! mccrady's and charleston was a fantastic experience, this so cal girl was quite impressed. it gave us a strong injection of what we sorely needed, historical importance, meaningful memories and FABULOUSLY THOUGHTFUL food.
chocchipcookie - pearlz was definitely a little gem! the happy hour menu is great and i would def recommend the seafood sliders and corn fritters. yum. the fritters were dusted with confectioner's sugar giving them a hint of sweet. so good.
lowcountryjon - thanks for that link! what a great photo blog. enjoy your anniversary dinner at mccrady's next week, i'm sure it will be fabulous!
charlestonchow - well said. thank you for putting into words what i couldn't quite put my finger on. that was one of the main reasons we fell in love with charleston. the mix of old and new, traditional and progressive. i think it's really important for a city to have leading restaurants in every genre, it keeps the food scene interesting! we would definitely return to charleston for a round 2! there were so many restaurants that we didn't get to try. it was tragic.
bkhuna - nope! we've been san diego natives for 3 years, but some of my friends have lived here long enough to witness the revitalization of downtown. pretty amazing makeover, i'd say! LA should be taking serious notes from San Diego. but they'd never... we're always the red headed stepchild to LA. anyhow, give el agave a try. definitely order one of their mole dishes though. they're known for them. i like the red mole and the traditional mole poblano the best.
If you ever make it back to Charleston, you might skip the black tuffle soup, ricotta gnocchi with chanterelles, mango salad, egg foam and tex mex eggrolls.
You were in Charleston and you ate food what you can find in millions of other places. You should have had Shrimp and Grits a few times. Some she crab soup and roasted oysters. Really good buscuits and gullah cuisine. Low county food made with local ingredients by folks who infuse food with culture.
Eating foo-foo food in Charleston is like living in San Diego and eating in Old Town.
bkhuna - we were actually out your way to attend a wedding on kiawah. we did have shrimp and grits at the wedding and then again the next day at poogan's porch (which i forgot to include in my review). i thought the shrimp and grits with andouille sausage and blue crab gravy at poogan's porch was awesome, but with it only being my second experience with the dish, maybe my assessment is off? the biscuits at poogan's porch were probably the best biscuits i've ever had in my life. the portions there were enormous, probably enough for 4 people. i couldn't even venture eating dinner that night...
we also had she crab soup while on kiawah, purchased from the fresh refrigerated section of newton farms. which, by the way, is a great market. reminded me of whole foods like we have out in california. we did regret not trying some she crab soup while in charleston, but with the heat and humidity, i honestly couldn't fathom eating a warm heavy soup mid-day.
we're pretty healthy eaters and i didn't think we could handle eating low country cuisine every day, thus my selections. i totally get your point, but there was a method to my madness and we did hit on some of the local dishes.
and believe it or not, there is a gem in old town san diego. el agave has some pretty respected mole and real margaritas made with good ole fresh squeezed lime juice and not that sweet and sour yellow #49 stuff.
p.s. there's no foo-foo food in old town. you've got to venture downtown into the gaslamp for that...
That's great that you had such a good experience in Charleston. It looks like you hit some of the high points. It would be criminal NOT to try some of our foo-foo (or is it froo-froo?) food. The food scene in Charleston is eclectic and progressive and traditional all at once. Sure we have great Southern food. I love the stuff: does it get better than a fried pork chop sandwitch from Dave's? Does any one go to France just to try their Coc au Vin? No. It looks like you did your research and had a great trip. Come back soon; I assure you there is enough good food to keep you excited for several more vacations.
CharlestonChow, you crack me up. I was just wondering if you had visited Pearlz? I read of it's accolades on this post, and was a truly surprised. I went there once, and that was enough. No atmosphere, average oysters, average drinks, and service that reminded me of a college bar. It definitley wasn't froo-froo! :)
Yes I have been several times. It is a F&B bar with fairly good food. I did not want to like it b/c it is owned by T-Bonez which I do not care for. However, the chain (T-Bonz, Pearlz, Liberty) is owned by Jerry Sheer who is one of the most genuinely nice guys in the restaurant industry. Tremendous respect for him.
I have always had very good service. The oyster shooters are addictive (even if you don't like taking shots). I like the place well enough. Give it one more try around 11:00 on a Thursday or Friday night.
Have you lived in San Diego long enough to remember the Gas Lamp before the revitalization?
Being a 19 year old sailor stationed at the Navy Hospital, I can remember when Horton Plaza was a bus stop surrounded by the "tenderloin" areas. Things sure have changed!
Next time I'm in San Diego (a trip I make every few years) I'll try out el Agave. I haven't been to Old Town in a while. Seems like I can never make it past el Indio.
Thanks for the report. I'm glad you enjoyed McCrady's. I'm jealous you got the grand tour. That sort of thing never happens to my wife and me. Speaking of which, we are going back to McCrady's next week for our anniversary. Can't wait!
If you, or anyone else, is curious, Sean Brock has his own photo-blog which gives a behind the scenes look at McCrady's kitchen. Interesting stuff. Here's the link: http://seanbrock.wordpress.com/