Charleston Dining Notes: Husk, Cru, Poogan’s, FIG, Jestine’s, Circa 1886, High Cotton, SNOB and more
Just got back from first trip to Charleston and we sure ate well!
Thanks to everyone at CH who helped us in the planning. For reference here is a link to my original inquiries here on CH, but I did refer to many older threads to come up with our initial selections
Lunch at Husk: Our first meal in Charleston started with a bang and was a great intro to the 5 days of fantastic dining. We arrived about 15 minutes early for our 12:30 res and ordered some cold local beers served to us out on the front porch. We requested and were granted a table on the upstairs porch on this pleasantly warm November day. I had shrimp and grits with sausage, peas and smoky tomatoes. Yum! As a Yankee I am no expert when it comes to grits and my previous experiences in Savannah and elsewhere were just mediocre. But these were the best grits I ever had! The smoky tomatoes really did add a great flavor (Thanks to NonnieMuss for mentioning them in the earlier thread!) I overheard a woman at the table behind me make the same comment with a very Southern accent. Mrs. had catfish, cornmeal dusted and pan seared served with fennel and grilled zucchini and squash and Appalachian tomato gravy. Fish cooked perfectly and the flavor was wonderful. (I should mention that my wife and I almost always try each other’s dishes and share) We also had as a side to share braised greens with country ham and, yes, more yummy smoky tomatoes. We also had a skillet of cornbread with bacon. The cornbread was the one bad note of the meal, very heavy and greasy and tasted like pure bacon grease without much flavor. At the end of the meal when the waiter offered to wrap our half a skillet of cornbread to go I casually mentioned that we didn’t care much for it. The charge for the cornbread was removed from our bill with an apology. Great food, friendly service, we were very pleased and thankful that our last meal in Charleston was scheduled to also be at Husk.(see below)
Dinner at Cru Café: I am not sure why I had lower expectations for Cru, but it turned out to be wonderful. The restaurant is small and very casual and everything is top notch. We had a glass of Prosecco as we waited a few minutes for our table and later enjoyed a bottle of Sav Blanc from their reasonably priced wine list. I started with one of their signature dishes, Duck confit arugula salad topped with candied pecans and amazing delicate fried onion rings. Super tasty! Mrs. had a white bean and chicken soup. It was thick and rich, and maybe a bit salty but not oppressively so, very good overall. Breaking with tradition we both ordered the same entrée and were happy we did or we might have been fighting over tastes. Daily special was triggerfish served over a wilted bed of arugula with pepper jack cheesy grits and a creamy, wild mushroom gravy. The fish was seared perfectly, the cheesy grits were smooth and creamy, reminiscent of risotto, and the sauce went surprisingly well adding a slightly smoky, earthy flavor from the mushrooms. I say “surprisingly”, because I usually think that anything creamy or cheesy does not belong on fish, in fact I often say that fish with cream sauce is an abomination (I think that may be in the book of Leviticus somewhere :-)). But this dish worked perfectly. Mrs. is a huge risotto fan so this type of dish always pleases her. Her comment at the start was “This is so good I want to eat it slow” and at the finish was: “If I die tonight I will die happy” A pretty good testimonial. We were told that this dish was created by the sous chef Rachel. Cru bills itself as “adult comfort food” and this meal certainly lived up to that and then some.
Poogan’s Porch: While I attended a meeting Mrs. needed to catch lunch on her own. She tried to coax her way in to Husk for more shrimp and grits and was politely turned away with the dozens of others who attempt to walk in (Note: we booked most of our reservations 4 weeks in advance) Instead she was able to be seated at the bar at Poogan’s without a res. The She-Crab soup was quite good. The shrimp and grits were OK, edible, but compared to the standard set by Husk the day before, it paled in comparison. No contest.
Craftsman Kitchen and Tap House: We stopped in here for a few beers in the late afternoon. A beer lover’s paradise bar. They have 48 beers on tap including at least a dozen that are semi-local and an even larger list of bottles from around the world. Best of all they serve the drafts in not just pints but half pints. This makes it much more conducive to sampling a variety of beers without filling up with a full pint each time. The beer-tender was very knowledgeable of all that he was pouring.
F.I.G. lived up to its high reputation. We started with some of their signature cocktails. Lillian Lorraine was like a fruity champagne cocktail with rum, The Berlin Wall featured reposado tequila and spicy velvet falernum liqueur with citrus was quite tasty and “The Key” was like a variation of a rye Manhattan with apricot. Mrs. started with winterbor Kale salad with beets and other veggies and aged provolone cheese. The kale was very young and tender, nice for a salad. I had Pumpkin and Tuscan Kale minestrone with faro and chili. Rich and hearty and delicious it was topped with more sour cream than it needed. Mrs. loved the swordfish grilled with a mint salsa verde that really made the dish. I had fantastic triggerfish sautéed with butternut squash puree, haricot vert and a light mild matsutake mushroom jus. We shared a side of collard greens with garlic, and could not finish but were glad we tried the very filling root vegetable farrotto (a risotto made from farro). All of the food was expertly prepared and the flavor combinations were spot on. The menu was obviously in full autumn mode with all of the root veggies etc. I would love to come back in spring to see what they can do with that season’s produce. The young, perky staff provided great service and was very knowledgeable of all of the ingredients in every dish and drink.
O’Hara and Flynn wine bar: is right across the street from FIG. We skipped dessert and opted for a cheese course here. Great list of interesting wines by the glass. We had some Manchego and drunken goat cheese and olives to accompany a glass of Montefalco, a blend of sangiovese and sagrantino. There was soft live music and a very relaxed atmosphere. I love everything about this wine bar. Would have loved to have had another occasion to try their lentil salad with smoked salmon or some charcuterie. Tried to come back here days later for a light lunch but our timing was off and it was closed :-(
Glazed Gourmet donuts: Better get here early. We arrived before 10AM on a Saturday and most of the varieties were already sold out. We had to “settle” for some plain glazed donuts. Soft, light and oh so tasty and fresh.
Saturday Farmers Market in Marion Square was great to explore. Lots of local treats to sample and plenty of interesting looking food vendors.
Jestine’s Kitchen: Had to try some fried chicken while we were down south. The bargain priced plate of half a chicken, crispy, tasty and seasoned just right was great with collards and red rice.
Circa 1886: I was afraid Circa might be a bit too stuffy with underwhelming food but I was way off. The room is elegant located in the carriage house of the grand Wentworth Mansion. The service is impeccable and attentive but not even a tiny bit pretentious. And the food was simply amazing. Each dish is a work of art in presentation and in taste. We started with a refreshing “Pink Panther” tequila with grapefruit and other fruits. First course Mrs. had a beautifully presented salad of romaine hearts with tasty spicy salami and the best gorgonzola you can imagine with cannellini beans, sunflower seed and balsamic. The elements were perfectly matched in this salad. The Shrimp and grits as an appetizer was amazingly good. Mrs. had the Wagyu beef served with mashed potatoes and a smear of smoked cheese with tasty veggies. I had, after encouragement from our server, antelope for the first time. It was from a game farm in Texas and tasted quite good. Not at all gamey, slightly sweeter than beef, this cut was a bit chewy like a sirloin, but tender enough to enjoy. It was served with a southwestern flair with sour cream and lime grit cakes, fried avocado and a cilantro pesto. At circa the pastry chef makes each item to order so they ask you to order dessert in advance at the start of your meal. The chocolate soufflé was fantastic. We also shared a cheese course that was so good it may have been the most memorable part of the meal. There was a Manchego, a great medium blue and soft brie-like goat cheese that were all fantastic. Served alongside and amazing pistachio paste made with honey, spicy jam, plum and apricot gelatin squares, and some fruits this was the perfect accompaniment to help us finish the remainder of the reasonably priced Rioja we enjoyed with dinner. A lovely ending to a great meal.
Sunday Brunch at High Cotton: I had been told by more than one person that the brunch here is “lovely” and I have to agree completely. The room is lovely with the wicker blade ceiling fans. There was a Dixieland jazz band playing softly in the bar area that you could just here them in the background. Nice atmosphere and the food was great too. Started with the pecan glazed donut holes. They were tasty, but more like a fritter than a donut, a bit heavy, and certainly nothing like the lighter-than-air donut we had at Glazed but that may not be a fair comparison. The crab bisque was creamy and tasty. Rich, of course, but a nicely balanced flavor. Shrimp and grits were served with Andouille sausage and a shrimp broth. A different presentation in that it was more “brothy”, but the flavor was great and the grits were done right. I had the interesting “Breakfast cassoulet” made up of butterbeans with shredded duck meat, a slab of tender smoked pork belly, topped with 2 sunny side up eggs and spicy pepper jelly. The dish had a nice blend of sweet and slightly spicy flavors and was definitely a winner. Had to try a lily white biscuit as well. It was fine, and certainly a good example of a southern biscuit, but a bit heavy for my taste (especially with the generous portion of the cassoulet).
Dinner at S.N.O.B.: In any other town this would probably be considered a pretty good restaurant, but compared to the amazing food we had elsewhere, SNOB was a bit of a disappointment. Everything was actually quite good, but not quite up to the very high standards of FIG, Husk, Cru and Circa. SNOB is also a more casual atmosphere but the prices are basically the same as the other places described here. Our fish entrees were $29 and first courses about $14, no bargain here when that is what you might pay at the other fine restaurants I have reviewed here. OK, OK, the food: The Charleston clam chowder had nice large chunks of clam and potatoes. Not as good as the best you would find in New England, but a pretty decent cup of creamy soup. The crab cake appetizer was topped with a peppadew aioli served over garlicky spinach and was very tasty indeed. I wanted to have another go at triggerfish, but theirs was served with a not-so-appealing sounding combo of chilled green bean salad and goat cheese. Instead opted for the NC flounder, nicely pan seared with roasted root veggie farro, green beans and fennel vinaigrette. Nothing wrong with this dish, but the flavors just didn’t sing together. Mrs. had a nicely grilled Scottish salmon served alongside a spinach and cheese crepe and broccoli. Again, decent food, but it seemed amateurishly cobbled together. If I had prepared any of these dishes at home, I would probably have been quite proud of myself, but I am not a chef in a well-known Charleston restaurant. I guess we just expected more.
Dinner at Husk: We got here early enough to spend some time in the bar next door. The bar is a haven for bourbon lovers, but they serve a full menu of bar drinks. We tried a few of their house concoctions. A CBWS punch was a tasty combo of bourbon, rum and citrus. The “yard too far” was not what I had imagined and probably would be better as an after dinner drink, made from bourbon macerated with vanilla and ginger, with pecan bitters. The vanilla flavor was a bit strong, but maybe with some pie for dessert…First course for dinner we had a pumpkin soup with apple pecan “relish” and crème fraise. Really good flavor, not too sweet and spiced just right. Arugula salad with radish, poached pears, beets and sorghum yogurt with toasted oatmeal vinaigrette was a work of culinary art. Great combo of flavors and textures in this salad. Next I had triggerfish severed with charred snap beans, heirloom pumpkin and baby turnips with an herbed “broth” that was more like a thin pesto. Triggerfish is only available for a short season and I am glad I got to enjoy it a few times here in Charleston. This preparation was fantastic all around. Mrs. had catfish again, this time with smoky beans “hoppin’ John”, a rice dish, topped with roasted cabbage. Great flavors! The chef at Husk really knows what he is doing! We also shared a side of broccoli with pickled garlic and, yes, smoky tomatoes. Our server (the only one in the joint without a full Boston Red Sox beard) told us they just cut whole tomatoes in half and put them on a pan in the smoker for 30-60 minutes until tender and, uh, smoky. So simple, so good; Got to try this at home.
Before heading home we had time for a little picnic. We stopped at Normandy Farms bakery on Broad Street for some fresh ciabatta bread. Yummy. Then made a very enjoyable stop at---
Goat. Sheep. Cow. What a fun cheese shop. They had a wonderful assortment of cheeses and charcuterie. My favorite was called “Ewephoria” a really tasty sheep’s milk cheese but we also bought some “L Ulivo”, a cheese aged with olive leaves, and another cheese flavored with truffles and coated with cinnamon. Then a few slices of some surprisingly decent “American” prosciutto and some salami. They have a nice selection of decent priced wines so we grabbed a bottle of red from Montalcino and we were as happy as could be.
It is tough to rank our dining experiences in Charleston because we liked different places for different reasons. SNOB is the only place we would not return to. Circa was certainly the most elegant and maybe even the best overall food quality although not quite as creative as Husk or FIG. If pushed to the task I think Husk was our favorite for food overall but the meal at Cru was so amazingly satisfying Mrs. AWG is still savoring the creamy cheesy grits and will probably remember that meal the most. And that duck confit arugula salad…mmmmmmm!