Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Charleston Chews

Looking for a winter getaway, I decided to take the train down to Charleston, S.C., which I first visited about eleven years ago. My impression at the time was that Charleston is quite possibly the most beautiful city in the U.S., and that Lowcountry cuisine is one of the great American regional culinary traditions. The fact that Charleston is about fifteen degrees warmer than New York in the winter sealed the deal for my recent visit.

The Lowcountry is a region of marshy wetlands that stretches from a bit north of Charleston down to Savannah. The cuisine is, naturally, heavily seafood-based. Cooking styles are influenced by the cultural mix of the Lowcountry's history, from early Spanish settlers (and later Sephardic Jewish residents) to English colonists and most importantly to their African slaves. In additon, a French flair was added to the mix by Huguenot settlers. It is the French connection that gives Lowcountry cooking a character that differs from most other Southern cuisines, and also gives it a resemblance to New Orleans Creole cuisine, though with decided local differences.

My trip was centered on two activities: eating and strolling. Charleston is a great walking city, and it's historic and downtown districts are fairly compact. Strolling the steets of Charleston is a feast for the eyes.

The best meal I had during this visit was at Hank's, a seafood place. The restaurant, with its dark-wood furnishings, has a classic upscale saloon look which is carried forward in the 'forties-style typography and design of their menu. For this dinner I stuck to a main course, which appeared to be fairly substantial. The dish I ordered was called Seafood a la Wando, and was described as "Sauteed Shrimp Scallops and Fish deglazed with Sherry finished with Crabmeat, Button Mushrooms and Scallion in a Shellfish Saffron Cream Sauce Served with Fried Grit Cakes." According to the waiter the Wando are a local Indian tribe, but I can't imagine what their connection to the dish is, as it's clearly a twist on classic Lowcountry seafood cuisine. The fish were tuna and salmon, and the serving was indeed ample. The grit cake, flavored with garlic and cheese, was a perfect accompaniment. The bread, which I'd describe as a cross between a buttermilk biscuit and a crusty roll, was addictive. An Alsatian Gewurtztraminer went quite nicely with the food. Considering the combination of food, decor, and excellent service, my dish was a steal at $19.95 (though the price seems to have gone up, only days later, on the website).

One of the best value restaurants in Charleston is the Hominy Grill, a bit northwest of downtown. Their take on Southern and Lowcountry Cooking is both creative and reverent. The restaurant has a cozy country-style decor. At Hominy Grill I had the wonderful smothered pork chops, with sweet onions in the gravy. As good as the chops were, the surprise star of the plate was the side of turnips and greens. I have no idea what they did to conjure this intense flavor, slightly spicy and tangy but otherwise beyond description. It surely belongs in the vegetable hall of fame. Unfortunately, the Hoppin' John, black-eyed peas and rice, was surprisingly bland, and the cornbread was completely useless, cold, powdery and short on flavor. But the quality of the hits and the low prices ($12.95 for the pork chops with two sides) make this a destination well worth leaving the main tourist area for. Surely the off-the-beaten-path location also helps to keep them honest.

Smothered Pork Chops at Hominy Grill

If Jestine's, with its classic Southern soul food menu, was ever good, being right on the beaten path has obviously taken its toll. It's a famous place in town, and is probably coasting on its reputation. Guidebook recommendations assure a steady stream of customers, and unfortuntately I was one of them. Having never tried fried green tomatoes I decided to order them as an appetizer. Now I might not like them even if well prepared, but these were abominable, with a tasteless, greasy breading. For my main course I ordered the fried chicken basket with fried okra, figuring that should be a good benchmark dish for a place of its ilk. The okra were cold and bland. The chicken couldn't have been drier if NASA had cooked it, and the only way the breading could have been more flavorless would be if they had used one less ton of salt. Should I have been suspicious of a soul food restaurant that's closed on Jewish holidays? Should I have been suspicious of the fact that the only black face in the restaurant belonged to one of the wait staff? If these are the recipes of a Southern black woman, as the restaurant claims, then Jestine was my mother in blackface.

82 Queen is another popular Charleston restaurant, garnering accolades when it opened in the '80s, but I think it has seen better days. It's certainly a pretty place, with multiple, genteel rooms spread over several buildings, but the food is uneven. I will say that the she-crab soup, a Charleston specialty, was perhaps the best of the four or five I've tasted over the years (one of them at Gage & Tollner during its fleeting Edna Lewis Lowcountry period). Not only was the soup good, it was free, as they are running a 25th-anniversary promotion. She-crab soup is all about the roe, as the she-crab is extremely low on meat (which is why it became the stuff that soups are made of). It's a rich, creamy soup, laced with sherry. At 82 Queen they serve the sherry on the side, in a vinegar shaker. The cheese-and-herb biscuits were tasty too. Unfortunately, my main course, a Frogmore stew, was not at all good. I ordered this, another local specialty, because I wanted something less rich. It's a stew of shrimp, sausage and vegetables in a tomato broth. The shrimp were overcooked, the sausage nothing special, and the broth pathologically underseasoned.

Frogmore Stew

Besides the she-crab soup, the highlight of my visit to 82 Queen was a trip to the bathroom. Hanging on the wall was a menu, signed by Lee Remick in 1984. Now Lee Remick is a definite contender for the sexiest Hollywood actress of my childhood, so for a foodie of my generation a Remick-signed menu is a veritable pin-up.

While I was in Charleston I also went to a 90-minute "Taste of the Lowcountry" demo and tasting at Charleston Cooks, the cooking supply store that's affiliated with several of the town's more esteemed restaurants, all under the umbrella of Maverick Southern Kitchens. The instructor, Emily Kimbrough, prepared a simple and delicious seared pork tenderloin with apricot-jalapeno jam and an artery-clogging sweet potato mash with lots of butter and cream and a touch of cayenne that gave it an interesting kick. The dessert course consisted of benne wafers (benne being a local name for sesame seeds) and ice cream with a bourbon caramel sauce. The $25 fee was quite reasonable, especially since a glass of their private label Sonoma wine was included.

Emily sears the pork

The finished product

I also hit a couple of other Charleston eateries that I haven't mentioned yet because I'm saving them for an upcoming post on what I consider to be the Lowcountry's greatest contribution to American cuisine.


Anonymous Jimmy Cantiello said...


Thanks for the reviews. I will be sure to refer to this entry just before my trip to Charleston in September.

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Marian Schell said...

Pete, You traitor - you know San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the US. You will be fed to the Dungeness crabs the next time you visit... Marian

9:16 PM  

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