Shrimp and Grits
Before I ever tasted shrimp and grits I was skeptical. Grits is not something I normally get excited about, and I figured there were plenty of better uses for shrimp. My instant conversion was the result of truth revealed at first taste.
I had my momentous shrimp and grits experience at the Barbadoes Room. There are quite a lot of variant recipes for shrimp and grits, and often the named ingredients are the only things the recipes have in common. There's even a shrimp and grits cookbook. As the book's author, Nathalie Dupree, says, "Shrimp and grits have emerged from their humble origins to become a signature for sophisticated Southern dining. The magical combination of shrimp and grits, whether for pre-dawn breakfast on a shrimp boat or as an entrée in the finest New York restaurant can be deliriously wonderful." I don't know what New York restaurant she's referring to, but perhaps it's revealed in the book.
The Barbadoes Room recipe is, I think, a classic one. It relies heavily on dairy, both in the creamy stone-ground grits and the gravy. Tomato and bacon are also important components of the gravy. Unlike many places, they do not use cheddar cheese in the dish. There was something so sensual about the rich, hearty shrimp and gravy over the silky-smooth grits. It was the most luxurious of comfort foods. The Barbadoes Room version became my benchmark for the dish.
The Barbadoes Room, named in honor of Charleston's extensive trade with the West Indies, is quite a pretty, charming room. It's the restaurant of the Mills House hotel, an elegant historic property now run by the Intercontinental group. It may not be the only hotel that has hosted both Robert E. Lee and Elizabeth Taylor, but it's the only one I know of.
This time I didn't go to the Barbadoes Room for dinner, and I regret it. I did go for breakfast, however, and had the "Charleston Breakfast Shrimp," in which the shimp are mixed in with the grits; it's ringed with sliced tomatoes, and the whole is topped with strips of bacon.
I was not thrilled with this version. It was pretty bland and the grits were coarser than I remembered from the dinner version. The biscuit they served as an accompaniment was actually inedible, so it makes me wonder whether the restaurant has slipped overall since my last visit.
The only place I've had shrimp and grits outside of Charleston was in Washington, D.C., at Georgia Brown's, which does a respectable version.
There was a side of me that wanted to make this a shrimp and grits theme vacation, but I realized that I could easily tire of the dish, regardless of how great the variations, if I ate it three times a day. So I decided to try it for dinner at only one place.
I chose Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.), the site of a fantastic dinner during my first visit to Charleston (when the restaurant was a newcomer). S.N.O.B., which bills itself as "Maverick Southern Cuisine" and is the flagship restaurant of Maverick Southern Kitchens, could best be described as inventive new American with deep Lowcountry roots. A number of their dishes are either variants on Lowcountry classics or use local ingredients in audacious ways. The name S.N.O.B. is a Charleston in-joke, as south of Broad is considered the chi chi area of town. It's in a gentrified former warehouse district, happily saved from urban renewal in the 'seventies. S.N.O.B. is a particularly comfortable place for a solo diner as they have a communal chef's table facing the open kitchen. I fondly remembered a dish from my first visit, and was happy to see it was still on the menu: grilled bbq tuna, glazed with mustard barbecue sauce, topped with fried oysters, country ham and green onions. Were I not on a shrimp and grits mission I would have been tempted to order it again. The woman next to me was enjoying hers.
For an appetizer I ordered one of the night's specials, a warm duck salad with endive, arugula, radishes, grape tomatoes, toasted pecans and goat cheese with a sherry wine walnut vinaigrette. The only problem was that I don't like goat cheese, so I asked the waiter if I could substitute Manchego, which I love and which was one of the daily cheese selections. He told me that shouldn't be a problem, but that there might be a supplement (it turned out to be $1). Then he added, "You know, I think Manchego could really work in that salad." It did. It was a wonderful salad, with the diverse ingredients coming together quite happily. It was also quite large, a deal at $8.50 with my Manchego surcharge.
That was followed by the "Maverick Shrimp & Grits." In this case I think they went too far with the maverick shtick. The dish was disappointing. It had a spicy tomato-based sauce and in addition to shrimp it included scallops, house-made sausage and country ham. It was served over yellow grits, rather than white. While the dish wasn't a total disaster, there were several problems. The tomato base and seasoning seemed to be a misplaced nod to Italy. It was overly garlicy. I'm a big garlic fan, but this was really too much. I also didn't think this sauce made sense over grits. On top of that, the grits were far too salty. When I pointed this out to the waiter he told me that he'd had similar complaints about the salty grits before, but that the chef never seemed to take heed. Give that chef a slap on the wrist! Luckily, that was the only miss in my two visits to S.N.O.B. (I can't remember what appetizer I had the first time), and I would still recommend it as one of Charleston's best restaurants.
I really do like Charleston, so it shouldn't be too hard to rouse myself for future shrimp and grits expeditions.