Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do … Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Seems like good advice to me...
And so we did, eight close friends from college, sorority sisters at the University of Washington, now scattered across the country. Once a year, we gather to spend one wonderful weekend together enjoying the food, drink, culture and history of a new city, always in a different state. This year’s girls’ getaway sent us south for a four-day frolic through charming Charleston, S.C., though stroll may be a more appropriate description in light of the slowing- down effect of the South, with an emphasis on good manners and warm hospitality. Staying at the Vendue Inn, located in the heart of the historic district, proved to be a wise choice. Almost everything we had planned to do was within walking distance or accessible by beautiful beach cruiser bicycles, shined up and lined up for our use just outside the hotel lobby doors. After a quick check-in and a few sips of the complementary sherry in a crystal decanter on the mantle, it was off to Cypress, A Lowcountry Grille for dinner.
Cypress’s executive chef Craig Deihl has received numerous accolades, including a nomination for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast award and Chef of the Year award by the Charleston chapter of the American Culinary Foundation. The restaurant’s special threecourse menu began with a butter lettuce salad that surprises with a sweet house-made bacon jam hiding under the lettuce leaves, and ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, Hooks blue cheese and creamy dressing. Next came the Mountain Grilled Trout, a North Carolina fillet wrapped in prosciutto and grilled to perfection, served atop sweet fennel and salty black olive oil, resulting in a surprisingly satisfying combination of flavors. Soon bites of entrees began circulating around the table, everyone wanting to share their delightful dinner. The Crisp Wasabi Tuna was an imaginative preparation. The tuna was wrapped in phyllo and flash-fried, achieving an outside crispy crust and an interior of tender, rare tuna, served with edamame and ginger-garlic glaze.
One of my favorite afternoons was spent cooking at Charleston Cooks kitchen store. Instructor Season Stepp showed us how to make Charleston crab soup, creamy mashed sweet potatoes, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with bourbon apple puree and roasted peaches and hazelnut cream. Having seen She Crab Soup, a signature South Carolina soup made with Atlantic blue crab and cream and finished with sherry, on several Charleston restaurant menus, we welcomed the chance to make it ourselves. Originally, the soup would have been made using the roe from the female crab or “she-crab.” Charleston Crab Soup proved an easy-to-prepare recipe featuring fresh local ingredients and fabulous flavors.
It just wouldn’t have been right to leave the South without trying some fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits, and my chance came the night we ate at Poogan’s Porch. Named for the “good ol’ Southern porch dog” who oversaw renovation of the Victorian house-turned-restaurant, Poogan’s Porch opened in 1976. Known for its upscale lowcountry cuisine, this restaurant is revered by locals, tourists and celebrities alike. One of our favorite food finds came here as the bread basket arrived filled with feather light buttermilk biscuits served with honey butter.
Saving the best for last, we dined at Carolina’s on the last night of our stay. Calling itself “The Original Southern Bistro,” Carolina’s conveys a cozy elegance, featuring classic offerings from its popular predecessor Perdita’s, as well as contemporary takes on low-country cuisine. Executive Chef Jeremiah Bacon’s farm-to-plate approach and commitment to sustainability has brought both him and the restaurant national attention, and deservedly so.
Perdita’s Fruit de Mer, a succulent seafood dish showcasing scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels and seared salmon in a thyme broth with fingerling potatoes and grilled bread is to die for. I was so impressed by the dish, I contacted Carolina’s in hopes of getting the recipe when I got home. A true Southern gentleman, chef Bacon called me back himself to graciously walk me through the recipe, which he described as a sort of Portugese fish stew or a cousin to the French bouillabaisse.
“Start with chicken stock, carrots, onions, celery, fennel, star anise and a deglazing of the pan with vermouth and white wine,” he began. “Reduce by half and add three gallons of chicken stock and boil. Add some whiskey and about ½ cup of tomato paste. Then 10 pounds of Prince Edward Island mussels and cook until they open up.”
After the thyme mussel broth is painstakingly prepared, they sear scallops and salmon separately and compile the dish just before serving with pre-cooked fingerling potatoes, grilled bread and celery heart leaves. Before long, Bacon was singing the praises of his fishermen. Dave Ballinger, or “Dave the Clammer,” as Bacon called him, supplies little neck clams that are immaculate thanks to the power washing and extra care Ballinger takes with them. Tommy Edwards, his shrimp guy, was still out on the water, he said. I began to realize that replicating this signature Carolina’s dish in Montana was pointless. This mouth-watering masterpiece was the result of Bacon’s expertise in sourcing fresh local seafood and his attention to detail. How glad I was to have enjoyed their Perdita’s Fruit de Mer while I was there.
Heading to the airport the next day, our driver asked us if we’d had a good time and inquired if we’d be coming back any time soon. Nodding and smiling, he admitted that, “She has a way of making you fall in love with her.” I couldn’t agree more.
CHARLESTON CRAB SOUP
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup leeks
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, grated or pressed
3 ears of corn, kernels cut from the cob
1 quart chicken stock
2 tbsp. fresh thyme, leaves picked off stems
1 cup cream
½ pound crab meat, picked over for shells
½ cup sherry
Fresh chives, chopped
Place butter in a large stockpot, and melt over medium heat. When the butter is hot, add the leeks and onion and stir to coat with butter. Cook until leeks and onion are translucent and softened, about eight to 10 minutes.
Add the garlic to the pan, and cook just until garlic is fragrant, about one minute. Add corn, chicken stock and thyme.
Bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes to allow flavors to combine.
Add the cream to the pot, and bring back to a simmer. Cook for five minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place about a tablespoon of crab meat in the bottom of each bowl and ladle the hot soup over the crab. Garnish with a drizzle of sherry and a sprinkle of chopped chives. Serves six to eight.
Recipe by Charleston Cooks! Maverick Kitchen Store
POOGAN’S PORCH BISCUITS
5 pounds self-rising flour
1 cup sugar
½ cup baking powder
1 pound shortening
½ gallon buttermilk
Combine first three ingredients and mix well.
Add shortening and mix well with hands until shortening is broken up into quartersized pieces.
Add buttermilk and mix until all is incorporated. Roll out to ¾-inch thickness and cut with biscuit cutter. Place on parchment- covered sheet pans ½inch apart.
Bake at 350° until golden brown.
Stepping from the narrow alley, through the arched brick doorway, a feeling begins to creep over you: the feeling that you are closing in on a hidden treasure, tucked just out of sight, but waiting. The truth is that, despite its location, McCrady’s is far from a secret, but it is a genuine treasure.
Entering the former 18th century Charleston, S. C. public house, one of the oldest eating establishments in the country, feels like stepping into a gorgeous old wine cellar. The atmosphere is dark, but comfortably so, and beautifully appointed. Care is taken to highlight the charms of the historic building. Rough brick and dark wood beams are left exposed, playing off heavy, metal chandeliers, lantern sconces and chairs chosen as much for their comfort as an eye toward design. Moving into the bar, you start to move from a wine cellar into a speak-easy. Seating is broken up into nooks, filled with exposed wood table tops and tobacco-leather chairs, creating a feeling of intimacy tucked away inside this gorgeous old building. The dining room, by contrast, feels surprisingly open and spacious, the lighting just a little brighter, with a touch of color on the walls. There is real room between the tables – the trappings of fine dining (taking it even further, the private dining room is the picture of Southern splendor, appointed with the elegance of a formal dining room.) The effect is to offer a nod to the history of the space while also creating the impression of exclusivity.
If the location can make this space feel like a hidden gem, the food has made sure the secret will never be well kept. Helmed by Chef Sean Brock, McCrady’s is continuing to define what seasonal, local, fine dining can be in the low country. The passion for seasonal local, sustainable ingredients, and a pride in the providence of those ingredients is written all over the menu. But, where many chefs are willing to sit back and let those ingredients speak for themselves, Brock is willing to push the envelope further, applying inventive new techniques in an attempt to bring something unique and superlative out of the incredible products he has sourced. It is a testament to his skill and creativity that ordering from his menus is a genuine challenge.
Whether choosing the Chef’s Tasting menu, the three course Market Menu, or ordering A La Carte, the choices are both numerous and enticing. For the most part, they manage to live up to their promise. An appetizer of grilled octopus, golden beets, orange puree and fennel immediately stands out. The octopus is braised in sous-vide for 25 hours before being lightly grilled, taking on just a touch of char that adds a soft smokiness to the incredibly tender meat that is complimented by the sweetness of the golden beets and balanced by the slight acidity of the orange puree. The sweet breads are a harmony of textures, crusty on the outside, but creamy when you bite into them. Rounded out by capers and rye that bring the dish back from the edge of being too rich, the result is something both decadent and elegant at the same time. And a duo of butter-poached Maine lobster with seared bay scallop was perfectly prepared, the sweet lobster contrasting the heartier scallop. If there is any failing, it is that some of the pairings can become too busy for the plate. The duo of pork from Eco-friendly Foods was rich and succulent, making the touch of banana puree that accompanied it felt extraneous. But the trio of Kathadin Lamb was right back on track, complimented by earthy kale and oyster mushrooms with just a touch of sweetness from caramelized florets of cauliflower and fragrant pine nuts. Despite his use of the kind of techniques so often labeled molecular gastronomy, there is soul to Brock’s cooking that clearly rings through the best of his dishes, making them more than just an intellectual exercise, but a pleasure to eat.
Setting the tone for the meal, the service at McCrady’s is warm and knowledgeable, built around a staff that has a genuine interest in what they do. From the moment you call to make a reservation, a genuine effort is put into the little details many restaurants let slip through the cracks, whether it is asking if your visit is part of a celebration, checking on allergies, or taking the time to find out what you are looking for before making recommendation. From the General Manager, Kellie Holmes, to the servers, to the hostess who greets you at the door, everyone you speak to will be warm and friendly, intent on not only making you feel at home, but also making your night feel like something special.
At its core, that's what McCrady’s is... It is a special occasion restaurant, designed to make you feel like royalty for a night. But the food has balance and depth. It doesn’t overpower or create that sense of fatigue that can plague the special occasion restaurant. Instead McCrady’s beckons you back with the promise that there is still more left for you to experience.
How often have you gone on vacation to a new place, itinerary in hand, determined to see every nook and cranny. How many times has someone else, a wife or husband, planned every moment of your down time, dragging you from walking tour to museum trip, before rushing off to that restaurant that you just have to try? How many times have you come home from one of those trips, only to plunge right back into the rat race of everyday life, feeling like what you really need right now is… well, a vacation?
It happens to all of us, but there are alternatives, ways to both experience the sites and sounds of a beautiful place, while taking the time to catch your breath and recharge, so you can head home feeling whole again. There are places that seem built for exactly that. There is Charleston, South Carolina in the spring.
It’s location, on the tip of a peninsula that juts out into Charleston Harbor, between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, allowed Charleston to flourish and grow into one of the most important cities in the South, a scenic marvel that married the natural beauty of the coastline with the stunning architecture of the old South. Today, it is a city that is both deeply connected to it’s past, while offering a comfortable, casual environment that helps slow life down to the right pace.
For those who are seeking a bit of culture and history, Charleston has everything you can ask for. From historic homes to gothic churches to the old slave market, the rich history of the South is still very much on display. One of the highlights of any trip through the city has to be the stunning architecture that is on display on almost every block. Buildings that date back to the 18th and 19th century still stand, remarkably preserved, and many of them are open to the public. One of the incredible aspects of visiting Charleston is that many of these houses are open to the public. Some serve as Bed and Breakfasts, while others have been renovated or restored to allow people to walk their halls. Two examples that stand out are the Aiken Rhett House and the Nathanial Russell House.
Aiken Rhett, located in the North East corner of downtown, stands out from many of the others because the property has not been restored in any way, but simply preserved, to maintain a character that is truly unique. Nathanial Russel House, located in the heart of downtown, blocks from the water, has been fully restored by the Historic Charleston Foundation to provide a glimpse into the splendor of the period. Tucked side by side with the private homes are stunning churches, such as St Michael’s Episcopal and the Unitarian Church, the two oldest churches in Charleston, and St Phillip’s, with a history that dates back to the late 17th century. The southern tip of the peninsula is rich with gothic architecture and history. A slow walk through the streets, or a morning tour on a horse-drawn carriage offers a relaxing way to see the beauty of the historic city. For those who have a little more time on their hands, just outside of Charleston are a number of old plantation houses, like Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation, which offer similarly preserved and restored examples of life in the South, combining a uniquely beautiful esthetic with a rich history that tells an important part of the story of how the United States came to be what it is today.
But a tour of the past is not all that Charleston has to offer. First of all, the locals are incredible. The people are the heart of Charleston, and they continue to prove that southern hospitality is alive and well. They are the best reason to choose a Bed and Breakfast over one of the bigger hotels. It will give you a chance to talk to Charlestonians, to get advice on where to go, what to see, and to find the hidden gems that aren’t in the guidebooks. It is easy to spend a quiet morning walking through Charleston Waterfront Park, shopping at the outdoor stalls on Market St, or window-shopping on King Street. Being surrounded by the beauty of the city makes it easy to let time slip past, taking with it the stresses of the world outside.
One of the true surprises of the city is its vibrant dining scene. It feels like someone offering their own take on Low Country Southern cooking has opened on every corning, and for the most part, the food is outstanding, drawing from the waters all around the peninsula, you can’t go wrong with the local seafood. But the real treasures of Charleston are a handful of restaurants that have truly embraced the seasonal, local movement, using it to elevate Low Country cooking into something incredible. Fig, helmed by Chef Mike Lata, and the Sean Brock led restaurants McCrady’s and Husk offer a dining experience to rival any city in the country.
Choose a quiet old house on one of the tree lined streets downtown. Find a place or two that pique your interest, that get you out to enjoy the gorgeous spring weather, recognizing that you don’t have to see every historic home, every church yard, every site the city has to offer, just enough to appreciate what is there. As the city brings together the beauty of nature with the rich history of the historic South, it offers an incredible balance of sites rich in history and beauty with an atmosphere that begs you to slow down, take a deep breath, and let time slip by just a little bit.
And don’t worry if you’ve missed anything. The charm of the city will bring you back time and again. You can see the rest then.