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Gracious Living, Fine Dining and More in Charleston, South Carolina:
My knowledge of USA geography is shockingly vague. If I were to try to draw a map, there would be a blob on the East Coast for New York City, a similar blob on the West Coast for San Francisco and then an attempt to stick the tail on the donkey with a set of pins marking approximate locations for Washington, Chicago and Dallas. I do have some idea of the scale of the USA, and I also know that New York State reaches right up to Niagra Falls bordering with Canada. But, there are vast areas of the USA I know very very little about. So, when I was invited on a dual state food tour of South Carolina and Kentucky, I was overly excited and just a little apprehensive. What a great opportunity to explore. Especially as I was going to drive(!).
The first thing I noticed on arriving in Charleston from London was just how warm it was in September. Summer clothes and no jacket kind of weather. Charleston also has quite a humid climate. I’d looked at the weather forecast and noticed rain was predicted. But although at certain times of the year it does rain quite heavily, for the most part the storms last just an hour or so.
As I drove in ever decreasing circles, in an attempt to reach the hotel where I was staying for the night, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the houses were. Much of Charleston is Georgian and the city takes great pride in preserving its heritage. I was lucky to be staying in one of the city’s heritage hotels – King’s Courtyard Inn, in a room which looked as if it was left over from Gone with the Wind. The hotel staff were charming and friendly – nothing seemed to be too much trouble, including helping me to get my key out of the car (not used to driving an automatic, I didn’t realise the gearstick had to be in ‘P’ for park). Guests are treated to a complimentary breakfast, wine and cheese between five and six every evening and sherry in the lounge after that. It is well situated too, right in the heart of the city. I could (and did) walk to everything on my itinerary, starting with cocktails and bar food at Husk.
Just a few minutes from the hotel, there’s a popular formal restaurant and informal bar at Husk. I didn’t have a reservation and after a nine hour flight I wasn’t in the mood to wait the hour I was told it would take for a table in the restaurant. So, instead I took shelter from one of Charleston’s thunderstorms in the beamed, comfortable bar. Apart from a short wine list where the options are listed by terroir rather than colour (Limestone, Granite and Volcanic), Husk has a selection of Southern beers, including some fearsome sounding premium options (IPA-Evil Twin Brewing ‘Femme Fatale Sudachi’ for example). And of course, there are cocktails and punches, mostly bourbon whiskey based as you’d expect in this part of the World.
Fascinated by the heritage of Charleston, I opted for punches rather than cocktails to accompany my food. First of all the Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch based on a 1783 Charleston recipe it was one of the few drinks that didn’t include bourbon. Then, because I thought I should try some of the local firewater, a glass of CBWS punch with bourbon, Barbados rum, citrus juices, honey and raw sugar. Both were great alternatives to wine with this style of food. Served with generous amounts of ice, they were refreshing and didn’t feel too alcoholic, though my server warned I’d feel the kick a little later.
Along with the first glass of punch I ordered some Broadbent ham on a bourbon barrel stave. Slowly smoked Kentucky ham, an intense flavoured meat with a superb texture. It did seem more of a snack than a meal and I was still hungry – or perhaps just tempted by the smokey saltiness of the ham.
A great excuse to try arguably the best known dish at Husk bar, the cheeseburger, which is served with fried potato wedges. A generous double burger topped with cheese and a spicy barbecue sauce and all served in a toasted brioche bun. The perfect way to fill up with some southern comfort food, I staggered back to my ‘Gone with the Wind’ bed at the hotel and slept like a baby.
Next morning after coffee at the hotel, I wandered for a while around the historic city centre. Perhaps the world’s friendliest policeman gave me a potted history of the ‘four corners of the law’ – a crossroad in the heart of the town, so named by Robert Ripley in the 1930s. The first corner is home to the US Post Office and Federal Courthouse (1896), the second, to the Charleston County Courthouse (1792), the third Charleston City Hall (1800-1804) and the fourth, St Michael’s Episcopal Church (1752-1761). Thus federal, state, local and church law are all represented here at the four corners of the law in Charleston.
Having worked up a bit of an appetite it was time to try a traditional ‘Southern Style’ breakfast. Hominy Grill is famous for breakfasts and I was lucky that, arriving rather late, toward the end of service, the queue was barely 10 minutes. I’ve been told you can need to wait for an hour or so, though you can enjoy a bloody mary or mimosa in the pretty courtyard while you do so.
The breakfast menu includes every kind of dish you might imagine including Biscuits and Gravy, a whole range of egg dishes and the concoction that I was looking forward with just a little trepidation. Shimp and Grits. On paper it didn’t sound too promising. But here, it was utterly delicious. A mixture of shrimps cooked in a spicy sauce with bacon and mushrooms served on a creamy porridge of grits (cornmeal). It worked brilliantly, especially with a good dose of southern sunshine and a small mimosa.
My final meal in Charleston was the most spectacular. I’d been promised by some friends from neighbouring North Carolina that the sea-food here, on the Atlantic Coast would be superb. The Ordinary is so named because of a set dish served each day of the week. The menu focuses on the merroir (a term coined to mirror ‘terroir’ in an altogether fishier way). And, the dishes are stunning – an ever-so-clever yet seemingly effortless combination of flavour and texture.
I ordered an oyster slider with considerable trepidation. In principle I like my oysters fresh and raw; whenever I’ve had them served po-boy style I’ve been just a little disappointed. Not so here, the deep fried oyster was succulent and meaty inside a crisp breaded shell. Topped with a crunchy Asian style pickle and served in a soft bun, I’d have ordered another three or four if I hadn’t already had to cross a few things off my wish list already.
Most of what I was eating came from the raw section of the menu. A few delicate, fresh local oysters (the first of the season) were served with garnishes including a classic red wine mignonette, and a citrusy blood orange alternative. But, if I’m honest I didn’t taste them, preferring to enjoy the perfection of completely naked oysters.
Razor clams were served with crunchy apply, jalapeno and coriander, a tangy and refreshingly light mixture.
My server offered a special which sounded amazing. A vermillion snapper tartare served with avocado, cucumber, jalepeno, coriander and lime juice with some pickled garlic cloves and tarro root chips. It was a delicate dish a little like ceviche with just the right amount of heat and piquancy.
And, intent on trying something cooked, I ordered a plate of squid a la Plancha. Almost at the same time Mike Lata, the chef behind The Ordinary, appeared to say hello. I’d been told that the pile of cookery books on the dresser opposite my table belonged to him and was delighted to see a couple by Nathan Outlaw. I must have rambled a little, because Mike seemed to be the American twin brother of my favourite British chefs. Someone whose food is focused on locally sourced seafood and fresh ingredients, and who somehow uses a little magic to produce astonishingly good dishes based on perfectly ordinary fare.
By the time I came to eat the squid I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to do it justice if I didn’t try quickly and completely forgot to take a picture before diving in. Needless to say it was a delicious, spicy mixture with a creamy paprika dressing and didn’t suffer at all from the wait.
Dessert was a fine apple galette with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. One of those simple dishes that could have spoiled if the puff pastry hadn’t been perfectly crisp and the apples just the right level of sweetness. Needless to say it was perfect.
This is somewhere I’d happily dine seven days a week. If I could persuade them to open on Mondays that is.
Walking back to the hotel, I was a little sad to only have two nights in this beautiful Southern city. Originally called Charles Town (after the eponymous British King), the name change followed the American Revolution, when the City was constantly under seige by the British. Apparently even the church steeples were painted black in an attempt to camouflage them and prevent attacks by British warships. Since then it has survived the Civil war, a major earthquake in 1886 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Yet the city has become an important tourist destination. There’s a plethora of excellent bars and restaurants, art galleries, heritage centres and shops. I didn’t have time to take a walking tour or one on the horse-drawn carriages, though every so often I’d stop to eavesdrop and learn a bit more about what I was looking at. And, for those staying for a little longer, there are more places along the coast just outside the town centre.
I’ll be writing about the second part of my stay in South Carolina, when I visited Greenville. In the meanwhile, why not find out more yourself through the following links:
With many thanks to Discover America, the Historic Hotels of America and to Discover South Carolina for hosting this part of the trip. It was my first taste of a very different style of American food and I loved every minute.