“Things like that happen in Charleston.”
That’s what a woman working at a kitchen store said to me after something extraordinary happened to me right in front of her. It was one of two extraordinary events that I’m going to tell you about in this post all about my time here in one of America’s great food cities. I was brought here by South Carolina Tourism as part of a larger trip that’ll encompass Columbia and Greenville; but this post is all about my 48 hours here in Charleston.
They began last night after driving in from the airport. Unable to figure out where to plug in my GPS (no cigarette lighter to be found!), I loaded up the directions on my phone and did that crazy irresponsible thing where I was holding my phone in one hand and driving with the other, while glancing from the screen to the street and nearly killing several pedestrians. I apologize: I’ll never do it again.
My journey eventually took me to last night’s hotel, Zero George, which is so named because its address is 0 George Street. The room was quite lovely:
Dropping my bags off, I quickly deduced the best way to get to a restaurant that Besha Rodell, food critic for L.A. Weekly, told me I had to go to upon arriving in Charleston. That restaurant is FIG and turns out, it was only a few blocks from my hotel.
There is nothing–I repeat nothing–like the feeling you get when you walk into the right restaurant after a long day of travel. If you’ve chosen wisely (and I certainly did last night), a restaurant can feel like a hug. FIG was more than a hug; it was like a white light at the end of a long tunnel. Wait that metaphor makes it seem like death. Umm…it was like a massage for the soul! Let’s go with that.
My very helpful waiter said his favorite thing on the menu was the chicken liver pâté so I knew I had to order it as an appetizer. I’m glad I did:
I’ve had many a chicken liver pâté in my time and this one rules them all. It was the creamiest, the sultriest, the most flavorful. “Why is this so good?” I demanded and I was answered, somewhat evasively, with “it’s made with cream and Cognac and it cooks at a really low temperature.” Actually, that’s not so evasive; still, there’s something about it: maybe it’s passed through a sieve, like all the best French recipes are, multiple times to achieve such a sublime texture? I don’t know. But I ate the whole thing and all of the pickles and lettuces and brioche toast points that came with it.
For my entree it was sautéed grey triggerfish with Carolina Gold rice grits, edisto broccoli, benne seed, and espelette:
What was interesting about this dish was how restrained it was; the flavors didn’t pop, they sang, sweetly, in harmony and in a way that very pleasing on the palate. It’s the kind of cooking that’s a lot like classical music: there’s a great deal going on beneath the surface, but if you don’t know how to listen (or taste) you might miss it. Clearly, the chef at FIG (Chef Mike Lata) is operating on a very high level.
The dessert, a Sorghum cake with Calvados ice cream…
…was enhanced by the news that Craig and Mark had just won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance! I had this huge smile on my face while eating; I’m sure everyone was thinking: “Boy, that guy really likes his dessert.”
After that it was back to my hotel, where my head hit the pillow and I slept the sleep of angels.
Then, this morning, I saw the Zero George in daylight which was very pretty:
And promptly checked out. (They have me in a different hotel tonight.)
A nice woman named Julia met me in the lobby to shepherd me (and my car) to the 31st Annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival on the Boone Hall Plantation. We got there early–like 10 or so–and already crowds were forming. The drive in was pretty fascinating; it really is a plantation. Here’s the cotton to prove it:
As you might guess from the name, the festival was all about oysters. And people, right away, were lined up for buckets of steamed mollusks that they carried off to their waiting families to wash down with beer:
As far as I could tell, the oysters (which, for this festival, are brought in from the Gulf), are plunged into boiling water–or a steam bath–just until they open:
Then the oysters are dumped on to a table where eager young men scoop them into buckets:
Those buckets are purchased with tickets and brought over to large tables where you can devour your oysters in style. Here’s my set-up:
A breakfast of champions!
After trying some other stuff (a bite of a BBQ sandwich, a taste of shrimp and grits) I bid farewell to Julia and hopped into my car to check out a place I was originally supposed to check out last night: Butcher and Bee.
This place was just my speed. I mean, look at it:
You might call it a hipster haven, but that’s unfair. Some of the best places to eat are hipster havens. And I was once called a hipster by a man on a bicycle in Santa Monica and you like me right? So let’s not judge.
The food here is not what you’d expect from a South Carolina sandwich shop. For starters, the owner Michael Shemtov, is Israeli and so the place is very well known for its hummus. Which is what I ordered with a side of kale salad and roasted carrots:
That’s the least traditionally Southern plate you’ll ever see and yet the elements are all local; there’s peanuts, there’s turnips. Oh and there’s sweet tea served in a mason Jar (cue the hipster groan but it’s oh so cute!):
I loved my lunch at Butcher & Bee; everything was just so unexpected.
Then it was off to explore Charleston on foot. First, I dropped my bags at my new hotel–the Elliott House Inn (which has lots of rustic charm)–and made my way over to the Charleston City Market:
This city has some pretty fascinating architecture; it’s so unique. I wandered through the market, saw lots of baskets and things made with shea butter and a horse-drawn carriage through a window:
Then made a right on East Bay and came upon this store which I went into eagerly:
Here’s where the first truly extraordinary thing happened (the thing that I mentioned in my opening paragraph). As I was going through the market, my friend Travis in L.A. was texting with me, telling me he was enjoying the pictures I was posting from South Carolina on Instagram. I asked what he was up to today. He said “brunch.” That kind of stuff.
As I walked into the cooking store, I heard a guy talking to a woman about Charleston restaurants. “We went to the Ordinary,” I heard him say, “Hominy Grill, Husk.” I kind of glanced in his direction because, clearly, he was a fellow foodie; which is when he came over to me and asked if I was The Amateur Gourmet. “Yes!” I said, thrilled to be recognized. “I’m a fan of your blog,” he said, “and we have a friend in common.” “We do?” “Yes, your friend Travis is my boyfriend’s brother.”
Let me walk you through that again: as I was texting my L.A. friend Travis in Charleston, South Carolina I magically stumbled upon Travis’s brother Tyler and boyfriend Jamie who were visiting from D.C.??? Here they are to prove it:
That’s when the woman working in the store said: “Things like that happen in Charleston.” It was totally surreal.
After that, I continued my walk and admired more of the architecture:
This store was impossible to resist:
I was tempted by many things inside:
Oh, this was all on Queen street (I made a right on Queen from East Bay) and then I made a right on King which is a nice shopping district. Check out this honey store:
This historic movie theater:
Charleston men’s clothing:
A trolly car:
A charming book store:
I liked this store window (Doris Dixon, Owner):
And this skateboarding family:
At this point, I met Jamie and Tyler for a quick drink at a gay bar, Duncan’s, then went back to my hotel to freshen up for dinner at a restaurant I’ve been dying to go to since I started hearing about it a few years ago. You know the one I’m talking about:
For such a lauded restaurant (it was named Bon Appetit’s best restaurant in 2011), the place was totally casual. That’s what makes it so great. You can just wander in (though a reservation is probably good to have), sit down, and order some really amazing food.
I had a connection to the place because Sean Brock, the chef, is doing a cookbook with the same editor and publisher (Judy Pray, Artisan) that did mine. I was super stoked to start eating. First up? Yeasted rolls that were warm and out of this world:
Then, after ordering, my very helpful waitress brought over this tray of little tastes for me to try; things I’d otherwise miss because it’s impossible for one person to eat the whole menu. Here’s fire roasted oysters (coosaw) with HUSK Bloody Mary butter; crispy fried chicken skins with HUSK sweet-n-sour sauce; and pimento cheese on toast.
All of it was delectable, finger-licking-good stuff; the clarity of tomato flavor in the oysters was remarkable (I think it’s achieved by juicing), the crispy fried chicken skins were like the best version of mall Chinese food you’ll ever eat. And the pimento cheese outdid any I’ve made before (and I’ve made a lot). It had that magic touch.
My official appetizer was the “Buffalo” glazed pig ear lettuce wraps with sweet vinegar marinated cucumbers and red onions.
What a great trick, this dish is. It has all the heat and exuberance of Buffalo chicken wings but none of that greasy, 7-napkin, gut-bomb business. Instead, it’s lightened with the lettuce and the marinated vegetables; and the pig ears have a good texture that’s not too chewy. I dug it.
But the real star was my entree (or “supper,” as the menu calls it): Cornmeal Dusted NC Catfish, Fried Cabbage with Green Tomato Chow Chow and Appalacian Tomato Gravy.
Upon first bite I thought, “OH, this is a very good catfish dish.” It worked on me slowly. But eventually I began to savor every component–that Applachian tomato gravy had a smokiness that was irresistible; the chow chow pepped things up and gave everything a vinegary kick. I can truly say the combination of flavors and textures was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before and it was all so winning. This may take top prize for favorite dish I ate while in Charleston.
Though the corn bread was pretty hard to beat served, as it was, in a piping hot cast iron skillet:
This isn’t the sweet cornbread we northerners are used to; it is, in fact, quite savory. The best parts are the places where the cornbread touched the hot skillet and got crisped up. I ate more than I should have considering I ordered this chess pie for dessert.
Oh, this chess pie. Creamy, chocolatey, with a perfect crust: what’s there to say? There’s nothing to say. Not a thing. It left me speechless.
Blissed out, floating on air, I paid the bill and got up to leave the restaurant when the second extraordinary thing happened to me here in Charleston. On the bench, right by the hostess stand, I saw Bill Murray.
I’d been told that Bill Murray lives in Charleston and that fact existed in my brain somewhere but never, in a million years, did I think I’d actually see him. And there he was. It was a great moment and as I walked out, I heard a group of people talk about whether they should ask for a picture. Finally, they worked up the courage and Bill came out and posed. You can barely make him out here:
How’s that for an ending to my visit? Turns out the woman at the store was right: things like that really do happen in Charleston.
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Brought to you by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism. South Carolina is Just Right