Gone to Greenville: Pomegranate, Swamp Rabbit Cafe, Makin’ Moonshine, Fried Green Tomatoes, Henry’s Smokehouse, Brewery 85 and High Cotton

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In case you were driving from Columbia, South Carolina to Greenville last Tuesday, that was me blasting the original Broadway cast recording of RENT and singing along at the top of my lungs. It was really a mismatched pairing of sound and scenery–gospel churches, religious bumper stickers–but that juxtaposition was what made it so delightful. And turns out that juxtaposition made perfect sense for my first stop when I arrived in Greenville: a Persian restaurant–yes, a Persian restaurant–called Pomegranate.

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I met up with Taryn Scher, a Greenville tourism representative, who–like me–grew up in the northeast (Boston, to be exact) and found herself living in the South. I compared her to Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama and she loved that.

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Taryn explained that she took me here because the restaurant reflects Greenville’s broad international community. Because BMW and Michelin both have big operations here, it brings in workers from all over the world and the needs of those workers have spurred along the restaurant scene. In fact, the Upstate region of South Carolina, anchored by Greenville, has the highest concentration per capita of US-based international headquarters in the entire country. Hence the Persian restaurant and this delightful spread of dips:

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They also gave us Feta, radishes, mint and butter to mix together (it’s apparently a custom).

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The salmon wasn’t particularly remarkable, but sprinkling some sumac on top helped things along:

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That night in Greenville it snowed:

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Despite the weather, I took a walking tour with John Nolan who recounted some Greenville history while taking us to a few of the city’s more popular restaurants to sample little bites.

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My favorite bite of the night came from Passerelle; a comforting bean stew with sautéed kale on top and crispy garlic bread:

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The driving was pretty treacherous the next morning because of the snow. Still I made my way to the Swamp Rabbit Cafe which opened up, despite the weather.

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It’s actually billed as a Cafe and Grocery and based on my experience, it’s way more of a grocery than a cafe. But what a great grocery!

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First, though, at the cafe I ordered a blueberry scone (warm from the oven) and some coffee.

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That hit the spot.

As for the store, there was a selection of local milk (something you don’t normally see even in super gourmet cities like New York or L.A.):

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A well-stocked produce room:

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But what really caught my eye were things you can’t easily get in Los Angeles. So I bought some sorghum (any idea what I should do with it?):

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I didn’t buy these (wouldn’t be allowed through security) but I loved the names of these jams; not even sure what they refer to:

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There were a lot of articles (from Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Garden and Gun) pinned next to this peanut butter singing its praises. So I bought the Chai-flavored kind and somehow got it through security (I’m writing this from an airplane):

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Can’t wait to try it.

As I mentioned, it had been snowing the night before; and that morning, things were still very frozen:

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Luckily, I was able to warm myself up with a little moonshine. I headed over to Dark Corner Distillery:

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Paul, the head distiller, taught me all there is to know about moonshine. First, though, he offered me up a taste:

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It’s not as chest-hair producing as you think; it’s really just Bourbon that hasn’t been aged in a barrel. In fact, because it hasn’t been aged in a barrel, you can really taste the grain when you taste moonshine. The process involves adding yeast to cooked grain and water (this was gurgling with all the C02 being produced):

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Then it’s strained and the liquid is heated until the alcohol turns to steam and is funneled off and cooled using this nifty device.

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There’s a lot of science involved in all this and much of it went over my head, but, still, I enjoyed seeing the process in action. Gave me a new respect for how spirits are made. (And also made me a little tipsy: I tried their Bourbon as well.)

After that, I headed across the street to the Green Room:

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Where I ate their excellent fried green tomatoes topped with a red pepper relish and cream cheese (decadent, yes; welcome to the South):

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While eating these with Lesley Craddock, another Greenville ambassador, I told her I had a hankering for BBQ. She agreed to take me to her husband’s favorite BBQ spot, Henry’s Smokehouse and I was as giddy as an 8 year-old on his first trip to Disneyland.

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This was just what I was looking for: real Carolina BBQ. I knew it was real because I saw this as soon as we pulled into the parking lot:

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The man at the helm of that smoker is a man named Tiger, named after Clemson University’s mascot; here he is with his friend (I didn’t fully catch his name; might’ve been Moe?):

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They’re smiling because they had a half a pig in that smoker:

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Oh, and this is pretty cool: they make their own charcoal using this device.

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Wood goes in the top, charcoal comes out the bottom.

Tiger sent me inside…

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…and suggested I get the 3-meat plate (chicken, pulled pork, ribs) with sweet potato casserole as one of my sides (“we’re famous for our sweet potatoes”) and a side called hash which is cooked meat and pork in a sweet mustard sauce served over rice. That’s what you see here:

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Man, this was good. Especially with the South Carolina mustard BBQ sauce that they have on the table. I ate as much as I could and Lesley brought the rest home to her husband. I bet he was very happy.

Later that day, I met up with Taryn again at the headquarters of a new Greenville brewery near the highway (85) that’s aptly named Brewery 85. Here are the owners Will and his wife Meredith:

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They showed us the operation and then let us try the beer straight from the giant drum.

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It was good stuff.

Finally, I got a taste of Greenville’s fancier food at High Cotton.

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The chef, Adrian Carpenter, came out to say hello and said he wanted to make a few dishes that weren’t on the menu to try to impress me. I said, “Go for it.”

His first dish was perfect for the cold weather: a celeriac soup with truffle foam on top.

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Comforting with just a hint of decadence.

Then there was this beautifully plated scallop dish:

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And best of all rabbit on risotto with carrots and pomegranate:

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If Chef Carpenter was setting out to prove that Greenville does high-end food as well as any city in America, he certainly made a compelling case. It was all very impressive.

Thursday I was supposed to head over to Bacon Brothers, but I got a call telling me my flight to Charlotte was delayed which was going to make me miss my flight to L.A. So, I had to skip Bacon Brothers in order to get to the airport early (good thing I did: I got booked on a much better flight, this one to Dallas, and–get this–scored a free first class ticket from Dallas to L.A.).

And so my time in South Carolina came to an end. It’s a multifaceted state with some of the best food going, right now, in the country. I highly recommend that you visit and if you do, bring me back some of that Scuppernong Jam. I’ve gotta know what Scuppernong tastes like.

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Brought to you by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism. South Carolina is Just Right

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