Friday, January 24, 2014

High, Low, and In Between, pt. 2, rev. ed.

charleston churches

I'm sure there were some who questioned the sanity of driving 1,800 kilometres (each way!) to spend Christmas in Charleston, but to us it made perfect sense to spend the holidays in the Holy City.  And it was definitely something of a pilgrimage.

For one thing, just crossing into South Carolina taken on its own is a big deal, as anyone who's ever made the trek by car down to Florida will tell you:  SC is when you start to see the palm trees, and when the air starts to get a bit balmy.

We were also looking for culture, and history, and architecture.

But most of all, we were looking forward to Charleston's renowned cuisine.  And if the weather was nice, all the better.

ocean time fig. a:  ocean time

A Charleston, SC primer:

This is a city that contains a truly mind-boggling number of churches and ex-churches,

ex-church fig. b:  ex-church

not to mention an impressive number of Synagogues, all of which are a big part of the reason the city earned its moniker.

Its historic districts are riddled with mysterious alleyways.

mystery alley fig. c:  mystery lane

Its architecture can be quirky,

shell building fig. d:  shell building

and its cemeteries spooky.

cemetery fig. e:  Magnolia Cemetery

It's a city and a region haunted by its history.



plantation scene figs. f, g, h:  Magnolia Plantation

It has a very unique landscape, one that is oftentimes dominated by the marshes and wetlands that made it a natural for rice production.

rice country

low country sunset figs. i, j:  wetlands

It's a region of independent-minded characters,

shrine fig. k:  shrine

many of whom we instantly recognized as kindred spirits.

friends don't let friends... fig. l:  kindred spirit

And it's safe to say that these people are serious about their food, and that the region is positively abundant with fruits, vegetables, legumes, and seafood of all kinds.


ruke's 2

ruke's 3 figs. m, n, o:  Ruke's!

Ruke's, in Mount Pleasant, SC, was our local farmstand.  We were astounded by the plenitude we found there--in December!--and we made a point of loading up on collards, black-eyed peas, field peas, butter beans, and pecans before we left.

ruke's 1 fig. p:  peas and "peacans"

We also loved Ruke's boiled peanuts and quickly got hooked on the habit of throwing our very own Happy Hour at our B & B with some hot boiled peanuts and a couple of ice-cold beers.

Of course, Ruke's wasn't the only local stand offering boiled peanuts.  We found them all over the place.

Now, we didn't actually try the boiled "p-nuts" at this establishment, but we did buy some of their insanely delicious raw honey,

boiled p-nuts fig. q:  p-nuts

and we also had quite a run-in there.

sasquatch & co. fig. r:  squatch!

If Ruke's was our favourite farm stand, Timbo's was definitely our favourite boiled peanuts cart.  His boiled peanuts were piping-hot, they were seasoned to perfection, and the Timbo's experience came complete with a super friendly mascot--Max, the Australian shepherd, who was kind enough to let me photograph him (along with Timbo).

timbo's fig. s:  Timbo's

And if Ruke's was our favourite farm stand, and Timbo's our favourite boiled peanuts joint, well, there's no question that Martha Lou's was our favourite soul food kitchen.

martha lou's fig. t:  Martha Lou's

Martha Lou's is a classic meat-and-three specializing in fried chicken, and we definitely loved their fried chicken, but in many ways it was the "three" that stole the show, especially their luscious butter beans, their smoky dirty rice, their silky collards, their oh-so-satisfying mac & cheese, and their deeply roasted candied yams.  Just how good is Martha Lou's?  Good enough to go twice over the course of a lightning-fast four-day visit.  And the second time we made a point of getting all our favourite sides à la carte--in larger formats.  It was worth going back just for those butter beans alone.

the ordinary fig. u:  The Ordinary

Charleston's Got Mad Skills:

You're obviously taking a risk when you name your restaurant The Ordinary, but if you do happen to knock it out of the park, you'll have people like me quipping that The Ordinary is anything but.  The Ordinary doesn't even look ordinary--it's actually a gorgeous, even grandiose seafood restaurant that resides inside a former bank.  It's also the latest offering from the people who brought you FIG, one of the catalysts of Charleston's recent culinary renaissance.  Put simply, everything was extra-ordinary, from the heirloom pumpkin soup with bay scallops, to the seafood platter, to the breathtaking rice pudding we had for dessert.

McCrady's has to be the restaurant that's most closely connected with Charleston's recent culinary revival.  It's the place where Sean Brock first rose to national/international prominence (and where he won his James Beard Award in 2010 as Best Chef Southeast), and where he's still executive chef.  But it's also a time-honoured establishment--it began as a tavern in 1778.  In spite of a slow start, this was quite possibly our Meal of the Year.  Once our sommelière showed up, and we clicked with her over the pleasures of Gamay, things started to happen, and, as a wise man once put it, "if you get in the stream, you are off!"  Frankly, everything was great, but standouts included the Calico scallops with roasted butternut squash, chervil, and green peanuts; the trout with Meyer lemon, thyme, and a medley of brassicas (in fact, that the wood-fired cabbage was so totally transcendent that we ordered it a second time); the fall greens salad with charred pecans, country ham, apples and turnips (this was most definitely the Salad of the Year); and the frozen parfait of grits with a bright, juicy, huckleberry coulis, which was both dangerous, and dangerously delicious.

Butcher & Bee is the new-fangled luncheonette of your dreams, featuring phenomenal bread (they do the bread & biscuits baking for McCrady's and Husk), an enticing line-up of sandwiches (like their pimento cheese and country ham combo), and some wonderfully creative (and tasty!) salads (including their magnificently vibrant kale slaw).  Great selection of sodas, too, including Michelle's Soda of the Year:  Mr. Q. Cumber (guess the flavour!).

grits are good for you  fig. v:  yes, they are!

The Hominy Grill is a full-service restaurant that does a brisk trade in breakfast & brunch and that serves a definitive shrimp & grits plate, as well as an amazing biscuit & sausage gravy plate, and some wicked-looking Big Nasties.

If you're looking for barbecue in Charleston itself, the local branch of Jim 'n Nick's Community Bar-B-Q is the place to go.  It's exactly the kind of new-fangled barbecue establishment you wish you had in your hometown, because in spite of any ironic old-timey-ness they might be selling, these guys take their barbecue seriously, the results are sultry 'n' smoky (check out those spare ribs!), and they've got all the sides and the fixin's down pat, too (from their slaw, to their slow-cooked collards, to their mac & cheese).  After all, Jim 'n Nick's comes with a pedigree--they're a crucial part of the Fatback Collective team of old-school barbecue aficionados, and, therefore, very well connected.

the belmont fig. w:  nightcap at the Belmont

Our favourite place for a nightcap was The Belmont.

The best (and cutest) sweets shop we encountered was Sugar Bake Shop, whose cupcakes, cookies, and iced tea were all superlative.

 home comfort fig. x:  home comfort

And Page's Thieves' Market in Mount Pleasant was definitely our favourite antiques shop of our trip.  It was also the friendliest, the one with the most character, and the one that was the most kitchen-friendly.  And it had the best name, too.

In a sense, my title is a little misleading, because in Charleston and environs, when it comes to food, distinctions between high, low, and "in between" aren't nearly as rigid as they are in so many other places.  This is a region that self-identifies as the Low Country, after all, and traditional ingredients, like grits, golden rice, and peanuts, and preparations, like corn bread, appeared repeatedly during our stay.  In fact, everywhere we went, the overwhelming sensation was one of pride in the local cuisine.  And, frankly, that's our kind of town.


Ruke's farm stand, right next to the Holy Trinity AME Church, 378 Mathis Ferry Rd., Mount Pleasant, SC

Timbo's Boiled Peanuts, 2484 Ashley River Rd., Charleston, SC

Martha Lou's Kitchen, 1068 Morrison Rd., Charleston, SC, (843) 577-9583

The Ordinary, 544 King St., Charleston, SC,  (843) 414-7060

McCrady's, 2 Unity Alley, Charleston, SC, (843) 577-0025

Butcher & Bee, 654 King St., Charleston, SC,  (843) 619-0202

Hominy Grill, 207 Rutledge Ave., Charleston, SC, (843) 937-0930

Jim 'n Nick's Community Bar-B-Q, 288 King St., Charleston, SC, (843) 577-0406

The Belmont, 511 King St., Charleston, SC

Sugar Bake Shop, 59 1/2 Cannon St., Charleston, SC, (843) 579-2891


Saturday, January 04, 2014

High, Low, and In Between, pt. 1

If I had to pinpoint it, I'd say our recent Southern mini-odyssey officially started soon after we pulled into that gas station in Petersburg, VA.  Up until then it had just been a road trip.  But by that time it was about 10:00 pm and we'd been driving since early in the morning.  When we got out of the car it was downright balmy.  The guys next to us were pumping gas in t-shirts and shorts and we were the ones who looked out of place--I mean, Michelle was still wearing her winter boots.  But what really cinched it was when we went into the Quickie Mart and saw that hot boiled peanuts counter flanked by two pyramidal stacks of canned boiled peanuts.  That's when we knew we'd arrived.

By 11:00 am the next morning we were in Chapel Hill, NC, it had gotten even warmer, and we were on our way for our BBQ brunch date.

BBQ sandwich, Allen & Son fig. a:  classic combo

Allen & Son had provided me with one of my favourite chopped pork sandwiches on my North Carolina BBQ mini-odyssey earlier in the year, and I couldn't wait to dig into another one.  I was also excited to share the Allen & Son experience, with all its considerable charms,

allen & son2 fig. b:  classic interior

with Michelle.

She couldn't have been happier.  After all, this was her very first visit to a true Southern barbecue establishment.  Not that she had too many doubts, but with that bright sun and those warm Southern breezes outside, and the smoky succulence of Allen & Son's barbecue pork sandwich inside, this Southern mini-odyssey was already making a lot of sense.  We left Chapel Hill with a large to-go cup of Allen & Son's champion sweet tea and the very best hickory-smoked flavours lingering on our palates.

A couple of hours later, when we crossed the border into South Carolina, the Southern breezes were even warmer and we started to see a whole lot of palm trees.

And a couple of hours after that, as the sun began to set,

scott's 2 fig. c:  Southern skies

we arrived at our second barbecue destination of the day:  Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC.

scott's fig. d:  classic exterior

If Allen & Son is a true barbecue restaurant, with a double dining room out front, an adjoining full-service kitchen, and a sizeable brick barbecue pit area out back, Scott's is a true barbecue joint:  an informal enterprise run out of an aging country store that only serves take-out.  No tables.  No seats.  No fuss.  No muss.  You join the queue, place your order, pick up your goods, and you're off.  You want a bottle of Texas Pete or a loaf of Sunbeam to go with that?  Pick 'em up off their shelves.  Want to dine on premises?  Take your order across the street and you'll find a large open-air shed with some picnic tables underneath.  If it's warm enough--and it certainly was on the evening we were there--you can settle in and enjoy your barbecue right there.  And that's exactly what we did.

What's the attraction?  World-class whole hog barbecue, Scott's famous spicy barbecue sauce, some true Southern hospitality, and a whole lotta love.  And that is no joke.  This joint was jumpin', and with good reason.  If you're a fan of real pork barbecue prepared and served according to the Carolina tradition, this is the BBQ of your dreams:  luscious, smoked to perfection, and resplendent in Scott's signature red sauce.  (Need more proof?  Check out this slideshow.  Or read John T. Edge on Rodney Scott and a whole of other keepers of the flames in Saveur's 2011 "BBQ Nation" issue.)

The very next day Rodney Scott--Scott's current pitmaster, and the heir to the Scott's Bar-B-Que throne--was in Charleston to run a barbecue fundraiser so that he can rebuild a pit that burned to the ground back in November, just two days before Thanksgiving.*  Let's just say that there was something of a mob scene.  Rodney Scott is a legend in these parts, and this was a rare opportunity to score one of his phenomenal barbecue pork sandwiches without having to make the 90-mile trek to Hemingway--and all for a great cause.  How big a crowd are we talking about?  Well, according to Sean Brock, the famed Charleston chef (and a fellow Fatback Collective colleague of Scott's), the scene put "the Cronut line to shame."

We beat Rodney down there.  About two hours after our barbecue feast alongside the Hemingway Highway, we'd reached Charleston, the final destination of our Southern mini-odyssey.

xmas in c'ton fig. e: xmas in the Holy City

By that time, with two highly acclaimed Bar-B-Ques under our belts (adjusted accordingly, of course) and a tantalizing city before us, we knew we'd really arrived.

To be continued...

Allen & Son, 6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill, NC

Scott's Bar-B-Que, 2734 Hemingway Hwy., Hemingway, SC

Note:  If you aren't likely to be passing through Hemingway, SC anytime soon, but you are going to be in the South in late January and early February and you'd like to sample Rodney Scott's barbecue and contribute to the cause of keeping true Southern barbecue alive and smokin', you might want to keep your eyes open for the Scott's Bar-B-Que in Exile Tour.

* Rodney appeared to have taken this setback in stride:  "That's what happens when you cook with fire."