Food Travel America / The South

Fresh Local in Charleston, SC

My perceptions of Southern food have always been filed under “deliciously indulgent”. With this in mind, I was prepared when the reality of the cuisine in Charleston was delicious coupled with indulgently rich. While I love those words, there’s only so much of that I can take before my mind & belly cries “fresh vegetables please!”.

Luckily throughout my journey into the dining scene of Charleston, someone always ordered a salad or a dish of vegetables, and more often than not, it would be one of my favourite choices of the meal. I realized that farm to table cuisine meant something special in Charleston and I became more intrigued with ordering local seasonal ingredients during the meal.

Even though everyone these days is doing farm to table, in Charleston, it felt like it meant something more special. I’m not sure if it is the warm climate which helps extend seasonal products, the diversity of the crops or just that there seemed to be so much history behind the food of the south, but the concept of fresh to table seemed more meaningful. I decided that a trip to the Charleston Farmer’s Market was necessary to get more education on the seasonal and regional products of the area.

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I had my eye out to buy some Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice after hearing so much about it through Sean Brock. I hadn’t seen any food stores throughout my travels, so I was excited to see it being sold at the market.

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I was even more excited when I recognized that the purveyor selling the rice was Celeste Albers from Green Grocer farms. She had been featured in both The Mind of a Chef and the Cook it Raw documentary. I appreciated her enthusiasm and knowledge for farming  and was happy to get to talk to her about her products.

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For my last dinner in Charleston, I realized I still had a few things left on my list of “must try” foods and dishes, including white roe shrimp, a purloo (a one pot rice dish) and fried chicken. Although I really wanted to go to the Ordinary, they weren’t able to accommodate a change to the size of my group on a busy Saturday night. Lucky for us, we were able to get a reservation at The Grocery and I was excited to see 2 of the 3 things on my list on their menu.

"Charleston Grocery white shrimp"

Grilled head-on white roe shrimp with shaved vegetable salad and crispy chickpeas

"Charleston Grocery tomatoes"

Heirloom tomatoes with pesto filled burrata, sweet onion, pine nuts and fried pickled green tomatoes.

"Charleston Grocery shishito"

Blistered shishito peppers with Maldon salt, soy sauce and honey

"Charleston Grocery oysters"

Fried oysters with deviled egg sauce and bread and butter pickles

"Charleston Grocery duck wings"

Duck wings with sweet and sour sauce

"Charleston Grocery corn pudding"

Sweet corn pudding with chanterelle mushrooms, pancetta and corn

"Charleston Grocery bone marrow"

Bone marrow brulee

Lowcountry seafood pilau with Charleston gold rice, field peas, clams, shrimp and crispy fish

Lowcountry seafood pilau with Charleston gold rice, field peas, clams, shrimp and crispy fish

My meal at the Grocery exceeded expectations. We were served flavours of the south without the feeling of heaviness that usually accompanies it. I was astounded by the luxuriousness of the corn pudding and so happy with the bright and contrasting flavours of the heirloom tomato dish.

After dinner was done, I was left feeling like I wanted a few more days to explore the “new cuisine” of the Lowcountry. But alas, I was at the end of my trip with only “1 more meal” to go.

What made Charleston so amazing was getting to hang with cousin Alex and her friend, Bryan Carter, who was living in Charleston at the time. Between the 2 of them I was able to get a good sense of what was truly going on in the food/drink scene. I was able to pick Bryan’s brain about my choices and each day it seemed he’d lead me somewhere I never knew about. I also appreciated his explanations of pimento cheese and an explanation of Southern ham “salad”. I felt I gained an understanding of how prevalent mayonnaise is in the south.

All it takes to make

Alex & Bryan, my guides to great food, drink and fun. (Thanks for letting me use the photo Alex!)

Thanks to Bryan, I was led to great cups of coffee at Black Tap and Kudu, and there were wonderful nights of cocktails at The Gin Joint and The Belmont. On my last day, Bryan and Alex had suggested Edmund’s Oast for brunch. I had read a bit about this new farm to table / brewpub. Sounded like everything I wanted for my last meal in Charleston.

"Charleston Edmunds Oast"

As we were perusing the brunch menu, Bryan snuck in an order of pickled shrimp for the table. I must admit, I looked at this on the menu, and it wouldn’t have been anything I would have ordered, but I’m glad he did. It was a delicious way to start the meal and I’ve now added pickled shrimp (along with pimento cheese) as something I’ll try to recreate at home.

"Charleston Edmunds Oast pickled shrimp"

Pickled shrimp on rye bread and aioli topped with fresh herbs and pickled vegetables- precut into 8 pieces making it easy to share.

Edmund’s Oast had one of the most interesting beer menus I’ve seen in a long time. There were so many choices from a selection I’d never heard of before. Even though it was 10:30am, I couldn’t pass on trying one of the interesting beers they had on tap.

The brunch menu had so many appetizing choices, but since I’d been loving the vegetables Charleston had to offer, I was most interested in the dishes that were veggie centric.

"Charleston Edmunds Oast egg"

Open faced brioche sandwich with slow poached farm egg, summer squash, lemon vinaigrette

"Charleston Edmunds Oast hash"

Spring vegetable hash with kale, mustard, basil, sunny side farm eggs

"Charleston Edmunds Oast sandwich"

Grilled squash and zucchini sandwich with ricotta, heirloom tomatoes, basil aioli, house fries

Braised pork belly with  Braised pork belly with stewed corn & charred okra, cherry tomatoes, polenta, sunnyside farm eggs, chili oil

Braised pork belly with stewed corn & charred okra, cherry tomatoes, polenta, sunnyside farm eggs, chili oil

"Charleston Edmunds Oast pancakes"

Corn and buttermilk griddle cakes with summer fruit and bacon syrup

Throughout the meal, we talked about the places in Charleston that were leftovers on my list. The places, I wanted to try but never got around to. I knew I’d done a decent job sampling what Charleston had to offer, but there were a few restaurants I was sad to not have the opportunity to visit. The one that kept coming up was Martha Lou’s.

Martha Lou’s Kitchen is a Charleston institution serving good, honest Lowcountry cuisine. None of this new fandangle “healthy” stuff, but the food that sticks to your ribs and makes you want to lick your plate clean. But my focus on Martha Lou’s was on one thing… Fried Chicken.

It comes full circle that I would discover fresh local in Charleston only to end my visit with “typical southern” fried chicken. But according to Bryan, it was a must. So after stuffing our faces at brunch, we made a “quick stop” to Martha Lou’s.

"Martha Lous Charleston"

We really wanted to order in advance, but our phone call was met with a request that we just come in to order. We knew there was a group back at the hotel waiting to say farewell, so we thought a piece of fried chicken would be the perfect way to say goodbye. When we walked in, Alex ordered what we thought was 10 pieces of fried chicken.

After almost 45 minutes of waiting and what we understood to be trips to dollar stores to buy containers large enough to hold our orders, did we realize that it wasn’t 10 pieces, but 10 orders of fried chicken that were carefully cooked to order.

"Martha Lous Charleston fried chicken"

We arrived back at the hotel with this huge tray of chicken and with greasy fingers, we said our goodbyes. I don’t know what it is about group eaten fried chicken, but on the few occasions this has taken place in my life, it always seems to be with “the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

With great satisfaction of the Charleston food scene conquered, coupled with the sadness of departing a fantastic family, I bid goodbye to the group. Charleston conquered and it was time for me to move west.

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