Charleston, in Letters

The holidays meant my seventh trip to what’s known as the Holy City. And since I can’t top my last post, the lettering is about as creative as it’s going to get, folks. Besides, you’re here to read about the food, so that’s what you’ll get. And I have plenty to say about Charleston cuisine! (And no, there are no pictures. Mainly because I realize I’m not a skilled photographer and could not, therefore, do justice to the food being served. It’s out of respect for the chefs/cooks that I avoid visually butchering what they’ve worked hard to present. Also? I want to eat when the food hits my table, not try to find the perfect light for the plate.)

C is for cheeseburger.
Meat in the land of seafood o’plenty? Trust me, you’ll want to give a few burgers a shot, particularly the one at Butcher & Bee (if you can catch it on the menu, which rotates daily; check their Facebook site so you have an idea of what to expect any given day) and the Business Burger at Closed for Business. The former is a hefty portion of perfectly seasoned beef topped with American cheese (I eschewed my non-processed regimen this one instance), housemade pickles, and veggies sandwiched between two grilled pieces of a hearty whole wheat. The latter features local beef that I recommend topping with the standard lettuce, onions, pickles, and the omnipresent pimento cheese for an extra buck. As it turns out, it’s the perfect hangover cure (see: the letter E). Neither restaurant asks how you want your burger cooked; the guys behind them are pros, not the 15-year-old working a summer job, so just trust them. Besides, if you want your burger cooked beyond medium rare, you shouldn’t be wasting the good stuff. (See the letter A for another cheeseburger recommendation.)

H is for High Cotton.
High Cotton is becoming one of my favorite “haunts” in Charleston. The ambiance seems more suitable to the environs of a sultry Savannah joint, but the food is pure Charleston. We celebrated New Year’s Eve here this time around (see: the letter E). The roasted duck was perfection, the best I’ve had yet. Cooked to medium, High Cotton’s sizeable portion of what’s become my favorite meat featured about a quarter of an inch of heavenly fat. Normally I set aside the fat from animal protein, but not in this instance. Duck fat is manna; it is sinful, but it’s a treat, so go for it. It literally (as cliche as it sounds) melts in your mouth. And the crust resulting from all of that fatty goodness? Crispy and seasoned to a peppery finish. And hey, I found out I can stomach radishes as long as they’re roasted. You really learn something new about your taste buds every time you visit Charleston.

A is for alm kaffe.
If you find yourself in Charleston without a reservation to Husk (as we did this time around), go hit up the bar. It’s a separate building located directly beside the main restaurant. We actually prefer the ambiance of the bar to the restaurant; it’s low key, cozy, and encompasses that quintessential Southern style of the Holy City (the bar is housed in a renovated carriage house, so think thick wooden beams and plenty of exposed brick). They do cocktails right at Husk, with a main bartender calling most of the shots as to what goes on the menu. This isn’t a place to get wasted; this is a place to go enjoy some artistry. As with the food menu at Husk, the cocktail menu rotates fairly frequently and complements the seasons, so it’s always a guessing game as to what you’ll find. This time, I found alm kaffe, a cup of comfort comprising hot coffee, unsweetened whipped cream, port, and raw sugar. You can also give some products coming out of Husk kitchen a go at the bar; around 5 p.m., you can order off the bar menu, which features, yes, a cheeseburger. At $10 with a side of potato wedges, it’s definitely the way to go (and a bargain). I’m sure it’s a cardinal sin to say this, but I actually prefer the bar food at Husk to the restaurant food.

R is for risotto grit cake topped with wilted arugula, local radishes, pulled pork, and crispy-skinned snapper.
Yes, you read that right. Pork and snapper, together. It makes no sense in your head, but after one bite, you’ll believe. This dish, featured at Poogan’s Porch, was apparently served at the James Beard House during Executive Chef Daniel Doyle’s invitation to cook there. That accolade was mentioned on the menu, but it’s not why I ordered the snapper. Maybe I read too much Anthony Bourdain, but the James Beard distinction doesn’t mean much to me. I just know what I like, and I liked this snapper. The grit cake and pork could have been a bit warmer, but the flavors paired well together. When wilted, the arugula provides just enough of a bite to balance out the sweetness of the pulled pork without being overwhelming, which I find raw arugula to be. The snapper really holds up well to the pork, and the crispy skin of the fish and the crunch of the grilled risotto cake are great ways to take the texture from too tender to something interesting. The meal is a refreshing revamp of the classic surf and turf pairing. Also? Poogan’s Porch has extraordinary biscuits. I’m pretty sure they are made with pure White Lily, the standard flour of Southerners. Served with a side of honey butter, the biscuits are a great way to start a meal. Hell, I’d have a few as a meal in and of themselves.

L is for lemon bar.
I like sour. If I order a lemon bar, I don’t want too much sugar. I want a pucker. I want to start salivating at the thought of biting into this bar. Unfortunately, most get a good lemon bar all wrong, drenching it with a coating of confectioner’s sugar and all-in-all drowning out the lemon tang. Not at Jestine’s Kitchen. This popular restaurant (sorry, it doesn’t have a website) has a separate sweet shop just around the corner, which is perfect if you want a treat but don’t feel like standing in a line that I’ve seen wrap a block down the street from the restaurant’s main entrance (not that the restaurant isn’t good; in fact, it’s a great, budget-friendly intro to Charleston food). I always get the sour lemon bar. I’ve been known to eat four of these lemon bars in one weeklong visit to Charleston. The bar is substantial in every way; it’s big enough to split between two with a top-heavy lemon filling (something else most get wrong when they only feature a thin filling and too much dough). Best of all? The folks at Jestine’s don’t add confectioner’s sugar. Sure, you can request it, but why ruin it?

E is for espresso martinis.
This evil little cocktail can be found at High Cotton (although I’m not sure how long it stays on the cocktail menu). I say evil because I indulged in four of them on New Year’s Eve. Try going to sleep after that overload of caffeine and alcohol. One martini is perfection; as much as you may want to keep going, just stop at one. Have it at the bar and enjoy some live jazz music. If you’re not into the college scene of way too many girls using “like” way too many times during some inane conversation, this is the place to be.

S is for stuffed hush puppies.
Didn’t listen to me and overindulged in the espresso martinis? Head (or stumble) to Fleet Landing to hit up these bombs of protein and carbs. When they say stuffed, they’re not exaggerating. You’ll be served three puppies about the size of baseballs. Oddly enough, they don’t carry the weight of a baseball. They look heavy, but it’s not all breading. In fact, the breading is fairly light. What makes it indulgent are the sizeable portions of lobster and shrimp you’ll find inside, all topped with a decadent creole tomato sauce. I’m not going to lie, this isn’t a to-die-for plate; it’s just a great way to sop up some extra alcohol.

T is for tasting head cheese.
Don’t gag. Don’t make that face. Head to Cypress and get a small plate of the charcuterie, which features ham, sausage, kielbasa, perfectly small biscuits, a housemade mustard, pickles, and (yes) head cheese. Cypress Executive Chef Craig Deihl is known for his cured meats, and it’s no wonder. We were first introduced to his skill at Lambstock where we tried his spreadable salami, an item that’s also featured on the Cypress menu. So, if you’re not brave enough to test the head cheese waters, go with the spreadable salami. Or both. Or just enjoy a martini or two at the restaurant’s incredibly spacious bar. You can’t go wrong here.

O is for oysters.
These briny fellows are a mainstay on pretty much every menu in Charleston. Oysters are abundant here, but make no mistake: they’re not all made the same, and you can get some subpar preparation (see the letter N for a laundry list of restaurants to avoid). If you’re looking for fried oysters, go with High Cotton or Anson (at least, the latter was perfection when I was last there; unfortunately, we haven’t made it back to Anson since our honeymoon in ’08). If you’re looking for oysters on the half shell, head to Pearlz Oyster Bar (which also features an incredible happy hour menu) and get a dozen or so to split, or try their oyster shooter of a raw oyster, vodka, and cocktail sauce (if that sounds odd, just don’t think about it too much before you knock one back). The folks from Charleston’s touted FIG (Food is Good) restaurant have opened up The Ordinary on King Street; my understanding is that the raw oyster bar opens at 3 p.m. most days. The Ordinary was on our list to try, but we never quite made it there since it’s a bit off the walking path. From all accounts, it’s worth seeking out, and I have no doubt their oysters are some of the best in the city.

N is for Noisy Oyster.
Don’t go there. In fact, don’t go to any of the Charleston standards such as Bubba Gump’s, Sticky Fingers, or Hyman’s. These places are buzzing with folks who’ve been unceremoniously dumped off the latest cruise ship that’s docked in the city for a day or two. There are a lot of fanny packs and dark socks paired with sandals crowding these restaurants. There’s much, MUCH more to be found in Charleston restaurants. I know because I’ve tried the places like Noisy Oyster (I was young; I didn’t know better). That isn’t Charleston food, and no matter what anyone tells you, Hyman’s is a poor excuse for great seafood. If that sounds harsh, that’s too bad. If you’re going to be in Charleston, don’t waste your money or your taste buds. In reality, these more tourist-y restaurant traps cost more than what you’ll pay at a really good restaurant. Go to Husk, get the $10 burger and fries that will make you want to slap the person sitting next to you for not ordering one; go to Jestine’s (preferably for a really late lunch to avoid the line) and get a po’boy, homemade fries, and some pickles for $12 or $13; hit up Cypress for a small meat plate for $8 to $10; try 39 Rue de Jean for a bowl of mussels for $10; seek out the happy hours or small plates/appetizers at places like Pearlz, High Cotton, SNOB (that’s Slightly North of Broad), The Macintosh (which has a Bacon Happy Hour). In fact, that’s the best way we’ve found to discover Charleston cuisine: go for a bar/food crawl, hitting up the restaurants on your must-try list and ordering an appetizer or an entree to share with a cocktail to boot. Go explore, go walk! That’s the beauty of Charleston, especially the downtown historic section: park your car and walk if you are capable of doing so. Don’t be lured into the Market Street establishments (although the Market itself is a fun place to shop once, if only to say you did it); keep walking. If you find yourself staring at a menu on which fried mozzarella is listed as an appetizer, just keep going; you’ll find better (note: pimento cheese fritters, however, are perfectly acceptable). Most places I’ve listed take reservations if you want to do the full-blown dinner thing, but most are just as easily accessible if you park your rear at the bar. And if you’re a Charleston regular and have some places to recommend, send them my way, because we’ll definitely be back!

And to the wonderful couples we met at High Cotton on New Year’s Eve, wherever you may be: I’m sorry we never got your names or properly thanked you for giving us a large slab of your Peninsula Grill coconut cake. It lived up to its hype, and we appreciated it to the last bite!


Ramblings around Roanoke: Firefly Fare

So I’ve debated how to break down a post about my recent culinary mini-adventures in Roanoke. Thanks to my recent freelance assignment, I’ve had the fortune of traveling to the Star City to try out a few new places/meet a few new faces. I’ve wanted to cover each because I think they deserve their fair share of praise for incorporating local and sustainable foods into their “practices.”

Since I’m already long-winded enough, I decided to break each adventure down into separate posts. So, first up: Firefly Fare.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Parkhurst, owner and chef of Firefly, for my assignment. And yeah, I had to do some important research into what the restaurant serves, right? Even if that means a 35-minute drive, which probably negated the sustainability endeavor (hint hint, New River Valley; we seriously need some restaurants that are similarly minded and all about local, but that’s a bone I’ll pick later).

Stepping off my soapbox…Firefly Fare has some outstanding, quick food that Chris sources from farmers at the Roanoke City Market and other local vendors. As with establishments that highlight regional fare, the menu changes somewhat depending on what’s available (to get an idea of what’s frequently available, go here). To stay competitive price-wise with fellow vendors in the renovated Roanoke City Market Building, Chris focuses on vegetarian meals (the meat that is on the menu, thank god, is local as well; sometimes seafood is available via Local Seafood Delivery).

I went with the Indonesian tofu bowl the day I made my visit, fully intending to eat half and save the rest for lunch the next day. I kinda ended up scarfing down the entire bowl, which was full of mixed rice, veggies, tofu, and an amazing sauce that I now wake up most mornings craving. I’m not sure what spices were utilized (I thought about forcing Chris to give up his recipe, but I’m not really trained in such tactics–or any tactics for that matter–so it was a lost cause from the start), but they were perfection with a bit of heat. The meal was an amalgam of everything I love in a properly sauced/spiced dish: sweet, savory, spicy.

I don’t eat tofu on a regular basis because some people can’t get it right, and that includes me (not that I’m an expert cook by any stretch of the imagination). But the tofu (my, what big chunks of it there were!) at Firefly was meaty with a spot-on texture. By that I mean it was substantial; not dry, not soggy, but just right. I ended up going back to order a side of grilled corn/white beans for my husband to try later. I’m told they were a great side dish; unfortunately, I didn’t get to try any of it.

I was happy to see quite a line forming at Firefly the day I went, mostly businessmen. The price for my sizeable tofu bowl was $9, which I think is totally reasonable. Then again, I like to think I have my priorities in line. I’m much more willing to spend money on a place that features locally sourced foods. Quite frankly, the number of people who bitch to me about the price of local foods when I say I choose to eat that way while carrying around their iPhones and plunking down the same amount on a processed, inedible burger and greasy, limp fries just galls me. I have nothing against iPhones and am looking into getting one myself (I do have lots of things against processed foods, obviously). But I’m also aware of the price of my health, and foods sourced by local farmers who employ humane and environmentally conscious methods are important to my lifestyle. Plus? Eating locally sourced foods makes a direct impact on the local economy. It’s simple math. Plus plus? Local, fresh food just tastes better.

Roanokers are lucky to have myriad choices for local foods and the amount of time in which they are served. For the more leisurely meals, there’s obviously River and Rail, Lucky, and Local Roots (more on the latter two later; and if there are others, send a girl a suggestion!). But there’s also the quicker option in Firefly Fare, which has been open for about nine months. Not that Firefly can’t do leisurely, either. Dinner is served almost everyday (check out the Facebook site for a listing of hours, keywords: Firefly Fare). And yes, they serve beer and wine, with some lovely outdoor seating/waiter service available for those dwindling days of summer. Firefly also features a juice bar, which takes full advantage of local produce in season (unfortunately, the juicer was broken the day I was there, but I’m using that as an excuse to make another trip soon).   

I hope Firefly Fare is here to stay. The food is (gasp) healthy but still feels decadent and richly flavored. It has the mark of a chef who is doing what he set out to do: providing quick, fresh food that highlights what regional farmers and producers have to offer. If you’re going out during your lunch break for a quick bite to eat, I’d strongly recommend skipping the usual and giving Firefly a shot. I’m willing to bet you’ll leave completely sated but still feel good about what you ate. Plus, you’ll help support small farmers who bust their ass to do what they do everyday, to make a living not to get rich but because they have a passion for truly good food. You can thank them for their efforts by supporting a place like Firefly Fare. And if someone could shake Chris down to get the recipe for that sauce used in the Indonesian tofu bowl, consider a few rounds of juice on me.


So I have a full-time job, I train almost everyday of the week for endurance running, I cook most of our dinners, walk our dogs with my husband when I get home in the evenings, yada yada yada. So by the time I get to my blog updates, it’s usually around 8:30 or 9 p.m. And really, there’s no pressure.

Um, that kinda changed today? Because, like magic, my site hits have skyrocketed, and I know it’s because most of you are here to read about my experience at the fantastic River and Rail. So I kinda feel like I should welcome you guys. I’m not the best hostess, so you’re just going to have to make yourselves at home and get whatever you want out of the fridge. Also, we don’t keep sodas or juices or anything like that on hand, so if you can’t make do with water, milk, wine, or beer, you’re going to have to run to the store to pick up your preferred beverage.

Now that we’re all acquainted: Seriously. Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you keep coming back. The down and dirty of this blog is that I’m one of those dreaded locavores (except when I’m a guest at someone’s house, because I can’t be that big of a bitch, and especially when I’m at my grandmothers’ houses, because that’s just not cool). We use local, whole foods to the extent possible around here; very little is processed. As such, we eat pretty seasonally. This is kind of my creative outlet to share how we go about eating, training (my husband does triathlons, both sprint and distance), etc. Nothing groundbreaking, but it’s my little way of hopefully getting you to see that eating locally, eating healthy, is not some big undertaking. Or solely belonging to the hipster domain.

There’s no way I’m going to top my last post. Plus? For the second time in, say, 19 months of training, I had to run 5 miles on the treadmill. And if there’s a better way to simulate being drunk and nauseous, I don’t know what it is. It’s miserable, and my brain can’t process much as a result. So, I’m going with easy today. And that means pesto.

I’m not sure why I don’t make pesto more than I do. Greens? Good. Nuts? Good. Garlic? GOOD. Truth told, I was inspired by our trip to River and Rail to put pesto into heavy rotation at home. Traditional pesto bases usually include basil and pine nuts. I had neither, but I did have chard that was begging to be used and some walnuts. So, there you go. If you don’t have chard or walnuts, just play around with this using other hearty greens (not lettuce, do not try lettuce), herbs, and nuts. It’s kinda foolproof, and it’s great on meat, fish, roasted veggies, a potato/egg/tomato/roasted red pepper bowl I’ve become obsessed with after runs… It’s versatile, so make a cup or so of it and literally spread it all around.

The pesto is hiding on the roasted tomatoes.

Pesto in a Pinch
(Note: You can add 1/4 c. or so of freshly grated Parmesan or a similar hard cheese if you want.)
1 to 1.5 c. torn chard (or basil, spinach, even carrot top greens)
1/4 c. walnuts (or whatever nut you feel like trying out), roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Olive oil

Throw the chard, nuts, and garlic cloves into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Pulse in enough olive oil to bind the ingredients (you don’t want this to be a stiff paste, let’s say that). Season with salt.

A Night at River and Rail

I’ve been thinking for days how to start this post. There was the elitist dribble (“I’ve been lucky enough to eat at many great restaurants across the globe”). There was the exuberant and hyperbolic (“This was the best meal ever,” though this was all I could manage to say afterwards and is true). Then, I realized the only thing I could say to get to the core of the matter is this: This is damned good food. This is a damned good chef.

I’m referring to River and Rail in Roanoke and its executive chef, Aaron Deal. I had the fortune to interview Chef Deal just hours prior to my dinner there. The interview was part of a freelance assignment that will hopefully be published in October, an angle that I’ll save for then and will instead focus on our eating experience here (the article will definitely not be a restaurant review, so this post is purely from a personal perspective, hello alliteration).

Just to forewarn you, there are no pictures here. To be honest, I was too immersed in the food experience to bother with photos. Besides, I couldn’t do visual justice to what was hitting our table.

The restaurant and its staff were warm and inviting from the start. Located in the former Lipes Pharmacy (and dangerously close to a local cupcakery and ice cream shop), I was smitten from the get-go as I set down for my afternoon interview and heard Johnny Cash being played. That’s a great way to get right to the heart of a Southern girl. There was no pretension here, and Deal tried to be humble as I gushed about my longstanding admiration of chefs (or he was scared, one of the two). When I explained I wasn’t able to try his food before meeting with him, his parting words were, “That may have been better. You may not want to talk to me after you try it.”

Oh, how wrong he was.

I’m not a food critic. I can’t ramble about “mouthfeel” (which, by the way, sounds just disgusting) or use other such nonsensical adjectives with a straight face. And maybe that’s for the best because what struck me the most about eating at River and Rail was its total accessibility. I mean that, aside from the restaurant set up to be open and airy, aside from the fact that Chef Deal was visible at all times in a cooking/staging area that was smaller than my galley kitchen (holy crap, how does that work, because I get tripped up if even one more person is in my kitchen, but there were three guys back there at River and Rail), aside from the fact that Deal was gracious enough to come talk to us during our meal, aside from a wait staff and a general manager who seemed genuinely excited to be a part of River and Rail, aside from all of that: the food was accessible. There were no frills here, no unnecessary garnishes. There were no long narratives on the menu of what I may choose to eat, no here’s-some-meat-but-look-at-all-these-sauces-and-sides-and-fancy-words-because-we-don’t-trust-the-meat-on-its-own-to-be-good-enough descriptions.

No, this was food that was allowed to shine on its own because the quality offered here is stellar (the restaurant makes a point of sourcing its ingredients locally).

We started with a pickled vegetable pot served simply in a Ball jar (R&R uses a combo of hot and cold pour-over methods and packs the jar full of cucumbers, carrots, etc.) and were treated to a chicken liver mousse served with crusty grilled bread and pickled onions. I know what you’re thinking: “Did you say treated to chicken liver mousse?” Yes, yes I did. I was skeptical, too. I remember years ago having fried chicken livers; I remember the metallic taste. But you know what happened? I ended up eating this stuff (served in a Weck-style jar and topped with duck fat; have I mentioned my love of duck fat lately you guys?) straight up and by the forkful. I was following that up with pickled beets, something I’ve never enjoyed before. It was then that I realized Deal was onto something good here: if he could take two ingredients I would normally eschew and make me fall in love with them, he was doing something amazing.

Next up was a summer squash soup served with more crusty, rustic bread topped with goat cheese and thin slices of (good god, be still my heart) magnificently cured country ham. My husband went with a warm nectarine/tomato/cornbread crouton salad topped with a pesto-style wonderment. It was at this point that I leaned toward my husband and said, “What I’m about to say hinges on the main course, but this could be better than Husk.” I whispered this, like it was some sacrilege. After all, Husk has garnered attention (and deservedly so) as the prime example of the resurrection of Southern food. Charleston in general has become some Southern fantasyland for the more northerly inclined. Its chef, Sean Brock, is popping up in Vogue, on No Reservations, taking curious journalists on Southern food road trips (Men’s Health). How the hell could something in Roanoke possibly compete?

When I took the first bite of my entree (trout over Carolina grits, topped with a smoky shrimp remoulade), and when I took the second bite of my husband’s entree (a pork rack featuring pork belly), I had my answer: Because it just could. Because at its helm is a chef who, to put it bluntly (earmuffs, kids), gives a shit. That’s not to say others don’t. But he and the owners have gone out of their way to create a restaurant that gets to the root of what true Southern food is about: using good, local ingredients and cooking to highlight the natural flavors. Nothing was masked here, nothing hidden under myriad sauces or overbearing seasoning. The presentation was simple, nothing to detract from the natural beauty of pork belly glistening with glorious fat. (What more do you need on a plate?) The portions were generous, which I appreciated. As a girl raised in the South and an endurance runner, I like to eat. The last thing I want is some cutesy plate with a dollop of food on it. I need a substantial meal, and boy did we get just that.

Because then came the dessert.

At some restaurants, dessert could be an afterthought. At River and Rail? It was just what dessert was always meant to be: the perfect ending to the perfect meal. I opted for the blackberry cobbler (because I never turn down cobbler), while my husband chose a vanilla cake garnered with nectarines, hazelnuts, and a peach frozen yogurt. And then came a third dessert: banana pudding topped with a jalapeno sorbet. This was definitely not your grandmother’s banana pudding. This was the perfect pairing of fruit and a cool, cool heat. Chilis/peppers and fruit are not an uncommon pairing in food (though it seems to appear more in ethnic cuisine such as Thai), but why it’s never been applied to banana pudding is now beyond me. Like chicken and waffles or PB&J, it was just the perfect marriage of flavors. I think my husband got about two spoonfuls of the pudding because I got really greedy. Also, I was personally thrilled that not one dessert was overly sweet. Nothing was swimming in sugar: it was all about enhancing the natural sweetness of the ingredients used.

The crazy part? The restaurant has been open for only about six weeks. You would expect some hiccups, some struggle. It’s difficult for any new establishment to be this amazing pretty much right out of the gate, and we did hit a bit of a speed bump in the form of having to wait a while for my husband’s cocktail, but once the ball got rolling, it was nonstop stunners.

So how do I sum all of this up? By urging you to go try it out for yourselves. Go make those reservations, go support a restaurant that strives to support your local farmers and producers. Go watch Chef Deal in action, and do it now, because once word spreads further, you can mark my words that he’ll be the new face of Southern cuisine. For my part, I’ve decided to run the notoriously hilly Blue Ridge Marathon in the spring just to reward myself with the River and Rail burger at the end. I just hope I can find some room at the bar by then.

Update: Thanks to the folks at Polished Pig Media, now you can get a visual of the restaurant! (Photo courtesy of The River and Rail.)