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!