Dining out is so much more than eating to me. It is the culmination of careful research and planning. It is also almost always a learning experience. I recently traveled to Charleston, S.C. with my husband and three other couples. I have never been to Charleston. It is a delightful destination which I highly recommend.
The options for dining in Charleston are plentiful. I begin my research as I usually do. I check the boards on www.chowhound.com. I ask friends for recommendations. I do a google search. I make reservations for two dinners (Fig and S.N.O.B), one lunch (Husk), and one brunch (Magnolias). I leave one lunch slot open for happenstance (we end up at Mellow Mushroom Pizza).
Here are some of the lessons learned.
1. Lowcountry food does not equal low calorie food. Who cares? Shrimp and grits from Husk are delicious. The lamb barbecue sandwich…sublime.
|shrimp and grits at Husk|
|lamb barbecue sandwich with grits at Husk|
2. Grits are not all created equal. Some have cheese, some have green onions, some are creamy, some not. I prefer my grits with cheese.
|wahoo with cheddar grits at Husk|
3. A vegetable plate can be exceptionally good. I enjoyed the pan seared scallops with goat cheese and squash casserole green beans at S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad). My friends all enjoyed their dishes as well. But my husband was absolutely ecstatic about the vegetable plate.
|scallops at S.N.O.B.|
|vegetable plate at S.N.O.B.|
4. It is possible for people to dine at the same restaurant, at the same time, have the same server, and order the same dish, and have entirely different experiences. This one really is a revelation.
Our party of eight is divided into two tables seated next to each other at Fig. At one table, three of us order grilled triggerfish with golden beets, sauteed greens, pickled ramps, raisins, and pinenuts. Two people at the other table order this dish as well. At our table we all agree that the flavor is excellent but the fish is tepid and seems a touch overcooked. At the other table, my friends describe the same dish as “superb” and “flawless.”
|triggerfish at Fig|
(Side note: I tasted chicken and steak dishes also, and they were both outstanding.)
I admire our server for the way he describes each and every dish in an almost loving way that makes it sound absolutely fantastic (even though this results in an ordering dilemma for me.) The timing of the food delivery is lacking, and he does becomes a bit awkward as the evening progresses and the time we have told him we must depart nears. My friends at the other table, however, find him absolutely incompetent to the point of being compelled to write a scathing report on the comment card.
5. Pea soup can be outrageously good. Who knew? The pea soup at Fig, served chilled, is stunningly beautiful (yes, the color is accurate) and fresh.
|pea soup at Fig|
6. Farm to table is not just a concept. It seems to be a way of life in Charleston. Sustainable. Ingredient-driven cuisine. Local. You can’t go to Charleston and escape fresh food. Well maybe you can, but you shouldn’t. Husk in particular is so completely wedded to this concept that even the rice is local. “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door, says Executive Chef Sean Brock. A chalk board in the entry way lists ingredients and the farm where it comes from.
|this is not from our visit – found it through Google|
7. Sharing one dessert with four people (or two desserts for eight) is not a good idea when I am in vacation mode. It makes me grumpy. I get it. Many people just want a small bite of dessert to satisfy their craving for something sweet. I am not one of those people. I don’t need an entire dessert to myself, but I want more than two bites. The pana cotta at Fig is an example of something that’s worth a few extra calories.
|panna cotta at Fig|
8. Sometimes the place you are concerned about being a tourist trap attracts tourists for a good reason. I had a reservation at Magnolias for Sunday brunch, based on a recommendation. But then one of those people on the street who want to sell you a condo or something offers us a free dinner there and suddenly I wonder what kind of place this is. I cancel the reservation. Then for a variety of reasons, we end up there anyway. Surprise. My favorite dish of the weekend is the parmesan crusted flounder over Carolina rice and shrimp pirloo with sweet corn tomato and asparagus salad, lump crab, and a lemon beurre blanc. Sounds like a mouthful, I know. I wish I could have finished every bite.
|parmesan crusted flounder at Magnolia’s|
Note: my friends at the other end of the table were not so enamored with the buffalo fried chicken cobb salad or the eggs florentine. See Lesson Learned #4 above. However, we devour the excellent apple fritter poppers and housemade potato chips with crumbled blue cheese and scallions. (no photos as they were scarfed up before we could take any).
9. My numeric ratings of restaurants are sometimes meaningless and I am considering eliminating them from my blog. Every time I dine out I ask my companions to rate their meal on a scale of one to five. On this trip I had some wildly varying scores. In terms of my Charleston visit, I thought that every restaurant fell somewhere between a 4.0 and a 4.5 on my scale but I just can’t settle on the numbers. So I’m not rating them with a number. They were all good and some dishes were better than others
The coolest lesson that I learned on my trip to Charleston? My Droid phone has a feature that allows me to talk into a microphone for a text, email, or even a document. Thus I am writing my blog and walking my dog at the same time. How great is that?!