Had a magical weekend in Charleston last weekend. Here are the highlights of where we dined:
Friday lunch: Magnolia's - Started with a Magnolia's mint julip with honey liquor - delicious and a lovely way to start the meal after a 2 hour walking tour of downtown. Shared a low country eggroll to begin - the deep flavor of the greens and smoked chicken were perfectly highlighted by the spicy mustard and roasted red pepper sauce and peach chutney. We wanted to lick the plate. This was followed by some of the best shrimp, sausage & grits I've ever had- the tasso ham added just the right kick of flavor. The grits were perfectly cooked and tasted amazing...we all kept saying how full we were but we couldn't stop eating them. Divine and a great introduction to low country cuisine for the Charleston newcomers in our group.
Friday Dinner: The Grocery - WOW. Talk about off-the-chain flavor profiles. Unfortunatly, one of our dining companions was sick from heatstroke, so we only tried a few things there before leaving to take her home, but each one was exceptional. We started with the watermelon gazpacho with blue crab - delicious, light and bursting with seasonal flavor. We then shared the short rib plate which was perfectly cooked and fell apart with the touch of a fork - it was the platonic ideal of a short rib. Finally, we also shared the gnocci which was very light, delicate and melted in your mouth. I wish so badly that we could have stayed longer and tried more ( 3 dishes for 6 adults was not enough of their great food by far) but it gives me a reason to go back to Charleston, right? This restaurant actually reminded me a lot of my favorite restaurant in Chicago, The Girl & The Goat - really elevated "gastro-pub" cuisine with great local ingredients and imaginative flavor combinations. I can't wait to go back.
(Don't feel too sorry for us...on our way home we stopped by Rue De Jean to pick up a large order of the Blue Cheese/Bacon mussels and bread to dip in the amazing sauce to enjoy after we had taken the sick one home. I'm not a huge fan of French food, but Rue De Jean's Blue Cheese/Bacon Mussels are something I dream about between trips to Charleston...the flavors are so much more than the sum of their parts and unbelievably delicious.)
Saturday Morning: We did the Sweet Tea Vodka tasting at Firefly Distillery on Wadmalaw Island and had a blast. The staff has a great sense of humor (Joe is a sweetheart and they have wonderful drinks at the distillery that never make it out of the area (try the java rum or the pecan pie cordial). We had so much fun that I think a group of us are going back on August 25th for the winery's annual grape stomp (including I Love Lucy look-alike contest) - see you all there!
Saturday Lunch: We went to a new place called Crave on John's Island on our way to Kiawah Island. My Philly Melt sandwich was "meh", but the truffled parmesan fries were amazing. Their shrimp & grits were delicious and completely different from Magnolia's - much looser texture, but smokey and cheesy from tons of Smoked Gouda, studded with bacon, tasso & greens - absolutely delicious. (The 6 of us almost didn't let me waitress take the bowl). Also notable was their excellent sweet tea brined fried chicken chopped salad - the chicken was super tender and the sweet tea gave it a great flavor. They also do boxed lunches for taking to the beach...a nice place to check out on your way to Kiawah.
Saturday Dinner: Trattoria Lucca. My 4th visit to what I consider to be the best Italian restaurant in the U.S. and it was by far the finest meal I had ever had there. We started with the large vegetable tasting for the table and oh...my. The etherial cauliflower souffle with the runny egg yolk inside is the most luxurious vegetable treatment in town and will convince even the most hard-core cauliflower hater to fall in love. The golden beets put to rest the idea once and for all that beets cannot be elevated to the sublime by talented hands. The locally sourced marinated mushrooms tasted like a dark, tart secret that kept unfolding layers upon layers of flavor. The field pea salad with pecorino was excellent, but my biggest regret of the weekend is that we didn't skip the salad and ask for another cauliflower timbale...it is truly the food of the gods. We also shared a piccolo cheese/meat plate - great gorgonzola dolce cheese (some of the most sinfully rich I've ever had) accented with a divine pear jam, burrata with heirloom tomato salad and proscuitto de parma with some of the best pickled vegetables I've ever tasted. We shared a delightful duck cannolloni with cherry sauce but the stars of the entrees were the best veal I've ever eaten - a roulade stuffed with house-made veal sausage and sou-vide before being sliced and grilled and served over a bed of farro carbanera...unreal. It was just freakin' unreal. Each bite was better than the next. Finally, the ricotta Gnudi was the closest thing I have had outside of Sorrento to my "platonic idea" of Gnocci - so light, so tender they seem to float off the plate, but kept from being too rich by the acidity of the perfect tomato sauce. I would give anything to have some of it right now for dinner...it tastes like love. You are at peace and the world is a warm, good place when you eat it.
On a final note, as we ate dinner, all 6 members of the bachelorette party that I was with were the quietest we had been all weekend...just silently enjoying the amazing flavors that kept exploding through our heads and quietly commenting from time to time on how unbelievable it was.
Charleston is as always, an amazing town filled with great architecture and some of the nicest people I've ever met. But the food scene there is unbelievable...I can't wait to go back.