R KITCHEN: I arrived on a steamy Sunday evening, feeling the 90 degree heat, and opened my trip with dinner at R Kitchen, thanks to the kind invitation of a fellow local foodie (thank you, T!).
It's a postage stamp of a place, counter seats lined up against an open kitchen, and Chef Ross cooks up whatever ideas he's been playing around with. He showed us some scribbles for that night's menu, written in a sprawling hand, captured in a spiral bound notebook. Great, friendly, talented guy. It's definitely a fun and inexpensive, interactive experience, and worth doing for the absurdly low price of $25pp.
We started with a ton of wine and a cool and refreshing watermelon, mint, and feta salad. I loved the "succotash" soup, a take on the traditional dish, as he layered puréed vegetables into tiny bowls. Another hit was a classically seared, succulent scallop served with a smear of creamy brie and a classic cream sauce. Our next dish was flaky red snapper and curried vegetables, a dish he said he'd cook for himself at home, just "some things" he'd been craving like brightly colored squash swimming in coconut milk and his own fragrant custom curry powder. The finale was slices of steak and his deliciously complex mole sauce with some guacamole, on a bed of fried potato wedges. Then an off the cuff, not too sweet Marcona almond baklava ended the show.
HUSK: During the conference lunch break, I hustled down King Street to make my Husk reservation on time. Tons of folks waiting an hour or more for a table during weekday lunch! Wonderful staff there, especially one who immediately refilled my ice water glass, after I downed the whole damn thing, as he noticed I looked quite warm. Started off with a lovely cocktail named Mile Zero, a refreshing drink of rum, lime, palm sugar, and pink salt.
And then… I couldn’t resist the siren song of the Husk fried chicken, you know… the famous four-fat fried chicken (butter, chicken fat, bacon fat and country ham fat). Served at lunch, only. I had it with slices of red onion and cucumber, marinated in pickle juice, and a wedge of cornbread. That hot, crispy skin. Juicy, moist chicken meat. Perfection on a hot June day. My server stopped by to ask if I was enjoying the chicken, and I literally could not form a sentence. I had no words. Only thoughts of that hot, crispy, perfect fried chicken. I polished off both pieces, and went for a sorghum tart for dessert - also fantastic. A simple tart, surrounded by a ring of rich, creamy chèvre, dotted with tiny popped kernels of sorghum as well as bits of candied lemon peel and micro herbs. Wow.
Perhaps the second best meal I had in Charleston (a tough feat in such a foodie town). I wish I had that fried chicken again right now.
FIG: I stumbled in, a bit sweaty from the long walk, for dinner, here as well. And marveled how packed it was on a Monday night, even the bar area. The best meal I had while in Charleston.
I chose to order two appetizers and save room for dessert. The Keegan-Filion farm chicken liver pate was excellent. “A poor man’s foie gras,” described my server for the evening. Served with pickles, fresh blackberries, a smear of pungent dijon mustard, and perfectly toasted slices of brioche. A fantastic start to the evening, especially since the blackberries were the very first of the season.
Next up was the gorgeous and fresh garganelli & razor clam vierge with Valencia tomato, Arbequina olive oil, plus sea beans foraged by one of their chefs locally. This dish was bursting with flavor. Possibly some of the best, if not the best, razor clams I had ever eaten, extremely tender and flavorful. A little bit of acid, a little bit of heat, sprinkled with fresh herbs. And the most tomato-y tomatoes I’ve had in a long time.
And for dessert, the refreshingly creamy blackberry & mascarpone curd, served with a light coffee meringue and toffee crumbles, as well as fresh blackberries (a little sweet, a little tart). Simple, elegant, and very, very fresh tasting, and not too heavy after a meal of pate and pasta.
ARTISAN MEAT SHARE: I had a pretty good porchetta sandwich, with 'nduja, pork cracklins, watercress, caramelized onions, mayo, and ciabatta bread, but found the bread to be a bit too soft. So, much of the filling fell out as I ate it. The porchetta was very good, though perhaps a bit out of balance due to the large amount of carmelized onions on the sandwich. Though I did feel that the mayo, watercress, and pork cracklins did work well together. It was tasty and I nearly ate the entire thing, what can I say? (And I do love ‘nduja.)
THE ORDINARY: Had an insanely good meal at the bar here. They didn’t seem super busy at first (Tuesday dinner) but the bar eventually filled up. Razor clams with apple, jalapeño, cilantro, were presented beautifully and were wonderfully cold and refreshing, the sauce more of a salsa verde than a true ceviche. It’s easy to see why this is a signature dish, though they all seem to be signatures at The Ordinary. Feeling like some hot food next, I had the broiled oysters with ramp butter and parmesan. Served piping hot and decadent. (I’d been eyeing the scallop hush puppies but they seemed rather large & heavy.) I had been waffling for my next dish, unsure of what to order, when the bartender steered me towards the steak tartare with crispy oysters. A great contrast of textures and flavors. A very classic steak tartare, finely chopped and well seasoned, paired with cornmeal breaded oysters, hot and meaty on the inside.
BUTCHER & BEE: A very cute, hipster-ish place with a butcher shop vibe that felt like a joint out of Brooklyn, doing fantastic sandwiches. The fried chicken banh mi (served Wednesdays) was amazing and worth the long walk and longish wait (very popular place for weekday lunch). Hot juicy chicken. Sweet soy sauce, jalapeño, pickled vegetables, lots of fresh herbs, and chopped peanuts. Great contrast of flavors and textures, and most excellent crusty bread. I’d definitely go back and try some of the other items.
XIAO BAO BISCUIT: I had the cabbage pancake (okonomiyaki) with pork candy and egg added on at the bar. This was delicious, cabbage mixed in with carrots, kale, and scallions, and I loved the stripes of Kewpie mayo, Sriracha, furikake, and more on top. Salty and full of umami flavor. But also a little overwhelming about halfway through. It’s definitely a dish for more than two people; I spied the couple down the bar from me actually giving up on theirs after a while. While I enjoyed the dish I had there at the bar, after my 2nd visit, I think I’d rather expend my energy on other places.
TWO BOROUGHS LARDER: I had amazing service here and loved the menu, sitting at the bar to order two of the smaller plates and desserts. However, I found the bar stools affixed to the floor to be very uncomfortable after a while - I’d get a table next time. I did have an amazingly refreshing chilled peach soup with buttermilk, cucumber, and thin slices of country ham on a hot day. Nearly licked the bowl clean. A perfect combination of flavors.
I followed that up with Clammer Dave’s clams, served on top of a baked potato and sour cream like sauce/soup, and covered with a flurry of cheese. Very rich and hearty, which wasn’t what I was expecting, but the clams were delicious.
As for dessert, I couldn’t resist the chocolate budino with olive oil, sea salt, and pistachios! I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish, but just about licked the little jar clean.
BREAKFAST & BAKERIES
CALLIE’S HOT LITTLE BISCUIT: Yep, I went four times in four days. Yes I said goodbye to clear arteries at HLB. No regrets! I started the first visit with a fantastic bacon, egg, cheese biscuit. Fantastic, flaky, buttery biscuits. This little joint with only a small long ledge and a handful of stools to eat at rotates between a few specials each day, but consistently had two different breakfast sandwiches over the four mornings that I visited. I started with the bacon, egg (scrambled), cheese biscuit the first day. The second day, I moved onto the Glass Onion sausage (split into halves in order to fit into the sandwich form - they hope eventually to get patties), with fiery pimento cheese (what else), and scrambled eggs. This was spicy, creamy, buttery, fantastic, and flavorful, making the bacon/egg/cheese (which was great), somehow seem less interesting. The third day, I went out on a limb and chose the grits in a biscuit bowl special, topped with shrimp and green onions. Also pretty tasty, and photogenic, but I think I preferred the simplicity of the biscuit sandwiches more. So on my final day, I went back to the sausage, egg, and biscuit sandwich, before heading off to the airport. They also had some iced coffee, which didn’t seem good/strong enough to me for the price, given the great cold brew you can find around downtown elsewhere.
BROWN’S COURT BAKERY: Blackberry iced coffee was very subtly flavored (not overwhelming) and an interesting contrast to “normal” iced coffee. I also tried their awesome peanut butter Sriracha croissant. It’s not overly filled or overwhelmingly spicy, but just a hint of nutty, garlicky goodness, as a stripe throughout the pastry. Delicious! Would eat again.
I tried cold brew or iced Americanos at a few places, and greatly enjoyed both THE DAILY as well as TRICERA. Both had great tasting products and nicely pulled shots.
For whatever reason, the iced Americano I had at KUDU just didn’t taste as good as that I found elsewhere around town.
Aside from the drinks at restaurants, I tried the Beachcomber at COCKTAIL CLUB: butter infused rum, lime, smoked pineapple, cream, and grenadine. Hit the spot and felt very apropos (tropical).
I also had the amusing Disco Sour at 492 — where blue Butterfly Pea tea ice cubes react with citrus to turn the drink purple over time. A novelty, yes, but also delicious and well balanced, like an actual Pisco Sour should be.