King Street Crawl

Earlier this year, we spent an incredible week eating and drinking our way through Bilbao and San Sebastián, Spain.  In the Basque Country, pintxos (Basque for tapas), rather than traditional meals, rule the restaurant scene.  It’s very common to hit up several spots in the course of an evening, having one or two pintxos and glasses of wine at each before moving on to the next stop.  Our nightly pintxos crawls were the highlights of our trip, enabling us to try a huge variety of restaurants and food in a limited amount of time – essential in a foodie mecca like San Sebastián.

Here in Charleston, we have a similar embarrassment of culinary riches.  There are so many incredible restaurants in town, but with a three-year-old and two full work schedules, our time is fairly limited.  So on our most recent date night, we decided to turn our evening into a pintxos crawl.  We picked three favorite Upper King restaurants we hadn’t visited in a while, ordered small plates and wines by the glass at each, and then capped off our evening with a refreshing dessert at a new-to-us popsicle shop.  It was a great – and delicious – change of pace (and palate)!

Stop #1: The Ordinary

With temperatures in the nineties and humidity to match, we knew we wanted to start our evening with something (or several somethings) COLD.  The Ordinary – with its raw bar and impressive wine list – fit the bill perfectly.  With two glasses of white firmly in hand (Muscadet for Nina and Chenin Blanc for Tyler, both French), we began picking our bartender’s brain on the evening’s oyster selection.  With her advice, we went with an even dozen, divided equally (and in increasing order of potency) among Single Ladies from South Carolina, Savage Blondes from Prince Edward Island and Pemaquids from Maine.  The local oysters were great, reminding us of the Ace Basin Blades we enjoy as much as possible during the “R” months (i.e., the typical South Carolina oyster season).  The Savage Blondes, though noticeably smaller, offered a bit more salinity.  Our favorites were definitely the Pemaquids, which had a nice heft and a good punch of saltiness.  House-made horseradish, cocktail sauce, red wine mignonette and a seasonal cantaloupe mignonette accompanied the platter; each was delicious and enhanced the oysters in its own way.

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Clockwise from top: Single Ladies, Savage Blondes, Pemaquids

The Ordinary is one of our favorite spots to kick off an evening out, though it’s worth noting that the pleasures here don’t come cheap – our order came to $66 before tip, so we chose to continue on to for our second (and third) courses.  That said, the oysters and wine were exactly the refreshing, light start to our crawl we’d wanted, and we definitely plan to return soon.

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The Ordinary’s oysters of the day

Stop #2: The Grocery

After a thirty-second walk across King Street, we grabbed seats at The Grocery’s bar and ordered two more glasses of wine (a Spanish Granatxa for Tyler and a Californian rosé blend for Nina).  We arrived right at the end of happy hour pricing for bar snacks, so we quickly ordered the shishito peppers and the burrata.  The shishito peppers came exactly as we’d hoped, in the classic Spanish preparation: blistered on a screaming hot skillet, then liberally seasoned with quality olive oil and flaky salt.  Needless to say, it didn’t take us long to reduce them to a pile of oil-stained pepper stems.  The burrata dish came with a golf ball sized mound of the cream-laden cheese, surrounded by sauteed lunchbox peppers, black currants, slivered almonds and a simple herb salad.  Toasted garlic bread served as a useful, delicious accompaniment and was quickly devoured after being slathered with cheese and heaped with the pepper mixture.  We debated putting in an order for a second portion but instead decided to make our way southward along King Street.

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Shishito peppers and burrata

Stop #3: Indaco

We again headed back across King Street to Indaco, which we were surprised to see was nearly full to capacity at 8:00 on a summer Wednesday evening.  We quickly snagged the last two seats at the bar and ordered our final round of wine (a Vespolina from the Piedmont for Nina and a Nero d’Avola/Merlot/Syrah/Cab Franc blend from Sicily for Tyler).  Indaco offers up a creative menu most akin to a classic Italian trattoria, with antipasti, pastas and wood-fired pizzas filling the menu.  We don’t come here often (as we mentioned, so many restaurants, so little time!), but we’re always impressed when we do.

We originally planned to share a pasta dish, but after perusing the menu, we called an audible and went with the polpette and a grilled corn pizza.  The polpette (Italian for meatballs) came out first and were nothing shy of fantastic.  The meatballs were straight out of a nonna’s kitchen: slow braised in a San Marzano tomato sauce with a big hit of rosemary and a healthy dusting of Pecorino Romano.  This was hearty and comforting fare, lacking only a few slices of bread to sop up the incredible sauce.

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Polpette

Shortly thereafter, the pizza emerged from the wood oven with a bubbling and blistered crust, studded with grilled corn and sliced shishito peppers and covered in a thick blanket of mozzarella and Taleggio cheese.  The unexpected preparation of the shishitos was delicious; their slightly acidic bite and heat perfectly counterbalanced the richness of the cheese, and the roasted corn added a nice, sweet crunch.  Even after so many previous plates, we had no issue devouring the entire, generously-sized pie.

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Roasted corn pizza

Stop #4: Crooked Crown

After five dishes at three restaurants, we chose to end our evening with a quick, fun dessert.  Crooked Crown, the brick-and-mortar outpost King of Pops (a local favorite popsicle cart), offers both alcoholic and non-alcoholic pops, cocktails with pops (next time!) and a small, rotating food menu.  We went with boozy popsicles: watermelon mojito and apple cider.  Light and refreshing, with both sweet and tart flavors and a noticeable but not overpowering punch of alcohol, they were the perfect accompaniment on our short walk back to the car through the humid Charleston air.

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Watermelon mojito popsicle

Our pintxos crawl may have been more substantial and expensive than a similar jaunt through San Sebastián, but it was a great way to re-acquaint ourselves with a few of Upper King’s great restaurants.  Even better, thanks to Charleston’s restaurant density, we were able to do maximal eating with minimal walking!  We’ll definitely be trying it again soon – donde vamos la próxima vez?


Info:

The Ordinary website
544 King Street, Charleston, SC
Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday; closed Monday

The Grocery website
4 Cannon Street, Charleston, SC
Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday and Sunday brunch; closed Monday

Indaco website
526 King Street, Charleston, SC
Open for dinner daily

Crooked Crown website
21 Spring Street, Charleston, SC
Open daily; hours vary by season

 

Greenville Grub

Tucked in the northwest corner of South Carolina, Greenville is a great little city with a big culinary scene.  It’s an easy weekend getaway from Charleston, so last week we packed the car and headed to the upstate for three days of eating and exploring.  While Greenville has outposts of several Charleston restaurants (like Halls Chophouse, Caviar & Bananas and soon Husk), we opted for spots we don’t have here at home – and whether new (or new-to-us) hot spots or old favorites, they were mostly very satisfying.  Let’s dig in!

Biscuit Head

We’ll confess that we chose Biscuit Head for our first breakfast in Greenville based largely on its name, but we’ll be back on subsequent trips for the food, too.  A short drive from downtown, Biscuit Head offers a variety of (you guessed it) biscuit-based sandwiches and biscuit-and-gravy combos.  There’s also a jam bar (genius!) where you can fancy up a plain biscuit with everything from traditional blueberry jam to more exotic offerings like raspberry chocolate, apple pie and funfetti cake.

We were starving and knew we’d be skipping lunch, so we both opted for fairly substantial sandwiches.  The fried catfish biscuit – served with spicy slaw, tomato, a poached egg and creole gravy – looked amazing.  Unfortunately, we found that the creole gravy didn’t really work with the dish – its flavor clashed with that of the catfish, and it made the biscuit soggy and crumbly.  The mimosa-fried chicken biscuit, however, was outrageously good.  Served with sweet potato butter, sriracha slaw and a poached egg, the sandwich had the perfect balance of crunch, sweetness and heat.

Passerelle Bistro

Since Friday was Bastille Day, we chose the charming Passerelle Bistro for dinner that evening.  Passerelle offers classic French fare (including a kids’ menu) at the entrance to Falls Park.  We’d been walking around in the heat all day (and had gorged ourselves on biscuits in the morning), so we opted for a simple dinner of crusty bread, butter and radishes, two Niçoise salads and a carafe of cold, crisp Muscadet.

The crusty bread came out exactly as promised: four long slices of a hearty baguette, paired with a ramekin of quality salted butter.  The radish portion of the dish was sadly rather lacking: we received 6 small slices, probably totaling one raw radish.  We don’t normally equate quantity to quality, but in this case one radish per order does not an appetizer make.  Radishes and butter are a classic French bistro appetizer, and these delivered on flavor – we just wish there were more of them.

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If you squint, you can see a sliver of radish.

For our main course, we both chose the Niçoise salad, which was a delicious choice on a boiling hot day.  Seared rare tuna came alongside hard boiled eggs, juicy cherry tomatoes and crisp green beans, all atop a mesclun mix.  We’ve ordered this each time we’ve been to Passerelle, and will probably continue that tradition on our next visit.  Though Passerelle’s prime location makes it a bit touristy, we’d definitely come back for a glass of wine and a bite to eat on the outdoor terrace on a cooler day!

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Niçoise salad

Greenville Saturday Market

Saturday morning, we decided to forego a traditional breakfast in favor of a trip to Greenville’s incredible farmers market.  Every Saturday morning from May through October, several blocks of Main Street close to traffic and open to pedestrians and a plethora of local farmers, food stands and artisans.  After grabbing coffee from Methodical Coffee (which also supplies the coffee for The Harbinger here in Chucktown), we strolled through the market, enjoying the (relatively) cool temperatures and grabbing a few bites from several of the vendors.  The local peaches were out of this world, and the bread and pastries from the Swamp Rabbit Café were delicious.  We fought over the last few bites of a blueberry scone and had to restrain ourselves from devouring an entire loaf of stecca (an incredible Italian bread brushed with sea salt and olive oil) on the spot.  We haven’t yet made it to the brick-and-mortar Swamp Rabbit Café, but it’s at the top of our list for our next trip.

 

Vault & Vator

On Saturday night, we got a babysitter and headed out on the town for a few hours.  Our first stop was Vault & Vator, a new speakeasy-style cocktail bar hidden in the West End.  This was our kind of place: great drinks, knowledgeable bartenders, no TVs and no standing allowed!  They also had a no-cell phone policy that we respected, so we don’t have any photos of our drinks – but our expertly-drafted rosé negroni and Hemingway daiquiri tasted as good as they looked (which is to say absolutely incredible!).  V&V is a little too pricey to be an everyday spot, but it was the perfect starting point for our adults-only evening.

The Lazy Goat

Our absolute favorite restaurant in Greenville closed about ten days before our trip (RIP, American Grocery!), so we decided to try The Lazy Goat, another of the city’s classic spots.  We were lucky enough to get a window table overlooking the Reedy River, but unfortunately we were underwhelmed by our dining experience.  We decided against the appetizer-entrée-dessert approach and instead ordered six share plates from the Mediterranean-themed menu: serrano ham, fried goat cheese, crispy Brussels sprouts, toasted garlic shrimp, Moroccan lamb, and goat cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers ($9-10 each).

Perhaps we should have been more specific with our server, but we assumed the dishes would come out one or two at a time.  Instead, three of the six appeared at our table five minutes after we ordered (and before our wine arrived), with the other three following only a few minutes later.  Not only did this result in us eating a lot of lukewarm food, it made us wonder how much of the food was pre-made versus cooked to order.  While several of the plates were quite tasty (the piquillo peppers and Brussels sprouts were particular favorites), the lack of pacing made it hard to truly enjoy them.  Maybe we hit The Lazy Goat on an off night or our expectations were too high, but we won’t be back the next time we are in town.

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Crispy Brussels sprouts, Moroccan lamb and fried boat cheese

Tupelo Honey Café

For Sunday brunch, we considered braving the lines at Biscuit Head for another fried chicken biscuit but decided on a sit-down brunch instead.  Happily, Tupelo Honey Café offered the best of both worlds: complimentary biscuits and blueberry jam, plus a full menu of (mostly) Southern favorites.

The “red flannel” hash, with salt-roasted beets, herbed potato cracklins, two fried eggs, horseradish crema and onions was an interesting but tasty take on a hash.  The potatoes were cooked to perfection, with a great crunchy exterior yielding to a meltingly soft interior.  The eggs were perfectly over easy, but we quickly destroyed them to allow the runny yolk to mix into the entire dish.  The horseradish crema was a nice touch, but we would have appreciated a lighter hand when it was being applied; several bites had an unpleasant amount of kick and tasted of little beside the dressing.

We also enjoyed the avocado toast & eggs.  Under a heaping portion of avocado, farmer’s cheese, Aleppo pepper and a red chili honey drizzle, the toast was hardy enough to withstand its toppings but not so dense that it overpowered the other flavors.

 

 

We left Greenville very sweaty, very full and very satisfied.  We’ll be back soon to taste more of what this beautiful upstate city has to offer!


Info:

Biscuit Head website
823 South Church Street, Greenville, SC
Open daily for breakfast and lunch

Passerelle Bistro website
601 South Main Street, Greenville, SC
Open daily for lunch and dinner (brunch weekends)

Greenville Saturday Market website
Main Street at McBeen Avenue
2017 Season: Saturdays 8am-12pm until October 28

Vault & Vator website
655 South Main Street, Greenville, SC
Open Tuesday-Saturday from 5pm; closed Sunday & Monday

The Lazy Goat website
170 River Street, Greenville, SC
Open Monday-Saturday for lunch & dinner; closed Sunday

Tupelo Honey Café website
1 North Main Street, Greenville, SC
Open daily for lunch and dinner (brunch weekends)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monarch Wine Merchants

As luck would have it, our desire to break out of our wine rut coincided with the opening of an incredible new wine shop in downtown Charleston.  Located right next door to our favorite new café, The Harbinger, in North Central, Monarch Wine Merchants unlocked its doors in early June.  On its opening day, we waited a perfectly respectable 90 minutes before barging in, three-year-old in tow, excited to get a sense of the store and its offerings. We were thrilled to find a small but very well-cultivated collection of Old World wine, with a healthy mix of New World bottles.  The shop stocks a selection of everything from Airen (a Spanish white wine grape) to Zweigelt, and each of our visits has resulted in the purchase of multiple bottles of fascinating, new-to-us wines.

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We’re still working our way through our purchases, but several bottles we’ve opened have been stellar:

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AJ Adam Hofberg Riesling (2011)

We’ve had a lot of less-than-stellar Riesling, so we asked Monarch’s owner, Justin Coleman, for a bottle that would change our minds about the grape.  He recommended this bottle from Germany’s Mosel Valley.  Mission accomplished – with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, this wine has us eager to seek out more quality Riesling.

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Le Sot de l’Ange Rouge G

This is a sulfur dioxide-free blend of Gamay and Grolleau from the Loire Valley.  “Funnest” isn’t a word, but it should be so that we could say that this may be the funnest bottle of wine we’ve ever had.  Bring it to a party or let it bring the party to you.

 

 

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Partida Creus GT

Another natural wine, this time a Garrut from Spain.  Unfined, unfiltered and sulfur dioxide-free, this funky wine is delicious in ways that defy description.  We talked about it for hours and still couldn’t pin it down.  Clearly we need buy another to continue our “research.”

 

Monarch also has a large selection of rosé on a table that dominates the main space of the shop; we haven’t delved into it yet but it’s only a matter of time (and increasing mercury).  Given someone’s penchant for large format bottles (ahem, Tyler), one of Monarch’s double-magnums (3L) of rosé will probably be coming home with us soon.

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Monarch’s wines are mostly in the $25+ range, but they also have a wall of wines all priced under the very budget-friendly price of $18.  If we found ourselves in need for a bottle for dinner and didn’t want to spend a ton, this is absolutely where we would go.  Monarch is here to save all of us from buying wine at the grocery store.

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Basically, Monarch has something for everybody.  If you love wine, you should shop at Monarch.  If you know nothing about wine, you should shop at Monarch.  If you know everything about wine, you should shop at Monarch.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to open a bottle (or three).  Cheers!


Info:
Monarch Wine Merchants website 
1107 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11am-8pm, Sunday 12pm-5pm

Dum Spiro Spero

In our last post, we talked a bit about the geographical expansion of Charleston’s restaurant scene over the past few years, so we thought we’d feature another of our favorite off-the-beaten path spots: Spero.  The look and feel of this under-the-radar restaurant (and we mean “under” literally – it sits in an unassuming strip mall in the shadow of the Ravenel Bridge) are incredibly casual, but its food is seriously good.

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Casual vibe, serious food

We first tried Spero not long after it opened in 2015.  We’d planned a quick date night and promised our babysitter we wouldn’t be long.  Cut to three hours later and a text asking when we’d be home – the food was so good and shareable and reasonably priced, we just kept ordering more.  And more.  And more.  Since then, we’ve visited Spero every few months, sampled their market-driven menu in all seasons and come away raving every single time.   Our most recent visit last week was no exception – the summer menu was refreshing and adventurous, the $4 happy hour Sauvignon blanc was tart and delicious, and the entire staff couldn’t have been nicer to us (our son is still talking about “Mr. Rob” and his high-fives).

Spero’s menu focuses on small plates (per the menu, “share it, don’t share it.  it’s your food, do what you want”) but also offers a selection of larger sandwiches and a few entrees (or “big shares”).   We’re often tempted to order ALL of the small plates, which would bust our guts but not our wallets – on last week’s menu, the 9 small plates tallied under $75 total.  We typically restrain ourselves and choose the bread flight, 3-4 small plates and a sandwich.

Let’s start with the bread flight ($6.50).  Oh, the bread flight.  We’ve eaten a lot of food in Charleston, and to be honest we can only think of one dish (the gnocchi at F.I.G.) that we talk about more.  This is probably the best restaurant bread in Charleston.  Order it and you’ll be treated to three different, homemade breads or rolls, each served with its own specially-paired butter.  On our most recent visit, we had a schmaltz biscuit with maple butter, cornbread with burnt honey miso butter and a sourdough pretzel roll with ham and mustard butter.  Each was fantastic, but for us, anything paired with Spero’s fantastic ham and mustard butter takes the proverbial cake.  This is always our first order, no matter what the day’s breads are.  (You can also order each bread individually, but really, why limit yourself like that??)

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L-R: cornbread, pretzel roll, schmaltz biscuit

Our favorite strategy at Spero is to order a lot of smaller things to share, and our first plate after the bread was the roasted beets ($7.50).  This is not the beet salad you can find on any menu in town.  These beets were roasted to soft perfection and paired with bleu cheese, buttermilk and a raspberry sauce.  We’re not usually big bleu cheese fans, but its funk nicely balanced the sweetness of the raspberry sauce.

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Beets, berries, buttermilk, bleu cheese, battlestar galactica

Next up was the simply named “Radish” dish ($7), which was definitely the most interesting plate of the night and would not be out of place on the menus of the finest-dining restaurants in Charleston.  Raw, roasted and pickled radishes were served with rosettes of tahini butter and anchovy bread crumbs.  We’ve never even thought about including radishes when roasting vegetables, but they were so good we may have to start.  The light dusting of anchovy-infused breadcrumbs gave the whole dish a fantastic extra boost of umami.

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Beautifully-plated radish dish

The North African-spiced chicken sausage was one of the two meat dishes we ordered and came with middlins rice, pickled raisins and mint ($9).  The punch from the berbere in the sausage was nicely offset by the sweetness of the raisins and the creaminess of the rice.  This was perhaps the simplest dish we ordered, but simplicity of this level is hard to execute this well.

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Chicken sausage with middlins rice, pickled raisins and mint

To complement the small plate selection, Spero offers several sandwiches that are fairly substantial and perfect to split.  This time, we broke from our standard order of the lamb barbacoa sandwich and opted to split the “Not Fried” chicken ($9.25) instead.  “Mojo-ish” chicken, tasso ham, sauerkraut and roasted red peppers on a toasted honey roll was a delicious combo, though we both agreed that it did not eclipse the lamb.

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“Not Fried” Chicken Sandwich

At this point, we were stuffed, but we had promised our tiny human dessert.  In his opinion, there’s no finer option than Spero’s milk and cookies: two chocolate chip cookies served on a silver platter with a goblet of cold milk.  (Parental pro tip: the cookies are made fresh to order, so request them when your last course is served to avoid a long wait and a lot of whining.)  Warm and gooey, the cookies were a perfect, comforting end to an adventurous meal.

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Little hands couldn’t wait!

What’s not to love about a place that looks like a dive bar, makes fine-dining-quality food and serves Miller High Life in champagne flutes and milk and cookies on a silver platter?  Spero takes its food seriously, but it has fun with it.  Beneath the colorful bird mural that dominates the restaurant’s decor is the phrase Dum Spiro Spero, which means, “While I breathe, I hope.”  (Probably not-so-coincidentally, this is also South Carolina’s state motto – thanks, Google!)  You can sure that while we breathe, we’ll hope that Spero keeps wowing us with its inventive, delicious food and boundless hospitality.  Until next time!

 

 

 

Quick Bites: The Harbinger

In the past few years, the food scene in Charleston has evolved tremendously.  Some of that evolution has been culinary (like an increased focus on locally-sourced ingredients and a proliferation of barbecue restaurants), but the most noticeable change has been a geographic one. When we first moved here, downtown Charleston’s restaurant scene was heavily concentrated on East Bay Street and the southernmost blocks of Upper King Street; you could pick one of these areas and restaurant-hop to your heart’s content, but options elsewhere were limited and somewhat isolated.

Today, good restaurants stretch across the peninsula (and over the bridges!), with frequent openings in areas that just a couple of years ago were well beyond even the fringes of the traditional dining districts.  From the beloved Park Café and the forthcoming Herd Provisions by Hampton Park to the always-packed Edmund’s Oast and Butcher and Bee (among others) in NoMo, delicious options abound wherever you find yourself in the city.  On King Street, “restaurant row” has been expanding steadily northward into the North Central neighborhood with the addition of hotspots like Leon’s Oyster Shop, Little Jack’s Tavern and Workshop.  A few weeks ago, The Harbinger Café & Bakery joined North Central’s ranks, and its name perfectly encapsulates the promise of this new food frontier.

The Harbinger has a half-French, half-hipster feel, with blue-and-white dishware, handmade coffee mugs, and pleasantly muted farmhouse decor.  It’s feminine but not frilly, and its food strikes an equally appealing balance.  The menu is seasonal and local-minded, and a list of the restaurant’s numerous local suppliers is proudly and prominently displayed on a mirror in the front room.  The order counter is a feast for the eyes: it’s covered in a rotating selection of beautiful baked goods, savory tartines and inventive salads, all of which can be enjoyed à la carte or combined into a more substantial meal.  The coffee options range from the standard fare to creative offerings like honey and maple lattés, and a small cold case offers drinks and to-go items.  There’s also a small wine and beer selection for the Harbinger’s weeknight happy hour.

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We’ve now made two lunchtime visits to The Harbinger to try several of the dishes on offer, with the tartines being particular favorites. The “Oh Snap” tartine featured broccoli pesto, sugar snap pea salad, pink radishes, sumac sprinkle and microgreens on Carolina gold rice sourdough from local Root Baking Company.  The vibrant pesto and sweet peas were nicely balanced with the slight sharpness of the lemony sumac, all perched on a thick slice of sourdough from (in our opinion) Charleston’s best bread producer.

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Oh Snap!

The “Garden Party” tartine was our resounding favorite, with sweet onion and snap peas paired with bright cherry tomatoes bursting with summery flavor.  A thick smear of rich herbed aioli paired well with the fresh, seasonal veggies topping the same fantastic bread.

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Garden Party (in your mouth)

Our most recent visit found us enjoying the “Local Lunchbox” tartine and its thick slices of local yellow tomatoes, bell peppers and chives under a layer of sweet potato cilantro hummus.  Despite its heft, it was light enough that we nearly ordered a second.

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Local Lunchbox

The Harbinger also offers a number of house-made pastries and cookies, which never fail to catch the eye of our three-year-old.  He usually enjoys the “Best Friend” cookie, a riff on a classic chocolate chip cookie with three types of chocolate, pearl sugar and Bulls Bay sea salt; it makes us think of a mashup between a chocolate chip cookie and an Oreo in the best possible way.  As parents, we particularly like that the cookies are big enough that our kid doesn’t ask for a second one, but not so big that he’s bouncing off the walls after finishing it (well, no more so than usual).  We’d show you a picture, but on both visits he devoured his “special treat” as soon as we placed it in his hot little hands – you’ll just have to head to the Harbinger and try one (or more) for yourself!


Info:
The Harbinger Café & Bakery website
1107 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Monday-Friday: 7am-7pm; Saturday-Sunday: 8am-3pm