Sorghum & Salt

A few weeks ago, we finally (finally!) found our way to Sorghum & Salt, which opened earlier this year on a quiet stretch of Coming Street.  While its location is a bit under-the-radar, its food deserves to be anything but – the rave reviews we’ve heard were absolutely accurate.  The restaurant’s menu focuses on locally-sourced, vegetable-heavy small plates, and while we’re not vegetarians, we might consider it if we could eat here every day!

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We were fortunate to be joined by one of our favorite guest eaters (thanks for coming, Laura!), so we were able to try a (some might say embarrassingly large) number of the night’s offerings.  Unlike some of the small plate-centric restaurants we’ve tried recently, the meal was expertly paced; we weren’t swamped with multiple dishes at once, nor did we wait very long between courses.  We especially appreciated the thought our server put into the progression of our meal – lighter dishes arrived first before giving way to heartier fare, preventing any of the more delicate selections from being overshadowed.

BREAD SERVICE ($5): First up was the bread, because we are fundamentally incapable of saying no to bread.  The brown sugar bread was perfectly baked and surprisingly large, though we wished the flavor of the short rib butter (infused with meat from nearby Keegan-Filion farm) was stronger.

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SOY CURED STEELHEAD SALMON – CUCUMBER – AVOCADO – SZECHUAN OIL – BABY SORREL ($14): Any minor disappointment we had over the butter was erased as soon as we tasted the salmon.  Imagine the freshest, fanciest bite of salmon sashimi you’ve ever had and you are mentally tasting this dish.  The soy cure flavor dominated but did not overwhelm, and the other ingredients worked in perfect harmony.    This is an absolute must order if you see it on the menu – next time, we’ll probably order two.

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GREEN TEA NOODLES – 6-MINUTE EGG – CHARRED BROCCOLI – HERB PUREE ($13): This was a very interesting dish, and one we ordered without being sure we were going to like it.  The cold, soba-esque noodles infused with green tea were good, unless you accompanied them with a bite of the jammy, sous vide egg – then they were fantastic.

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SMOKED GROWFOOD EGGPLANT – HOUSE MADE LAMB BACON – APRICOT MOSTARDA – WHIPPED FETA ($14): We smelled this dish before we saw it, and we knew we were going to love it.  We passed the plate around the table multiple times just so that we could smell the incredible lamb bacon.  The apricot mostarda’s sweet acidity cut the richness of the eggplant and bacon to make this dish much more than the sum of its parts.  This wasn’t a dish we all agreed on up front, but after it was gone we agreed it was the standout of the evening.

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CRISPY POTATOES – CANDIED SALMON – HOUSE MADE KEWPIE – PICKLED COLLARDS  ($13): We were very excited about the potatoes with house made Kewpie mayonnaise, but didn’t know what to expect with the salmon.  While we all enjoyed the perfectly roasted potatoes, we found that the salmon brought an oddly sweet taste to the dish.  This is one we’d pass on in the future.

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HOUSE MADE SAUSAGE – SMASHED PEAR – POPPED SORGHUM – FENNEL CREAM ($14):  Sausage and pear was an unexpected duo, but it ended up being an all-around hit.  This dish was more straightforward than most of what we ordered, but it’s hard to say anything bad about a great, homemade sausage that has been cooked to crispy perfection.  And the addition of popcorn certainly didn’t hurt!

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SMOKED CARROT RIGATONI – SALSA VERDE – SPICED PUMPKIN SEED – RICOTTA SALATA ($16): It’s a testament to Sorghum & Salt’s skill and ingenuity with vegetables that this meatless dish ended up being the heartiest of the evening.  This arrived at the end of a large meal and the three of us were slowing down a bit, but we managed to clean the plate.  The crunchy pumpkin seeds provided a nice textural counterpoint to the creamy carrots and pasta.  As with several of the evening’s courses, we would never have thought to combine these ingredients, but this was definitely a winner.

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BEET CREMEUX – ESPRESSO – ELDERFLOWER – COCOA NIB – PISTACHIO ($12) – Oh these beets.  Hands down the best course of one of the best meals we have had in quite a while.  We weren’t sure that the eggplant / lamb bacon dish could be topped, but this dessert was unbelievable.  As we learned from the kitchen, the beets were roasted with a ton of butter, and then infused into form that was not quite cake, not quite panna cotta, not quite pudding, not quite fudge – but exactly perfect.  This was definitely a dessert that makes you think, as it’s rather different from most restaurants’ standard offerings.  But you will be richly rewarded if this is how you choose to end your time at Sorghum & Salt.

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Our only regret with Sorghum & Salt is that it took us so long to try it!  We will definitely be back sooner rather than later – this is an amazing restaurant doing incredible things with local ingredients, and we can’t wait to see how its menu changes with the seasons.


Info:

Sorghum & Salt website
186 Coming Street, Charleston, SC
Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday; closed Mondays

 

 

 

 

Workshop

Over the last few months, we’ve made several trips to Workshop, Charleston’s first “fancy” food court.  Located on way, way, waaaaaaaay upper King Street, Workshop features a rotating set of kitchens – some there for the long haul (like Bad Wolf Coffee and Juan Luis) and others for a few short weeks or months (Beech Test Kitchen, we miss you!).   From crowd- (and kid-) pleasers like Slice Co’s New York-style pizza to more exotic fare like Sambar’s Indian street food, Workshop’s varied restaurants offer something for every palate.  With so many diverse dining options – not to mention ample free parking (a rarity in Charleston!) and a ton of indoor and outdoor seating – Workshop is a great gathering place for a group.  So when we were asked to come up with a fun, casual spot to grab a bite to eat after a group tour last weekend, our recommendation was easy: Workshop and its six restaurants in one!

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Last Sunday, we joined about 25 fellow William & Mary alumni and guests (Tribe Pride!) for a really interesting and informative tour of the H.L. Hunley submarine in nearby North Charleston (locals, this is worth your time if you haven’t been!) before making the short drive over to Workshop.  While we were a bit disappointed to discover that the very popular Juan Luis is closed on Sundays and that the Asian-inspired Slider Gold was only offering a limited menu that day, everyone quickly found food to their liking at Workshop’s other stalls.  Sambar and the Vietnamese-focused Pink Bellies were the big hits of the evening.

Sambar is a very welcome addition to Charleston’s limited Indian food scene, especially since its offerings are a bit more adventurous than the standard chicken tikka masala.  On our visit, several W&Mers enjoyed the thali – a variety of delicious dishes served on a single plate.  Perfect for sharing (though not quite large enough to constitute a full meal for two), Sambar’s thali plate comes with basmati rice, vegetables, sambar, green and mango chutneys, raita, dosa and a choice of pork vindaloo, coconut cashew curry or chicken curry.  It’s a great introduction to Sambar’s cuisine, as is the “dosa and dips” (Indian flatbread served with a variety of chutneys and sauces).  The lamb meatballs, served with curried lentil hummus, eggplant and cherry tomato masala, gingered turnips and naan, were another favorite, and we’ll definitely be ordering these again on our next visit.

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Thali plate and lamb meatballs

Pink Bellies offers Asian-inspired noodle and rice bowls topped with a variety of meats, onto which you can (and should!) add a delicious, 63-degree sous vide egg.  The chicken thigh rice bowl and pulled pork-laden garlic noodle bowl are particular favorites – both offer heaping portions of perfectly-cooked rice or noodles topped with pickled vegetables and a mound of the meat of choice.  It’s tough to go wrong with anything on offer.

While several of the Workshop stalls serve alcohol, the selection is limited (though thoughtfully selected to pair well with their food).  Luckily, Workshop is right next door to, and shares its outdoor space with, the newly-opened Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company.  Our crew had no trouble ordering beer and wine at the brewery and bringing it back to enjoy at Workshop, making both spots all the more appealing.  We can envision many more group gatherings in this great new space … we’ll definitely be back soon to work(shop) our way through its many offerings!


Info:

Workshop website
1503 King Street, Charleston, SC
Open daily for lunch & dinner (though individual kitchens’ hours may vary)

 

 

 

Cinco Tex-Mex

Thanks to our son’s busy schedule (seriously, he’s only three but already way cooler than us), we usually find ourselves in Mount Pleasant for dinner one night a week.  We typically rotate among a handful of restaurants (Kairos, Papa Zuzu’s and Five Loaves are our standbys), but this week we felt like trying someplace new.  Scrolling through Yelp, we came across a well-rated place neither of us had ever heard of: Cinco Tex-Mex.  Since we’re always down for tacos and Cinco was less than half a mile away, the decision was a no-brainer.

As we learned from our server, Cinco opened early this summer with purposely-little fanfare.  Run by a couple from San Antonio, the restaurant focuses on Tex-Mex classics – chip-and-dip appetizers, a handful of soups, salads and sides, and fajita, carnita, enchilada, quesadilla and taco entrées – all made to order.  Cinco’s flour tortillas, which form the backbone of most of its dishes, are made from scratch and pressed in a small, glassed-in prep area in the dining room (a bit of a show with dinner!), allowing the restaurant to demonstrate its attention to detail and dedication to authenticity.

The drink menu tends toward Mexican beer and tequila-based cocktails, many of which are discounted during Cinco’s 5-7pm weeknight happy hour.  We happened to be there on “Margarita Monday” and enjoyed a delicious, not-too-sweet peach marg for a mere $6 – reason enough to return!

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Peach margarita

The food also helped secure Cinco a spot in our Mount Pleasant restaurant rotation.  To start, we ordered the totopos con salsa – a heaping basket of house-made chips with red, green, and pineapple habanero salsas ($5).  The red and green were good, but the pineapple habanero was great; the chile’s kick was accompanied by a burst of sweetness from the pineapple, which proved to be the perfect counterpoint to the chips.  And the chips – ohhh, the chips.  Warm, salty and fried to golden perfection, they were simply outstanding.  Our server offered to refill our basket multiple times; we reluctantly declined lest we not have any room for our main courses, but it’s doubtful we’ll be so restrained next time!

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We will fight you for these chips.

For our entrées, we ordered several tacos and the steak fajitas.  The seven taco options are offered à la carte ($3-4.50 each), and we went with the asadero con rajas (cheese and pepper), beef fajita, and camarones (shrimp) – plus a chicken fajita taco for our son, who was none too pleased that he couldn’t have a chips-only dinner.  The asadero and fajita tacos were a little underwhelming; the strong flavor of the asadero cheese overwhelmed the flavor of the sparse poblanos, and the fajita-based offerings were perfectly fine but nothing special.  The camarones taco, however, was excellent, with nicely-fried shrimp, crispy corn salsa and a pleasantly spicy chipotle crema.  We’d be curious to try the other taco offerings (beef barbacoa, chicken tinga and chorizo), but we’ll probably favor the more substantial entrées in subsequent meals at Cinco.

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L-R: asadero con rajas, camarones, beef fajita

Speaking of the larger entrées, the fajitas ($16-18) ranked right up there with the best Tex-Mex Tyler has eaten in Texas.  The beef fajitas came to the table in the classic style: a sizzling skillet of beef, peppers and onions, a separate plate of black beans and elotes (Mexican street corn), and a foil pouch of the awesome house-made tortillas.  The fajita fillings were all grilled simply but perfectly, and when layered into a tortilla and slathered with crema and pico de gallo, they helped showcase Cinco’s strength and potential.  The black beans and street corn were also excellent, though both played second fiddle to the deliciously simple fajitas.

Cinco does not offer desserts yet (though we hear some are in the works), but we were too full for more food anyway!  We’re glad to have stumbled across this under-the-radar spot – it’s clearly still working out some kinks and refining its recipes, but we’re excited to see how it evolves and improves on an already-winning formula.  Keep those chips coming, Cinco, and we’ll keep coming back!


Info:

Cinco Tex-Mex website
1035 Johnnie Dodds Boulevard #B7, Mount Pleasant, SC
Hours: 5-10pm Monday-Saturday; closed Sundays

McCrady’s

As we’ve mentioned before, we’ve kept a running list of all the Charleston-area restaurants we’ve tried since our first visit to the Holy City back in 2009.  This summer, we realized we’d be hitting restaurant #200 right around our eleventh wedding anniversary in early August.  So with some careful planning and unusual restraint (there are several new places we’re dying to try!), we decided to go big and celebrate both milestones with a meal at the new McCrady’s tasting room.

Billed as Chef Sean Brock’s idea of a perfect meal, McCrady’s offers only a tasting menu ($115), with optional standard ($75) or reserve ($160) wine pairings (or selections from a very extensive wine list), all served with laser-like precision over a span of exactly two hours.  While we didn’t love every single bite of the thirteen-course meal and wished that certain aspects of the precisely-timed meal were a little more flexible, we found the experience to be an incredible foodie feast for both the eyes and the stomach.

UNI CUCUMBER:  The meal started with a beautiful frozen amuse bouche, perfect for a hot summer day in Charleston: a multi-colored, Lego-sized block resting on a single sheet of gold leaf, nestled in a bed of ice.  This one-bite starter was a colorblocked combination of uni (sea urchin roe) and cucumber, dusted with togarashi spice and topped with a single circle of nasturtium leaf.  While uni usually tastes like a big gulp of ocean water, this had just a faint hint of salinity that grew as the flavors developed in the mouth.  The heat from the togarashi spice strengthened in line with the uni, both of which were nicely cut by the fresh coolness of the cucumber.  This was an extremely cerebral bite of food that set the tone for the remainder of the meal: beautiful, (mostly) delicious, and some of the most technical food we’ve ever eaten.

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Uni Cucumber

Wine pairing: 2016 MOVIA. PURO. PINOT NOIR BRUT, SLOVENIA. This delicious sparkling Pinot Noir is made just across the Italian border in the up-and-coming wine country of Slovenia.  The bright red fruit flavor of old world Pinot Noir was well balanced with the wine’s crisp acidity, all supported by a backbone very reminiscent of a classic French blanc de blanc.

BEET, COCOA, LIME: Served on a circle of short spikes, the beet dish resembled a piece of dark saddle leather but was essentially a grown-up version of a fruit roll-up.  At first tacky and very sweet, the strip of beet was absolutely reminiscent of the childhood treat.  The sweetness faded quickly as tobacco and chocolate notes emerged, and the actual flavor of the beet played a supporting role in the entire dish.  If these were sold in stores, we would always have them on hand.  Whimsical, delicious and perfectly executed.

OSSABAW PORK, WILD RED BAY, SORGHUM: One long slice of heritage pork twisted around itself immediately brought to mind the serrano ham we ate almost nonstop on our recent trip to Spain.  The pork was richly fatty, melting in the mouth in a sea of porcine delight.   It was also glazed with a thin layer of sorghum syrup and dusted with wild red bay, both of which cut through the fatty unctuousness of the meat.  This bite was classic Sean Brock in every sense, and we both wished the portion was much larger than the single beautiful piece we received.

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Beet, Cocoa, Lime and Ossabaw Pork, Wild Red Bay, Sorghum

CARROT TART: Described by our server as being an “all carrot tart,” this was an interesting take on a combination of three preparations of carrot: the shell of the tart was a single slice of a large orange carrot (cooked to somehow hold the shell shape), and the tart filling was comprised of mandolined slices of raw purple carrot nestled within a carrot gel.   While beautiful, this was probably our least favorite dish of the night.  The tart was slightly too big to eat easily in a single bite, but it didn’t have the structural integrity to be broken into multiple pieces.  (Tyler’s attempt at a second bite resulted in a hand covered in carrot pieces.)  The pure carrot flavors of the shell and raw carrot were excellent, but they were sadly outmatched by the strong sweetness of the gel.  We appreciated the incredible amount of work and technique that went into the tart but just didn’t love the end result.

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Carrot Tart

Wine pairing: PIERRE PAILLARD, LES PARCELLES, EXTRA BRUT, BOUZY GRAND CRU, CHAMPAGNE.  This Grand Cru blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was an excellent follow-up to the light sparkling red.  Darker in color and weightier than the first wine, it nicely complemented the silky richness of the Ossabaw pork.

SUNCHOKE, CLAMS:  Next up was a dark, frosted glass bowl of sunchoke custard, topped with fried slices of sunchoke and a mystery green leaf (we forgot to ask what it was!).  Hidden in the custard were chilled and glazed slices of Georgia clams.  The custard was silky smooth with a very clean sunchoke flavor, studded with juicy slices of clams.  The leafy garnish tasted exactly like lemon, which was a nice counterbalance to the richness of the dish as a whole.  This dish was beautiful to look at and clearly cooked to perfection, but in our opinion it was one of the less successful plates of the evening – probably because neither of us is a big fan of either sunchokes or clams.

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Sunchoke, Clams

MAGWOOD SHRIMP: Three small but exquisitely cooked shrimp, served in a pool of savory broth and surrounded by dots of a deeply roasted tomato sauce, were our next course.  The shrimp, one of the standout components of the whole meal, were cooked better than any we’ve ever encountered elsewhere.  The richness of the tomato provided a nice backbone to the clean shrimp flavors, all of which were pulled together by the slightly warm broth resting beneath.

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Magwood Shrimp (photo courtesy of Matt Kelley)

Wine pairing: 2016 THIBAUD BOUDIGNON, CABERNET FRANC ROSÉ, LOIRE.  One of our favorites pours of the evening was this delicious and fruity rosé from the Loire Valley.  A vibrant pink color in the glass, this wine revealed flavors of fresh summer strawberries that were nicely matched with an almost grassy undertone.  The perfect summer wine, it evoked Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe.

COBIA, CORN, MARIGOLD:  Three perfectly opaque slices of local cobia arrived atop a bed of brilliantly crunchy summer corn, all swimming in a bath of bright green marigold oil.  Tiny snippets of tangerine lace (a delicate, feathery green) grown in McCrady’s rooftop garden garnished each slice of fish and lent additional depth and color to this vibrant dish.  As with every other protein of the evening, the cobia was cooked to perfection, but everything played second fiddle to the amazingly sweet corn kernels.  The only thing that could have improved this course was a slice of sourdough bread to sop up the remaining sauce.

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Cobia, Corn, Marigold

Wine pairing: 2015 LEITZ, RIESLING TROCKEN, RUDESHEIM, RHEINGAU.  Leitz’s Riesling, a blend from several vineyards, was a wonderful expression of German Riesling.  Gripping acidity faded out to reveal hints of wet stone and bright citrus fruit.  Racy and clean, this was an excellent match for the cobia.

LIMPIN’ SUSAN: Described as the “mistress of hoppin’ john,” this course was almost too beautiful to eat.  The base was a layer of expertly-prepared Carolina Gold rice, the grain that put Charleston on the map 200 years ago.  Known locally as “Charleston Ice Cream,” the rice was studded with various herbs and edible flower petals grown in the restaurant’s rooftop garden.  This dish represented everything that makes the new iteration of McCrady’s what it is: heritage South Carolina product, expertly prepared and plated as art.  This is food that fills the heart and mind…if not necessarily the stomach.

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Limpin’ Susan (photo courtesy of Matt Kelley)

Wine pairing: 2016 MASSICAN, HYDE VINEYARDS, CHARDONNAY, NAPA VALLEY.  A very expressive Chardonnay from the low yielding 2015 vintage, this single-vineyard white from Massican’s Hyde Vineyard was everything we love about the new, lighter Chards coming out of California.  Rounded fruit notes with just a touch of richness paired well with the rice-based Limpin’ Susan.

AGED BEEF, SOUR CABBAGE, FARRO: Simply put, this was medium rare steak at its peak.  A thick slice of Tennessee-bred New York strip, deeply red from edge to edge, was accompanied by “fire-threshed” farro encased in a single leaf of sour cabbage.  We both ate every bit of the richly flavored meat, right down to the meltingly tender fat cap.  The farro and sour cabbage were of course well cooked, but didn’t seem to add much to the dish as a whole.

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Aged Beef, Sour Cabbage, Farro

Wine pairing: 2013 DOMAINE DU GROS NORÉ, MOURVÈDRE, BANDOL.  Kermit Lynch is known for importing only the best, purest examples of French wine, and this Bandol red did not disappoint.  The clay and limestone soil of Bandol gave great structure to the wine, with Mourvèdre’s expected dark fruit notes marrying well with the wine’s solid core of minerality.

RASPBERRY SORBET, SUMMER FLOWERS, FERMENTED HONEY: The evening’s pre-dessert was a refreshing scoop of raspberry sorbet.  This was a nice, tart follow up to the richness of the steak and tasted only of perfectly ripe late summer raspberries.  That said, the dish was not without ceremony – after setting down our bowls, our server asked “white or pink?,” pulled out a pair of kitchen shears and proceeded to cut the petals off the one of the chrysanthemums that had been serving as a table decoration all evening.  This trick was wholly unexpected, and the vegetal bitterness of the flower proved to be a nice counterweight to the fermented honey blended into the sorbet.

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Raspberry Sorbet, Summer Flowers, Fermented Honey (photo courtesy of Matt Kelley)

CHOCOLATE, YAUPON HOLLY, BENNE: Before we received our sorbet, a server placed this dish on our tableside cart and slowly filled two chocolate shells with a steaming chocolate liquid.  While we enjoyed the sorbet, the liquid cooled and solidified before being topped with five dots of benne oil and then served.  What looked like a fairly pedestrian chocolate tart was transformed by the astringent bite of the oil.  Not a combination we would have ever come up with ourselves, but it worked on every level and was a fantastic twist on a classic sweet.

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Chocolate, Yaupon Holly, Benne

“FOIECHAMACALLIT”: This was hands-down Tyler’s favorite bite of the evening: two chocolate candies on a bed of cocoa nibs, served on a plate adorned with dried wheat stalks.  Our server told us that Chef Brock’s favorite candy bar is the Whatchamacallit (a chocolate candy bar with a crispy layer of peanut butter) and so he created this interpretation, adding a rich mousse of foie gras and topping it with a single crystal of flaky sea salt.  This dish tasted of each of its components: dark chocolate, sweet peanut butter and the fatty, umami-laden depth of the foie gras.  Every ingredient was delicious on its own but also served to elevate all of the other flavors.  This single bite was haute cuisine at its best: beautiful, ambitious, technically perfect and delicious.

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“Foiechamacallit”

Wine pairing: RARE WINE COMPANY, HISTORIC SERIES – NEW YORK, MALMSEY, MADEIRA.  A favorite drink in Charleston’s colonial era, our final pairing was a classic, nutty glass of Madeira.  Made in a style intended to imitate the Madeira enjoyed two hundred years ago, the sweet viscosity of this oxidized wine was the perfect pair to the two chocolate desserts.

BREATH FRESHENER: The final bite of the evening was a house-made breath freshener.  The ingredients were not revealed, but we both sensed that the light and airy menthol meringue was slightly cut with a dot of berry compote.  It tasted exactly like a Listerine breath strip and did indeed freshen your mouth after the two hour meal.  It was an interesting and no doubt difficult-to-execute dish, though we considered the “foiechamacallit” the true end of the meal and this merely a coda.

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Breath Freshener

We absolutely enjoyed this meal and felt that it was well worth its very high cost.  That being said, the experience was not above criticism, and there are a few things we think would have improved the evening.  Other than the few not-our-favorite bites described above, our primary (though minor) complaint was with the timing.  From start to finish, our meal was almost exactly two hours, and we could see patrons for the next seating being ushered to their seats as we were accompanied to a separate exit. While we understand that Chef Brock has choreographed the McCrady’s experience down to 5- minute increments, the end of the meal did come rather abruptly, and there was no offer of coffee or the ability to linger over any remaining wine.  (While we opted for the standard wine pairings, McCrady’s wine list does include many heavy hitters in the wine world; we’d like to think that a table spending $1,000+ on a bottle of wine would not be shown the door at the two hour mark if the bottle wasn’t empty.)  For a restaurant of this caliber and expense, some form of lounge would have been a welcome addition – a nice bar or leather chair where guests could finish their wine or enjoy coffee or a digestif would lend a final note of sophistication and relaxation to what was otherwise a beautiful, delicious culinary experience.

Overall, though, we left McCrady’s satiated, inspired and toting a packet of heirloom seeds from Chef Brock’s private collection that was presented with our check – a fitting conclusion to a meal that celebrated and elevated Lowcountry dining and that could be found only here in Charleston.


Info:

McCrady’s website
2 Unity Alley, Charleston, SC
Dinner only, Wednesday-Sunday (limited seating times; reservations highly recommended)

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

 

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!