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.

IMG_9403
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.

IMG_9373
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.

IMG_9405
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.

IMG_9402
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.

IMG_9404
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.

IMG_9406
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.

IMG_9001

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

IMG_8991

 

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.

IMG_9007

 

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.

 

 

IMG_9002

 

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.

IMG_8999

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.

IMG_8993

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.

IMG_8664
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??)

IMG_8663
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.

IMG_8666
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.

IMG_8667
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.

IMG_8668
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.

IMG_8672
“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.

IMG_8977
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.

IMG_8712

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.

IMG_8384
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.

IMG_8383
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.

IMG_8714
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