Low Country Rising
Growing up in Charleston, we were surrounded by vivid personalities. Next door were two sisters in their sixties, one of whom lived in a camper parked out front at the curb. Another neighbor--a mild, cordial gentleman-- once held up an ATM with a .22-caliber rifle. There was the lonely old bachelor who dressed in a top hat and tails every Valentine's Day and a host of other characters who seemed larger than life in this prim port city, with its antebellum mansions and gardens of camellias and azaleas. Although Charleston has changed gradually over the years, the eccentricity of our fellow Charlestonians is something we can always count on.
There's another thing about our hometown that seemed never to change: dull restaurants. A decade ago, Louis Osteen livened things up when he opened Louis's, with cosmopolitan turns on Low Country fare. More recently, Bob Waggoner returned from France to apply la technique to Southern staples at Charleston Grill. But most restaurants here existed to serve the great hordes of tourists, who apparently were content with no more than high-school-cafeteria-quality fried shrimp and hush puppies.
Then, on a recent trip to the Holy City, we discovered that a clutch of new restaurants has sprung up, seemingly overnight. They're places with personalities as bold as our neighbors', but with a few more social graces. Energetic young chefs are bringing new ideas to Low Country cuisine, reaching out to farmers for Jerusalem artichokes, golden beets, radish sprouts and other ingredients rarely seen on local menus before. For the first time in our lives, choosing where to eat out is part of the joy of being here. Charleston finally has the restaurants it deserves.
We'd come to town to celebrate the birthday of a friend, who suggested we go to McCrady's (2 Unity Alley; 843-577-0025). We weren't exactly looking forward to it. A dark 18th-century tavern, McCrady's was our grandmother's standby, a reliable, if unexciting, place for she-crab soup and crab cakes. We arrived to find a different McCrady's entirely. The Kate Spade bags and pastel pashminas along the dramatic, golden-hued bar signaled a new regime. Gone was the dreaded breaded crab cake; in its place was a chilled crab salad drizzled with blood orange essence and pierced with a shard of sesame cracker. The chef, Michael Kramer, has renounced the Southernisms of the moment--the dressed-up grits and the green tomatoes--and brought a globe-trotting eclecticism to a city that has seen one pecan-crusted mahimahi too many. He plays bright vegetable essences off subtle fish flavors, as in his grouper with sweet corn and red pepper, and his halibut with leeks and lemon chives. His minimalist pairings were worldly enough to make us feel like we were in New York or Paris; so it was all the more thrilling at the end of the meal to step outside and see, not the hustle of Times Square or the Champs Elysées, but the mossy brick of Unity Alley.
If McCrady's is a jet-setter, High Cotton (199 E. Bay St.; 843-724-3815) is a well-heeled homebody--happy to be here, thank you very much. There's no question you're in Charleston: enormous plate-glass windows look out on a well-trafficked corner of the old mercantile district a couple of blocks from the docks. But most restaurants in this part of town are somber, half-hearted affairs; High Cotton is eager, even boastful: its name is plantation-era argot for livin' large. There are potted palms, a fleet of straw ceiling fans and a rain forest's worth of mahogany shutters--left open, of course, the better to see and be seen. It's impossible to be indifferent about High Cotton. It's like the vintage Rolls-Royce we saw parked outside: You either lust for the driver's seat or want to deflate the tires.
After we settled into an alligator-skin banquette, we scanned the menu, on which old-guard mainstays like veal chops hold their own with original ideas like rabbit sausage over stone-ground grits (a first for us) and Green Goddess dressing on delicate, buttermilk-fried oysters (ditto). To follow the rabbit and oysters, we asked for a porterhouse--rare, if you please. And rare it was. (At last! A Charleston restaurant that will give us our steaks as bloody as we want without first making us sign a release.) The sauce we chose for our meat was Henry Bain, a sweet condiment named for its inventor, a waiter in Kentucky, and made from pickled walnuts, Major Grey's chutney and Worcestershire sauce. High Cotton spares no expense--even the Worcestershire is house-made--so people come here when they're feeling flush. Nearby, a teenage tycoon gave wine-tasting advice to his companions, three young ladies in black cocktail dresses; we heard every word, even though the space between tables is generous.
The only ones playing dress up at Hank's Seafood Restaurant (10 Hayne St.; 843-723-3474) are the waitstaff, who zip around in starched white jackets, hoisting expensive platters of fruits de mer. With its pretty procession of crustaceans painted around the ceiling and its leather banquettes, Hank's may be the most elegant temple to seafood this city's ever seen. Still, its spirit is laid-back beach-town ("What else can I bring you, hon'?" our twenty-something waitress asked a sixty-year-old guest at our table). If this sounds contradictory, keep in mind that this was once the site of a peculiarly Charlestonian institution called the Garden and Gun Club.
Whether you're in black tie or camouflage, you're going to have fun here. Chef Frank McMahon pays homage to the seafood heritage of Charleston with dishes borrowed from a legendary fish house called Henry's: Flounder à la Gherardi, a baked flounder fillet stuffed with local blue crab and creek shrimp, and Seafood à la Wando, a creamy shellfish mélange laced with sherry and served over grits.
The wood signs at Hank's entrance have been weathered; cracks have even been painted onto the stucco exterior to make the place look like it's been around for ages. It's not a surprising tactic in a town where natives meeting you for the first time will ask if you're a "been-yah" ("been here," a native) or a "come-yah" ("come here," a newcomer), a question that's really just a formality, since everyone knows each other here. What they really mean is: You must be new.
Circa 1886 (149 Wentworth St.; 843-853-7828) exudes the old-money cool of a "been-yah," even though it's only been open since January. At a remove from the city center, in a the carriage house of a Victorian mansion, Circa 1886 is Charleston's best-kept secret. To get there you pass through a wrought-iron gate and wander through a manicured garden; we couldn't help but feel a little furtive, like we were stealing across the palace grounds.
The dining room's sober gray and maroon recalls exclusive yacht and country clubs, but there's not a shrimp cocktail in sight. Like a debutante with a nose ring, chef Patrick Ramsey brings a playful irreverence to Low Country cuisine. The results are astounding. Champagne-poached langoustine and paper-thin slices of cucumber are fanned around a dollop of Chayote sorbet. Smoky, gossamer sheets of venison carpaccio arrive with a miniature scoop of vanilla-onion ice cream.
On our way out, our waiter encouraged us to visit the mansion's cupola, which offers a 360-degree view of the Charleston peninsula. Why not? It was a clear, warm night, and the three-quarter moon lit up an old boat beached in someone's backyard. On the horizon construction cranes and steeple spires revealed a venerable city slowly, even reluctantly, changing with the times. Charleston now has restaurants as intriguing as its denizens. That, we hope, will never change.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee wrote about the foods of the Florida panhandle for Food & Wine in February.