Merry Christmas y’all. This year, S and I decided to trade hot weather for a nice wintry holiday visiting my best friend from high school, who lives in the USA. More specifically, he lives in Columbia, South Carolina. We decided to fly into Charleston (which is a two hour drive from Columbia), both because the flights to Charleston were cheaper and also because we had heard it was a gorgeous city in which we should spend a few days eating, shopping, and taking in the sights.My friend J met us in Charleston airport… wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt. The weather here, surprisingly and at first annoyingly but I will admit, now, pleasantly, has been unusually warm. T-shirt warm. Which means all of S’s and my winter fantasies of huddling in front of a fireplace sipping hot mulled cider have been replaced with knocking back chilled glasses of eggnog (Melissa’s recipe, of course) – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that we didn’t expect it.
The eating down South has been fun. And filling. We kicked off our trip, as I said above, in Charleston. Two of J’s friends have a fantastic weekend apartment off King Street – the main shopping drag – which was perfect for us. S, as you might imagine, went a tad nuts in Williams-Sonoma.J, a foodie himself, had prepared a very well-researched dining itinerary for us. For our first lunch, we went to one of his fave hang-outs, a fabulous little French bistro called 39 Rue de Jean. I love casual, down to earth and retro-styled French bistros (think Balthazar) and this cute red-bricked place pushed all the right buttons. S and J had mussels and fries while I had a trout amandine with rice pilaf in a beurre blanc sauce.For dinner that night, we had a truly splendid meal at a New American restaurant called FIG. FIG describes itself as “an intimate neighborhood bistro serving a ‘seasonally inspired menu’. FIG focuses on the resources of the area to create a daily changing menu featuring Dayboat Seafood, an abundance of Local produce, and farm raised meats and poultry.” The room is cosy and fun. It was great that at least half the room seemed to know each other; the place was packed with laughing, jovial regulars. Service was excellent (ask for Hailey!) and the food was delicious. Chef-owner Mike Lata clearly understands his customers, has a real affinity for regional produce, and knows his way around a kitchen. Sadly, because we had just come off of a long flight, S and I only had one course each; she had Grilled Triggerfish with early summer vegetables and tapenade while I had the Four Story Hill Farms Sweetbreads with Nicola potato puree, golden carrots, and morels. That said, we have made a reservation to return. Since we fly out of Charleston, we will spend one more night in town and our last dinner before we leave will be back at FIG.
We started the next day with some awesome cupcakes from Cupcake. While these yummy cakes don’t look that refined, they tasted really delicious. I would highly recommend a drop-in if you ever get to Charleston. The red velvet cupcake was much, much, much better than others I have eaten in the past (including the ones we tried at Sprinkles). We then had lunch at a charming Colonial-style restaurant called High Cotton. We kicked the meal off with some delicious buttermilk fried oysters and one of the best prawn cocktails I have ever had. I really love the way good restaurateurs in the South make their cocktail sauce – which is very different from the marie-rose sauce found most commonly in England or Australia. Down South, cocktail sauce is made with fresh horseradish. After our starters, I had a half rack of Berkshire ribs with fried pickles and coleslaw. I will admit that the fried pickles were not my thing, but the BBQ was gorgeous. The meat was super-tender and slid off the bone with ease. S had crab cakes while J had a lobster club. I would go back to High Cotton anytime. Dinner that night was our only let-down of the trip, so I won’t go into any details (I am, as y’all know, not the kind of blogger who likes to talk bad about restaurants).
Our final lunch in Charleston was at Magnolias, a sweet, semi-swishy room with a nice, tight regional menu. I started with a fabulously rich and thick crab bisque (order a cup; a bowl will kill you) and shared a plate of homemade chips lathered with blue cheese and pickles. My main was disappointing – buttermilk fried chicken breast – but mostly because our waitress had told me it was the best fried chicken she had ever eaten. I was originally going to order the spicy shrimps and sausages over grits, which J had and was really delicious. Of course, I should have known better. I usually never like chicken breast because unless it is cooked really perfectly, it comes out dry. Such was the case here.Dinner that night was really lovely. We checked out a very cool New American place called McCrady’s. Of all the food we ate on the trip, the cuisine served in this cosy, slightly formal dining room was by far the most inventive and the most modern. All of us had very good meals. I started my meal with a butter poached lobster with braised fennel, citrus and almond milk. This was beautifully prepared and presented. I then had a pumpkin ravioli in a sage butter sauce. This was also lovely. My third course was conceptually very exciting – General Tso’s sweetbreads with a pork fried rice – but sadly the dish didn’t come together well. Dessert was a nice apple crisp with brown butter ice cream. I really like what Chef Sean Brock and his team are doing, both on the plate but also in their philosophy of promoting field-to-table dining. Here’s a snippet of what that means, taken from their site: “The McCrady’s Restaurant team has become vegetable farmers, pig wranglers and horticulturists all for the sole purpose of bringing the very best from their farm on Wadmalaw Island to the table. We support many local farms, fishermen and artisans, allowing for ultimate control over the quality of the food which we proudly serve to our valued guests.”
After Charleston, we came into Columbia, where we’ve been cooking up a storm. J has a great house and a nice kitchen, so we’ve been having fun. We have found the time to sneak out for a few meals, the best of which was at Ela’s European Market & Deli, for the best Reuben that S and I have ever eaten, and Palmetto Pig, for good barbecue and excellent fried chicken. Sadly, the one meal that S and I have been craving didn’t happen. We had read that Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlotte, North Carolina had some of the best fried chicken in the country. And since S and I love fried chicken, we made J drive us up to try it. Sadly, Price’s was closed and will stay closed until 1 Jan 2009; we leave the USA on 30 Dec 2008, which means we’re not going to get to try it. Which really sucked.
We have a few more days and a few more meals. We’re excited to go back to FIG as well as try a few more of J’s fave places in Columbia. And S wants another Reuben at Ela’s before we go. Happy Holidays!
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