A couple weeks, lot’s of strawberry shortcake eating, Top Chef Masters watching, Eat Pray Love reading, working, walking and lot’s of bakery hours later, I am finally getting around to telling you about the culinary haven and foodie’s paradise that is Charleston.
Over Mother’s Day Weekend, I ventured down south just a ways, with my mom and sister, to see Charleston for the first time. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with this charming southern belle of a city. The gorgeous homes and buildings, rich history, palm trees and southern coastal cuisine got under my skin (and is still there I think) ever so quickly. Unfortunately our time there was brief, as we only had a weekend, but Charleston will call again and I will answer.
Here are some of our exciting culinary ventures:
Our first stop was the popular hot spot, Hominy Grill (for lunch). Housed in an old Barbershop building at 207 Rutledge Avenue, this restaurant is small but inviting and is the kind of place where you’ll have an intense inner debate with yourself, trying to figure out what to order because everything sounds incredible and you want to order one of each. It’s the kind of place with chalkboards adorning the walls, enticing you with southern delights such as shrimp and grits and fried green tomato BLT’s with ancho chile lime mayonnaise – what I ordered, and it was tasty except for the mayo, which is my fault because apparently I don’t care for the ancho chile flavor. My mom and sister ordered vegetable plates and were in the mood to share (thank God), because their macaroni & cheese, cauliflower gratin and mashed sweet potatoes were divine and the cornbread was thick and and the perfect balance of dense with a fine crumb. It was probably the best cornbread I’ve ever had.
We were too full for dessert, which was heartbreaking to me, because I wanted to take on the entire dessert menu – especially the Devil’s Food Cake with Vanilla Bean Buttercream Frosting – something I had promised to come back and get the next day, but missed because it had sold out. Extra heartbreaking. I was also curious about the famous buttermilk pie and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ogling the chocolate pudding at the table nearby. It will just have to wait…but man how I wanted that cake.
I’m glad I didn’t go all the way to Charleston and skip this wonderful little gem. After all, I had to see what The New York Times, Food & Wine and Gourmet were all raving about. Plus, a deliriously happy and buzzed looking photo of Anthony Hopkins is in the bathroom there, and you can tell he had a blast and enjoyed his meal. That’s good enough for me.
Now one of my most favorite things to do is research restaurants weeks, sometimes months before I travel, so I can scope out the best spots and add them to my itinerary – I even have an ever growing collection of saved Word documents stored on my computer, with restaurant names and addresses, as I learn about them, organized by city. Yes I am aware this validates that I am in fact, a dork. I’m okay with that. Anyway, moving right along, I naturally this trip was no different, so a few weeks prior, I began looking up restaurants in the area. In my findings, much to my elation, I found that there was a Baked in Charleston! I thought there was only one Baked. The one in Brooklyn, very far away from Charleston. I had never been to Baked but had seen the cookbook “Baked: New Frontiers in Baking,” by owners Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito in quite a few stores and heard about the “sweet and salty brownie,” in an episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
We walked in and found probably the cleanest, hippest bakery I’ve ever seen, decked out in browns, whites and oranges and organized neatly with confections and merchandise. We saw homemade marshmallows – not just ordinary marshmallows, there were violet and chocolate flavored marshmallows! I actually considered trying one of the cupcakes but realized I’d commit a regretful error if I didn’t go for a brownie instead – the “Sweet and Salty” brownie, with homemade caramel inside and fleur de sel on top. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made, it turns out. I kid you not folks. This Baked brownie is not a brownie to contend with. This is a bold statement I’m about to make here, but I’ll say it with the utmost conviction: this was the best brownie I’ve ever had. It’s pretty much life-changing. Fudgey and cakey, moist and rich, and full of the most intense chocolate flavor, with buttery caramel that isn’t too overwhelming or chewy. And the salt! Oh the salt just balances everything out and makes it all the more heavenly. This brownie is so good I would barter valuable things in exchange for one, and pay an embarrassingly large amount of money for its recipe. I’m still thinking about it.
Our first night in Charleston, we went to High Cotton, at 199 East Bay St. for dinner. If that isn’t a true southern, classy restaurant name, I don’t know what is. It was beautiful, with a lively atmosphere. Classy but not pretentious, and our waiter resembled the actor Jeremy Renner, so that was kind of fun. I started out with some gin with elderflower liqueur, lemon and tonic and it was delightful. We all shared an arugula salad with goat cheese, strawberries and lightly candied walnuts, which was wonderful, especially since strawberries in salads is one of my new favorite things.
My mom and I shared the roast duck breast and leg confit with butternut squash green bean and hazelnut risotto, in a port wine reduction. The duck breast was a little too rare for my taste, but still delicious and the leg confit was perfect. I’ve never had hazelnut in a savory dish before this and I really enjoyed all of the plate’s components. We also split a side of whole grain mustard, sour cream and green onion mashed potatoes which were so flavorful and tangy. Instead of dessert, we opted for an espresso martini and a chocolate martini – both were fabulous and fun since I don’t typically order those kinds of drinks. (I’m more of a wine or gin and tonic kinda gal). I’d definitely go back to High Cotton though and you should too.
Saturday we had lunch where Tennessee Williams used to dine. And Giada de Laurentiis. Poogan’s Porch was a place not to be missed and they had the softest, most lovely biscuits with honey butter and a damn good shrimp po boy. I’d love to go back and try them for dinner sometime.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to tell you about the Sugar Bakeshop, on 59 Cannon St, voted among “Best of the Bakeshops,” by Bon Appetit Magazine.
Now, you should know (in case you don’t already), I don’t just have a sweet tooth. I have many. Dessert will forever be my biggest weakness, and when traveling, I feel it is my mission to seek out all the best bakeries around…or else I could miss out on the best chocolate croissant I’ve ever tasted or the best cupcake, etc. That would be a tragedy. Sugar Bakeshop looked too adorable to pass up. It was tiny and a little retro looking and was the kind of place I would open myself if I ever opened a bakery.
We bought some sun tea with fresh mint – something I had never tried before and discovered that I like! We bought a little strawberry rhubarb tart that melted in our mouths…and 4 cupcakes – lemon, caramel, almond and yellow with chocolate icing. A couple of the cupcakes were just a tad dry and crumbly but they were still delicious – especially the lemon. It tasted like sunshine.