If only it could happen more often. That sense of excitement I get when I’ve just sat behind the wheel of a hire car in a foreign country. New territory, freedom to stop wherever I want, and in this case reacquainting myself with driving on the other side of the road. With Savannah still reflected in the rear vision mirror, it was when we hit the highway off Savannah’s Talmadge Memorial Bridge that we had our first glimpse of the Lowcountry.
It’s pretty evident why the land in the these parts has been named as such. Flat expanses of marsh grass, rivers and estuaries, houses on stilts and that unmistakable smell of pluff mud at low tide.
To break the drive between Savannah and Charleston, and take care of lunch, we stopped by the small city of Beaufort on Port Royal Island. I was kind of expecting to see an alligator stroll across the road at any moment, given the geographic location amid the marshy Sea Islands.
A block back from Beaufort’s high street in the historic district is The Beaufort Inn, a beautifully restored former summer retreat for Congressman William Sidney Smith in 1897. The inns restaurant, Southern Graces Bistro, is just as you’d expect a bed & breakfast to look in this part of the country.
I was feeling a tad underdressed in my comfy jeans and t-shirt. Had I been prepared, I would have borrowed somebody’s pressed trousers and beige cardigan just to look the part in the very lush surroundings. In all seriousness this is actually a casual restaurant, despite its décor and table settings.
Two rather enormous popovers were delivered once our order was taken, served up with some very pink butter that’s mixed with fresh strawberries. Regular butter would have been preferred, but I guess that’s how things roll down at the inn.
It may have been steamy outside but I couldn’t veer from the she crab soup (4.95); something I’d been wanting to try for quite some time. It’s rich, creamy and quite possibly one of the best soups I’ve eaten. Rafting on the surface are two pimento cheese straws.
Southern fried chicken (10.95) follows, served with whipped potato and corn and some diy Lowcountry fish tacos (11.95) with mahi mahi, black-eyed pea relish and the usual accompaniments. Some much-needed fuel before our Charleston arrival.
Our introduction to Charleston was a wet one, to say the least, thanks to a sudden thunderstorm that slowed the Savannah Highway to a crawl. The road was looking more like a wide creek than a major arterial. But as quickly as it came, the storm cleared. Timing perfectly as we pulled into home for the next few nights – the Courtyard Charleston Waterfront by the Ashley River. Nice position, even though it was a two-mile walk to downtown.
Much like Savannah we’d just driven from, Charleston is dripping in history. It was founded by the Brits on Albemarle Point in 1670 as Charles Towne, then moved 10 years later to where it is today. Its tumultuous past started with attacks from the Spanish and French as well as raids from Native Americans. The American Revolution struck a bit of a blow, as did the Civil War, the Great Fire of 1838 and a devastating earthquake almost fifty years later. This is one resilient city.
The Charleston of today is very much about preservation. Choose the wrong shade of paint for your house and you just may have some explaining to do. The historic downtown district is made up of tree-lined streets, pastel-coloured townhouses, gas lamps and beautifully manicured gardens. Enviable homes everywhere.
Somehow we ended up by the harbour spending a couple of languid hours perched up at the railing bar at Fleet Landing, sipping on chilled bevies whilst watching turtles paddle around the marshy waters.
It’s not all about drinking at this former naval building. The restaurant bustles with visitors, locals and families – chowing on some very down-to-earth southern fare with a heavy local seafood presence. Staying for dinner did cross my mind, but the growing line of people at the door prompted us to find an alternative.
Aimlessly walking about the streets we stumbled upon Cru Café, an off the beaten path restaurant with a delicious-sounding contemporary menu with a slight southern flavour. A few tables line the porch of the 18th century weatherboard building, plus seating in two cosy rooms at the front of the house. And for those of us that can’t distance ourselves from the kitchen, there are four seats with full view of the cooking action. Any guesses where we sat?
We’d previously tried fried green tomatoes in Savannah, scratching our heads as to why they’re so ubiquitous here in the south. They needed a second chance. How about fried green tomatoes (10.5) with smoked pork belly, feta and a fig syrup? Now we’re talking. This immediately altered my views of the humble fried green tomato. But then again, anything with pork belly ….
The other half wasn’t all that keen on a huge meal, opting for the duck confit arugula salad (11.95). Candied pecans, fried onion rings, tomato and a port vinaigrette join the flavour party.
I’m not sure whether it was our accents or because I was snapping away with the camera, but the kitchen generously gave us some truffle parmesan fries. All mine, thanks to someones aversion to truffle.
I lost count of how many of the next dish we saw being prepped, plated and sent to hungry carnivores. BBQ Berkshire pork osso bucco (23.95). Whilst osso bucco refers to an entirely different looking dish where we come from, this gargantuan pork shank ticked every one of my pork-loving boxes. The meat slid off in tender sheets, beautifully sauced-up with a bbq demi glace. The vegetables were almost superfluous, and I had no troubles in leaving a bare bone in the bowl.
America, your over-sized portions have stretched my stomach. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
And because “we needed it”, a warm flourless chocolate torte (8.95) rounded off the meal, winning us over with its mousse-like innards.
Strangely, the hotel we were shacked up in didn’t do breakfast, or have a restaurant for that matter. There were always the national fast food chains up on the highway, but, well, they’re not really options for this pair.
In the opposite direction past the pluff mud flats along Lockwood Drive is the City Marina. After some light Googling I found a place called the Marina Variety Store Restaurant – clearly a place for the local regulars to kick back in a booth and chow on some stodgy southern fare. I love finding places like this, even if the other half isn’t all that keen on diner-like eateries. No trouble with me!
The restaurant has a perfect riverside possie and its best feature is that its old charm hasn’t been altered. Many American favourites are on offer, plus a great selection of Lowcountry delectables. Fried green tomato eggs benedict, anyone?
A BLT sandwich (5.5) semi-satisfies the other half. Semi, meaning the wholewheat bread it was constructed with was quite sweet. Something that’s seemingly common with sliced bread in this country.
Meanwhile, I tuck into my gator & shrimp island (12.99) with fervour. Tender chunks of marinated alligator, grilled shrimp, onion and peppers plus two fried eggs. All of this marooned over a cushy bed of grits and topped with gravy.
Most visitors to Charleston will inevitably make it to the City Market, a series of long narrow buildings with vendors peddling jewellery, Creole spices, homewares, souvenirs and woven sweetgrass crafts by the local Gullah people – descendants of African slaves. It’s a bustling place with hoards of tourists looking out for their own piece of Charleston to take home.
The place that saw us the most is Kudu, a nice little spot to kick back with coffee or craft beer. Being within close proximity of the College of Charleston, it’s difficult to miss the students and lecturers winding up or winding down over a cup of the fair trade Counter Culture coffee from North Carolina. And these guys really know how to make it well.
Food options are limited, but the couple of breakfast items we tried did the trick. Bacon, cheddar & jalapeño quiche (3.5) and a cinnamon raisin bagel (2.75).
A few blocks away is another coffee shop that’s worth taking note of. Black Tap Coffee is housed in a purple and orange weatherboard building and gets its name from the black beer-style tap that’s centred on the service counter. And no it isn’t beer down there. It’s cold brew coffee.
As we gravitate to the espresso and macchiato, it seems the locals prefer their coffee cold in this very warm part of the country. A few edibles are supplied by local WildFlour Pastry and the beans are from Counter Culture; served up from the La Marzocco machine, the cold brew tap, Kyoto cold brew tower or four cone pour-over set-up. They take their coffee seriously here, and it shows.
Some may say that visiting Husk, one of Charleston’s best-known restaurants, simply must make it to the eating agenda. It’s a place with a simple philosophy. Only food that’s produced in the South will make it to the plate. The menu may not be a celebration of Southern classics, but it does celebrate the fine produce that’s grown in this part of the country.
Both of us looked up when we heard the pork ribs (14) enter the room. Yes, it was the sound coming from the plate that got our attention. And that plate was headed straight for me. The most tender, smokey and lusciously sweet pork ribs I’ve had for quite some time. These babies are slow-smoked over pecan shells, served with some rather audible pork rinds that continue making crackling noises once they’re inside your mouth. One word. Incredible.
Our other dish – the Manchester Farms quail (15) – may not have made any sound on arrival, but it sure spoke through its earthy flavours. Nutty farro, sliced apple and fennel, kale, watercress and brown butter.
An intriguing sounding pecan pie panna cotta (7) comes parfait-style, topped with “pecan pie filling” and a thin donut-like cinnamon “pie crust”. And we also have a slice of buttermilk pie (7), a bit of a Southern favourite. The pie comes with some sweet macerated peaches, teaming well with the slightly sour baked custard filling.
Making use of the hire car, we took a short trip out of town to visit Drayton Hall, an 18th-century plantation house that’s considered the nations finest example of Georgian-Palladian architecture. The mansion survived the Revolution, the Civil War, the earthquake of 1886, hurricanes and even urban sprawl.
One thing that sets it apart from most other plantation homes is that it has been preserved, keeping it as close to the condition when it was handed over to the National Trust by the Drayton family in 1974. Other plantations have been restored; stripped and redecorated to showcase a particular period. There’s no furniture at all in Drayton Hall, just empty rooms, bare walls and preserved details of its multi-generation past.
A guided tour comes as part of the admission price where you listen to stories and learn a great deal about the many generations of Drayton’s and African-American workers that lived on the property.
Along the main driveway is the African-American Cemetery, a resting place for many of the slaves that lived and worked on the property. There are 40 known graves on the site, marked and unmarked. Whilst it may appear as a forest cemetery, the area looked very different when it was a small community of Drayton Hall workers. Today all you can see is a few small headstones past an archway that says “Leave ‘Em Rest”, a quote made by the most recent person to be buried here in 1998. Richmond Bowens, born and raised on the former plantation to parents that worked there.
Returning back to town involved a little more exploration of the historic district – drooling over some of the massive houses that are immaculately kept.
The sticky heat was enough to make us retreat into this little wine bar we found amongst all the antique stores on King Street. Bin 152 is a chilled space that’s a perfect contender to kick back and indulge in some vino (over 100 bottles & predominantly French), dozens of cheeses and charcuterie. Husband and wife team Patrick and Fanny Panella know a thing or two about the wares they peddle thanks to working in food and beverage in New York, San Francisco, Paris and Nice.
We could have easily slouched in the wine bar for the rest of the evening, but a table was waiting for us around the corner at Poogan’s Porch.
The endearing part of the story behind the late 1880’s Victorian house in which Poogan’s Porch resides is when it was sold by its owners in 1976 and converted to a restaurant. They left their dog Poogan behind; a dog that was pretty happy staying in the neighbourhood after his owners left. The porch was his favourite spot even after the restaurant opened, where he became the official greeter.
Poogan may be gone now, but his name and small garden statue live on at this Queen Street hot-spot for progressive Lowcountry cuisine.
The Southern food was weighing us down a bit so it was a relatively light three-dish meal that we sampled on that particular evening. Sweetly-dressed in honey jalapeño dressing, the fried alligator salad (8.95) was a simple affair featuring semi-crispy nuggets of tender reptile, baby arugula and pickled sweet potato.
The crispy skin snapper (25.95) may not have delivered in the crispy stakes, but it was no slouch in the flavour department. The fillet came propped against a firm cheddar grit cake, some radish, wilted arugula and a sweet BBQ reduction.
There were no gripes with the cast iron pork chop (19.95); crumbed and cooked juicily tender, slumped over some beans and smoked gouda mac & cheese with a generous ladle of country ham gravy. This was one piece of swine that made me swoon.
With our final day in Charleston upon us, it was about time to return the rental car to the depot. Not before pulling up at Hominy Grill for a quick breakfast. The menu here looks to be very Lowcountry. It’s clearly a place for the locals that want their fill on home cooking with a slight edge. Nothing fancy or too stodgy; just real.
The other half opted for something light – the buckwheat pancakes (10). Some simple sorghum butter to moisten things up a tad and it was just the ticket.
I, however, had to go with the local flow. I’m not the biggest of fans with combining
scones biscuits with anything other than jam or thick cream, but when I saw the big nasty biscuit (9) on the menu, I had to give it a burl. The biscuit was rapidly turning into a gluggy paste thanks to the sausage gravy, but the star of the breakfast show was the fried chicken breast. There was some mighty-fine flavour in the gravy, and the addition of cheddar jacked it up a few notches as well. One thing for sure is that it’s far from finger food.
Our final dinner was a bit of a blind one. Meaning, we had no idea where we felt like going or what we felt like eating. I was craving somewhere quiet and pretty-much any type of cuisine.
Walking along King Street we could see many places were already brimming with people, so rather than faff about we decided on Fish before every place in town was too full to accommodate us.
Fish is a bit of a step away from the Lowcountry food we’d been getting our fill on. It’s a restaurant that feels a little fancy and pub-style at the same time. Local ingredients that have a French approach with the caress of Asian flavours. A marriage of styles that felt like the perfect way to round off our Charleston experience.
A freshly corked bottle of vino and a couple of tasty dishes was all this pair needed. A pink, rosy fan of roasted Long Island duck breast (24) with asparagus, mushrooms and mac & cheese “spring roll”. The spring roll was more akin to a filo tart, which is fine, as it was freakin’ delicious. Loved the addition of fresh blueberries.
Equally delicious were the 72-hour short ribs (29); cooked sous vide with no bones in sight. A bordelaise sauce added richness, a tomato, fennel & goat cheese “pie” posed as the vegetable component and the most stupendous bacon fries tried to steal the limelight. These little beauties were like long tater tots, just mixed with bacon.
A peach tatin cake (6) was up for sharing; spongy and dense almost like French toast, tangled with fried strips of pastry, hazelnut brown butter ice cream and a blackberry saké sabayon. We may have been in the south, but it was nice to cap things off with something that wasn’t “the norm”.