It was three years ago that I made my first visit to this historic city in the low country. On that trip, Miss Chef was mostly occupied with a professional conference, and I did most of my exploring alone. This time, we took advantage of a hole in our schedules to enjoy a weekend away together.
The highlight came early, on Friday evening. After checking in at our hotel, we quickly changed and drove in to dine at McCrady’s on East Bay Street.
Miss Chef has become a bit of a fan of Sean Brock, the young chef who has made a big name for himself in this city of big-name chefs. Like Miss Chef, he is focused on local foods, but he goes even further than finding and supporting regional producers. He has delved into the history of South Carolina foodways and the ordinary people who lived off the land, from plantation slaves to hardscrabble mountain farmers. He’s been featured on several episodes of the PBS series “The Mind of a Chef.”
The first minute of this video clip illustrates perfectly how much research this guy has put into his food.
He even made a trip to West Africa to learn how slaves imported and adapted techniques and ingredients from their homelands.
McCrady’s is the fine dining side of Brock’s restaurant business (his other restaurant, Husk, is more casual, but we couldn’t get reservations!) So, although inspired by the most basic of ingredients, the dishes here are among the most sophisticated we have ever eaten.
Miss Chef and I agreed to go all out and have the chef’s tasting menu, which consisted of nine courses, preceded by an undisclosed number of “snacks.” We didn’t keep track, but I think there were three or four of these small bites to entertain ourselves. This one was so simple and so tasty—it’s a thin, crispy breadstick dipped in honey, drizzled with fennel pollen and garnished with rosemary flowers.
Simple flavors mixed brilliantly together. We are now eagerly awaiting the soft purple blooms of our own rosemary plants…
We didn’t take pictures of every dish, but I’ll share the ones we thought were particularly beautiful. Here’s the best photo of the menu we could get (click to biggerize).
So, on with our meal…the first course, a salad of green strawberries and cucumbers, with a beautiful lovage flower as garnish.
I think edible flowers will be a new collaboration between my garden and Miss Chef’s plates!
Lightly smoked trout with brassicas—cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale and the like—and two sauces, one of fermented cabbage and one of meyer lemon.
The dark cabbage sauce had such a rich, smoky flavor that we asked the server how it was made. And he knew! The service was pitch perfect, very well steeped in the philosophy and knowledgeable about the ingredients and techniques, all without seeming patronizing or superior.
The oddly named “Charleston ice cream” was introduced as the one dish that would never be removed from the menu, as it is a distillation of Brock’s credo of local food reflecting the history of place. While I won’t go into details, it is based on the rice described in the video above that created the wealth of the area, and set Charleston on its path in history.
It also makes a spectacular photo on its black plate.
The sweetbreads with red grits and a green lovage foam didn’t photograph nearly as well.
The duck course was plated in a very delicate style. The servings may look small, but remember how many courses we’re in the midst of.
The last photo we took was of one of the dessert courses, the “carrot crémeux,” set on a shortbread crumble and interspersed with flavored meringue (I can’t remember the flavor, either ginger or coriander is my guess).
And I also learned that begonia flowers are edible! All these years growing food on my front stoop, and I didn’t even know it.
Of course, we still had a day and a half to work off some of those calories, because historic Charleston is a city best experienced on foot. Other than some shopping on King Street and a stroll past Rainbow Row, we had no particular destination in mind, and just wandered down whichever street seemed most interesting.
There’s not much scale here, but I swear this was a Hobbit door!
Miss Chef took lots of pictures of the ornate and unique wrought-iron gates that give the historic homes their particular charm.
I managed to get in the way once…
When he’s not shingling our shed or building us bookshelves, Miss Chef’s brother is a professional welder, so she wanted to share some inspiration with him.
That evening we stopped by The Gin Joint again for a couple of cocktails and bar snacks. Miss Chef’s favorite, the Gin-Gin Mule, was no longer on the menu, but there was no problem ordering it by name. It came in a most charming copper cup and included a delicious candied ginger flourish.
For my second drink, I ordered a bartender’s special—there is a list of adjectives on the menu, from which you can choose any two. I chose “sweet” and “fizzy”—“Let’s girly it up!” I told the server.
I forgot to take a picture until I was halfway done…oops! Can you see the unique, single ice cube? It’s almost as tall as the glass!
Sunday we did have a particular destination in mind as our last experience before heading home.
There was more than sealife here.
Swimming fish are frustratingly difficult to photograph well, but once in a while you find one that’s sort of chilling out.
A view of Cooper Bridge from the terrace.
I recognize this bird, but can’t remember its name!
This fellow was the total opposite of the last pelican I photographed---he stood stock-still and slowly moved his head for a variety of poses!
We really did see more fish than birds…Miss Chef took this one in the large central tank with the sharks and other jaw-droppingly huge fish.
And that was our brief tour of Charleston. Soon enough it was time to go home, reunite with the girls and cover up the garden for what I’m hoping was our last freeze of the year. This evening as I put the various coverings away, I thought I spotted some giant weeds popping up in the lettuces…
Silly me! Those are the radishes I planted! First seedlings of the year, just in time for April Fool’s Day! Glad I wasn’t fool enough to start weeding.