Through wild swings of fortune, Charleston has always reveled in its Southern uniqueness—in the fertile lands around its peninsula, in the idiosyncratic beauty of its architecture, and certainly in the foods produced with the local bounty. When the city’s popularity as a tourist destination accelerated over the last decade, so did its restaurant scene, particularly with the inauguration of the Charleston Wine & Food Festival in 2006, which draws thousands every March. Ambitious chefs, blending European technique with New American sensibilities and regional soul, have elevated the city to a dining capital of the modern South. Now that Atlanta is finally embracing its culinary roots, plenty of camaraderie—and competition—exists between the cities’ tastemakers. Our metro area obviously dwarfs Charleston’s, we gained a food and wine festival of our own this past spring, and we’ll always have the edge on Asian cuisine thanks to Buford Highway and Duluth. But if you were to judge the quality of each city’s finest restaurants solely on a long weekend of eating, their merits might just stalemate.
» Mike Lata, chef-owner of FIG and winner of the James Beard Best Chef Southeast award in 2009, deadlocks with Sean Brock as Charleston’s most celebrated cook. Lata, who jump-started his career at Atlanta’s long-gone French luminary, Ciboulette, walks the walk when it comes to sourcing pristine ingredients: Nothing on the menu lasts past its prime growing season. The working parts may be Southern, but his dishes—say, sauteed triggerfish with artichoke vierge (an olive oil–based sauce) and tomato coulis—resound with a distinct European cadence. Along with the inspired food, the devoted staff and the unpretentious atmosphere make FIG the one restaurant I invariably visit every time I’m in Charleston. 232 Meeting Street, 843-805-5900, eatatfig.com
» I walked into the Glass Onion and thought, “Wow, what a happy place.” Checkered floors and sunny cream-colored walls beamed cheerfulness, the staff smiled, and a vanilla-and-fig layer cake sat lopsided in a way that made me want to grab a slice with my hand. The Glass Onion is worth the drive a few miles west from downtown at either lunch or dinner for homey but smartly executed comfort food. Think fried catfish with potato salad and creamed corn at noontime and smoked trout and butter bean ravioli with cauliflower cream and roasted peppers at night. Adults will gladly finish what little of the creamy shells and cheese the kids don’t gobble. If warm, boozy bread pudding is available, forget the cake. 1219 Savannah Highway, 843-225-1717, ilovetheglassonion.com
» Restraint is a challenge at Hominy Grill. You come here for the dishes on which Charleston’s culinary reputation rests—she-crab soup laced with sherry, bacon-spiked shrimp over cheese grits, and Lowcountry purloo, a rice casserole shot through with sausage, ham, shrimp, and chicken wings. You may head back to bed for a nap if you start the day with the Big Nasty biscuit, layered with a fried chicken breast and cheddar cheese and draped with sausage gravy. The jolt of caffeine from the glorious chocolate pudding might wake you up. (Yes, they’ll serve it to you at breakfast if you ask.) Show some sense by composing a vegetable plate from the ever-changing selection of sides—perhaps corn pudding, cucumber salad, okra beignets, and sauteed greens. Or follow my gluttonous lead and order that on top of the rest of your meal. 207 Rutledge Avenue, 843-937-0930, hominygrill.com
» The warm cauliflower sformatino—a savory flan—at Trattoria Lucca looked pretty enough when it arrived, ringed with wisps of Parmesan and crowned with a tuft of arugula. Then we cut into it, and the golden yolk from an egg suspended inside oozed out, enriching all the other flavors. Chef-owner Ken Vedrinski (whom some Atlantans may remember from Opus restaurant in Buckhead’s former Swissôtel) has worked in many culinary styles but found his home in Italian cuisine—and he cultivates a different aesthetic than any of the Italian restaurants you’ll find in Atlanta. He rolls out pasta on the restaurant’s travertine bar to create four daily changing shapes, which may include spaghettoro—a slightly thinner variation on spaghetti—tossed with a frisky jumble of grilled white shrimp, Calabrian chiles, and gold tomatoes. Antipasti include lovely cheeses and charcuterie, but the vegetables and grain salads—like a farro salad with cannellini beans, pickled vegetables, and smoked ricotta—best display the kitchen’s skills. On Monday nights, Vedrinski offers a four-course family-style meal for $38 per person. 41 Bogard Street, 843-973-3323, luccacharleston.com
» Southwestern cuisine mostly flamed out as a trend by the mid-1990s, and few venues remain that don’t fall into silly interpretations of blue cornbread and fruity margaritas. But Texas native Ben Berryhill, who opened Red Drum in 2004 after twelve years as executive chef at Houston standard-bearer Cafe Annie, understands South-by-Southwest flavors and gets them right. Start with his crabmeat and avocado tostaditas—essentially upscale nachos made with homemade tortilla chips. He composes beautiful enchiladas and tamales filled with revolving proteins and vegetables, and he sources fish locally and pairs it with sultry sides like corn pudding flecked with green chiles. Don’t skip the hot buttered rum dessert, a variation on toffee pudding. The bar draws a raucous happy hour crowd. Last month Berryhill opened Next Door Restaurant and Bar, a bistro serving comforts like mustard-roasted Cornish hen that’s already stirring up excitement. Red Drum, 803 Coleman Boulevard, Mount Pleasant, 843-849-0313, reddrumrestaurant.com; Next Door, 819 Coleman Avenue, 843-881-8817, nextdoormp.com
A TASTE OF SOUL FOOD
» The menu at Martha Lou’s Kitchen, a low-roofed restaurant painted bright pink, is appealingly blunt: no descriptions, simply dishes listed by day of the week. I came on a Friday, when entrees include fried chicken, fried whiting, fried pork chops, or barbecued ribs. I chose fried chicken, seasoned powerfully and cooked to a sizzling, chewy crispness. But it was the lima beans that hooked me. Tawny, soupy, and doused with black pepper among other spices, the beans were so infused with pork that the earthiness and meatiness became inseparable. Those beans, and the gumbolike okra soup served on Tuesdays, stem from the Gullah traditions of the black men and women, brought from West Africa as slaves, who later populated Lowcountry areas—including the sea islands near Charleston. The okra soup is even better at Bertha’s Kitchen, hidden in an industrial stretch of North Charleston, where the cooks have a lighter hand with the seasonings. Here I’d choose a knobby bone-in fried pork chop or the fried fish or fried chicken. Had enough fried? Stewed chicken necks and gizzards lend savor to Lowcountry red rice tinged with tomato, a meal in itself. Martha Lou’s Kitchen, 1068 Morrison Drive, 843-577-9583; Bertha’s Kitchen, 2332 Meeting Street Road, North Charleston, 843-554-6519
CHEF OF THE MOMENT: SEAN BROCK
You’re going to Husk for the first time? Order the chicken skins and the pig’s ears.” Three different Charlestonians relayed this advice before my dinner, and it didn’t surprise. Sean Brock, the fireball chef in charge of Husk, lives to nurture fringe culinary elements and lift them to mainstream appeal. That doesn’t just include odd animal parts: Brock, who was awarded Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2010, also grows and preserves heirloom plants like benne, a strain of African sesame seed that was once an essential ingredient in Lowcountry cooking. Husk opened last November and embodies Brock’s devotion to Southern foods. The restaurant uses ingredients exclusively from below the Mason-Dixon Line, as far west as Texas—including cooking oils.
I first tasted Brock’s cooking five years ago during an eleven-course meal at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, where Brock was briefly executive chef. At the time he was deep into the chemical shenanigans of molecular gastronomy, brandishing custards made of hot gelatin and presenting pork belly under glass filled with hickory smoke. He soon moved back to Charleston, where he had graduated from culinary school at Johnson & Wales, and took over as executive chef at staid McCrady’s off heavily trafficked East Bay Street. He still oversees McCrady’s kitchen, where he’s tempered the pageantry of his Nashville days. He may occasionally intersperse Asian flavors (sea urchin, kimchi, yuzu) among locally caught seafood, but his produce-intense plates like seared duck with creamed corn, blistered peppers, and peaches typify the finest modern American restaurant cooking.
When you eat at Husk, with its more pronounced Southern drawl, come early before dinner for a bourbon next door at the bar, a funky two-story structure restored from ruins. The restaurant vacillates between Southern classics—sharp pimento cheese paired with fried green tomatoes; Lowcountry Frogmore stew with shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes—and dishes that stray from tradition but still sing of the region. The pig’s ears are poached, sliced into julienned strips, fried, then nestled against pickled squash in lettuce leaf bundles. The smoked chicken skins are jubilantly salty, battered nuggets served with hot sauce that is tamed with honey. Gentler entrees and desserts—black bass with lady peas and tomato gravy, peach cobbler with light pound cake topping—assuage the caloric bluster of the starters.
Husk resides in a genteel house with grand white porches. The interior is airy, flatteringly lit, and handsomely neutral; it keeps the focus on Brock’s exuberant food. I wish he lived in Atlanta. Husk, 76 Queen Street, 843-577-2500, huskrestaurant.com; McCrady’s, 2 Unity Alley, 843-577-0025, mccradysrestaurant.com
This article originally appeared in our October 2011 issue.