WRITTEN BY Delia McMullen
Charleston is well known as a beautiful waterfront city steeped in rich traditions, culture, history and outstanding food. With its abundance of places to eat and drink, to see and be seen, diners can find just about any cuisine under the sun. The city has become a creative mecca for food lovers, who often return again and again to enjoy the many culinary options the city has to offer.
Charleston restaurants have embraced the farm-to-fork (or farm-to-table) movement. With an abundance of farms and other suppliers so close, the emphasis is on locally sourced fresh ingredients. According to Hanna Raskin, food writer and critic for the Charleston Post & Courier, “Charleston has fortunately reached the stage at which farm-to-table isn’t a selling point: It’s standard practice. Thanks largely to the efforts of organizations such as Grow Food Carolina and advocates such as Anson Mills’ Glenn Roberts, chefs here are dedicated to cultivating personal relationships with their purveyors, and leveraging them to tell Lowcountry stories. What’s more interesting now is the deepening exploration of Charleston’s place in history as well as on the map.”
Whether you’re a Charleston native, a first-time visitor or a frequent traveler to this charming and historic place, here are five spots you won’t want to miss on your next trip to “Chucktown.”
Executive Chef: Don Drake
185 E. Bay Street
An institution since 1990, Magnolias helped ignite a culinary renaissance in Charleston. As Magnolias began to receive accolades from diners and critics alike, the restaurant flourished and Charleston began to gain prominence as one of the nation’s leading gastronomic destinations. Today, Magnolias remains a forerunner in upscale Southern cuisine, blending traditional ingredients and cooking techniques with modern flair for artful presentations. Popular dishes include the Down South Egg Roll stuffed with collard greens, chicken and Tasso ham (served with red pepper purée, spicy mustard sauce, and peach chutney) and Shellfish over Grits with sautéed shrimp, sea scallops, lobster, creamy white grits, lobster butter sauce and fried spinach.
According to Chef Don Drake, Magnolias is committed to the farm-to-fork experience: “For us, it’s being able to create innovative, seasonal menus that showcase the local harvest. Asparagus, field peas and lettuces in the spring; sweet corn, shell beans and a variety of tomatoes in the summer; and gourds like pumpkins and squashes in the late fall/winter are all examples of seasonal produce that we incorporate into Magnolias’ dishes. We like to use more specialty items with limited availability such as squash blossoms and soft shell crabs for daily/nightly specials as well.”
Magnolias completed a six-week renovation early this year and has a new look as it approaches its 25th anniversary in 2015. The refreshed space provides an enhanced experience complemented by the original Southern charm for which Magnolias is best known. “As the menu evolves with time, it is important to us to also adjust the design and atmosphere, providing the best dining experience for our guests,” says Magnolias Owner TJ Parsell. “The space has been updated with a sophisticated look, but guests will still feel like they are in their favorite spot for world-class Southern cuisine.”
Chef/Partner: Sean Brock
76 Queen Street
This newest offering from James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock “transforms the essence of Southern food.” Led by Brock and Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes, a Lowcountry native, the kitchen reinterprets the bounty of the surrounding area, exploring an ingredient-driven cuisine that begins in the rediscovery of heirloom products and redefines what it means to cook and eat in Charleston. Brock and Grimes focus on “preservation techniques and the recovery of lost flavors, especially heirloom varieties of pork. Both men bring a love for the area and its history to creating the restaurant’s concept.”
Husk, which also has a location in Nashville, is “as casual as it is chic, evoking a way of life centered on seasonality and the grand traditions of Charleston life—one lived at a slower pace, preferably with a cocktail and a wide porch in the late afternoon. It is a neighborhood gathering place for friends, and a destination dining spot for travelers, with a little bite of the South for everyone’s palates.”
Husk features an open, collaborative kitchen, where chefs freely interact with their guests and personally deliver food to tables. Brock and Grimes exhaustively research Southern food—its history and provenance—and in the process reconstitute flavors and ingredients lost to time. They grow much of their own produce in the restaurant’s garden, and concentrate on heirloom grains and vegetables. Then they take what is fresh and available each day and transform it into an evolving menu. What they can’t use immediately is preserved, pickled, smoked and saved.
According to the team at Husk, there are some rules about what can go on the plate. “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,” says Brock, who has even stricken olive oil from the kitchen. As he explains, the resulting cuisine “is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food.” Some menu highlights include a Benne and Honey Lacquered Duck (with pickled blueberries, chanterelles and crispy pork collar), Sassafras Glazed Pork Ribs (with pickled peaches and butter beans), and Rabbit-Pimento Loaf.
Husk General Manager Dan Latimer stresses the restaurant’s commitment to local, farm-fresh offerings. “We believe that utilizing the items produced around you is a great factor in providing our guests with a sense of place in addition to delicious cuisine and a great experience. In addition, food tastes better the closer it is. We develop our menu daily based on what the farmers and producers are bringing us that day. We might change everything from one ingredient, an entire dish, to the whole menu dependent on what’s available in the local market.”
Chef/Partner: Mike Lata
232 Meeting Street
Laid-back, eclectic and unpretentious, FIG (Food Is Good) is one part retro diner, one part neighborhood café and one part elegant bistro. Warm hues, soft lighting and an unexpected quirkiness encourage guests to settle in, get comfortable and have a great time. The FIG team, led by Chef/Partner Mike Lata and Manager/Partner Adam Nemirow, works with local farmers, growers and purveyors to source products with integrity, flavor and soul, and incorporate these seasonal offerings into menus each night: “The result is food that is honest, straightforward and pays homage to the bounty of the Lowcountry region we are so privileged to call home. Using ingredients at their peak and preparing them minimally and with respect allows us to capture the essence of the season and bring it straight to your table.”
As Lata notes, “When you eat at FIG, you taste produce grown in the Lowcountry’s distinctive sandy soil, fish caught in our briny waters and livestock raised on our pastures, all of which is grown and harvested by people we know and love.” Sample entrees include Butter Basted Soft-shell Crabs with Yukon Gold purée, cauliflower and piquillo pepper piccata, Fish Stew in Cocotte with White Shrimp, squid, mussel, potato and rouille, and Pan Roasted Alabama Ribeye with salad verte, roasted potato and sauce bordelaise.
Lata continues: “When FIG opened, over 10 years ago, I described the restaurant as farm-to-table and market-driven. At the time, it was one of a kind in Charleston and among a few of its kind on the East Coast. The best way to describe it, then and now, is still the same. Our market-driven menu fluctuates according to the product that is available day to day. We use whatever vegetables are in season to make variations on salsa verdes, romescos, Caesar salads (kale, for example). Although not initially a fan of the expression ‘market-driven,’ I’ve given up not liking the term because there is no better description.”
Chef/Partner: Mike Lata
544 King Street
From the same creative team behind FIG comes The Ordinary, a “fancy seafood hall” and oyster bar located in an old bank on King Street. Their approach is consistent: an aim to pair great food with great drink and friendly, detailed service. According to partners, “At The Ordinary, we do so against the backdrop of an historical Charleston building that has been transformed into a high energy, bustling American brasserie.”
The menu at The Ordinary celebrates the “merroir” of the Coastal Carolinas and the East Coast. This term refers to the way an oyster’s flavor reflects where it was grown. At The Ordinary, the team is committed to farm-to-fork, locally sourced ingredients, and they “strive to support local and regional fishermen, crabbers, oystermen, farmers and producers.”
The Ordinary calls itself a community-driven restaurant whose menu could not be possible without the support of “friends and purveyors.” In fact, a section of its website lists its suppliers and provides an option to learn more about each. Menu favorites include hot and cold oysters and other seafood offerings such as Oyster Sliders, Moules Frites, and a Softshell Crab BLT. The Ordinary also offers a prix fixe menu which includes salad, daily entrée and dessert.
Bon Appetit’s column, The Foodist, recently picked The Ordinary as one of the top 10 oyster bars in the country. According to columnist Andrew Knowlton, “Oysters are having a moment, and no wonder. They’re delicious, unpretentious, and, with their seemingly magical ability to filter the waters they grow in, sustainable, too. When I see oysters on a menu, I have a hard time not ordering them.” He encourages diners at The Ordinary to “hang out with pearled ladies and khaki-wearing men under the soaring ceilings of this former bank building and slurp down some local Caper’s Blades. Get there early for a seat at the bar, where you can see the shuckers in action and peer through the old vault to the kitchen; if you’re lucky, you’ll catch Clammer Dave himself making his delivery.”
Executive Chefs: Tito Marino and Leila Schardt
451 King Street
Located in the heart of Downtown Charleston and open since 2007, Monza’s decor and menu are inspired by the eponymous Italian speedway forever etched in racing history. The menu features several Formula 1 cars and drivers. From this inspiration, “La Pista Magica,” or the magic track, comes Monza’s innovative menu of “la pizza magica.” In addition to Neapolitan style pizza, Monza serves fresh pastas, salads, antipasti and daily specials.
Monza’s staple pizza dough is made with ingredients imported from Italy. They use imported San Felice wheat flour, natural Neapolitan yeast, filtered and pH balanced water. After kneading the dough with a mixer imported from Naples, the pizza is baked in a wood-fired oven at 1000 degrees. This results in a thin crispy crust, topped with fiore di latte mozzarella, and fresh local and regional ingredients whenever possible.
Monza’s pizzas include the Materassi (fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil) and the Vanwall Special (pesto, mozzarella, local white shrimp and seasonal tomatoes), which was selected by Zagat in 2013 as the best pizza in South Carolina. Popular salad offerings are the Caesar Salad topped with a soft boiled local farm egg and the Chicken Milanese Salad, which features crispy chicken scallopini, capers, arugula, grape tomato, red onion and pecorino romano.
The team at Monza works with a variety of South Carolina vendors to feature produce from local farms in their daily specials. Co-executive chef Tito Marino explains that, “We try to use as many local ingredients as we can. There so many really great farms in the Charleston area. Down here, you’re crazy not to work with local farmers. It’s more convenient and you get better quality produce and other items.”
Marino explains the process for local sourcing at Monza: “The way we work is we typically check with our local suppliers on Mondays and see what looks really good. We place an order and then develop our specials for the week. It’s a lot more fun that way—things never get stale or boring when we’re changing up the specials each week based on what’s available.” Monza adds a fresh and simple flair to the local restaurant scene. According to Marino, “Our specials highlight local ingredients. We provide a lighter option than a lot of restaurants who feature heavy entrees—lots of salads, pizzas and pastas that are fresh and simple.” As they say at Monza, rev it up and enjoy the ride.