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Five Knock-Out Meals in Food World Destination Charleston

King mackerel swim plentifully off the Carolina coast during the fall months. Mark Marhefka — a second-generation fisherman who runs a small business called Abundant Seafood — catches the iridescent blue fish and delivers them to Charleston chefs clamoring for a local catch. None likely render the mackerel's oily richness more delectably than Mike Lata, one of Marhefka's steadiest customers. At FIG ("Food Is Good"), the restaurant Lata opened in 2003, he recently smoked the fish and arranged generous slices around Napa cabbage cooked down to lushness and mixed with chopped egg. In the center he piled trout roe and the dish's one overt wink to the region: whipped buttermilk. The flavors more reflected the province of New York delis (via Eastern European cooking traditions) than Southern kitchens. It didn't matter. The combination seduced the palate the same way the harmonics of a Beach Boys tune hook the ears.


FIG

FIG was among a new generation of Charleston restaurants that led the city to modern culinary acclaim, and a decade later the attention is nowhere close to letting up. It helps, of course, that the 350-year-old city is one of the most visited places in America. Around 5 million travelers amble along Charleston's cobblestoned streets annually, and plenty of them come expressly to eat. It keeps the dining scene electric and competitive. And yet, similar to New Orleans, the best of the established restaurants in Charleston continue to improve. Though I'm always curious about the latest openings, this is a place where, more than most, I find myself compelled to return to a handful of stalwarts each visit.

Nine vegetable salad and Smoked king mackerel over Napa cabbage at FIG.

Sean Brock's Husk is one of them. So is FIG. The menu entwines Italian, French, and New American notions and reads like the kind of fine-ish dining restaurant you can find in most cities across the country. The kitchen consistently overachieves, though, and so does the present, graceful front-of-house staff. They'll likely steer the table toward seafood dishes. Heed them. One week Lata and executive chef Jason Stanhope will showcase lean, mustard-crusted amberjack glossed with brown butter and capers, or cook grouper, mild in flavor and texture, in sherry sauce with spaghetti squash; the next will feature roasted black bass accented simply with breadcrumbs, garlic, and oregano.

Start the meal on land with pudgy gnocchi in Bolognese, a deserving staple. And at this time of year, Lata, a New England native, favors Nantucket Bay scallops, served as crudo with tangerine, pine nuts, and peppery olive oil, or in a tart gilded with sabayon scented with pastis.

Above: The Ordinary exterior; Left: King mackerel crudo; Right: Fried oysters and beef tartare

The Ordinary

Marhefka's recent mackerel catch also showed up at The Ordinary, the oyster hall that Lata and business partner Adam Nemirow launched in 2012. Raw slivers stood up to heady accompaniments: mint salsa verde, forest-green dollops of charred scallion vinaigrette, mood ring-shaped slices of pickled hearts of palm, and a squeeze of grapefruit-like citrumelo. It was the kind of bold plate I've often enjoyed perched at the long bar, sipping a sparkling rosé or a cocktail that headlines rum, a longtime favorite of Charlestonians. The place instantly feels like an entrenched part of the dining landscape, housed in 1920s-era bank transformed into a grand dining hall with 22-foot ceilings. The steel vault door, now lined with gleaming white tile, acts as a kitchen window; it sits behind an oyster bar where staffers frantically shuck bivalves stacked on crushed ice.

Delicate treats like lobster bisque with blue crab dumplings or baked porgy in an emulsion of butter and vin jaune (sherry-like wine from France's Jura region) impress but don't pull focus from oysters considered through myriad presentations: as stars on shellfish towers or (in the case of lanky, local Caper's Blades) dolloped "Moscow style" with crème fraiche and caviar; smoked over alder wood and served on Saltines, needing nothing else; fried crisp and paired for contrast with beef tartare; or battered and piled on fluffy rolls as sliders, to be greedily consumed in two bites.

Hominy Grill

Hominy Grill

If Mike Lata represents the untethered creativity that local ingredients can inspire, then Robert Stehling and his Hominy Grill offer a window into traditional Lowcountry recipes. This is the place to savor creamy she-crab soup laced with sherry, chicken bog (a kin of jambalaya cooked with rice and sausage), chicken country captain (served in curried tomato sauce), and gossamer coconut layer cake. If you show up at Hominy at 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday, the restaurant can at first feel like a tourist trap: Dozens of people may be waiting for a table, and the take-out window for beverages near the entrance can run out of coffee. But the food never tastes compromised: The Charleston Nasty biscuit will still include a crackling-hot hunk of fried chicken smothered in melting cheddar and finely tuned sausage gravy.

Better, though, to arrive on a weekday afternoon or evening, when the two dining rooms in the historic clapboard house are quieter, to enjoy a vegetable plate with Charleston red rice (amped with bacon and tomato paste) and collard greens, or a catfish po' boy. At any time of day — breakfast included — the shrimp and grits are available. Stehling's honors lineage as much as geography: His version hews closely to the one perfected by his mentor, the late Bill Neal of Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It's a straightforward pool of cheese grits heaped with a lemony tumble of shrimp, crumbled bacon, mushrooms, and scallions. I don't ever need to eat another plate of overwrought shrimp and grits; this is the only rendition I crave.

Left: Charleston Navy biscuit; Right: Buttermilk pie; Below: Shrimp and grits

Leon's Oyster Shop

After sating my appetite for the city's exemplars on a recent trip, I did check out two exceptional newcomers. Friends sent me far up King Street to Leon's Oyster Shop, an airy hangout in a former auto garage co-owned by Brooks Reitz, who managed FIG and then The Ordinary. Reitz's chef, Ari Kolender, bridges the flavor spectrum between regional and global. Every table has at least one order of char-grilled oysters, piled on a plate with batons of toast for sopping up the puddles of butter and parmesan that remain in the shells. A list of easygoing small plates includes avocado toast, fried Brussels sprouts, and Siam salad, a whirl of Napa cabbage, avocado, orange segments, herbs, and fried shallots. It's the oysters and the fried chicken I'll return for, though. In a city (and world) agog with fried chicken, Kolender nevertheless serves impeccable fowl: The bird stays succulent under a bronze veneer of breading that almost shatters like caramelized sugar.

Fried oyster sandwich at ; Pickled shrimp on toast at Edmund's Oast

Edmund's Oast

The poultry specialty at Edmund's Oast wades even more deeply into comfort food realms. Lemony chicken rice porridge is ideal for Charleston's cooler months. Made with fragrant, locally grown Carolina Gold rice and topped with crabmeat and scallions, the porridge recalls Asian congee: It soothes the nervous system and rouses hunger. And thirst — which Edmund's is more than equipped to quench. Owners Scott Shor and Rich Carley opened South Carolina's first craft beer shop in 2007. Cocktails like the Tchoupitoulas Sling (cognac, Rittenhouse Rye, absinthe, Benedictine, Peychaud's bitters) show mastery of balance, but beer, including several house-made brews, is the official house drink. One wall displays forty beer taps, their wooden handles lined like posts of an unpainted picket fence.

Given the seriousness of the charcuterie program and the obvious talents of chef Andy Henderson (who also previously worked under Mike Lata), it's safe to call Edmund's a gastropub. Henderson sends out winning plates like silky butternut squash blistered on the plancha and sharpened with cilantro-pecan pesto. A generous filet of black sea bass arrives speckled with brown butter, alongside farro and cabbage cooked risotto style, and softened with a nage of milk and Meyer lemon. Visitors and locals alike crowd the vast, open room: Wood beam ceilings offset dramatic, spindly chandeliers; two long communal tables separate the endless bar from a row of booths. It gets raucous most nights, and it already feels like another Charleston classic in the making.

Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.

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