Charleston Foodie Fling

Tomato pie.

TOMATOPIE

Dixie Supply tomato pie

I had one singular foodie goal for our trip to Charleston, SC, for the holidays. On my last trip, more than two years ago, I’d successfully sated my shrimp ‘n’ grits cravings. I had eaten my fill of Lowcountry Boil and she crab soup. I had reveled in fine nouvelle Lowcountry cuisine at McCrady’s.All that feasting, alas, had left me with no spare appetite to fit in a wedge of tomato pie from Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe, an off-the-eaten path legend of Charleston’s famed dining scene. And so I dragged my relatives into a convenience store strip where a few tables outside in the parking lot accounts for its best in atmosphere.

Inside, slaloming through other packed and packed-close tables, we made our way to the line at the counter, where we perused a menu of Carolina specialties and more mainstream sandwiches – everything from fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese (a.k.a. Southern caviar) to turkey and brie on a croissant.

My tomato pie would come with sweet potato cornbread, the overhead menu promised. Even better. I broke a Lowcountry convention by ordering, instead of sweet tea, “the other tea.” (Did I detect a glance of disapproval?)

Oh, this was worth waiting 30 months for. Slices of gorgeous red and yellow tomatoes melted into a heap of oozy cheese on a light crust flaky like shortbread. The fried green tomatoes, too, rated exceptional, spread with what we determined to be mustard before crispily flash fried.  And then there was the dollop of pimento cheese, so un-akin to what we find in round plastic containers on local grocery shelves in Florida. Large chunks of bright red pimento, clumps of cream cheese, and a pleasant chili bite elevated it to caviar status indeed.

Since Dixie doesn’t whistle whiskey (or any other alcoholic bevs), we ended our afternoon foray around town at a church. Seriously. Charleston, after all, is known for its awesome churches. This one was just my style, converted into the Mad River Bar & Grille. Try the Caribbean Cosmo or cucumber lemonade. Maybe not a religious experience, but T-shirts that read “Tell your Mom you went to church” surely boost fun to sacramental.

Folk food to fine

So many great dishes, so little food one can cram in during a four-day stay. In deference to new opportunities, I forewent indulging in shrimp ‘n’ grits this time around. However my brilliant and hospitable brother, Scott Koster, and his ever-fun wife Pat (who let us stay at their Folly Beach home as long as I mention Scott’s name in my articles), satisfied that particular addiction with Scott’s worthy rendition of cheese grits for breakfast one morning. His secret weapon: a douse of quality paprika.

Upon the recommendation of the “concierge” at our accommodations, my niece Mariah (also an accomplished cappuccino barrister), we dined that night at FIG (acronym for Food Is Good), one among Charleston’s celebrated fine restaurants serving what’s local with new and exciting vision. In a recent Southern Living article, Darius Rucker reveals it as one of his favorites.

What looked good on the succinct menu? Everything. What did we order? Practically everything. So do not hesitate to order for starters the sweet potato soup, raw oysters, seven vegetable salad, and my personal favorites: the flounder tartare with champagne vinaigrette and ricotta gnocchi with veal Bolognese. One course and a bottle of Clay Pigeon pinot noir down, and we were already raving. Did I mention the rustic multi-seeded, sourdough artisanal bread?

Service was perfectly timed and helpful without fawning. The setting is modern inside of one historic building or another, and lively with a Friday night crowd that made reservations weeks prior.

They flock in for a changing menu of what’s local, fresh, sustainable, and creatively daring. Take our entrees, for instance. My fish stew was so much more than mussels, shrimp, calamari, fish, and broth. Served in a miniature Le Creuset crock, it floated on a bed of South Carolina’s signature gold rice with flavor to spare and a side of rouille to add at my discretion.

Many of the ingredients identify the local farms that produce them, such as the signature Keegan-Filion Farms suckling pig and Border Springs Farm leg of lamb steaks — both lick-the-plate luscious.

From the seafood depths we also sampled triggerfish with gnocchetti and grilled pumpkin swordfish, each a multidimensional preparation that added new meaning to the word “yum.”

Desserts, equally beguiling, offer up the signature sorghum cake with cinnamon ice cream and Meyer’s lemon cake. Take my word: They are both worth the resulting overstuffed misery and guilt. Diet tomorrow, not here.

Lowcountry cuisine

New generations of Charleston chefs keep alive the traditional style of local cookery that mixes African, Creole, British, and then some – hints of Spanish, native American, and French Huguenot foodways for extra flavor.

A good old Lowcountry cookup heaps on the hoppin’ john (rice and beans), Lowcountry Boil (shrimp, sausage, corn on the cob, and red potatoes), stone-ground grits, sweet potato pie, cornbread, sweet tea, barbecue, blue crab, grits, gumbo, and collard greens.

Gourmet options abound, but let me also recommend the aforementioned McCrady’s. Its Chef Sean Brock once raised his own pigs on nearby Wadmalaw Island, but now is in the business of preserving historic seeds, such as Sea Island red peas, from the colonial era.

He too sources local farms, which he lists on the menu. A taste: roasted aged squab with citrus and benne (the local word of sesame seeds), lamb with cracked rye porridge, and shrimp and mussels with heirloom beans.

 Sipping and supping the islands

Charleston gathers around her majestic architecture and cuisine a kingdom of islands that brings its beach attitudes to the mix of sophistication and frivolity. Around Folly Beach, a quintessential beach town, we dabbled in adult beverages, childish antics, and casual noshes. Folly Beach, like any good beach and surfing town, suffers no shortage of pubs.

To get into the surfing spirit (and make our surfer son back home jealous), we started one night with Painkillers and beers ‘neath surfboards at the Surf Bar. We expected Moondoggie to walk in at any minute.

Then onto Taco Boy, whose pineapple margaritas were so refreshingly amazing, we returned on our last night for more of them and some of its tacos. The guac is fresh, the taco varieties varied (from Americano to kimchee beef and Mexican classics), and the action, well, action-packed. Nothing Lowcountry about it, but so in the spirit of Folly, where they’d be dropping flip flops two nights later to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

No matter what you eat, or drink…. or drop … this New Year, here’s hoping it’s delectable – from my palate to yours.

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