In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, historic preservation runs headlong into modernization, and Frogmore stew shakes hands with New American cuisine.
I spent my youth fishing, casting shrimp nets, and gathering oysters along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. I also spent a good part of it eating the Creole classics of the region , from simple breakfast shrimp (now called shrimp and grits) to elaborate “country captains.” Like many other folk recipes, these dishes were served only in private homes. So when I returned to the city after a peripatetic career as a private chef in Florida, a photographer in the Caribbean and Europe, and a food editor in New York, I had a mission: to resurrect the traditional foods and cooking of Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry. I started by opening a culinary bookstore, in 1986, when it was all but impossible to find ingredients such as stone-ground grits in the area. There were then only a handful of restaurants in town worth their salt. But as culinary historian Karen Hess and I worked in tandem on our Lowcountry cookbooks, young chefs began opening new restaurants. Within a few years, there were dozens of places offering their versions of shrimp and grits.
I closed my shop four years ago, but not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me where to eat Lowcountry cooking in this city. “At my house,” I still say, for although Charleston has beautifully designed modern bistros that serve delicious New American cuisine, some of the best local fare continues to be home-cooked. But traditions are regaining strength, and some powerful cooking is going on at the relatively new chef-owned places in town. It may be Italian or French, but the style is pure Charleston—the cooking that for centuries has blended the best of French, English, Caribbean, African, and Mediterranean influences. We set the standard for historical preservation; now we’re working to extend that standard to our culinary heritage.
Charleston’s Historic District consists of about a square mile of predominantly 18th- and 19th-century structures built on a peninsula surrounded by barrier islands. It’s the commercial center of the city, and King Street, the main retail artery, which bisects Charleston, offers a mile of shopping between Spring and Broad streets. Upper King, to the north of Calhoun Street, was once a low-rent district of wig shops and loan sharks. That’s not true anymore.
At the hip, two-year-old 39 Rue de Jean, uptown near the Visitors Bureau, I can’t resist dunking a piece of bread in a bowl of mussels steamed in one of six classic French preparations. The large, open space recalls a Paris brasserie, but sushi and burgers have been added to a menu that includes steak frites and plats du jour of braised rabbit and skate wing meunière. The raw seafood platter is piled with Atlantic Farms littlenecks, raised in the eight-foot tide of nearby Folly Creek. Just behind the restaurant, down an alley lined with tables, Rue de Jean’s owners have opened Coast, a seafood restaurant that features wood-grilled grouper, wahoo, and triggerfish.
Few mom-and-pop stores have survived the gentrification south of Calhoun Street, but at fred you can buy French and American bakeware, kitchen tools, boccie sets, and stainless-steel Charleston rice steamers from Fred and Judy Reinhard, who are also the sole distributors of Alessi products in South Carolina. For fine crystal and silver, stop by King Street’s 86-year-old Crogan’s Jewel Box.
Lower king street, south of Market Street, is the heart of the antiques district, where two intimate Italian restaurants are tucked away from the main drag. Fulton Five is the most romantic spot in town. I have gorged myself on their pappardelle with braised rabbit and the perfectly braised osso buco (the service is perfect, too). The fare is simpler (but no less wonderful) at Il Cortile del Re. A Charlestonian’s dream dinner might just be a plate of ravioli ai funghi porcini, a sampling of sheep’s-milk and goat’s-milk cheeses—such as truffled Sottocenere and pecorino aged in walnut leaves—and a bottle of one of their 75 Italian wines, at an outdoor table here.
The two best downtown restaurants for Lowcountry specialties couldn’t be more different. At Hominy Grill, a converted barbershop west of King Street, near the Medical University, chef Robert Stehling serves authentic southern dishes slightly updated (if tweaked at all): homemade sausage or country ham with biscuits at breakfast; a plate of collards alongside okra and tomatoes over rice at lunch; or a chicken coun try captain (a tomato-based curried r ice dish) at dinner. Desserts are as rich and as southern as they come—buttermilk and pecan pies (available by the slice or whole) and homey chocolate and butterscotch puddings. At Anson (north of the touristy City Market), where they grind their own organically grown heirloom corn, I recently asked manager Phil Pettus what else was fresh and local. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with an invoice from Celeste and George Albers, shrimpers and organic farmers whom many Charlestonians know from the downtown farmers market. A minute later, I ordered grits, crab cakes (made with regional crabmeat), just-caught shrimp, and a variety of Celeste’s heirloom greens, barely wilted in olive oil with a hint of garlic.
As Charleston has grown, dozens of good restaurants have opened off the peninsula, many on the six barrier islands that surround the city. One of the newest, Al Di La, is a simple Northern Italian trattoria west of the Ashley River whose menu relies on the morning’s market offerings. Frogmore stew, the traditional Lowcountry seafood boil, is cleverly reworked with local clams, corn, and spicy sausage at Rosebank Farms Café, located at Bohicket Marina, about 25 miles from downtown but a short hop from neighboring Kiawah and Seabrook islands. The Old Post Office Restaurant, on Edisto Island, is about an hour south of town. Chef Philip Bardin is a native South Carolinian, and it shows in his splendid grits, quail, and oyster dishes. In the spring, be sure to ask for asparagus, grown on the island for him.