Supper in Savannah

I fell in love last week. With Savannah.

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Lafayette Square, Savannah

Just the name of Georgia’s oldest city has always conjured up so much mystery and intrigue for me. Is she a girl with golden curls who ran away from home? Or the last place a unicorn was ever seen? Actually, the word savanna refers to a grassy wooded area where the tree canopy doesn’t close out the light – which is most peculiar because my favorite feature of the “southern host city” are the abundant live oak and magnolia trees whose limbs are draped in silvery moss that hang like Christmas tinsel forming an almost endless umbrella along the grid of smart avenues, interrupted by 22 green squares. Some of the locals refer to her affectionately as Slow-vannah on account of the unhurried pace of life which unavoidably permeates the culinary scene as well. Many of the must-try spots like Mrs. Wilkes, Atlantic or Cotton and Rye refuse to offer reservations, and instead feature long lines of hungry (yet patient) diners who don’t seem to mind wasting an hour or more along the leafy sidewalks as they wait and wait and wait. My inner New Yorker (just the one) prefers to rely on a table waiting for me rather than the other way around.

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Elizabeth’s on 37th

One of the stalwart establishments, Elizabeth’s on 37th occupies a magnificently illuminated colonial house built in 1900. This proud recipient of a James Beard Foundation award has been serving low-country classics for 37 years. The dozen menu items range from soup to steak (with nowhere to hide if you happen to be a local shrimp or a half-moon clam).

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Corn and Parmesan Basket of Shrimp, Elizabeth’s on 37th

I got stuck into a Corn and Parmesan Basket of Shrimp with bits of crab, green tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms resting on a puddle of green goddess dressing. Everything was there: sweet, sour, salty, crunchy and sensational.

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Fresh Scallops, Elizabeth’s on 37th

The Fresh Scallops were seared to perfection and then layered over a soft bed of split peas and tart chives with the odd nugget of bacon for a whiff of southern smoke. But the heat from the Spicy Savannah Red Rice sure done popped my hood ‘some.

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Spicy Savannah Red Rice, Elizabeth’s on 37th

This utterly delicious southern-styled paella of Carolina rice, grouper, shrimp, clams, sausage and okra was as fresh and bright as a sweet tomato bisque, before diving into the depths of a dark and dirty gumbo.

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Shrimp and Grits, The Public Kitchen and Bar

I know one shouldn’t compare the two, but Charleston and Savannah are often thought of as sister cities that some say despite their geographic proximity haven’t spoken to one another for years! And so, it’s not surprising to discover that a great many dishes are shared and borrowed across the state line. I know I might have mentioned in a previous blog that Sean Brock’s Shrimp and Grits at Husk had sent me home starry eyed, but that was before I was ruined by Brian Gonet’s version at The Public Kitchen and Bar. (Please indulge me as I borrow a little inspiration from “Gone with the Wind” here), I do declare, that as God is my witness, I shall never order Shrimp and Grits anywhere else again! Chef Gonet spikes his grits with cheddar and bacon and then he sears chorizo sausage to extract all those piquant and peppery flavors before adding tomatoes with local shrimp before finishing everything off with sweet sherry and heavy cream. Suuuhth’n heaven!

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Leopold’s Ice Cream

 

You’ve probably been wondering why I haven’t mentioned the plethora of pecan-inspired pies, cookies, cheesecakes, bruléés and puddin’s that are as plentiful as horse-drawn carriages. That’s because I was saving room (daily) for a southern mainstay known as Leopold’s Ice-cream, where you’ll find yet another ubiquitous line of congenial Southerners snaking out into the street. My fave’s? Caramel swirl, Tutti Frutti and, of course, Butter Pecan! The 23 flavors were perfected by the original 3 Leopold brothers, and have remained unchanged since 1919.

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Leopold’s Ice Cream

 

But don’t presume for a slow, southern second that this old city can’t do anything new. The abundance of artisanal bakeries like James Beard nominee Back in the Day or hip trinket-eries that serve coffee, cookies, candles and soap like The Paris Market, Australian salad-aries like Collins Quarter or even a counter-style South African sausage-erie called Zunzi know how to harness flawless quality and authenticity with a unique and distinctive charm.

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The Grey

But the proverbial cake has well and truly been taken by former Prune (NYC) toque Mashama Bailey. At The Grey, a meticulously renovated art deco Greyhound bus terminal from 1934, Bailey will forever be remembered as the chef who vaulted Savannah into a new era of destination dining.

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The Grey

Every inlaid wood and brushed chrome detail, every bronze and white glass lamp sconce, every section of custom curved windows and a religiously seasonal menu that changes daily, makes this the scarcest table in town. Showered with acclaim as Eater’s “Restaurant of the Year”, one of Time Magazine’s “100’s greatest Places” and a James Beard nominee, Bailey and her energetic team work hard to deliver big city dishes that would easily become house favorites – in any big city. The menu is categorized by the location of the ingredients (pantry, water, dirt and pasture) and the constant blur of the gingham-shirted wait staff creates a lively, expeditious and electric atmosphere in direct contrast to Slow-vannah.

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Steak Tartare, The Grey

The earth-shatteringly wonderful Steak Tartare is butchered from an entire hind quarter, aged for about a month before being chopped and dressed with lemon, a spectacular home-made Worcestershire sauce and pickled quail egg. The house-made buttery Buccatini with Clams was inspired in its simplicity, as was the addition of salty Halumi cheese into an amazingly caramelized tumble of roasted delicate Squash and Spring onions.

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Chicken Country Captain, The Grey

And the only menu item that will hopefully remain a fixture into the next decade is the triumphant Chicken Country Captain, drenched in a sublime and memory-making curry sauce with slivers of crunchy almonds and pocks of sweet currants. I must have blacked out, as I don’t remember lifting the plate to my lips and licking it clean.

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The Diner at The Grey

I’ll go out on a limb and predict that within the next five to seven years Savannah will compete handsomely in the nation’s food scene, luring the next generation of celebra-chefs to crack open a brand-new cuisine called sophista-soul. But before anyone gets too far down the line, no more walk-in’s without reservations y’all!

http://mrswilkes.com/

https://atlanticsavannah.com/

http://www.cottonandrye.com/#intro

http://www.elizabethon37th.net/

http://www.thepublickitchen.com/

https://backinthedaybakery.com/index.html

https://theparismarket.com/

https://www.zunzis.com/

http://thegreyrestaurant.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Eating my way through Charleston

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Breakfast biscuits, Poogan’s Porch

Since its inception, Charleston, South Carolina has been called many things. Originally  “Charles Town” or “Chuck town” in honor of King Charles II, and more recently the “Holy City” thanks to the proliferation of almost every denomination of church steeple, but I prefer to think of it as “Charmtown” – the city of warmth, charm, hospitality and phenomenal southern cooking.  Because a large part of the myrtle tree lined cobbled streets lie several feet on the wrong side of sea level, many local menus refer to their recipes as “low country” cuisine – which incorporates soul food concoctions of local grains, greens, poultry and seafood – not to mention a nirvana for any barbecue pit-master.

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Shrimp & Grits, Husk

There are several “must-try’s” on every newcomer’s list to the city: Shrimp and Grits (a gritty porridge dotted with cooked shrimp bathing in some form of roux; Pimento Cheese (a pimply pale paté of soft cheese, pickled pimentos and mayonnaise often dolloped over fried green tomatoes); Barbecue (pork, beef, catfish and poultry – usually open-pit-smoked with vinegar-forward rubs and sauces); She-crab Soup (a creamy chowder from the legs and claws of female crabs) and Fried Chicken (no explanation required!).

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F.I.G.

Food establishments are as casual as they are abundant, and every Charlestonian (from Uber drivers to baggage handlers) will recommend their favorite, but securing a table (one of the few still using white cloths) at Mike Lata’s F.I.G. (Food is Good, est. 2003) is still tougher than a hamster sandwich. The kitchen at this all-time favorite local bistro in Ansonborough is run by executive chef and James Beard Award winner Jason Stanhope, who should be thanked for averting local riots by loyally reprising several menu standards.

 

 

Top of the list has to be his velvety smooth, rich and incomparably wondrous Chicken Liver Paté, served with shards of toasted brioche, a bracing Dijon and a pile of sour pickles. Next would be a cluster of impossibly fluffy Ricotta Gnocchi with the most delectable lamb Bolognaise that could easily summon 100 angels (from wherever it is that angels need to be summoned from.) We had also hoped to sample the much-blogged-about Tomato Tarte Tatin, only to be firmly but politely corrected by our dapper apron-clad waiter, that everyone knew it would be three more weeks before tomatoes were at their most flavorful. (Did I mention that this town runs on locally sourced, available ingredients?) So, we opted for one of the highly requested seafood dishes – the Fish Stew Provençal, which beautifully merges French and Southern cooking styles into one heavenly pot of mussels, local white shrimp, squid, fish and Carolina Gold rice.

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Shrimp & Grits, Poogan’s Porch

Poogan’s Porch is an enchanting, family-run establishment set inside a double-story house with a generous porch, where you can people-watch the iPhone bungling tourists go by, while enjoying the Best Shrimp and Grits in 2016. Their secret? They add cheddar to the grits to give it a tangy creaminess, and their roux is a Tasso ham gravy with sausages and peppers.

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The Grocery

You will, without doubt, stumble upon former vegetarian chef Kevin Johnson’s The Grocery on several Charleston Top 10 lists (and via many a personal recommendation too) mostly because of his reliance on the freshest local farm produce. The daily menu is dictated by whatever appeared on the back of the truck that morning, but rest assured, the sublimely spicy Roasted Carrots in Harissa is a staple. The curiously wide space (formerly a furniture showroom) comprises a series of incongruous areas with and without views of the elaborate and high-octane kitchen. We wolfed down the house-made Charcuterie Platter, and savored an amazing mustard and au jus Glazed Duck leg confit with German potato salad and a sharp turnip kraut.

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Glazed Duck leg Confit, The Grocery

You could easily spend a year sampling every take on Fried Chicken in town without repetition, but faced with a time budget, we opted for the lonely pink cinder block box surrounded by a cluster of weeds on the side of a road just north of town called Martha Lou’s Kitchen.

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Martha Lou’s Kitchen

Thrillst® just embraced it onto their America’s 31 Best Fried Chicken spots list, and you won’t get any arguments from me. True to the adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – this windowless room hasn’t seen much in the way of upgrades over its thirty-year history.

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Martha Lou’s Kitchen

Label-free, sticky, hot-sauce bottles pin down the hand-scribbled menus, which would otherwise be strewn across the 7 floral, vinyl-covered tables. The only sounds above the whirring of dueling electric fans are the enthusiastic shrieks of anticipation from the crowd of persistent regulars waiting patiently in line. The silverware is plastic, the dishware is Styrofoam and the linen is dispensed from a roll. But the chicken is…to…die…for.

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Fried Chicken, Collard Greens, Mac ‘n Cheese and Cornbread, Martha Lou’s Kitchen

Cooked, served and cleared by two feisty sisters who offer you a choice 3 sides (some of the best collard greens, mac ‘n cheese and corn bread in town) to go along with their moist, tender, golden and candy-apple-crisp portions of dark or white meat. The salty-peppery batter is just thick enough not to pull away from the chicken, and when all is said and done, neither plate nor fingers yield a trace of oil. Be warned though – the Sweet Tea is sweeter than a honey-bee’s butt.

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Rodney Scott’s Barbecue

There’s another crowd standing in line just a few blocks away at Rodney Scott’s BBQ. Mr. Scott brought his James Beard Award winning “whole hog” technique to town after a very successful run in Hemingway, SC. Alongside the airy red, white and blue dining room is a not-so-airy pit room where hogs, chickens and large sections of beef are slowly and meticulously smoked.

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Spare Ribs, Rodney Scott’s Barbecue

The service is counter-style, and the food arrives in little red baskets lined with butcher paper to soak up the oozy, yummy, vinegary, sweet-and-spicy sauce. Popular favorites are the Pulled Pork Sandwich with a generous helping of lean strands of smoked pork between a soft, white bun, and the amazing dry rub, melt-in-your-mouth Spare Ribs that yield their dark, rich and woody flavors from years of crafting and perfecting.

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Husk

Sean Brock is probably the most notorious chef to draw attention to Charleston’s food scene. After a career under the influence of toques from multiple styles, the “Mind of a chef” starring, James Beard and Daytime Emmy Award winning southern boy opened the now legendary Husk in 2010. Set in a charming 1890’s house on Queen street with a fancy Bourbon barroom next door, Brock dedicated the menu to his strict devotion to southern produce: “If it ain’t southern,” he used to quip, “it ain’t coming in the door.”

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Pimento Cheese Bruscetta, Husk

He elevates Shrimp and Grits with a medley of cheeses for extra creaminess, and douses it in a mind-blowing tomato and shellfish broth. By now everyone has heard of his utterly amazing Pig’s Ear Lettuce Wraps.

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Pig’s Ear Lettuce Wraps, Husk

In reality they are a fresh leaf of butter lettuce clutching a few crispy, crackly twigs of what our waiter described as: “if bacon and pork belly had a baby,” with soft pickled cucumbers, onion slices and a spot of Togarashi sauce for some heat. But nothing can beat the pure, simple joy of his classic Cheeseburger.

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Cheeseburger, Husk

A pair of chuck, bacon and brisket patties held together by a slice of melted American cheese, a swipe of secret sauce, a sprinkle of shaved onion and 3 or 4 pickles crammed into a golden, squishy sesame bun. Uncomplicated. Unfussy. Unbelievable.

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McCrady’s

But don’t think for a hot and sticky southern second that Sean Brock can’t do fussy. Just take a seat at the U-shaped counter at his revamped McCrady’s for a serious, focused and flavor-intense degustation experience. The gold pressed-steel ceilings and exposed brick walls help warm the 18-seat dining throne at the edge of an all-induction, sous-vide kitchen with no open flames. A diverse group of line chefs labor theatrically and animatedly with tweezers, needles and miniature tongs to surgically assemble, prep and plate thirteen of the most beautiful micro-portions of amazingly fussy food. The two and a quarter hour savory thrill ride is rather like a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, with daring surprises, immaculate choreography and a story arc that builds slowly with several culinary high points, before a series of sweet endings gently lower you back down to earth. The grey seersucker-vested waiters provide all the jokes, anecdotes, punctuations and explanations, but no-one will reveal what’s coming up next.

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Royal red shrimp and Savoy Cabbage, McCrady’s

Part of the suspense includes Brock’s highly curated musical “soundtrack” to accompany each course, with selections from The Wild Club and Massive Attack, (which at times makes hearing the dish descriptions a tad challenging for these old ears) but it’s all part of the uncompromising “dinner party” experience that Chef Sean was after.

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Uni and Cucumber ice-cream, McCrady’s

Each dish is revealed in a unique way, in its own unique vessel, accompanied by a uniquely carved wooden rest that houses each unique piece of articulated cutlery. The menu updates regularly based on seasonality, fresh produce availability (noticing a theme yet?) and tons of experimentation. Some of the recent highlights included an ice-cream made from Uni; a delicious Ossabow Pork Pie (that was truly the size of a licorice all-sort); a sous-vide Royal red shrimp and Savoy cabbage mousseline splashed with Kimchi butter and topped with Osetra caviar; a marvelous risotto made from Nostrale Rice (aka Charleston ice-cream) with puffed cereal and a foamy egg custard; pan-seared Mahi Mahi covered by a thatch of thinly sliced white asparagus and New Zealand finger limes, served under a splash of chamomile and spring onion tea; and a Banana Caramel with coconut gelato and black lime zest.

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McCrady’s

With only so many meals a day, the larger question is where didn’t I get to eat? That list would have to include notables like The Glass Onion, Chez Nous, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Bertha’s Kitchen, Charleston Grill, 167 Raw, Zero, Stella’s, Lewis Barbecue and The Ordinary. Looks like I’ll be back in “Charmtown” real soon. Y’all take care now!

https://eatatfig.com/

https://www.poogansporch.com/

http://marthalouskitchen.com/

http://www.rodneyscottsbbq.com/

http://huskrestaurant.com/sean-brock-2/

http://mccradysrestaurant.com/