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Vacation Postcard: Dining in Savannah and Charleston

 

Baked oysters at Local 1110

Baked oysters at Local 1110

I’m back at work after a blessed week off. My family and I had some friends from Italy come for a visit, and so we took them on a brief but food-packed tour of Savannah and Charleston. Eating in tourist towns can always be challenging. I didn’t want to subject my friends to umpteen versions of shrimp and grits and she crab soup. In Savannah, we toyed with the idea of eating in Paula Deen’s restaurant, Lady & Sons. But after arriving in the morning to make reservations and finding a line snaking around the block, we decided instead to look at the life-sized cardboard cutout of Lady Paula and call it a day. 

“She’s very popular on the Food Network,” I explained. “She loves butter.”

“Oh,” our friends said, nodding their heads. “You have a network that shows nothing but food?”

So we mostly avoided tourist and kitsch dining and zeroed in on these three highly rated restaurants:

 

  • Local 11 Ten: I’ve been eager to try this two-year-old restaurant, which had gotten loads of good press and word of mouth. It is situated on the south side of Forsyth Park — i.e., on the far side, away from the heart of the historic district — in a converted bank lobby. The setting is certainly more urbane than any restaurant I’ve heretofore encountered in Savannah, with high plate windows, exposed brick, cream and chocolate furnishings, natural wood and cool overhead light fixtures that supply just the right glow to as dusk turns to night. The menu makes a clean break from the Lowcountry cliché meets old-school Continental format that seems prevalent in Savannah. As you might surmise from the name, the menu nods to farm-to-table cooking, though with only a few shout outs to local farmers. I found the food promising, though I was hoping for a little more finesse and focus from the kitchen, considering the prices that tap out at $30 for an entree. These warm baked oysters (pictured) come topped with bits of minced shrimp and pale breadcrumbs and desperately needed a wand tap from the oomph fairy. My entree of North Carolina sea scallops brought five smallish, bouncy scallops scattered over a heap of bok choy and peppers in a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette. But I did snag a bite of a great tortilla cup filled with black beans, guacamole, salsa fresca and crab and a smooth-as-silk soup make with potatoes, ramps and leeks. Maybe an off night? Whatever: I’m still on the lookout for a great Savannah restaurant. 
  • McCrady’s Restaurant: Over in Charleston, we made sure to get reservations at McCrady’s, where Sean Brock is chef. I’ve followed Brock’s career ever since he was the enfant terrible of Nashville, whipping up scientific oddities at the Capitol Grille inside the Hermitage Hotel. Brock (a contender for Rising Star Chef at the James Beard awards this year) has changed a lot since moving to Charleston. Now he focuses his energies more on the Wadmalaw Island farm where he raises vegetables and pigs for the restaurant. The molecular gastronomy stuff? He’s still into it but less, as he says, for ” the parlor tricks” and more to enhance his cooking. His house made (and raised!) salumi features a variety of cured sausages, coppa, “pizza flavored” salami, pork liver rillettes, ham and lardo (cured fat) served over brioche toast. The slow-cooked rabbit with lentils, turnips and sweet pea pesto sounds as tame as Thumper, and I almost hesitate to order it because rabbit so often is either tough or lacking flavor. What I get are three cubes of hot, pressed rabbit terrine — juicy and full of flavor. It also has a gorgeously crisp skin, which is not something I associate with rabbit. Wait a moment…I’ve skinned rabbits. This isn’t supposed to happen. Turns out it’s chicken skin, held on with transglutamase or “meat glue.” For dessert, I can never turn down the selection of 10 sorbets (pictured, however poorly) that comes with a laminated cheat sheet. This was my fourth visit to McCrady’s, and it just keeps getting better and better. 
  • Fig Restaurant: For our second night in Charleston we tried out Fig (or, properly, FIG, as the name is an acronym for “Food is Good”). I had been once before several years ago and have always wanted to get to know it better. Chef Mike Lata, a contender for Best Chef Southeast in the James Beard awards, formerly helmed the kitchen at Ciboulette in Atlanta. He really has the goods — not only does he cook using local products, but he thinks using local products. You see how the ingredients spark his imagination, particularly with appetizers and small plates. His signature salad of local shrimp, radicchio, pancetta and peeled grape tomatoes has such perfect pitch that the red lettuce doesn’t taste at all bitter, and the sweet snap of the shrimp lingers on the palate. Sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi with lamb ragù are astonishingly light. Farrotto made with Anson Mills farro has a nutty softness that you want to keep tasting to lock in memory. On both this visit and my previous one, I found entrees a shade less interesting. Local triggerfish comes off the grill a bit springy (as it often does) but its freshness is unassailable. A yogurt panna cotta with vinegar-macerated strawberries made the round of the table at the end. Next time, I want to sit at the cool front bar and make a meal of small plates. 

Vacation over. Now back to our regularly scheduled bloggramming.

4 comments Add your comment

Stan

April 14th, 2009
9:10 am

Glad you are back. I was starting to wonder if this thing was broken…how about a heads up that your on vacation next time.

Jenn

April 14th, 2009
1:13 pm

John, I’m heading to Charleston for the first time next week. I’ll only be there for the day, but any good places for lunch that you’d recommend? Doesn’t appear that FIG or McCrady’s are open for lunch.

John Kessler

April 14th, 2009
4:38 pm

Stan – I should have made a note when we cancelled our papers and got someone to come by and feed the guinea pigs.
Jenn – If you haven’t been to Hominy Grill, that’s a great choice. Get there on the early side to avoid the crowds and definitely save room for dessert. Also, Monza serves very nice pizza — not especially local, but worthwhile.

FCM

April 15th, 2009
9:00 pm

My favorite in Charleston: Stono Cafe 1956 Maybank Hwy
Charleston, SC 29412
(843) 762-4478‎

Went years ago when I was touring Johnson & Wales (no longer in Charleston I know) w/then boyfriend. Said friend is now graduated from J & W and out in Sonoma, CA.

Anyway, we asked the guide (the Johnson & Wales one) that if they had one last meal to eat in Charleston, where would they go….they told us Stono Cafe. We went and had the best meal of our lives. That is STILL where I go when we are in the area and it is still some of the best food I ever put in my mouth.