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Wednesday
Apr172013

Low Country Cuisine

Low Country Cuisine

Food fuels and gastronomy rules Savannah, and there is no shortage of good restaurants, many of which feature southern cuisine: seafood, grits, okra, greens and all things fried.  Shrimp turns out to be trumps for us in the Savannah dining scene...so very fresh, something incredibly hard to find at home. We commence the eating with fried green tomatoes and cold shrimp at Vic's on the River, a classic seafood house. Then comes a small army-feeding platter of flash-fried Georgia white shrimp and gulf oysters atop a mound of grits along with half dozen asparagus spears. What a way to kick of a swing through the South.

The twenty two garden squares and their surrounding wards that make up historic central Savannah offer just a few dining spots. Six Pence Pub is one, and a local's favorite. The shrimp salad sandwich here was next. We  had to wait a half hour as they boiled and cooled shrimp for a fresh batch, as the'yd run out just as we found a couple of coveted bar seats on Sunday morning. It was worth the wait. An obvious local who sat next to us ordered a bloody mary, "mostly mary". When I asked about that, she  said it signifies heavy on the vodka.

Savannah is a drinking town, too, and shares a custom we thought existed only in Nawlins--in the are designated NOGS, for North Of Gaston Street--like New Orleans, you can order cocktails 'to go' and wander the quarter beverage in hand.

A Low country boil pairing shrimp with spicy sausage, a crab cake and corn soufflé and collard greens met the shrimp test at Allure, a pretty place on Congress Street, home to many restaurants including Paula Deen's. Classic shrimp 'n grits ticked the box at Sapphire Grill, a block away, but marrow bone paired with thin, pan seared scallops showered with capers and pickled shallots was delicious as well. Two other things ubiquitous and almost always delicious around Savannah are crisp-outside chickens livers, and lump meat crab cakes. There are fine salads, too, to add a healthy dimension to the cuisine in addition to the bacon infused collard greens.

Charleston is another town devoted to gastronomy, and we had several must-visit places lined out on this trip. The first, THE hot spot in town just now, is Husk, set in a brick building on Queen street with bar located separately in a brick carriage house. The menu is one of those with so many delicious sounding things that decisions are hard. And speaking of decisions, the separate Bourbon list contains at least a hundred makes. To pair with a glass of Woodford Reserve "Double Wood”, how could we possibly NOT try the deep fried chicken skin? Crunchy and topped with pimiento cheese and green tomato pickles, it's fabulous. A sampling of five different southern country hams, sliced paper thin is like a tour of ham town. Crispy soft shell crab is fantastic, as are the bourbon BBQ sauce ribs smoked almost black over pecan shells--falling off the bone terrific.

At the bar for an after dinner libation, we stuck up a conversation with Erin Perkins, a columnist for the Charleston City Paper, who says that soft shell crab is only in season for about two weeks, and is celebrated and beloved. A group walks in and heads to the upstairs dining room, and a woman she recognizes calls over and states that they are nearing the end of their evening's "soft shell crawl". I wish we'd known.

The Ordinary...a four month old seafood temple in an old banking hall on King street....the vault door separates the raw bar from the kitchen--is the other current hot new spot. Expected things--raw everything, lobster rolls, gumbo, chowdah, soft shell crab two different ways--at least for these few weeks. And incredible unexpected treats: oyster sliders--one perfect fried oyster on a tiny roll, slaw, remoulade, spicy pepper rings--EXTRA-Ordinary! Clam cakes instead of crab cakes, and an astonishing and unusual dish--triggerfish schnitzel with caper beurre blanc. The downsides here are the crowds and the noise factor...deafening.
   
McCrady's sits in part in a tavern of the same name opened in 1778. The beautiful 'long room' located at 2 Unity Alley in Charleston's French Quarter was restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and again became a restaurant. The food of James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock is an amalgam of southern tradition and modernist cuisine, with a strong emphasis on local foods--several purveyors and farmers are listed right on the menu.

Outstanding dishes sampled among four of include:
Chilled English Pea Soup with Pickled Clams, Green Strawberries and Mint
Crisp-fatty seared pork belly over farroto with pesto extraction
Crispy soft-shell crab (again!) with wild ramps and citrus
Rare rack chop and long-cooked belly of lamb on grits and black trumpet mushrooms
Pan Roasted local flounder on potato purée and topped with a chicken ragu--a most odd sounding, but really delicious combo.

McCrady's food and service overall is top notch and inventive. If there's one knock, I'd say things are generally over-salted, but we've found that's the taste all over the South.

We hailed two pedicabs from Charleston Rickshaw company for the ride home under the full moon These college kid-powered open-air bicycle taxis are ubiquitous around downtown, and a great way to get around (if it's not raining). Curiously, I feel none of the guilt that I felt in Asia taking real rickshaws powered by small Asian men pulling while running.

We started our gustatory tour at Vic's Seafood in Savannah, and end it at Hank's Seafood in Charleston. A classic fish house, Hank's is reminiscent of Tadisch Grill in San Francisco--white jacketed waiters, wooden chairs, white linen and gleaming silver. The air is glazed buttercream with the soft lights gleaming off warm wood panelling. Conversation around us at the packed bar contains snippets about golf, the big fish, sailing a Starfish, and gardens.

We end as we started, pretty much--deeply flavored shrimp bisque, a few peel and eat shrimp, then a platter of the freshest shrimp and oysters flash-fried, asparagus on the side, washed down with bourbon and beer. Astonishingly good. We'd struck up a bit  of a conversation with a man and his 84 year old father dining next to us, and when the check came, there was just a scrawled note from our waitress that said "the nice lads to your right got your tab". Southe'n hospitality is indeed alive and well.

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