Postcard from Charleston: Lowcountry Eats

10:10 PM

There comes a time each summer when Midwesterners begin to feel a slight drought in their bones, so they pack enormous suitcases and pile their families into minivans and flock to one of three places: Michigan, Florida or the Carolinas. Tanya's family is no different, and this year I went too.

We drove about ten hours to the sweet little island of Folly, SC, about twenty minutes south of Charleston. The beach was lovely, clean and uncrowded; the town a standard, minimally touristy coastal hideout. However, its proximity to Charleston was terrific.

I had not been to Charleston for thirteen-some years. It was everything I remembered—beautiful, iconic and picture-perfect at every turn—plus more. My last visit was on a school trip, well before my allergy diagnosis and my love affair with food. So, this time Tanya and I were delighted to find such a vibrant and cutting-edge culinary culture.

This lowcountry cuisine for which Charleston is known is a bit like both Southern cooking and Cajun cuisine. It features Caribbean and African influences with complex and vibrant flavor and spice combinations. We found three distinct (and delicious) takes on traditional lowcountry offerings.

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1. Pearlz Oyster Bar (Charleston location)

"The original, eclectic little oyster bar."

You can view the menu here. 

Atmosphere: Located on a trendy street in the French Quarter, this modern restaurant is small but vibrant. It features live music (which can get a bit loud) and a general upbeat atmosphere that is perfect for a dynamic date but is less ideal for a family or an intimate conversation. The interior is fresh and feels not unlike the hoard of other on-trend, average-price trendy eateries that now exist in every city in America.

Allergy Rating: B
While ordering directly from the set menu proved difficult, the daily fresh catch menu offered a number of gluten-free and dairy-free options. If you're in the mood for fresh fish, this is a great place to go. If you're hoping for something more and/or different, perhaps try elsewhere.

Tanya's Choice:
+ Calamari, breaded and served with chorizo, citrus marinated peppernade, scallion, fried lemon and chipotle creme fraiche
+ Grilled Mahi Tacos with cabbage, pico de gallo and crema (although she swapped chipotle-lime aioli for the crema)
Review: A-
The calamari had great flavor and was quite fresh, and the chorizo and peppernade gave it just the right amount of kick. Definitely a sharing dish or a meal in itself. The tacos were nice and light with a balanced flavor. I ordered two and it was the perfect amount. 

Rebecca's Choice: 
+ Wild catfish from their daily fresh catch menu, grilled and served with asparagus and "Charleston style" red rice
Review: A
The flavors in this dish sent me into a food high for the rest of the night. The fish was flavorful and perfectly grilled, but the rice put me over the top—it was chocked full of flavor, beautifully spiced with just the right amount of "dirty." Also, the portions were wonderfully large; I was hungry and ate it all, but it could have been two meals.

2. Poogan's Porch

"One of Charleston's oldest independent culinary establishments, with a fresh approach to Lowcountry cuisine."

You can view the menu here. 

Atmosphere: Located on quiet Queen street, this old-home-turned-restaurant is lovely, sophisticated and genuinely southern. Open and breezy yet dark and romantic, it proved to be nicely quiet and perfect for our family of six. A modern menu juxtaposed with a traditional interior gives it a certain freshness and charm.

Allergy Rating: A
The menu is marked (GF) to connote a decent number of gluten-free options, making it easy and approachable. Our server was knowledgeable about dairy-free options and double-checked every dish with the chef, giving us peace-of-mind.

Tanya's Choice:
+ Complementary biscuits
+ Braised short ribs served with grilled summer squashes, roasted red bliss potatoes and a rosemary jus
Review: A+
The short ribs were so tender that they feel apart—I could barely pick them up with a fork and they truly melted in my mouth. The jus was perfectly seasoned (and good enough to drink with a straw) and the vegetable medley was an ideal complement. The biscuits were buttery, flaky and a tad bit sweet—I asked for a to-go box for our two leftovers and the server brought us an additional six. Definitely a kind gesture, and perfect for homemade biscuits and gravy the next morning!

Rebecca's Choice:
+ Arugula salad with peaches and strawberries, drizzled with a bourbon balsamic reduction
+ Sweet tea glazed salmon, served with a candied lemon and mint risotto and sautéed asparagus
Review: A-
The salad was truly amazing; a small portion but deliciously balanced, with a bourbony and not-too-sweet reduction. Both the fish and the risotto were perfectly cooked, but the sweet tea glaze was a bit too sweet for my taste and the "candied lemon and mint" flavors in the risotto did not come through. It was certainly delicious and the atmosphere made for a lovely meal, but it was my least favorite dish of the trip. 

3. The Husk

"Exploring an ingredient-driven cuisine that begins in the rediscovery of heirloom products and redefines what it means to cook and eat in Charleston."

The menu is market-driven and changes daily, but you can view our here.

Atmosphere: Sitting next to Poogan's Porch, this stately southern home-turned-restaurant is both approachable and luxe. The lantern-lit porches and bright interior provide a distinctly welcoming atmosphere, while the farm-to-table decor—from dried mushroom centerpieces to glass-front pantries showcasing colorful vegetable preserves—offers a modern agrarian vibe.

Allergy Rating: A++
Because the menu is driven by the market and changes daily, we called ahead to ensure our dietary restrictions could be met. The hostess asked informed questions about our restrictions and noted them on our reservation so that our server could be prepared. According to our server, the chef prefers that people select a dish that they would like to try and then do everything in his power to made it according to dietary concerns. This is incredible—definitely a welcomed first for us. We inquired about several dishes and our server worked with the chef to design dishes that we could eat without compromising flavor integrity. It blew our minds and left us a bit spoiled.

Tanya's Choice:
+ Complementary yeast rolls, with bourbon smoked salt and sesame seeds
+ Keegan-filion chicken served with carolina gold rice purloo, sausage, crispy kale and preserved tomato jus
Review: A+ (ambiance, experience and presentation), B (dish)
The chicken was incredibly juicy but the skin was not crisp, so texturally it was less than ideal; however, the rice was flavorful, thick and very filling. Thin and salty, the crispy kale was the highlight of the dish. The tomato jus—made of preserves from last year's harvest—was also delicious and served to round out the dish, but I felt there was not quite enough of it. Everything else on the table was extraordinary and the rolls were a must-try. Overall, I loved the experience but selected the "safe" dish—I wish I had been more adventurous, as everyone else loved their choices. 

Rebecca's Choice:
+ Sliced heirloom tomatoes, served with goat's milk feta (on the side, for Tanya), pickled garlic, olive oil and bourbon smoked salt
+ Atlantic snapper, served with white acre peas, roasted sweet corn, charred okra and confit cherry tomatoes
Review: A+ 
While the fish was delicious, cooked and seasoned to perfection, the veggies were the stars of my dish. Never before have I eaten such an impeccably balanced vegetable medley—while it seemed wonderfully simple, the flavors were intriguing and complex. The mere thought of this dish makes my mouth water and I would order it again in a heartbeat. 

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