Craig Claiborne on Kiawah Island
It is my highly speculative belief that Charleston boasts more restaurants per capita than any city in America. They include native Southern, of course, French traditional and bistros, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, seafood establishments, steak houses, coffee shops and more. For the most part, dress is casual and a preponderance of customers, primarily women, drink iced tea. But many of the best restaurants also have impressive wine lists.
Two of the most famous dishes of Charleston (and they should not be overlooked) are she-crab soup and shrimp and grits. The soup is made, as the name implies, with the female crabs and this is essential, for a genuine she-crab soup must contain crab roe, which is most abundant during the winter months.
All in all, I found Charleston to be a remarkable city in which to dine and imbibe. And it has clearly earned preeminence as one of the great "restaurant" cities in the South. The old world ambience combined with fresh local ingredients and even fresher ideas from resident chefs and gastronomes makes dining an irresistible affair. I like to think of it as a culinary renaissance, sans the Medicis. Rich, artful, and mildly decadent. Definitely worth a trip, with the added and sublime satisfaction of knowing there will be no wasted calories. Mmm - good! Bon appetit, y'all.
When Craig Claiborne arrived at the Charleston Airport from Manhattan at noon on a Saturday and got in the car to head to the peninsula, the first thing the Sunflower, Mississippi native said was, "please take me to your best barbecue place. I am famished." He knew I was from Alabama and he was going to be in Charleston for seven days writing a food article for Legends magazine. Five of the days would be downtown staying at the Belmond Charleston Place, dining and writing, and two on Kiawah Island, which at the time only had the Kiawah Island Inn. Though you could rent any number of villas or small houses, the Kiawah Island Inn was lovely but nothing compared to the grand Sanctuary Hotel that exists on the island today. And also today the Mississippian would have loved the barbecue at Rodney Scott's place, or John Lewis of Austin fame. One of his main directives of his dining out for lunch and dinner for the seven days was to not tell anyone he was going to be at their restaurant. But he was so well known that once he was seated, the kitchen and front of the house began the process of coming over to the table and introducing themselves one by one. Food Royalty is really quite something to watch unfold in front of you. The order of things is just a whole different experience. The wine list and menu take on a new life. Though he would look over the menu and fold it up and place it in his jacket pocket when he was able to do so, the chef would always say that he would like to prepare something special for him. Claiborne would mention the standards of she-crab soup and shrimp and grits when he first got to Charleston but then moved on to the chef suggestions. Claiborne's wildly popular cookbooks were numerous and his relationship with Julia Child and the world class chefs alone was enough for his fame before his invention of food writing for publications such as The New York Times perhaps put him at the top of the food chain anywhere on the globe. He loved Charleston. And he was more excited each day to try something new. As the Editor-in-Chief of Legends magazine I had a budget for the seven days and I was paying him New York rates. He loved good red wine. And he knew what he was doing when he looked over the wine list. It was always just the two of us as I had not included my girlfriend nor the owner of Kiawah, Buddy Darby. Once he got settled and the wine delivered to the table he assumed the role of the great Southern storyteller. And did he ever tell a good story at the dinner table! The story never had a discouraging note or a negative moment of silence. They took place in Manhattan or in one of the other great cities of the world. After dinner, the walk back to Charleston Place was always what seemed a short walk. Only a few times did we take public transport. And shaking his hand at the end of the evening he never inquired about the future, as he seemed to have such a hold on the present.
Click on a picture to view the information and directions to the restaurant
SLIGHTLY NORTH OF BROAD
39 RUE de JEAN
RAPPAHANNOCK OYSTER COMPANY
XIAO BAO BISCUIT
BUTCHER & BEE
By Marlene Osteen
On May 5,1903, James Beard was born in Portland, Oregon at the beginning of what was destined to become the American Century. He became an American legend, the voice and champion of American food. His mother, an Englishwoman of unbelievable independence for the time, came to America on her own, and like her son James, was larger than life. She operated the elegant Gladstone Hotel and ran a house where hams hung curing from storeroom rafters, a gifted Chinese cooked congee for breakfast, and farmers brought fiddleheads in the spring along with wild mushrooms, line-caught salmon and baby vegetables. Weekly trips were made to the central market where knowing purveyors saved cockscombs for the young but determined gourmet. A large impressive man even at age nineteen, Jim left college and a career traveling in a stock company to go to London to become an opera singer. He soon decided that he was a better eater than singer, but the love of opera and an innate theatricality never left him. He soon returned to America, and after a brief stint as a teacher, opened with his life-long friends a business that catered to that particularly American, pre-war phenomenon, the cocktail party. It was called Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. He wrote his first book using the recipes and ideas developed at that business. He had found his success and his life’s work: to communicate to the American public with verve, enthusiasm and simplicity what they wanted and needed to know about the food that was a natural part of American life. The war sent him around the world. All over, he used his skills to create Merchant Marine clubs where the hands could relax and eat and drink well. He returned from the experience with hilarious stories of brothels that exchanged cooks for food and devious plans to keep his men supplied with some pleasure amidst peril and horror. He also learned a smattering of many languages and more about many nationalities of food. After he returned to New York, he wrote as many as twenty books, weekly syndicated newspaper columns, and an infinity of magazine articles (principally for Gourmet and House & Garden)- had the first television cooking show, spoke on radio, and gave classes all over America. He became synonymous with American food, the first nationally recognizable food name, a friend to cooks in their homes. Always, he preached a doctrine of rational simplicity, good natural ingredients, and above all, direct pleasure without too much fuss. He had a fabulous memory, loved the culinary literature, and talking to growers and chefs. From the rich resource in his mind, he unstintingly gave encouragement and information. He was a friend and a legend.
Next to that activity that is defined by a three letter word and is seldom described in such refined publications as this one, eating and drinking are the only regular instances of immediate gratification that life provides. (Unless you count polishing the silver.) And next to the joy brought forth by the actual mastication and quaffing, there are all
the ecstasies that may be derived merely from the contemplation of the eventual meal. Or, to put it simply, I have always envied those lucky souls who get to spend their whole working existence either in the pondering or in the preparing of food and wine. James Beard, better known as the “Father of American Cuisine,” and Julia Child, the “Mother of French cooking in America,” were two such folks. And, it is not surprising that they were great friends and brethren in the pursuit of gastronomy. I never met James Beard, but I can recall a meeting concerning cholesterol consumption at which Julia Child was present. Ms. Child angrily responded to the doctor advocating the restriction of cholesterol in our diets “...that he should tell us how much cholesterol I can have, and I may elect to have it all in one piece of chocolate cake.” Food deprivation was simply not something either Ms. Child or Mr. Beard were likely to suffer.
As James Beard said, “The first rule of dining is to eat and drink what you enjoy the most.” Who am I to argue? James Beard died in 1985 at age 81, , and Ms. Child followed in 2004 at the age of 92. So, it is fitting that when James Beard died that Julia Child should suggest to the culinary world that his home in Greenwich Village, New York be maintained a national resource for American food. The house provides a library on American food and wines, and offers classes taught by leading chefs and teachers and is currently developing scholarships and apprenticeship programs. These activities are supported by special food events held by restaurants around the country. In 1988, twelve restaurants were invited to hold dinners in celebration of James Beard’s 85th birthday. The Pawley’s Island Inn was invited to participate and eagerly responded.
On May 15, 66 guests gathered at the Pawley’s Island Inn to share in a dinner celebrating the cooking style that James Beard has championed. Chef Louis Osteen designed a menu that paid tribute to Mr. Beard’s directives that cooking must be honest, direct, imaginative and generous. And since Mr. Beard was from Oregon, we thought it might be fun if some of the foods and all of the wines were from Oregon. It was a marvelously lavish and indulgent evening - certainly paying homage to Mr. Beard’s dictate that “I like to express emphasis by copiousness, not elaboration.” Foods and wines were offered that were certainly new to South Carolina. Never before had we tasted these new and enchanting wines from Oregon in our state. Because winemaking in Oregon has proceeded on a small scale - only 4000 acres are planted, or an equivalent to 10% of Napa Valley - production is limited. The wineries have simply not been able to produce enough wine to supply the entire country. Yet, in my travels, my encounters with Oregon wines have provided me with some exciting experiences and I was anxious for this dinner. We began with hors d’oeuvres of tiny onion brioche sandwiches and a light fruity white Riesling from Amity Vineyards. Then there was a marvelous minestrone of Pacific seafoods: Geoduck, Razor and Manila Clams, Pacific Salmon, Mussels - cooked in an exquisite broth, and paired with the lovely and delicate 1986 Chardonnay from Bethel Heights Vineyard in the Willamette Valley. All blended together soft and gently in my mouth. We drank another Chardonnay - the 1986 Adelsheim Vineyard in Yamhill County - with a spicy and savory stew of lump crabmeat and green chilies.
The wine, full and intense and bursting with fruit, subdued the chilies and the whole was infinitely better than its parts. Next there was barbecued duck with vidalia onion jam, served with the 1986 Pinot Noir from Bethel Heights - all together lusty and luscious and tasting of the earth. For our
last course before dessert, there was a spectacular array of meats - short ribs, veal breast and lamb shanks with fiddlehead ferns and sing vegetables, a plate that Mr. Beard would have eagerly consumed. To accompany the dish, we drank the 1986 Knudsen Earth Vintage Select Pinot Noir. And as befitted its place in line as the best of our dinner wines, this was the real dazzler of the evening: the flavor and aroma reminiscent both of wild cherries and truffles. To end, Louis prepared a dessert from Mr. Beard’s favorite of all beverages, Glenlivet Scotch - Glenlivet Scotch truffles.
And so the evening ended, all left happy and sated, some even glowing, perhaps. One diner suggested that she was certain that Mr. Beard’s spirit was present at the Pawley’s Island Inn that night. For myself I saw him grab that Razor Clam off my plate at the dinner we had later with the restaurant staff who had generously donated their time on behalf of the Foundation.
Happy Birthday, Jim!
The James Beard House
Server Virginia Reed in the garden of Cafe Nicholson, in New York City in 1949 where Edna Lewis was the chef (l to r): ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, the novelist Donald Windham, artist Buffie Johnson, the writers Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. All the big names in the arts went to Cafe Nicholson in the late forties and fifties in the city.
In the 1980s, Edna Lewis came to Charleston and was the Chef at the Restaurant at Middleton Place at Middleton Plantation. Her fried chicken was world famous. Today, you can order from a special section of the lunch menu called "A Tribute to Edna Lewis" at the Restaurant at Middleton Place. What an amazing talent Ms. Lewis was at Middleton and going to lunch or dinner then was spectacular as it is today. And after your meal you can stroll through the old growth garden next to the restaurant. It is much like a movie set on the Ashley River.
Although Charleston cuisine has been famous since colonial times, it was mostly enjoyed behind closed doors in the grand houses and gardens. Always fresh, plentiful, and savory, it combined the best of West Africa with Europe and raised fine dining to heights unknown in the colonies at the time. In the last thirty-five years, Charleston has developed a reputation for its fine restaurants, which have proliferated enthusiastically. And, as the king of food writing, Craig Claiborne, observed, Charleston has more fine dining places per capita than any other city in America. The peninsula has a total of about sixty, but in our view, there are twenty-five or so that are world-class. We will not attempt to rank them in any general order. They are all unique. They each have their own distinct personality and never disappoint. Most, if not all, source their menu ingredients locally and sustainably.
Middleton Place is a wonderful destination for lunch or dinner. It is about 16 miles from the Historic Peninsula. Try to give yourself a little extra time if you are driving out from the peninsula or close by so that you can walk the paths close to the Middleton Place restaurant before and after dinner. Short walks or long. The restaurant is located next to the formal gardens and the paths through the old growth are breathtaking. Along the Ashley River that is also right behind the restaurant there is a path that goes by giant live oaks that are easily 300-years-old with the river a stone's throw away. If it is dinner you are lucky enough to be there for, then you can experience a sunset that will forever be a fond memory any time of the year.
The Middleton Place Restaurant on the left with America's first formal landscaped gardens in the back of the restaurant. And to the right of the terrace, the old growth garden paths meander through ponds filled with resident swans. It is so worth your time to visit the restaurant and the garden. It is a living museum.
The Middleton Inn is a short walk along the Ashley River path from the restaurant and the terraced landscape. The Inn is an Architectural Master Work by the Architect W.G. Clark.
the Middleton Place Inn.
Middleton Place is the best of both worlds. You are staying in a living museum a short distance from downtown and the Inn will organize easy transportation to events and dining experiences.