The many charms of Charleston

I’m just back from three days and nights in beguiling Charleston, South Carolina and let me go on record by saying that I have NEVER eaten so well on a vacation. Every single bite was on point and unforgettable.

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Charleston in a word? Heady. I felt half-drunk wandering through the historic district, populated with soaring church spires and storied three-story homes of all shapes, sizes and styles, some dating back as far as the 1700s and each brimming with a pedigree all its own.

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Everywhere, ancient oak trees reach lazily across the sky, draped with ghost-like wisps of Spanish moss and alive with the near-deafening buzz of cicadas. Everywhere, the scent of the city wafts a surprisingly pleasant hybrid aroma of sea and swamp. Everywhere, genteel parks and squares offer quiet benches and shady respite from the staggering summer humidity. The Battery brims with history and panoramic views of the harbor out to Fort Sumpter and beyond. And the Old Slave Mart Museum offers a sobering taste of the past, and a stark reminder of what we must never become again.

Then there’s the food. The lure that drew me to the Holy City in the first place. Intrigued by the much-lauded culinary scene, I booked a solo vacation with the intent of eating, and eating well, here. (There’s a reason the city hosted a recent season of Top Chef.) Deserving of every accolade, yet somehow still unspoiled and unpretentious, Charleston more than lived to up to my expectations. I asked for recommendations, did my homework and mapped out a hit list ahead of time.

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So let’s get to it. Here’s what and where I ate in Charleston:

First meal after rolling into town late in the afternoon — an early dinner at Butcher & Bee. Several folks recommended this place, and it totally delivered. I sat at the bar in full view of the open kitchen, which provided all the entertainment I needed after a six-hour drive. With a sleek modern farmhouse aesthetic and a soaring open dining room, I felt like I could breathe again. The glass of rose helped, too. What I loved here was that, in addition to a full menu of starters, mains and sides, B&B offers a mezze option that lets you order three choices from a dazzling list of small plates for $15. Sold.

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The house specialty is whipped feta, a creamy mound of spreadable goodness with a hollow of honey and chopped chives, served with a puffy loaf of housemade pita. I’m a sucker for bacon-wrapped dates, so that was a given, and to round out my trio? An al dente snap bean salad with corn and buttermilk dressing. Just the right amount of food for a well-balanced meal, and every bite delicious.

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I’d seen Carrie Morey’s appearance on the Charleston Top Chef season, and sought out her Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit enterprise specifically for that reason. Callie’s Charleston location sits pretty inside the 200+ year old City Market (where I spent a fun hour browsing the wares, particularly the handmade sweetgrass baskets and bowls painstakingly woven by women with Gullah blood running through their veins). The egg/bacon/cheddar breakfast sandwich on a biscuit I ate was, quite simply put, the best I’ve ever had. Light and tender, yet toothsome and crusty… this was the quintessential Southern biscuit. With a side of grits and a fresh squeezed lemonade, it was a breakfast of champions. Callie’s also offers a sampler of sorts where you can get three mini-biscuits in varieties like blackberry, country ham, cinnamon and black pepper. I’m kicking myself for not going back and trying more.

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167 Raw served up yet another memorable meal. With only a couple dozen seats, you’d better time your trip right if you want to grab a table here. Lucky me… I pulled up and parked within 20 feet of the front door, and was rewarded at once with the one empty seat at the bar. Living right! This newish place on East Bay is known for its oysters, and they were stunning. Ironically, while I find the concept and cache of raw oysters fascinating, I’m not a fan of actually eating them. (Kinda like how I love to travel, but hate to fly. Go figure.) Anyway, there are other seafood-centric items on the menu — I went with a shrimp po boy washed down by a glass of sparkling rose. I can’t tell you how perfect this pairing turned out to be. The po boy was laced with some kind of beet coulis I wasn’t expecting, but turned out to be crazy good.

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By all accounts, Hominy Grill is a smart local stop for breakfast, lunch or brunch. I did actually have a dining companion here, which was a nice change-up from my solo stints at the bar! My friend Amanda and I arrived right on the cusp of breakfast and lunch, and were given the option to order from either menu. The lunch menu seemed more plentiful and appealing, and our server dropped off a sampling of hot boiled peanuts while we considered our choices. Amanda went with the fried chicken and a homey side of pickled cucumbers, while I selected a fried green tomato BLT with a side of broccoli salad that would have heartily passed muster with any church lady in the land.

The No. 1 target on my must-eat-while-in-Charleston list was Husk, and I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. I had the pleasure of meeting up with a couple of tourism colleagues for pre-dinner drinks on a patio between the restaurant and the detached bar that looked like something straight out of New Orleans. (Husk happens to make its home in Charleston’s bewitching French Quarter. Coincidence?) The two-story residential-style restaurant allows for dining on the upper and lower levels, not to mention an airy bespoke patio.

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My friends and I kicked things off with a starter of pimento cheese and housemade benne, a cracker-thin flatbread sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was nearly impossible to decide on dinner, which ended up being a handful of starters — gorgeously presented rose-like furls of country ham with miniature biscuits, pickles and a Dijon-based spread; a summery grilled corn salad studded with blueberries and brie; and a quartet of pork ribs with a peach-based barbecue sauce and puffy pork skins. Fantastic food, service and ambiance, from the first bite to the last.

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In retrospect, Charleston feels like a sweet dream. In three days, I feel like I only scratched the surface of the countless delights this bewitching city has to offer, and I cannot wait to go back.

For more information, check out Charlestoncvb.com.

Say (mac and) cheese

Everyone loves mac and cheese. Well, everyone I know, anyway… It’s one of those time-tested, kid-friendly comfort foods that work for any occasion.

To celebrate the holy marriage of pasta and cheese, Return of the Mac part III took over Noblesville’s Federal Hill Commons on Saturday afternoon for several hours of feasting (the first two events took place earlier this year in Indianapolis and Bloomington). Entrance times were staggered at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., although the line already snaking down the block when I arrived around 1:45. Fortunately, things moved quickly along once they started letting folks in. A gal who was directing traffic and seemed to be in the know said 1,600 attendees were expected.

I’d brought my 9-year-old son along as my plus one, which was probably not the best idea in retrospect. He does like mac and cheese (mostly in the form of Velveeta shells), but didn’t seem to grasp the concept that this was a festival dedicated solely to the aforementioned food group. While waiting in line to get in, he kept asking me if there would be burgers, fries or ice cream. However, he did seem happy to take advantage of a photo op with the coveted “Golden Noodle” trophy.

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Once through the gate, we grabbed paper plates and forks, then it. Was. On. With more than two dozen participating restaurants vying for bragging rights, the amount of tasting to be done was somewhat intimidating. Booths lined up in one long row and the competition was fierce. Most of the vendors toward the entrance boasted longer lines — thinking we’d be smart, my kiddo and I hightailed it to the opposite end to work our way backwards. We also had the foresight to snag a pink lemonade Nicey Treat pop for my son from the cart’s strategically stationed perch on the far side.

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Mac and cheese entrants ranged from newer spots like Joella’s Hot Chicken (which I’d sampled and enjoyed at the Indianapolis Monthly Best Restaurants party a month or so ago), LouVino and Four Day Ray Brewing to beloved Hoosier haunts like MCL, Clancy’s and Arni’s. You simply approach any booth you want in any order you want and grab a little 2-oz. cup of what each has to offer. About two bites worth per sample. Recipes ranged from traditional classic to newfangled modern interpretations garnished with yummy add-ons.

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I’d purposely skipped lunch, and was glad I did. I managed to work my way through a half dozen or so samples in short shift. Note to event organizers — some sort of scoring card or passport-style brochure detailing who’s serving what would have been nice to help patrons plan their attack and keep track of what they’ve tasted. I saw quite a few folks walking by with their plates loaded up with 7, 8 or 9 samples. After a couple bites, everything started to blur together for me and I had a hard time remembering exactly what I ate and where it came from. I did NOT envy the judges for having to sample every single offering to select a winner. Great googly moogly.

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The DJed 80s music was fun (and right in my wheelhouse). The kiddo beelined straight for the giant inflatable human hamster balls. After 15 minutes or so, I reminded him that we needed to get back to the mac and cheese.

In spite of the staggered admission, the whole scene was very crowded. And, it being a hot day with temps pushing 90, my little man started whining after 30 minutes or so. The line for water and soft drinks was long, and while I would have very much enjoyed a cold Sun King beer, it wouldn’t have helped my son’s thirst situation. I wished there would have been more beverage stations and drink options on hand.

I didn’t end up being able to taste as many of the mac and cheese offerings as I would have liked, but after the fact, was excited to see that two I specifically remembered enjoying had snagged top honors — The Local Eatery’s Creole mac and cheese with blue cheese, cheddar and mozzarella topped with a couple of Cajun-spiced shrimp was the judges’ top pick, while new-kid-on-the-block LouVino won People’s Choice with a Louisville Hot Brown-inspired recipe with creamy Mornay sauce, smoked chicken, tomato relish and bacon (and as a bonus, handed out $5 coupon to visit the restaurant for brunch). District Tap’s buffalo chicken mac and cheese was on point as well…

The heat and the kiddo’s complaining got the best of us both 45 minutes in. I must mention a note on the parking situation. We’d parked in the Kroger lot across the street — as the event organizers had said we could do, but while walking back to our car, a guy driving by made a snide comment to me about taking a spot away from paying Kroger customers. I wasn’t sure how to respond nicely, so I didn’t. But I seethed about it halfway home.

I’m not sure a hot summer day provides the best conditions to load up on this kind of decadent fare. Then again, there’s never a bad time to eat mac and cheese IMO.

I will be shocked if Return of the Mac doesn’t return next year. For more information, head on over to returnofthemacfest.com.

Southern Comforts

The South rises again, y’all! Then again, did it ever really fall? Certainly not in any culinary sense, that’s for sure.

I’m just home from the first conference of the Midwest Travel Journalists Association, held in Frankfort Kentucky, with a full heart and a full stomach. In the past week, I’ve managed to consume plenty of bourbon and eat my weight in pimento cheese.

Liberty Hall served as the site of our opening night reception, the genteel historic home of John Brown, one of Kentucky founding fathers and the commonwealth’s first senator from 1792 to 1805. The handsome red brick home he completed building in 1801 still proudly stands (as does son Orlando’s residence on the same property) and holds original family furnishings and heirlooms. (A few quick fun facts — Margaret Wise Brown, who wrote the beloved children’s book “Goodnight Moon,” is a direct descendant, and the property is supposedly haunted by a friendly ghost known as the Gray Lady.)

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The patio behind the Orlando house overlooking the gorgeous gardens made a fine backdrop for mixing and mingling over small bites catered by Three Peas in a Pod washed down with Kentucky Distilled cocktails — Buffalo Trace bourbon, Ale8One ginger ale, orange bitters and fresh mint. Hors d’oeuvres included cravable pimento cheese/country ham sammies on garlic cheddar biscuits, bacon-wrapped chicken skewers and mini banana puddings.

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Speaking of pimento cheese, I enjoyed a soulful pimento cheeseburger with crispy fries and a well-made Maker’s Mark Manhattan the night before at Serafini.

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Bourbon, of course, is the flavor of the day (every day) here. You’ll find it infused into coffee, as I did at Kentucky Knows, where artisan owner Tony Davis ages Arabica beans from Antigua Guatemala in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels with spectacular results. I sampled the caramel barrel-aged variation in the store, but opted to take home half-pound bags of the straight-up bourbon and bourbon ball flavors instead.

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Quirky little Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory is credited with the original Bourbon Ball recipe around these parts — a bourbon-laced nougaty confection covered in chocolate and topped with a pecan. You can’t get in and out of Bourbon Country without tasting at least one, and good luck stopping there. Two childhood friends founded the business back in 1919, and locals loved their products so much, they gathered and donated their sugar rations during World War II to help keep the company going. The factory remains in Ruth’s family to this day; you can get a quick behind-the-scenes tour of the factory, but don’t expect to come away with any insider info. The secret recipe is fiercely guarded.

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If you want to cut right to the bourbon chase, beeline straight to Buffalo Trace, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country since the late 1700s. The campus is absolutely beautiful with the distinctive smell of cooking mash floating through the air, populated with soaring red-brick warehouses housing barrels of bourbon in various stages of aging. Take your pick of five different tours, all are free and include a chance to sample some of the wares at the end. (Personally, I’m partial to the flagship Buffalo Trace brand for cocktails, but have been known to upgrade to Eagle Rare when I’m feeling fancy.)

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I was a little surprised — and pleasantly so — to discover authentic Vietnamese food in Frankfort’s quaintly walkable downtown. Mai Saigon satisfies cravings for ethnic cuisine with super fresh spring rolls filled with tofu, shrimp, rice noodles and cilantro served with peanut dipping sauce; huge fragrant bowls of pho with all the garnishes; and richly flavored noodle dishes studded with veggies and chicken.

Of course, I’m only scratching the surface here, but hopefully have whetted your appetite for a trip to Frankfort all your own! For more info on Kentucky’s enchanting capitol city, go to visitfrankfort.com

 

 

Sweet salvation

One of my favorite desserts, the humble brownie. Lusciously rich, walnut-studded cakey, fudgy goodness… for chocoholics, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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Did you know — this sweet treat hails from Chicago? It originated at the historic Palmer House Hilton in the downtown Loop, created by Bertha Hilton to be served at the 1893 World’s Fair.

After you’re done gawking at the hotel’s gorgeous frescoed lobby, you can still order up a brownie made according to Bertha’s original recipe at the on-site Lockwood restaurant. (The secret ingredient? Apricot preserves.)

I got to enjoy a taste of the genuine article during a Windy City media tour a year ago as part of the Palmer House’s “History is Hott” tour, and still occasionally daydream about it.

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Inspired to try whipping up a batch at home? Good news, you can find the recipe HERE:

Flavors of Hocking Hills

Last weekend, I spent a very enjoyable three days getting to know Hocking Hills, Ohio (about 50 miles south of Columbus). Brimming with rustic natural beauty, these rolling Black Hand sandstone hills are alive with the sights and sounds of flora and fauna galore. My group did a foraging hike, a wildflower hike and a ghost hike, in addition to rappelling, ziplining, Segway-ing (Seguing???) and a whole lot of eating. Hey, you’ve got to keep up your strength for all that adventure, right?

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First up was a lovely gourmet dinner at the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, where each night I snuggled into the adorable Honeysuckle cabin kitted out with a gas fireplace and a Jacuzzi tub. There are no TVs in any of these accommodations, but who cares when you can climb into your cushy bed after a full day in the fresh air and fall asleep to rain hitting the roof and animals skittering across the big wraparound deck.

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But I digress…. the acclaimed food and beverage program here delivers a surprisingly upscale experience for a cozy little country inn. Terry, one of the owners, curates an impressive wine selection that, together with the chef-driven cuisine, culminates in outstanding meals. From the spring seasonal menu, I sampled the asparagus/cress salad with fennel and a poached egg, a broth redolent of morels and ramps, and housemade ravioli filled with smoked duck.

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For dessert, the Creamsicle crème brulee satisfied my sweet tooth, and my penchant for childhood nostalgia.

Other notable meals included lunches comprised of a tasty Reuben and onion rings at Rocky Boots café within the sprawling outfitter store, and addictively smoky bacon-wrapped burnt ends with sweet cornbread muffins and whipped honey butter at Millstone BBQ.

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Barbecue’s big in this neck of the woods, and Lake Hope Lodge is a good spot to sample some. High on a hill overlooking a gorgeous vista, the lodge smokes meats that show up in some unexpected preparations, like this brisket-and-blue salad.

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To wash it all down, Hocking Hills Moonshine brews some potent hooch using a family recipe that’s been around for generations. If the original white lightning’s not to your taste, they also offer some ridiculously delicious flavored variations in shades of raspberry, blackberry, green apple and peach tea.

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On our last morning, Chef Moe’s on the Go of Columbus food truck fame saw us off with sumptuous cinnamon rolls, bacon, potatoes, fruit and breakfast stromboli.

To learn more about this enchanting little corner of Ohio, visit explorehockinghills.com.

The Great Unicorn Poop Cookie Disaster

A couple years ago, while looking for a rainy-day activity to do with the kiddo, I came across a recipe for “unicorn poop cookies.” Which sounds disgusting, but is actually just colored sugar cookie dough shaped like, well, poop. Needless to say, they were a huge hit with my son. So when his birthday rolled around this week and we were thinking about treats to pass out to his classmates at school, guess what he requested?

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Now, these are not easy cookies to make. You don’t just mix up the dough, plop ’em onto a cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes. You’ve got to first make the sugar cookie dough, then divide it and color each batch. You let it all firm up in the fridge for awhile, THEN you have to roll each color out into thin ropes, combine them, twist, cut and coil to make them look like rainbow poops. It’s a tedious and time-consuming process.

But, the things we do for our kids, right? My son was actually at his dad’s house, which left this whole endeavor solidly on MY shoulders. Aiming to work ahead, I mixed up all the dough the night before, figuring I’d simply roll out the cookies and bake them off the morning of and be finished in plenty of time to take them to school by 11:30. Well. You know what they say about the best-laid plans…

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I have to say, my dough LOOKED beautiful! The colors came out super vibrant, almost like Play-Dough — bright red, blue, green, yellow and purple, and I was excited to see them come together in the finished product. However. When I tried to roll them out, I realized I must have used too much flour because they refused to cooperate and crumbled in my hands. After 30 minutes of trying to roll out one decent rope with no success, I nearly broke into tears.

With two hours until lunchtime (and because I’m apparently crazy), I decided to whip up a new batch on the fly using a different recipe and going a little lighter on the flour measurement. There was no time for the dough to chill, but fortunately, it rolled out like magic! Boom! The cookies did flatten out while baking more than I had anticipated, and they didn’t taste as good as the previous batches I’d made, but at least they were passable. If nothing else, I was all set to tell the kids they were rainbow, tie-dyed sugar cookies. Hope renewed, I worked right up to the buzzer, with the last batch of cookies coming out of the oven about 10 minutes before I had to pack them to transport the few blocks to school.

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I had just long enough to send a friend a message lamenting the whole fiasco, who pointed out that her daughters’ school doesn’t allow parents to bring in homemade treats for birthdays. Only wrapped, packaged or store-bought items. Something that hadn’t even crossed my mind.

I thought about just winging it, taking in my treats and either playing dumb or begging for an exception. But, figuring better safe than sorry, I called over to my son’s school to ask what the policy is. And sure enough. The fruits of my labors were strictly forbidden. You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me. Soundly defeated, I rushed to Taylor’s Bakery for two dozen yellow and pink bunny-shaped sugar cookies and got to school only 5 minutes late for lunch.

The bunny cookies went over well with my son’s classmates. My son, on the other hand, took one look in the box and told me he really didn’t want any anyway.

 

EPILOGUE: I took the cookies to my son’s birthday party the following day; they were a HUGE hit with the 10-and-under crowd.