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.

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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.

Dining in the D

Last week, I spent a pleasantly enlightening five days exploring the delights of Detroit during a Midwest Travel Writers Association conference. In the midst of an urban renaissance, the “D” is rising once again thanks to the dedicated efforts of hardworking folks who want to see the Motor City survive and thrive. And that kind of work takes fuel.

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Fortunately, as I quickly learned, Detroit is full of opportunities to eat… and eat well. More to come on my noshing journey through Eastern Market, but here’s a quick taste of a couple places I visited to whet your appetite:

Michael Symon’s Roast. I’ve long harbored a minor crush on the Iron Chef with the great laugh, and I was thrilled to dine at Symon’s Detroit outpost, an offshoot of his signature Cleveland-based eateries. Within the bespoke confines of the Westin Book Cadillac hotel, Roast is NOT the place to go if you’re a vegetarian.

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Although you could compose a non-meat meal from salads and sides (and it would be delicious), meat is really the main attraction here.

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Think beef cheek-stuffed pierogi, braised short ribs, meltingly tender lamb shanks, marrow bones and steaks for days. Hearty and delicious, the kind of food you want to stuff your face with on a chilly winter night with a sassy glass of cabernet.

Pegasus Greek Taverna. My accommodations at the lovely Greektown Casino Hotel sat right on the edge of the Greektown district, populated as you’d imagine with authentic eateries serving up souvlaki and shish kebab. Lunch at this local landmark was a three-course affair that started with bread, saganaki and salad, followed by tasty pastitsio and a honey-drenched square of baklava. Opa, indeed!

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Slows Bar-B-Q. Stopping at Slows on the Corktown strip (Detroit’s oldest residential neighborhood) is a MUST if you’re a barbecue fan. Ribs, pulled pork, chicken, brisket, soulful sides like mac and cheese — the gang’s all here. Decisions were mighty hard to make, but I finally opted for something called the “New Style,” a whopping pile of brisket bathed in sharp cheddar with onion, mushrooms and pickled jalapenos on a sub bun. Onion-laced slow-cooked green beans on the side.

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Tabletop sauces to choose from ranged from spicy and sweet to mustard and apple-based(!). Slows boasts a sweet beer and bourbon list, too. Nice.

More to come soon on my Detroit dining adventures soon…

Solid Gold

Long-time readers may recall THIS “Amy’s Food Flights” blog post I wrote several years ago about the Joseph Decuis dinner that turned me on to beets thanks to executive chef Aaron Butts. (The waygu steak and chocolate bourbon tart were nothing short of exceptional as well.)

This year, Butts struck on his own in nearby Fort Wayne, where he’s apparently struck gold with an inventive farm-to-table eatery called “The Golden.” Haven’t been there yet, but from all accounts I’m hearing, it’s well worth the drive from Indy for dishes like roasted carrots, veal sweetbreads, morels, McGolden double burgers and chocolate coffee pudding, all washed down with clever and creative cocktails. Road trip, anyone?

In the meantime, CLICK HERE to see a Foodie profile I wrote about chef Butts for the July issue of Indianapolis Monthly