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.

IMG_4897.jpg

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.

IMG_4876.jpg

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.

IMG_4910.jpg

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.

B&B.jpg

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.

Callie.jpg

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.

po boy.jpg

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.

BLT.jpg

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.

benne.jpg

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.

ham.jpg

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.

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.)

pimento cheese biscuits.jpg

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.

Serafini Manhattan.jpg

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.

coffee.jpg

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.

bourbon balls.jpg

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.

Buffalo Trace tasting.jpg

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.)

spring rolls.jpg

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

 

 

Southern living it up

Can I just say how much I love, love, fricking LOVE Kentucky? The food, the hospitality, the scenery, the bourbon… I just got back from two days in the Bluegrass State for work and pleasure, but mostly pleasure. So close to my Indiana home, but worlds away food-wise, I can totally get down with menus that boast newfangled twists on country ham, pimento cheese, hot browns and grits. Bring. On. The. Grits.

First stop, an exploratory jaunt to Paducah, new territory for me. With a sweet walkable downtown, an interesting history and a booming arts scene, this charming river city makes a lovely first impression. I had so much fun exploring the cultural attractions here (p.s. the quilt museum is seriously cool! YES – QUILTS, people!), and I loved my stay at the uber-urban 1857 Hotel.

So…. Drinks. This is Bourbon Country, after all. I think my blood alcohol content automatically rises as soon as I cross the state line. Omigosh, do these people know their way around an Old Fashioned. Now, I’ve had some good bourbon knowledge dropped on me in the past five years or so, but I always look forward to learning about and tasting something new on my trips to Kentucky.

Manhattan.jpgJo at the 1857 hotel bar in Paducah mixes up a kick-ass Manhattan that’ll knock you for a loop. At least it did me. A little Angel’s Envy was the just the thing to bring me back to life after six hours in the car. (And, as an added bonus, I also got to sample Cooper’s Craft.)

Dinner was at the Freight House in Paducah, a modern American eatery that’s just a few months old. The menu here touts farm-to-table fare with an emphasis on Kentucky farms. That means pork rinds, vinegar-pickled cucumbers and onions (which my mom made every summer, and I’m sure yours probably did, too), frog legs. Note to self: Kentucky blue snapper is something I definitely need to know more about.

shrimp.jpg

So here’s what I ate. Shrimp and — say it with me — PIMENTO CHEESE GRITS.

carrots.jpgAdorable little pan-seared carrots topped with candied pecans, blackberries and a schmear of spicy dilled ranch sauce.

appies.jpgA mustard-y deviled egg. Tomatoes from an employee’s own backyard.

 hot brown.jpgA bite of my dining companion’s non-traditional Hot Brown — an intimidating, but delicious, towering stack of thick bread, sweet tea-brined (!) chicken, creamy sauce, a vibrant red tomato slice and a piece of pork belly on top. Holy Moly. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t save room for dessert, but I was happily stuffed by this point.

Breakfast the next morning at Kirchhoff’s… currently a local institution bakery/coffeeshop/deli/dress shop that’s been in operation here since the 1800s. So many pastries, bagels, tarts, pies, cookies, brownies… so little time. I was leaning toward a Chess Bar, that is, until I spotted the “Elvis” scones atop the counter.

scone.jpgBanana, peanut butter, maple and bacon all in one treat, and somehow it works. Washed down with a large café au lait, and a snickerdoodle. Because… why not. We’re talking breakfast of champions, right here.

turkey sandwich.jpgEveryone I met talked this place up so much for lunch, I went back again at 1 p.m. and enjoyed half of a turkey sandwich on cranberry walnut bread and a bag of cheddar horseradish potato chips.

My night in Louisville pretty much revolved around my stay at the Seelbach Hilton, whose bespoke setting inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to honor the historic beauty in “The Great Gatsby.” If you’re overnighting here, or just passing through, I highly recommend sneaking a peek at the amazing lobby and the Rookwood-tiled Rathskeller in the basement.

Seelbach cocktail.jpg

While you’re there, might as well grab a seat in the Old Seelbach Bar and order up a classic Seelbach Cocktail – bourbon (duh) with a splash of champagne.

In the morning, I had the supreme pleasure of breakfasting with two of my favorite travel colleagues. Stacey gets credit for introducing me to my very first bourbon cocktail when I was in Louisville for a work trip over St. Patrick’s Day six or seven years ago, and Susan has been a fantastic resource for all the fun Kentucky assignments I get to write. They took me to Gralehaus… one part B&B, one part brewpub, one part breakfast/lunch café. All good.

sandwich.jpg

I dug my pretzel croissant breakfast sammie, laden with country ham, melty cheese and a sunny-side egg.

Long live the Commonwealth, y’all.

 

 

Nashville nosh

I graduated from Indiana University in the early 1990s, and Bloomington will always hold a special place in my heart, but I never really spent any time in nearby Nashville or Brown County except for an occasional drive-through on trips back home when I felt like taking the country route. When you consider how crazy scenic and charming the whole area is, this seems downright disrespectful. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to right my wrong.

beautiful Brown County State Park

Between stints of walking through the adorable shops of Nashville proper, horseback riding, journeying the annual artist studio and gardens tour through some of the most outerlying rural terrain, and an overnight stay at Abe Martin Lodge on the grounds of gorgeous Brown County State Park, I enjoyed some tasty meals.

Words that come to mind when I think of Nashville and Brown County: cute, small-town, old-fashioned, country, charming. Cutting-edge cuisine? Nope. But that’s perfectly ok. If you’re looking for fancy four-star meals full of frills and garnishes, keep on driving. If you’re in the mood for the kind of nostalgic, old-school eats you’ve probably grown up on (if you were born and raised in Indiana, that is), you’ve come to the right place.

Case in point — Hob Nob Corner is about as old-school as you can get in this neck of the woods. Literally. It’s housed in the Taggart Building at the corner of Main and Van Buren, the oldest commercial building in town and dating back to 1873 (the restaurant’s been operating here since 1973).

Hob Nob Corner Restaurant

These days, visitors flock for down-home breakfasts along the lines of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash, oatmeal and French toast. (I was surprised to see huevos rancheros on the menu, it was the only nod to ethnic food I noticed anywhere the entire weekend.) And of course, you can’t call yourself a real-deal breakfast joint in Indiana without serving classic biscuits and gravy. I’ll bet it’s good here, although I opted for the pancakes with bacon on the side.

Hob Nob pancakes

Hubby filled up on the basic breakfast of two eggs, toast and bacon, and added on a slice of country ham to boot cause that’s how he rolls.  (Hubby wants me to mention that he had just biked 70 miles from Indy to Nashville the day prior, and that’s why he needed the extra protein…) Everything was down-home delicious.

hubby’s Hob Nob brekkie

Hobnob Corner on Urbanspoon

For dinner, we visited Brown County’s hometown microbrewery, Big Woods Brewing Company. If we lived down here, I have a feeling this place would claim a lot of our time and money. Like most places in Nashville, the décor is all rustic wood lodge with high beamed ceilings. Big Woods is newer than most, open just since November 2009. The vibe feels a little like Thr3e Wise Men here in Indy, except Big Woods isn’t kid-friendly. The clientele is strictly 21 and up.

The food at Big Woods is probably the most new-fangled of any I saw in town. On the menu — a half dozen or so housemade microbrews (the refreshing Six-Foot Blonde was just our speed), along with a selection of pizzas, sandwiches and apps.

Big Woods Six Foot Blonde Ale

The spinach artichoke dip and Emily’s Garden veggie pizza we shared both arrived piping hot and loaded with super-fresh ingredients. Highly recommend.

Emily’s Garden pizza at Big Woods Brewing Company

Big Woods Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

As an IU grad, several people told me I HAD to make sure I visited that sandwich place… I thought they were speaking non-specifically, but no. The name of the restaurant is actually That Sandwich Place, and anyone with any amount of interest in IU basketball needs to put lunch or breakfast here on their Brown County itinerary.

Visiting this eatery is like worshipping at the church of Bobby Knight. The walls, counters, columns, ceilings — every possible surface is covered with memorabilia, some items ranging back as far as the early 1970s. Seems the restaurant opened around the same time Knight arrived in Bloomington and the owner remains a personal friend. Love him or hate him, Knight is an undeniably charismatic figure that demands attention. An oversized General doll in a glass case holds court (get it???) over the restaurant from its post by the register.

all hail, the General

Down a short flight of stairs, subterranean That Sandwich Place serves simple greasy-spoon breakfast and lunch fare. There’s not a ton of stuff to choose from, just a handful of sandwiches complemented by fries, cole slaw and deviled eggs, and a hi-calorie salad laden with ham, cheese and sunflower seeds. No joke, that’s what it’s called. They are not messing around with any diet food here. At least they’re upfront about it.

tenderloin platter at That Sandwich Place

Hubby and I split a Piggy Wiggy tenderloin platter. The thin crispy pork patty was obviously pre-formed, and reminded me of the kind of sandwich I grew up eating at the local drive-ins in Richmond. Good fries, too.

We ate with wide-eyed wonder, taking in the ambiance. Indiana, oh Indiana, we ARE all for you.

That Sandwich Place on Urbanspoon

Bon appetit, Brown County!

For more info:

http://www.browncounty.com/

http://www.browncounty.com/listing/hobnob-corner-restaurant

http://www.bigwoodsbeer.com/

(Can’t find a web site for That Sandwich Place. Guess you’ll just have to go there and see it for yourself.)