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Archive for the ‘Dining’ Category

We’re suckers for establishments that base their popular moniker upon succinct modifiers that describe what they actually provide to their clientele. We’re even bigger suckers when the establishment carries their reputation before them with Old World work ethic, charm, and wit (which the proprietors have by birthright, not fabrication) but without announcing their bona fides abrasively across every publication known to man, or at least, the Lowcountry.  The Gaulart et Maliclet Cafe on Broad Street, probably better known by the apt and indicative name Fast and French, is one of such places and one of our favorites in the Holy City.

Owned and operated by two prolific artists (attendance at a discussion by this pair at the Redux is a must), Fast and French is an authentic European experience of the highest order.  The 26-year old cafe is a completely unique within Charleston for that authenticity.  You get the feeling that the owners, who are gracious hosts by the way, would feel offended if you expressed surprise at such a notion.  For me, it’s more about the environment at times than it is about the food, which is excellent, by the way.

Those reading that are familiar with Fast and French may have had a similar experience to me upon our first couple trips.  If you empathize, it’s called “being very American”.  Fast and French’s biggest asset is the authenticity that I mentioned before, which includes the utilization of community tables throughout the majority of the restaurant, meaning you’re nestled up, and sometimes seated directly across from, complete strangers.  The seating is tight.  Really tight.  While you are attempting to have a conversation with the rest of your group, the person across from you is doing the same in the opposite direction.

For us, such an arrangement was a completely foreign concept upon our first couple of visits.  And evidently, it is for a decent majority of first time, or even repeat, patrons.  It’s easy to discern the average person’s first attendance amidst such a seating paradigm.  You can see it on their faces and in their mannerisms.  The arrangement is spatially purposed but also has the intended effect of forcing interaction between strangers, which can be both an uncomfortable and rather unfortunate consequence of the isolationist evolution of America’s societal customs.  It’s not quite the same awkwardness as an elevator ride seems to evoke but there is more than a hint of awkwardness regardless.  But most times, by design, the initial awkwardness succumbs to genuine interaction between tablemates.

And that is part of our biggest draw to Fast and French.  Above the excellently prepared, and noticeably light on the wallet, cuisine offered on the menu, there is an energy that pervades the place, a pulsing buzz if you will, that sets the cafe alight and also sets it apart from your typical Charlestonian staple, a facet that serves as an answer as to how it has endured and become recognized as such a staple in the first place.

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South Carolina Restaurant Week has provided the perfect backdrop for us to demonstrate the Holy City’s delectable prowess to our out-of-state visitors without having to completely spend an arm and a leg doing so.  Normally, the thought of dining out for nearly every meal during a long holiday weekend would place me in the most unexcited state possible, but the rampant sampling menus featuring “3 for $(relatively nominal price here)” were too good to pass up.  We ended up only ordering once off a Restaurant Week menu but the event coerced us out of the house, which led to some nice discoveries.

We were able to hit up two of the somewhat newer purveyors of food glory this weekend and came away impressed with both.  Following a short Friday Happy Hour at favorite haunt Pearlz on East Bay, we eventually found our way to the bar at Husk on Queen. Situated within two rehabbed structures adjacent to Poogan’s Porch, this restaurant has been the talk of the town for a few months now.  I (stupidly) attempted to grab a table for Restaurant Week a whole two days prior to our intended visit, and having failed miserably, settled on trying out the imbibing portion of the place instead.

Amazing.

I’m big on ambiance when I want to go have some drinks with friends.  Either a complete dive that knows its a dive or a place that has created some sort of unique character for itself will suffice.  The bar at Husk succeeded masterfully in the latter, as the reclaimed wooden walls and dim lighting of the rehabbed building (a feat in and of itself for those who remember the derelict, demolition-by-neglect state the structure existed in mere months ago) fit perfectly with the bar’s featured specialty:  Kentucky bourbons.  My Kentucky friends and myself were amazed at the selection.  It wasn’t anything like you would find in the heart of the Bluegrass but you would be hard pressed to find a more complete menu of Kentucky’s finest outside of horse country.  We especially enjoyed the oversized ice cubes within the glasses that acted as perfect bite filters for our respective choices.  Can’t wait to return and actually sample the dinner menu.

Saturday evening meant one thing to me and had meant one thing for quite awhile:  sushi.  I had been craving a trip to Upper King to try out O-Ku, equally because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and also the desire to relieve both of us from the fussing we seemed to receive when we told people we hadn’t been yet.  O-Ku definitely had a different type of atmosphere from what we are accustomed to in Charleston.  It has a decidedly big city vibe to it and I felt the need to put gel in my hair before entering.  I didn’t.  Don’t worry.

O-Ku lived up to all the fuss.  Everything we tried, from entrees to numerous rolls, were fantastic.  The King Street Roll and Harvest Roll are musts for the first time (and frequent) visitor and the chocolate hazelnut pot au creme might have actually turned me into a dessert fan.  I can now say I’ve eaten really good sushi, as opposed to pretty good sushi that is offered elsewhere in the city. The rolls are more expensive here but the dramatic differences in the quality of the ingredients and the presentation are more than worth the price.

The total bill for our weekend out with friends was a little bit more than I was comfortable with, being somewhat of a miser with that kind of stuff and all, so the O-Ku experience was probably the end of our partaking in Restaurant Week 2011, but our experiences have forced us to place two more restaurants on our favorites list.  Can’t wait for next year to find more additions.

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With the number of visitors we have had in town since March, Suzanne’s house may actually qualify under the definition of ‘accommodations’ within Charleston city ordinances.  Time to pony up some tax dollars, I guess.  This past weekend, Matt and Erin made a rare trip to Hotel De Wentworth.  Friday night, we were fortunate enough to take in the southern rock stylings of Crowfield, my favorite local band, at the season finale (and subsequently 10th anniversary) of Rockin’ on the Point, an event whose name I can’t for the life of me grow to not find painfully lame.  A great show from a band whose propensity for being better live than on recording makes them definitely worth the price of admission and whose ambiance was only enhanced by the omnipresence of bumping and grinding Taco Bell mascots.

The rest of the weekend, we settled into a typical itinerary of beach, Poe’s, Red’s, dinner downtown, Fat Hen, and lots of walking around while I pointed at things.  This time, however, our trip to Red’s inspired a different outing for Sunday, as instead of just remarking upon how great it would be to kayak Shem Creek, we actually kayaked Shem Creek.  I have been paddling through different waters around Charleston previously but none whose established routes take you near a wildlife refuge sandbar with a decidedly Hitchcockian ominousness (think thousands of birds brawling with each other) or playful dolphins who would nudge the bottom of your hull before blasting out of the deep as you sit for literally an hour watching.

This weekend, we’ll host Harper , in on a pitstop as she returns to Raleigh from a summer in Tampa, and Caroline, whose presence means Fin will actually leave me alone for more than 10 minutes at one time.

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Fuel is an establishment I feel like we mention frequently without ever really explaining why 1) we visit so often and 2) its very close to the top of our local ‘favorites’ list for dining and nightlife.  It needed its own post.

Quite simply, there is a lot to like about Fuel:

-Its name, derived from equal parts of its past and present.  The restaurant is located within an old gas station at the corner of Rutledge and Cannon.  Its main fare consist of Caribbean-influenced appetizers, entrees, and cocktails with a decidedly health conscious tilt and an even more decidedly island flair that makes for some pretty interesting dishes.

-The structure itself which, although it has been gutted save for the restroom area, retains a certain grittiness that makes it seem like a long-standing neighborhood haunt as opposed to a relatively new, possibly characterless operation, an aspect that can be strangely important in building consistent clientelle (and it worked with us).  In moderate temperatures, the windows are thrown into the rafters both in the front of the restaurant facing the street and in the back of the restaurant fronting the patio, allowing for completely open air dining and an inside-outside seating arrangement at the well-stocked bar.

-The patio is probably my favorite in all of Charleston, which is saying something considering I’m obsessed with the vegetation/stone wall combination at Blind Tiger.  The owners of Fuel have put a lot of work into making their patio a true hangout destination, constructing a large covered deck, adding a fire pit and comfortable outdoor seating on a base of pervious pavers, and, my favorite, inserting a couple bocce ball courts on the far sides of the space.  Plus, it’s dog friendly.  Combine these with the prevalent ambience provided by the presence of restored fuel pumps, murals, canopy trees, and the building itself and you have a recipe for prolonged patronage.

And I think that’s exactly their goal.  While definitely still a restaurant, the entire makeup of Fuel, from its inviting seating arrangements to its staff, screams “hang out here for as long as you want”.  We have, on numerous occasions, spent nearly an entire Saturday afternoon on the patio, sometimes drinking beers or mimosas, sometimes drinking soft drinks, always eating numerous orders of queso dip or bbq pork hash (before Fuel, I would never try anything with the word ‘hash’ in it because for some reason, the name made it sound wholly unappealing;  that distaste is long gone now), and basically just lounging around in a space that nearly makes you forget that you’re even in Charleston to begin with.

Now if they can only invest in a bicycle rack…

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If you would have ever told me 2 years ago, “Chris, you will become a frequent patron of a restaurant that replaces the letter ‘s’ at the end of its name with a ‘z’ for no particular reason,” I would have more than scoffed.  In fact, in a past life, I would repeatedly harangue our matchmaking friend Whitney about going to an oyster bar called Pearlz.  Although I had been to the restaurant a few times, I really couldn’t get past the ‘z’.  A dumb reason to disregard a place, for sure.  But upon the insistence of a strawberry blonde girl I started dating, we started become regular customers.

Today, I can gladly tell you that I have put aside my confusion and dismay with the ‘z’ and have no problem telling everyone far and wide that Pearlzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (∞) is without a doubt our favorite happy hour spot in the city.  Not only do they offer $3 house wine and champagne, as well as a decent selection of homegrown brews, many of the appetizers are basically half price.  We invariably go for the ahi tuna roll, a small sesame seed encrusted sushi roll on a bed of seaweed with wasabi and teriyaki sauce.  If you’re in the mood for gorging, I would recommend grabbing a seat early and ordering a half dozen plates of the restaurant’s specialty: oysters from all areas of the South.  Although I can’t personally attest to the quality and quantity of Pearlzzzzzzzzz’s stock (not a fan of oysters in general), I have heard good things from basically all of my friends who have sampled the plates.  Pearlzzzzzzzzz is definitely worth a try if you are in the area looking for a quick bite.  Or even multiple bitez.

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Guest Post by Caroline
The fun doesn’t stop when Chris leaves, but, sadly, Finley’s good behavior does.

In addition to visiting my favorite sister, the love of my life Finley, and the perfectly decent Christopher, one of my favorite things about Charleston is the amazing food!  There never seems to be enough time in the day, money in my wallet, and space in my stomach to visit all my favorites.  This weekend I was happily forced to add another favorite place to my list, Alluette’s Cafe. Upon entering the restaurant, I was instantly confused.  It appeared to be a small family restaurant and claimed to serve holistic, organic, soul food.  Needless to say I was skeptical, not only of whether combining something so healthy and something known for grease and fatback was possible but also of whether it could possibly taste good.  I became slightly reassured upon seeing the menu and quickly encountered one of my favorite problems: I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite item on the menu.  Everyone in the restaurant chimed in to try and help us decide; however, they all gave the same unhelpful comment that everything on the menu was superb.  After eating half my meal and half my sister’s, I now completely believe them.

We finally settled on our meal choices and ordered a glass of their famous tea, which is sweetened with pineapple juice and, quite possibly, magic.  Thankfully, there was a sign near our table warning us that good food takes time and at Alluette’s the food is amazing, so needless to say it took a while.  I can honestly say that I believe the chef pours her heart into every individual dish.  We were well entertained while we waited as some of the restaurant regulars sang a song for us and gave us a number of interesting facts. We learned 90% of her ingredients are grown or caught locally, no more than 15 miles away.

After finishing one of the best burgers I have ever had in my life and half a phenomenal shrimp salad sandwich, we sang our praises to the waiter and prepared to leave. On our way out Alluette herself came out to ask how our meal was.  She was as sweet as her tea and clearly cared about each and every customer.  The regulars were quick to inform us that Alluette is currently featured in Southern Living and will be featured in O Magazine this July.  I left Sue and Chris with the assignment to become regulars so we can still get a table when Alluettes becomes famous.

All in all I already craving another glass of pineapple sweet tea and plan on getting one my next time in town!

Editor’s Note: One of us (namely, me) STILL does not condone our golden monster drinking out of human fountains at White Point Gardens.  Another of us (namely, Suzanne) will be chastised appropriately and the last of us (Finley) will probably disregard everything as usual.  That is all.  –Chris

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Sweet Treat

When the sweet tooth comes calling, we go running straight to Baked, an upscale bakery/coffeehouse on East Bay Street across from one of our other favorite hangouts, Pearlz.

Actually, we go sprinting.  The place is just irresistible.

The bakery has the word ‘distinctive’ immersed within its very existence, right down to the scarcity of its physical locations (there are only two stores: one in Charleston and the original, located in Brooklyn, NY). Every single option is an absolute masterpiece, evoking the feeling that your grandmother, making you a special cake from scratch full of loving grandma goodness, suddenly has a ‘viola!’ moment, transforming your all-time favorite dessert into something that makes all other previously sampled confections seem like a jello mold covered in alpaca hair.  All of the goods are made from scratch using carefully calculated amounts of high-caliber ingredients that you won’t find at most bakeries (read: no cake mixes).  This aspect is important to the Baked experience, at least as far as I am concerned:  it actually feels like your order was meticulously handcrafted specifically for you.

The interior of the shop is a hodge podge of different themes, furniture styles, and colors.  It feels decidedly less like a traditional bakery and more like the owners were given a sum of money to buy all of their favorite elements of decor and just throw it all together in one space.  It has personality.  But in the end, the atmosphere, while fantastic, doesn’t really even matter in the case of Baked.  It’s all about the food.  The place could be located in a self-storage unit filled with moth balls and old kindergarten teacher sweater vests and the place would still be bring in a large clientele.  Their baked goods are just that good.  And they have online ordering, too.

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