Increasingly, locals are willing to eat out, enough to sustain a hometown favorite (Al di La) and to support a promising newcomer (The Glass Onion) among the modest houses and strip malls of West Ashley. Meanwhile, just off the main shopping drag of King Street, downtown, the tiny bohemian café City Lights Coffee is a real magnet for regulars: a groovy postgrad in cigarette pants drinking a café au lait while hunched over his MacBook; a professional couple sparring over the finer points of mortgage rates; and a former employee with a nose ring who’s stopped by to say she’s moving to Portland, but not before reading the house copy of The New York Review of Books while also absorbed in a glass of Nebbiolo. At Tristan, hidden inside the French Quarter Inn, chef Aaron Deal is quietly perfecting his ambitiously modern repertoire, which is punctuated these days by a very fine she-crab soup and an imaginative foie gras pot de crème. (The dining room may be in need of an update, but it hardly matters considering the fact that when I was last there, Tristan offered one of the best bargains in town: a three-course lunch for $20.) Up by the College of Charleston, near the 18th-century campus on George Street and not far from Marion Square, which is home to the burgeoning Saturday farmers market, a bellwether of epicurean interest has opened up in the form of Caviar & Bananas. A bit like a mini Dean & DeLuca, it’s a café and specialty foods shop that sells everything from sea salts and soft cheeses to prepared things such as ossobuco for $19 a pound. And Hank Holliday, owner of Peninsula Grill, on Market Street, is investing nearly $5 million to revamp the old city market, currently a place to buy souvenir magnets and prepackaged Gullah spices, into something more along the lines of Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Indeed, the elements are in place to make Charleston a great food town, not least because of the serious competition between the city’s top chefs, two of whom are suddenly pulling way ahead. Sean Brock, a 31-year-old Virginian, took over the kitchen at McCrady’s in 2006 and has since attracted the attention of New York luminaries Wylie Dufresne, of WD-50; Johnny Iuzzini, of Jean Georges; and Momofuku’s David Chang, who calls Brock “the real deal. ” They’re drawn by the chef’s wizardry in the kitchen (he uses liquid nitrogen to make a powder of olives and Maldon sea salt, for example) that is second only to his true passion and reverence for food. He’s started a garden and a seed-saving program on Wadmalaw Island, not far from where he’s raising some pigs—on six acres of oak-shaded land that would sell for $240,000—that he’ll serve at McCrady’s (he makes his own charcuterie). He’s not merely overseeing these endeavors; most mornings he gets into his Chevy Silverado Z71 pickup wearing a hat with the slogan “Make Cornbread Not War” on it and heads out to Wadmalaw to spend a lot of time with his hands in the dirt. Some evenings, too.
On Wednesday nights, the Wadmalaw Supper Club gathers. About 30 people—all workers of various stripes on the rural low-lying island—bring their drink kits, put five dollars in a Mason jar, make jokes, and say the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer before eating. “I cook whatever they’ve got,” says Brock. “A deer, a cobia. It sounds corny, but I love it. ” The joy comes through, too, on his menu downtown, a long list of dishes that are pretty on the plate (an oyster on the half shell with pearls of frozen horseradish) and unpredictable on the palate (foie gras with apple butter and smoked caramel). If he comes out to say hello, you’ll notice a flush on his round cheeks. If he thanks you for coming to Charleston, you’ll notice he means it.
Mike Lata, chef and co-owner of FIG, a chic, spare restaurant on Meeting Street, is a Yankee, originally from Massachusetts. In a manner of speaking, though, he’s been repatriated as a southerner. The turning point may have come many years ago when he charmed his way into a fully booked Alain Ducasse restaurant in Paris with a bag of stone-ground grits.
“Every memorable meal I’ve had is on my menu,” he says now, six years after opening his own place. One meal in particular, tête de veau with perfectly round, yellow waxy potatoes at La Merenda, in Nice, sticks with him: “It was rustic done with such a level of finesse that it was transcending.” Lata might as well be describing his own style of cooking—farm to fork, yes, but with very confident shepherding. A salad of speckled butter beans, radish, and sautéed Carolina white shrimp that appeared last fall was a lovely thing to behold—a tangle of glistening, soft colors—yet it was also sublime to taste, with its contrast of textures and bite of preserved lemon. Like Brock and his colleagues, Lata works very closely with his purveyors (just look at the bright orange hue of his egg yolks) and wholly appreciates the array of ingredients available to him. And like Brock, he has hit his stride. “Charleston,” he says, “has been good to me.”
ADDRESS BOOKCarolina’s 10 Exchange St. (843-724-3800)
Charleston Grill 224 King St. (843-577-4522)
City Lights Coffee 141 Market St. (843-853-7067)
Fig 232 Meeting St. (843-805-5900)
Hominy Grill 207 Rutledge Ave. (843-937-0930)
McCrady’s 2 Unity Alley (843-577-0025)
Slightly North of Broad 192 E. Bay St. (843-723-3424)
Trattoria Lucca 41 Bogard St. (843-973-3323)
Tristan 55 S. Market St. (843-534-2155)