I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to the Food Network. Aren’t we all? Who doesn’t like to watch Alton Brown spatchcock a chicken or Guy Fieri stuff his goateed kisser with a gloppy double cheeseburger? Bobby Flay’s gonna whip up a soufflé? Pure ambrosia.
With Southwest starting direct flights from BWI to Charleston, S.C., in March, I decided to plot out a Food Network-lovers tour of the Palmetto City. After all, it seems more foodie TV shows have been filmed here than any other city outside of New York and Los Angeles. Charleston is home to three James Beard Award-winning chefs and also this month’s BB&T Wine and Food Festival (March 3-6), a culinary bacchanal that draws top toques from across the country for a weekend of cooking, eating and provocative conversations about kitchen knives. My plan was to eat where the food TV stars ate, sleep where they slept and exclaim, “Yum-O!” more times than Rachael Ray.
I arrive in Charleston on a chilly Friday and beeline it to the posh Charleston Place Hotel (888-635-2350, http://www.charlestonplace.com). Located in the middle of the Historic District, this is where Rach (she doesn’t mind if I call her that) and Giada de Laurentiis— and a host of other celebs— have laid their recipe-filled heads. It’s not too late for breakfast, so I stroll a couple blocks down Meeting Street to Joseph’s Restaurant (843-958-8500, http://www.josephsofcharleston.com).
Joseph’s is a classic breakfast and lunch diner-like restaurant that seems as popular with locals as it does with tourists. Rach started her “$40 a Day” day here with an order of sweet potato pancakes, which is exactly what I do. A trio of pumpkin pie-colored pancakes soon arrives, sprinkled with powdered sugar and topped with a hunk of pecan butter. The pancakes are surprisingly light with a wonderful autumn-y flavor. Just like Double R, I perkily proclaim them “Delish.”
Charleston’s Historic District isn’t just incredibly picturesque, it’s also darned walkable. So after breakfast I stroll along the Battery, gawking at the pastel-colored mansions and take my time poking in and out of the tony shops along King Street.
It’s nearly 3 p.m. before I end up for lunch at Jestine’s Kitchen (843-722-7224). Long lines form at this tourist trap around lunchtime, and I was warned to avoid it by a Charleston friend, but by this time in the afternoon, I have the place to myself. Rachael ate lunch here and so did anti-Food Network TV host/chef Anthony Bourdain— and by the looks of all the framed clippings hanging on its walls, nearly every travel writer from Travel & Leisure to The New York Times did some fork-and-knife time here, too.
Jestine’s menu is all about down-home Southern cookin’: okra gumbo, fried chicken, collards and fried green tomatoes. The place was named for Jestine Matthews, the housekeeper— and excellent cook— who worked for owner Dana Berlin’s family for generations. Apparently, all that down-home cooking and eating did Jestine just fine; she died in 1997 at age 112.
My waitress, Kelly, delivers the perfect mix of Southern charm and sass and also an excellent fried catfish special and tall glass of Jestine’s “table wine” (sweet tea). The bland okra gumbo and black-eyed peas, however, almost taste as if they were made by a Yankee.
After such a late lunch, I’m not hungry again until 9:30 p.m., which is a good thing because it’s the earliest I can get a seat at FIG (843-805-5900, http://www.eatatfig.com). The previous week, FIG’s chef/co-owner Mike Lata barely lost out to chef Jose Garces on “Iron Chef America” and the bartenders are still talking about the close defeat as I saddle up to the bar. “Why they picked sparkling wine I’ll never know,” says bartender Ryan Casey of the competition’s main ingredient.
FIG has been a hot dish in Charleston since it opened eight years ago— and it’s no stranger to food TV stars. Bourdain ate here in 2007 on his own dime when he was in town filming “No Reservations.” Chef/TV host Alex Guarnaschelli (“Alex’s Day Off,” “Chopped”) gushed about Lata’s hanger steak with agrodulce sauce on “Best Thing I Ever Ate” last spring. (“A transformative moment,” she called the Italian sweet-sour sauce.) In 2009, the James Beard Foundation named Lata Best Chef in the Southeast.
The slow-food, locavore movement reigns at FIG, and nearly everything here, from the locally caught grouper to the Brussels sprouts, have been sourced nearby. I can’t resist the oysters on the half-shell served with a cabernet mignonette, especially after the bartender tells me they’re delivered by a waterman who lives on a houseboat above the oyster beds. They’re some of the freshest, most favorable bivalves I’ve ever tasted. I also dig into the crispy pork trotters, “high-end scrapple,” as Ryan describes the popular dish. Yes, it’s pig’s feet, he later divulges, but the sautéed silver-dollar-sized disc topped with a fresh fried egg and marinated lipstick peppers, is salty and tangy and tasty enough to give a guy a foot fetish.
The next day I skip breakfast and join tour guide Cathy Hinson for a Savor the Flavors of Charleston Tour (800-918-0701, http://www.culinarytoursofcharleston.com). Any foodie would love this walking tour, which takes in stops around town to sample Low Country goodies from pralines to sweet potato cornbread to pulled pork. On Saturdays, the tour visits the Charleston Farmers Market, recently named the third best in the country by Travel & Leisure magazine. The engaging Hinson takes me to stalls selling everything from fresh produce to organically raised pig butts to traditional sesame benne wafers, and gives me an education on Charleston culinary history, which has been shaped by various cultures, from Native American to English and Spanish, and West African. Among the many pearls of Low Country culinary wisdom she dispenses, I’ll always remember two: “Avoid steel cut grits; they must be stone ground,” and “Pot liquor is good.”
I figure I should see some local historic sites during my stay, so I head out Route 17 to Boone Hall—“America’s most photographed plantation”—which has served as the backdrop for myriad movies and TV shows. On the way, I can’t resist stopping at Jack’s Cosmic Hot Dogs (843-225-1817, http://www.jackscosmicdogs.com)— a favorite of “Good Eats’” Alton Brown. He’s talked up the wieners on “Best Thing I Ever Ate” and called them “the best hot dogs I have ever had” in an article he penned for Men’s Journal. The restaurant is indeed cosmic— a 1950s soda shop with Jetsons’ sensibilities. The hot dogs are good quality Boars Head brand, but what launches them into the stratosphere is the unique sweet potato mustard and blue cheese coleslaw.
After a tour of Boone Hall, dinner that night has me at McCrady’s (843-577-0025 http://www.mccradysrestaurant.com), home to chef Sean Brock, who was crowned Best Chef of the Southeast in 2010. (Coincidentally, he competed on “Iron Chef America” a week after Lata did—and lost to chef Michael Symon in a battle involving pork fat.)
McCrady’s is set in a wood-beamed, circa 1788 building that once housed a tavern, a brothel and a Madeira warehouse. Among the many notables who have eaten here are George Washington, and more relevant to me, Italian Food Network babe de Laurentiis, who spent several days filming “Giada’s Weekend Getaways” with Brock, a culinary anthropologist of sorts. He’s researched antebellum cooking and works with farmers to produce grains and produce that haven’t been eaten regularly since Fort Sumter saw action. He deconstructs dishes and throws them back together like a culinary mad scientist. The celeriac that accompanied my plate of locally caught grouper was roasted in hay. Hay! Next time I’m in town, I’ll try his new restaurant, Husk, which was booked solid all weekend.
Giada also visited Poogan’s Porch (843-577-2337, http://www.poogansporch.com) while she was in Charleston, and it’s there I find myself the next morning for brunch, tucking into a bowl of she-crab soup laced with sherry and thick with salmon-colored roe and chunks of crabmeat. Poogan’s, named for an affectionate stray who’s now buried in the front yard, has a hallway filled with a bizarre mix of autographed photos of visiting celebs, including Giada (“Buon Appetito – XO, Giada”), James Brown, Jodie Foster and Jim Carrey (“The food was great. You’ll be hearing from our lawyers”).
The next morning I arrive hungry at Hominy Grill (843-937-0930, http://www.hominygrill.com), home to another James Beard Award winner, Robert Stehling. Seemingly all my Food Network friends have been here. Rach kvelled over her sesame-crusted catfish with geechee peanut sauce and sautéed okra. On “Best Thing I Ever Ate,” Brown compared eating Stehling’s chocolate pudding to “sucking the soul out of a little chocolate Easter bunny.” (A good thing, I think.) Adam Richman from “Man v. Food” dined here, as did the snarky Bourdain, who visited for breakfast and famously lambasted Ray for being a lousy tipper. (One waitress said she tipped 10 percent. Rach, come on!)
“Anything called the Big Nasty I have to have,” Bourdain said on his show, and I have to agree. The Big Nasty is a fried chicken breast stuffed between a home-baked biscuit and topped with sausage gravy and pimento-spiked cheese. Yes, it’s big, and it may have taken several months off my life, but it wasn’t nasty at all. Just the perfect meal to end a gastronomic tour of Charleston. Besides, how many times can you order something called the Big Nasty from a James Beard Award-winner?
Completely bloated— and stowing several sacks of stone-ground grits— I fly back North, knowing that very soon, Charleston’s Low Country delicacies will be just a 90-minute direct flight from BWI. All I can say is, “Yum-O!”