Think a historically-themed dinner surveying 200 years of Charleston cooking might turn out stodgy and stuffy? With Jimmy Hagood, Julian Van Winkle, the Lee Brothers, and the infamous Rathead Riley in the room: not a chance.
The setting was Hominy Grill, Robert Stehling's newly-expanded restaurant at the corner of Rutledge and Cannon. Stehling had teamed up for the night with two local chefs—Hagood, the proprietor of Blackjack Barbecue, and Kevin Johnson of The Grocery—as well as guest chef Chris Hastings of Birmingham's Hot and Hot Fish Club.
Stehling's guidance for the meal was simple: "Stick to the tradition, and serve something that you could have eaten last week or 150 years ago." The result was a menu that featured common, easily-recognizable dishes executed with exquisite care and a few upscale twists, like Stehling's first course of tender fresh flounder wrapped around a filling of herb-laced crab and served over coleslaw with a tangy lemnon beurre blanc. Alongside: two of the fluffiest, lightest hushpuppies I've ever had.
Each plate was paired with a wine from Tuck Beckstoffer of Tuck Beckstoffer Wines of St. Helena, California. Between courses, Matt and Ted Lee provided the historical context for each dish, and a little comic relief as well. As the wine flowed and the stories spun, the small room grew loud and boisterous. No museum piece or history lecture here, just a relaxed, shared celebration of good food.
And that's exactly what was intended. "We wanted to create an event that celebrated Charleston history," Jimmy Hagood explained, noting that until twenty five years ago great Charleston dining wasn't found in restaurants. "These are dishes that were eaten in peoples homes."
Home-style cooking, yes, but with some definite upscale accents. The firm, dark meat of Stehling's Guinea Hen and Herb Dumplings put a nice twist on the traditional chicken and dumplings, while Chris Hastings dug back into his own past of shrimping and crabbing along the Carolina coast during childhood vacations and turned out a splendid shrimp purloo. Kevin Johnson delivered the fourth and largest course with a plate reminiscent an old Sunday dinner, with roasted pork over a delicious spring onion gratin, as the servers passed around bowls of roasted carrots and parsnips, Charleston gold rice with red peas, and some wonderfully tender, tangy collards.
Julian Van Winkle capped the evening with a few bourbon tales as glasses of Pappy Van Winkle's 20 Year Family Reserve were passed around. Smooth, rich, and mellow, the two-decades-old bourbon was a fine accompaniment for the strawberry-rhubarb upside down cake—a take on the classic pineapple upside down cake that graced countless Southern tables in the middle of the last century. And what better way to wrap up an evening of historic flavors?