Let's be honest, most food TV tours of Charleston come off as PR drivel. There was the gosh-oh-golly $40 A Day episode from Rachael Ray and the shouty eat-a-thon from human hedgehog Guy Fieri. Hell, even Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations Charleston episode felt about as authentic as an August oyster roast. Which is why we're so pumped snarky London Times restaurant critic Giles Coren made a recent stop in the city for BBC America's Million Dollar Critic.
Coren (who you may recognize from Supersizers Go) visits five restaurants for each episode. Then, at the conclusion, the winner of his million dollar review is declared. This week's episode visited Alluette’s Cafe, The Obstinate Daughter, Poogan’s Porch, The Lot, and Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen. In case you didn’t set your DVR, here’s what you missed:
Coren arrives in Charleston and instantly begins to sweat. Is it August? Nope. It's March and clearly a climatic slap to the pasty Brit. But a little perspiration can’t slow him down. Coren takes off for his first restaurant: Reid Street’s Alluette’s Cafe.
At the holistic, no-pork soul food joint red flags immediately go up. “Holistic is something you get from a homeopath, not a restaurant,” Coren says, taking a seat. And Alluette’s temperature doesn’t win any points either. “This is a sweat lodge of a restaurant,” he says.
But the charming waiter Freddie quickly lulls Coren into a Southern accent-induced smile, convincing the writer to try the lima bean soup. “Soup makes me sweat. If I sweat, can I have it free?” Coren asks. Freddie agrees and a comped lunch wager begins. If Alluette’s "Oprah Winfrey shrimp" doesn’t look just like the picture on the wall, Coren asks, “Can I have that for free?” “Sure,” says Freddie. And what of the “Bill Murray blackbean burger?" If it isn’t fantastic, well that’s on the house too.
The food arrives slowly, as a note on the wall warns and Coren chastises himself for breaking his own critic code: never order a lot of food at a slow restaurant. Luckily, when the lunch does appear, the critic is surprisingly pleased. The lima bean soup is fantastically light, the shrimp do indeed look exactly like the image on the wall — “Oprah can rest easy, her namesake shrimp dish is delicious” — and the Bill Murray blackbean burger is fine. Though not enough to entice a second order. “When it comes to burgers, who you gonna call? Not Bill Murray,” Coren says.
Even though there was nary a pig part in sight, Coren leaves happy. “It is healthier and that’s a good thing,” he concludes.
Still swimming in his grey London suit, Coren makes a product placement beeline for Billy Reid. There Garden & Gun senior editor Jessica Mischner is on hand and outfits the Brit in every imaginable Charleston cliche: a tan linen suit with slip-ons “no socks, please.” Newly attired, the dandy is ready for his next dish. Enter: Jeff Allen.
Charleston magazine’s food critic and frequent City Paper contributor Allen (“a real Southern gentleman” as Coren describes him) is already at a table inside The Obstinate Daughter when Coren arrives. Note: this is how we know the show was filmed in March. Million Dollar Critic mentions at least three times that Obstinate Daughter is only two weeks old. But that doesn't stop the Times man from letting it fly. Coren’s gun is cocked, and he’s out for blood. His first target — boiled peanuts. “I’m not excited to try one,” he says dryly grimacing at OD’s goobers. And neither the waitress nor Allen can convince him otherwise. “My first goober will almost certainly be my last,” he says resolutely.
The tongue-in-cheek take-down only gets worse from there. Frogmore stew arrives completely white, a choice even Allen can’t seem to comprehend. “The chef is tricking you and made it more New England-style chowder,” Allen suggests.
“So basically it’s a collection of lies,” Coren retorts.
Clammer Dave’s baked clams take a hit as well and get judged too salty. Though Coren does make an astute observation about Dave. “So, he’s like Boss Hog in the Dukes of Hazzard ... but with clams,” Coren observes. Precisely. And while Coren seems to be smitten with Allen, Chef Jacques Larson’s dinner leaves something to be desired. “I couldn’t ask for more in terms of atmosphere,” he says, “but he really over did it on the salt.”
Before bounding off to his next dinner, Coren and his producer meet at the Charleston Library Society in order to do some historical research. Coren wants to know what Charlestonians ate in the past. After flipping through some ancient tomes, Coren tucks away a few recipes in his sweaty linen pocket, and it’s off to a place that he says “sounds like a soap opera set in the deep South” — Poogan’s Porch. The critic makes his way through the gate of the restaurant and then the camera pans in on managing partner Brad Ball’s mustache. (Seriously, Brad, you're great, but the porn 'stache? No sir.) Ball admits that the 39-year-old locale has a bit of a tourist reputation, but thinks Coren will be won over.
Coren's initial observations however, lean decidedly Disney. “This place looks a little bit theme-y. I see a lot of guests wearing shorts. Most people in there, I can see their toenails,” Coren says glancing at the porch. Then, the critic’s request for a mint julep is denied. Apparently Poogan’s doesn’t make the drink. But the waiter recommends an alternative, something called a Mystic — vodka, St. Germain, cucumber, and grapefruit juice. “It’s as Southern as can be,” the waiter assures him.
It’s at this point that Coren decides the menu isn’t looking Lowcountry enough, and he asks to speak to the chef. When Chef Daniel Doyle sees Coren enter the kitchen, he looks terrified. “Can you make these molasses fritters?” Coren requests, handing Doyle his damp recipe. Doyle pauses. Then in what is surely the most ballsy move we’ve yet to see in food porn TV, Doyle responds, “Let’s have you try the food here, how about that?” Hey-o!
But Coren won’t take no for an answer and convinces Doyle to make the damn fritters even though Poogan’s kitchen doesn’t carry molasses. And just to be a real prig, Coren goes ahead and also orders direct-from-the-chef — crispy-skin snapper, fried alligator salad, and shrimp and grits. Back at his table, Coren remarks on his kitchen conversation with Doyle. “He’s a big good old boy,” Coren says. “He’s probably got a gun under there.”
As for Doyle’s food? “The alligator is amazing. It has a flavor of lobster but a consistency of chicken. It’s better than crocodile,” Coren judges. The shrimp and grits is deemed a “tourist dish,” and the snapper, well that’s a bit of a quandary. Sitting on a pimiento cheese grit cake and topped with pulled pork, arugula, and a barbecue reduction, the dish, Coren says, is like “four or five meals in one.” And yet he deems it a success. But his favorite item is of his own making. Those molasses fritters. “It tastes like 1847,” Coren lavishes. “It’s four ingredients. It’s mind blowing."
Next up is “possibly the ugliest restaurant I’ve ever seen,” says Coren: The Lot. Filled with “clean, prosperous suburbanites,” the critic can’t seem to come to grips with the pairing of farm-to-table cuisine in a rock venue. “This place looks like it was painted by a three-year-old,” he say. Visibly appalled, he finds the pictures on the wall offensively wonky, the band rehearsing in the other room far too loud — “On the other side of that door is a man who thinks he is Jimi Hendrix,” he seethes — and the overall decor “like an acid trip.”
But that can’t diminish the critic’s curiosity when the waitress suggests he try the soft shell crab. A softie rookie, Coren requests he see the crustacean preparation. “Oh, it is soft,” he says grabbing one from Chef Alex Lira. “It feels like handling a toad.” Lira explains that he’s going to cut off the face and remove the apron. “That must be a euphemism,” Coren demurs. Then the head is chopped off.
Thanks to the kitchen guillotine he’s just witnessed, when the softie arrives, Coren is looking a little green.
“Now I feel like the vegetarian option,” he says, followed by, “It looks like a seagull dropped it's lunch on the way. I want to bring out its face and I’ll eat that instead.”
But the taste is a revelation: “You’re eating an intestinal track and then there’s an explosion and the gallbladder goes ping! But I gotta say, it’s good.”
As for The Lot’s trotter cake, Coren says it looks like a hockey puck of gluey toes. Then again, he likes it. All in all the critic says, The Lot wasn’t “fancy cooking, it was real cooking.” Then he proceeds to stand on a guest’s table and straighten all the photos on the wall.
For his final foray into Charleston’s food scene Coren braves a “neighborhood that’s a bit rough around the edges” — or what I call home. At 218 President St., Coren uncovers Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen. Now Lee Lee’s is at a particular disadvantage given Coren believes himself to be the “world’s leading expert on Chinese food.” And a lack of actual Chinese people inside the restaurant, aside from co-proprietor Lily Lei, have him immediately suspect. (That said, we did spot another culinary luminary in the scene, McCrady’s Chef de Cuisine Daniel Heinze seated at a center table.)
Suffice it to say, the critic has questions like, why is there a massive bouncer outside and why are none of the menu items in Chinese? Lei herself must recite her genealogy for proof — she’s from Taiwan, her parents are from Shanghai and Beijing. That good enough for you, Coren? Apparently not. The critic awaits the food before passing final judgement. The result? The scallion pancakes are appropriately bland and great. However, the salt and pepper soft-shell crab is a hot mess with chopsticks. And Coren believes Lei is purposefully using less spice to appease the taste buds of her uninitiated guests.
“I’m officially annoyed that it’s under seasoned to suit local taste,” Coren says. But the Hung Sho Ro, Lei’s father’s specialty, is a winner. “I can see why it’s her Dad’s favorite,” Coren says. “It’s slow, home cooking. It’s terrific. She does her Dad and her ancestors proud.” But the meal isn’t done until Coren asks one final favor. Can Lei cook up something truly Chinese, something she would never put on her menu?
Hoping for something dramatic — “Is it a pig’s intestine stuffed inside another pigs intestine?” he wonders —Lei delivers what appears to be a blob of porridge, smashed tofu with green onion, cilantro, fried peanuts. “It looks like cold lamb brains,” says Coren. “I almost wish it was. It’s pretty terrible. It tastes like something my body rejected. It’s the flavor of garbage.”
That said, for a Chinese restaurant in an area the posh British critic clearly finds to be the ghetto, Coren says Lee Lee’s is “way better than I thought it would be.”
Deliberating over breakfast at Rutledge Cab Co. the next day — still in the same super-sweat-wicking suit — Coren types up his Huffington Post million dollar review. And the winner is: Alluette’s Cafe.
Coren sums up his decision with this:
“It’s just such an oddball place: they serve wine and beer but no soft drinks, because they don’t want to promote sugar; they have a sign warning you that good food takes a long time to prepare; they serve the traditional food of the South without so much as a squeak from its most traditional, piggy ingredient; and in the midst of an obesity crisis they are serving, under no external pressure at all, a lithe, sexy, much healthier version of what would otherwise be the world’s most fattening food.
Aluette wants to take her unique brand of soul food to New York, but with her very 21st-century philosophy, her incredible charm and her quite brilliant cooking, I don’t see why she shouldn’t take over the world.”
*Unfortunately for Charleston, Alluette’s closed in August of last year. According to its website, a new version of the restaurant was supposed to open in October, but we have yet to hear of anything yet. Maybe owner Alluette Jones-Smalls did take off to New York, as Coren suggested. We've got a call in to find out.
As for the show ... do we agree with all of Coren's assessments? Of course not. Was it funny as hell watching them? Damn right. What we will concede is that Charleston could use a little more of this British brand of ironic criticism, or what comedian John Oliver has dubbed "the opposite of a hug."