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17 dishes that defined a decade in Charleston

Years of Change

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In 2010, Charleston was just emerging as a national food destination. Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill and Mike Lata of FIG had brought home back-to-back James Beard Awards for Best Chef Southeast, and Sean Brock of McCrady's was about to make it a threepeat.

We had the ingredients. A newly established base of local farmers and fisherman were supplying fresh produce and seafood, and specialty purveyors like Anson Mills had resurrected heirloom grains and beans, including Carolina gold rice and Sea Island red peas.

We had the techniques, too. Molecular gastronomy was fading from memory, but housemade charcuterie was suddenly everywhere. Charleston restaurants had upgraded the basics, grinding burgers in house, making their own pickles, and cooking pizzas in wood-fired ovens.

Chefs who earned their stripes downtown were taking good food beyond the peninsula with mid-priced but high-quality restaurants like Fat Hen, the Glass Onion, and Bacco. Food trucks roamed the streets, offering tantalizing tastes of ambitious cuisine without brick-and-mortar overhead. Brewers helped Pop the Cap in 2007, legalizing high-gravity beers, and good local brews were starting to flow from Palmetto Brewing and the newly launched Coast in North Charleston.

So what happened next? Here's my selection of 17 dishes that defined the decade — a remarkable period that saw Charleston burst onto the national culinary scene, overhaul its local dining style, and begin searching about for what should come next.

2010

1. Stuffed quail at Husk

Husk opened in November 2010 after months of media hyperventilation, enthralled by Sean Brock's bold promise to prove Southern food the best in the world. Fried chicken skins and pig ear lettuce wraps were crowd-wowing novelties, but a more representative Husk dish was the stuffed quail with red peas and leeks. The crisp, seared quail was dark and sultry, and the cheddar and bologna inside melded into a single delicious slice — rich, complex, and impressive. With such dishes, Brock took all the elements that had been percolating in the local food scene — fresh local ingredients, wood-fired ovens, in-house pickling and preserving, bacon fat and bourbon — and distilled them into a monomaniacal vision of hyper-Southern cuisine.

2. Pho at Quyen & 3. Peruvian chicken at Pollo Tropical

Not all of the decade's trends originated downtown and moved outward. Two dishes that really wowed me were the pho at Quyen on James Island (long since shuttered) and the Peruvian chicken at Pollo Tropical (now Pollo Loko) on Dorchester Road. The first delivered thin-sliced steak, savory meatballs, and long, tender noodles inside a sparklingly bright and beefy broth. The second was a whole chicken marinated in an array of spices and roasted over charcoal til the skin was crisp and slightly charred. You once had to travel far away — if not overseas, at least to DC or San Francisco — to sample such bold, exciting flavors. These weren't fancy "concepts," either, just low-key neighborhood restaurants run by immigrant families serving traditional recipes. Suddenly Charleston was feeling downright international.

2011

The Macintosh's signature dish, grilled deckle, arrived with seasonal veggies - ADAM CHANDLER FILE PHOTO
  • Adam Chandler file photo
  • The Macintosh's signature dish, grilled deckle, arrived with seasonal veggies

4. Ribeye deckle at the Macintosh & 5. Seared scallops at the Grocery

New restaurants dispensed with white tablecloths and leather-bound menus in favor of a more rustic style and a passionate focus on local ingredients and intense flavors. The ribeye deckle at Macintosh, which opened in September, epitomized the aesthetic. A stark contrast to the flashy, bone-in monstrosities of the previous decade's steakhouses, Jeremiah Bacon's steak weighed in at just 7 ounces, but it punched well above its weight. The heavily marbled cap was seared and sliced and arranged on a simple white plate atop fingerlings, mushrooms, and sliced pole beans in a pool of thin red sauce. Three months later, the Grocery opened a few blocks further up King in the old Altman Furniture building. Kevin Johnson's scallop dish hit all of the trendy notes: two seared scallops (fresh seafood) adorned with slices of pork belly (had to have pork belly), whole-roasted carrots and parsnips with a slight char (local veg, wood-fired oven) and a sweet swirl of sorghum gastrique (sorghum!). This was no lardcore flight of fancy, though. It was a perfectly composed and eminently delicious dish.

6. Cumin-scented lamb belly at Two Boroughs Larder

If the Macintosh and the Grocery downplayed the fine dining trappings to focus on the food, Two Boroughs Larder threw them out the window. A combo restaurant and artisan market two blocks off of King Street, it had tables topped with rough-hewn boards and shelves stocked with cookware, soaps, and bottles of vinegar. But the food! The style was summed up by a thick, fatty slab of cumin-scented lamb served over Sea Island red peas. The sensuous lamb was steeped with bold cumin flavor, the hearty peas had smoky bursts from bacon lardons, and both were balanced by the sharp prickle of red onion and a cool scoop of white labne.

2012

The oyster sliders come on housemade Hawaiian rolls with layers of sweet and spicy flavors - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The oyster sliders come on housemade Hawaiian rolls with layers of sweet and spicy flavors

7. Japanese okonomiyaki at Xiao Bao Biscuit

Inspired by their travels across Asia, Josh Walker and Duolan Li parlayed a series of successful pop ups into a new restaurant in a converted gas station at the corner of Spring and Rutledge. Foodies raved about the okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese veggie pancake available with a hearty slab of pork belly, a golden yolk-oozing fried egg, and generous drizzles of white mayo and red chili sauce. XBB was just one of a wave of newcomers — the Green Door, Bon Banh Mi, Co — that brought what was formerly labeled "ethnic" cuisine from the periphery to the heart of the city.

8. Crispy oyster sliders at The Ordinary

As 2012 closed, High Lardcore was on the wane, and the much-anticipated arrival of The Ordinary, the second restaurant from Mike Lata and Adam Nemirow of FIG, suggested a new mode was brewing. The setting was grand, with a cavernous ceiling, high round-topped windows, and a gleaming white tile and stainless steel oyster bar. Working within the conventions of a traditional oyster hall, Lata focused on hyper-fresh seafood prepared simply but with meticulous technique. The result was small-plate delights like a lightly breaded fried oyster tucked inside a toasty Hawaiian roll (made by another recent newcomer, Brown's Court Bakery) and accented with pickled veggies, Sriracha, and fish sauce — a slap of intense flavor and contrasting texture. We dropped small fortunes on gleaming towers of iced shellfish, rum drinks, and pink wine, pondering whether the Ordinary was a splendid outlier or harbinger of a new Charleston style.

2014

9. Pickled shrimp at Edmund's Oast

A moment for pickled shrimp - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE
  • Jonathan Boncek file
  • A moment for pickled shrimp

Edmund's Oast opened in early 2014 with an expansive vision. Founders Scott Shor and Rich Carley called it "a brew pub," but it was much, much more: whole animal butchery, housemade charcuterie, a wall of four dozen craft taps, and a splendid cocktail program from barman Jayce McConnell. I most-vividly recall the tart pickled shrimp brimming with floral fennel atop a thick raft of aioli-slathered rye. Edmunds rolled together everything that had been happening in Charleston for the past half decade: a sensory overload of intensely flavored eating and drinking.

10. Char-grilled oysters at Leon's & 11. Charcoaled chicken taco from Minero

The dining scene was shifting further up King, leaping the Crosstown and filtering out into Cannonborough and Wraggborough. Aspiring restaurateurs converted all manner of odd buildings into restaurants and coffee shops and got back to the basics, with menus based around humble foods like hot dogs, fried chicken sandwiches, and soft-serve ice cream. At Leon's, char-grilled oysters — an import from Drago's in New Orleans — anchored the stylishly downscale offering, and we reveled in the simple pleasures of hot bivalves on the half-shell topped with parsley, butter, and charred parmesan. Around the same time, Sean Brock dropped Minero, his Mexican-inspired taco joint, in the middle of East Bay's old restaurant row. Plenty of locals (including me) were thrilled by treats like the charcoal-grilled chicken taco, which combined Brock's latest obsession — tortillas made fresh from heirloom corn meal — with the intense, smoky flavors that characterized Husk.

12. Escargot at Annie's Bistro

Annie's, alas, closed in 2018, but I think I still have a whiff of garlic on my breath from the escargot. They were served in the traditional indented plate beneath a yellow-green blanket of minced parsley and a special garlic paste that chef/owner Carole Robert imported from France.

It was just one of a wave of solid local restaurants — Spero, The Granary, Bar Normandy, Artisan Meat Share — that opened with great promise in the middle years of the decade but didn't last to see the end of it.

13. Conch and Oxtail Stew from BJ Dennis

The other dishes on this list were all eaten in restaurants. This one I experienced at the dining room table of fellow City Paper food writer Eric Doksa. Amid a delicious array of traditional Lowcountry dishes at a dinner staged by chef BJ Dennis, one in particular stood out. His slow-simmered oxtail stew was accented by chopped conch and thickened with ground benne seed, which imparted a unique and unforgettably rich nuttiness. That it was served in someone's house is unfortunately fitting, for it was becoming harder and harder to find Gullah-Geechie cuisine in restaurants by the middle of the decade. In 2014 and 2015, Huger's, Ike's Hot Chicken & Fish, Ernie's, Ellen Bright Hall, Gullah Cuisine, and Alluette's Café all shuttered, squeezed out by rising rents and shifting culinary fashions.

2016 & 2017

14. Smoked wings from Home Team BBQ, 15. Sliced brisket from Lewis Barbecue, 16. Pulled whole hog from Rodney Scott's BBQ

Going to be honest: Couldn't decide between a photo of this plate from Lewis or HT's smoked wings - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Going to be honest: Couldn't decide between a photo of this plate from Lewis or HT's smoked wings

It's hard to talk about these joints separately, for if you want to experience 21st century Charleston barbecue you need to visit all three. For decades Melvin's and Bessinger's had been holding steady with traditional mustard sauce and hash and rice, but then came the opening of the downtown Home Team in March (their third location) followed rapidly by Lewis in June and Rodney Scott the following February. Collectively, they put Charleston on the map as a new barbecue destination, a symbolic representation of, as Jim Shahin of the Washington Post put it, "the future of barbecue."

2019

17. Kombu-poached lobster at Delaney Oyster House

After a bit of a lull, the decade ended on a high note for me with the arrival of Delaney Oyster House. Though created by the same group that launched Husk in 2010, the two restaurants are completely different in character. There's no brown liquor or cornbread in sight at Delaney, but it shares with its sister restaurant a strong sense of place, a commitment to fresh local ingredients, and precise culinary technique to draw out and intensify the natural flavors.

Take chef Shamil Velazquez's stunner of a deconstructed lobster dish. The rich meat is removed from the shell, poached in kombu, then arranged inside half of the shell with ground peanuts, Thai basil leaves, and orbs of tangy Asian pear.

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