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A Charleston restaurant critic picks her top 10 dishes of 2018

Anatomy of taste

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I once signed up for a semester of Anatomy 101 thinking it would be 'fun.' In my (failed) efforts not to fail, I started developing mnemonic devices metacarpal over metatarsal. That being whatever it is and in large part an explanation for the rest of this sentence, I am still compelled to create them. In that spirit, I bring you this "poem," based on the restaurant's names, of the most memorable mouthfuls of 2018.

Because
Bonafide
Eateries
Land
Particular
Poignant
Placement
Per
Ritualistic
Reflective
Tally

Market Street rooftop charmer Balao, set above and accessed via Burwell's Stonefire Grill, brought the 'Hell Yeah' sandwich ($14), a messy celebration of Italian/Southern decadence. "Imagine that, against all odds, a meatball sub and a po' boy meet and fall in love. Disagreements over where to spend Christmas aside, their love child might be a slightly sweet, seeded hoagie filled with breaded, fried calamari and bay scallops. Add some sliced soppressata and scamorza cheese, plus piquant banana peppers and a marinara sauce, and you've got one hell of a little, messy bundle of joy. Yes, the bun is too soft and the innards spill all over kingdom come, but it's an undertaking worth the possible dry cleaning bill." Perhaps not wanting to put the local cleaner's kids through college, the sandwich seems to be just a memory, although the current menu's calamari offering ($12) contains echoes of that dirty mouthful, with baby arugula, banana peppers, and bresaola, along with 'soft cheese.'

Bistro A Vin's galette, featuring a traditional buckwheat crepe - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Bistro A Vin's galette, featuring a traditional buckwheat crepe

French-run Bistro A Vin, sister establishment to Cafe Frambroise, also utilizes its kitchen. The two share an open-air terrace via which food is ferried, inspiring downpour-based concerns. "Hopefully they have a system in place to protect the galettes ($21), a traditional buckwheat crepe available with two fillings. Despite its obvious appeal, I did not pick the variation made with scallops, mushrooms, and creme fraiche. Rather, I opted for the foie gras, fig chutney, and balsamic vinegar galette, and just typing those words is making me nostalgic." The crisp crepe is filled with slices of fresh apple, sweet fig chutney, and tart balsamic, all of which combine to beautifully complement the generous slices of tender foie gras. Absolutely sublime, with an impeccable balance of sweet and savory, I will return just for one of these."

Ah, The Establishment. If you haven't been, where have you been? On that note, although it was hard to choose just one, the razor clams ($13) inspired a bout of poetic license/pseudo-plagiarism.

"If I should think of love

I'd think of you, The Establishment,

Your arms outstretched,

Offering me a bowl of razor clams ($13).

Adorned with delicate, yet pungent garlic blossoms,

I blush as my breath grows bad.

"In contrast, the sweet, light shellfish meat luxuriates in a fresh gazpacho made with tomato water and tiny bits of cucumber. Topped with three gossamer slices of jalapeño, it's all but guaranteed to be like nothing you've ever put in your mouth. Soon you may find yourself wondering about the nature of obsession: Is it dictated or chosen?"

Folly Beach's Lowlife Bar offers a serious under-promise, over-deliver naming convention. Nonetheless, the tuna poke ($14) is legit, and "... for the most part — authentic, but as with most mainland variations, there's some unexpected filler here. However, in lieu of soybeans or fruit, Lowlife adds small, tender Beech mushrooms. Served on wonton crisps, the chunks of fresh ahi tuna are mixed with an equal part of the meaty mushrooms and both are deeply marinated in a sweet soy sauce. Finished with green onions, sesame seeds, and red onions, this is bar food you can feel good about."

Papi's does tacos right - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Papi's does tacos right

Switching to the beaches of the north, Papi's Taqueria on Isle of Palms cured me of a taco hangover. "Happily, Papi's Pelo Del Perro (hair of the dog, $8) sobered me right up. Served on a handmade — praise hands emoji — 8 inch flour tortilla, this thing is downright incredible. As my dining companion noted, 'I think of tacos as drunk food. They fill you up and get the job done, but that's about it.'This, quite notably, is sober fare. Filled with sweet, savory cubes of tender pork belly, fresh avocado, and brunoised crisp sweet potatoes, the toothy tortilla only elevates each bite. Add to that the peppery sawmill gravy and sunny side up egg, and well ... jackpot. Maybe not a $1.5 billion dollar jackpot, but that kind of money is likely to ruin your life anyway. Rather, this is the sort of culinary windfall you can bank on, hangover optional."

Down the road on Sullivan's Island, Pier 22's lobster roll ($22) "is serious business. Served on a split-top bun that's been grilled in garlic butter, the first thing you'll notice is the generous portion of meat. Lightly dressed in aioli and topped with sliced celery and a sprinkle of chives, everything is perfectly proportioned such that nothing gets in the way of the sweet, luscious lobster. Served with a large handful of kettle chips, this is Maine's proud tradition at its finest."

All the way back in January, charming Westside bistro Purlieu made an impression with their roasted North Carolina chicken supreme ($21), "a true display of the chef's 'rustic meets refined' aesthetic. The slices of juicy chicken breast are impossibly tender and topped with savory Mepkin Abbey oyster mushrooms, thinly sliced radishes, and a rich chicken jus. Plated on a creamy bed of sweet cauliflower puree, the dish also features roasted bits of romanesco, as well as mild purple and yellow cauliflower florets."

Hip North Central newcomer Renzo knows a thing or ten about wood-fired pizza. The Shabazi ($14), at least according to me, "is where the rubber meets the road. The same heavily charred, chewy crust is topped with a vinegary tomato sauce and dotted with ground lamb balls. From there it's finished with a generous portion of fresh parsley, mint, and purple basil. "That doesn't sound like much of a pizza," you might muse. And I'd be inclined to agree, but for the accompanying small dish of yogurt and zhug, a green Yemenite hot sauce. Made with garlic, parsley, and cilantro, along with olive oil and Thai bird chiles, it's the Girls Gone Wild version of chimichurri, and it's explosive. If you can take the heat — and it's formidable — you'll likely wonder where zhug has been all your life. The base of the crust is covered with the burned cornmeal remains of pizzas prior and it'd be nice if they could address that, but it's still a stellar pie."

Renzo's The Shabazi pie - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Renzo's The Shabazi pie

Like the hotel itself, The Vendue's new signature restaurant is a (mostly) polished affair. Rumpled tablecloths aside, Revival is a class act, and it's forbidden shrimp and grits ($28) are as creative as they are gorgeous. The grits — made with 'forbidden' black rice — are sweet, nutty, and chewy, with a chunky texture that works. Normally the seven seared shrimp would be the star of such a dish, but here the rice grits and cherry tomato pan gravy take center stage. The gravy is akin to a smooth, rich marinara, and together they're something really special."

Last but not least, last February's visit to Tu facilitated first contact with the crudo ($12), and my notes implied induced hallucinations of some sort: "If fish was a dessert. My brother's childhood cream cheese and jelly sandwich fetish. Goddamn. Is that calamansi? Does anybody really know what time it is? This is some kind of voodoo magic ... Made of cubes of king mackerel, guava, and aged manchego, then tossed with habanero and topped with 'cheese ice' and (guessing) mermaid tears, this is another one of those things I'll try — and probably fail — to recreate forever. It's citrusy and savory, while simultaneously airy and sweet. That stated, it makes next to no sense why it works, which is fine by me."

Much like anatomy — which I never came close to mastering — the restaurant world is full of all sorts of strange, wonderful and mystifying things. Here's to a new year filled with health, happiness, and chewing things up and talking about them (albeit preferably not at the same exact time).

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