There's no question about it, Carolina's is one of the city's finest." That was the proclamation for Best Restaurant in Charleston City Paper's 1999 Best Of issue. Fifteen years later Carolina's (formerly Perdita's) is closed, having shut its doors this March after 27 years in business. Its final chef Jill Mathias has moved to one of the city's newest and most adorable new restaurants at Chez Nous. But a decade and a half ago Carolina's was the place to go for a night of chef Rose Durden's Asian-influenced cuisine.
Remember that? Fusion food? The sudden proliferation of soy, ginger, wasabi, and sesame seeds on everything from asparagus to snapper. Need us to jog your memory? Well, we did a little retro recon in the CP archives to uncover what you were eating the year Britney Spears broke onto the scene with "Baby One More Time."
And according to our research you may have very well spent a night out dancing to the school-girl minx's song at Trio or Capone's. They were the two big bar's of the year where, of course, your cocktail would come via mini bottle. But if your idea of a good time was a fancy night out, you might have found yourself in one of the following places: Fulton Five, The Boathouse at Breach Inlet, Woodlands Inn, or Hank's. The venerable downtown seafood spot got its first review in CP in March 1999 with reviewer Tricia New (a.k.a. Patricia Agnew) calling it "a treasure destined to become another of Charleston's favorites." Change Patricia's name to Miss Cleo, because the woman can see the future. She nailed it.
Other places, however, were not destined to last so long. In 1999 a French spot called Boissons Cafe took home the prize for Best New Restaurant. The restaurant closed a few years later, but it hearkens back to Charleston's early emphasis on French cooking, something it appears we're returning to with the opening of five new Gallic restaurants this year.
Speaking of France, back in 1999 Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery had just opened on Society Street and was quickly cornering the city's bread market. As hard as it may be to recall, there was a time in town when complimentary baskets of sliced baguette were de rigeur. Add to that a heaping pool of extra virgin olive oil, and you had all the necessary accoutrements to usher in a delicious evening.
For entrees, the city's eaters chose Magnolia's shrimp and grits as CP's Best of '99. There chef Donald Barickman was leading the charge to elevate Southern flavors. Similar tastes were also getting a lot of love at Louis's, where chef Louis Osteen was gaining attention for Lowcountry dishes like McClellanville lump crabmeat and lobster cakes and mushroom fried grits.
As for the most popular wine in 1999? We reached out to an expert, sommelier Patrick Emerson. "Kendal Jackson Chardonnay or Beringer White Zinfandel," he said. "We've come a long way baby!"
Indeed we have. Some would say wine has been usurped (u-sipped even) by craft beer. At any table in Charleston these days you're just as likely to see someone paying as much for a fine pint as you are for a glass of Carneros Creek Fleur Pinot Noir, as Agnew did at Meritäge during her '99 review.
And there's another thing. Shall we talk about tapas? The trend was gaining traction in Charleston in the late '90s and, Meritäge was where to have them. There, patrons were awed by a menu of 50 appetizers, including lobster Napoleon (note that phrase), spinach and artichoke dip with grilled Tuscan bread (cough * fusion * cough), and chilled tofu with soy and anise. Since then, tapas has given way to "small plates" but instead of Meritäge's seared sea scallop and potato sandwich that Agnew enjoyed, today we like our tiny butcherblocks (preferably made of reclaimed wood, please) topped with goat.sheep.cow. stinky cheese and housemade charcuterie. As for veggies, gone are the days of an optional side of garlic mashed potato, baked potato, or coleslaw as served at seafood spot Marker 85 in '99. Today, a proliferation of farm-to-table, in season veg options, like the nine veg salad at FIG or the grilled squash, eggplant, and kimchi purée with peanuts at the Macintosh make our mouths water. No room on the table for all those locally grown goodies? Just scooch over those jelly jar water glasses and vintage cutlery to make room. No worries about spilling. Today we've abandoned white tablecloths for, well, more wood. Or concrete. Or steel. Or anything that's recycled from a decaying barn.
But where in some ways the dining scene has gone rustic, in other ways we've significantly progressed, as illustrated by the proteins on our plate. Chilean seabass and yellowfin tuna used to be common options say at McCrady's. When it reopened in 1999 it served the former with fingerling potatoes and the latter with olive tapenade and mustard cream. Today, however, it's all about the trashfish. And remarkably diners even know to ask for triggerfish, wreckfish, and amberjack by name.
But of course, some things never change. Like two pillars of the Charleston dining scene standing sentry on the corner of Market and Meeting, in 1999 the Bob's were holding court. That's chefs Bob Carter of Peninsula Grill and Bob Waggoner of Charleston Grill. For a quick Cliff's Notes on the two, Carter earned his grill Esquire magazine's America's Best New Restaurants accolade the first year he opened, and Waggoner received the title of 1999 James Beard Rising Stars of the 21st Century. Today, we hear that Waggoner, who's been quietly out of the city's culinary scene since leaving the grill in 2009, is back and currently constructing a new restaurant in his old neighborhood at 164-A Market St. As for Carter, since opening Rutledge Cab Co. he's been percolating more ideas and suffice it to say, we expect big things from him this year. Until then, his most enduring addition to the culinary scene remains the same — see if you can spot it on the next page where we present a tableau of then and now.
When we tasked John Zucker, owner of Cru Cafe, with creating a vintage meal, he was more than game. The chef opened Cru in 2002 after studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and working at Wolfgang Puck's Spago Las Vegas, a restaurant synonymous with the 1990s and fusion cuisine. Wolfgang's influence and others trickled across the nation that could be seen in dish executions like sesame seed crusted wasabi tuna (A) and artfully plated fresh veggies. And, with so much wasabi on hand, why not throw a bit into some mashed potatoes (B). Zucker recalls serving the very dish at Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar on King Street before he opened Cru. And that pat of perfectly square butter, all Zucker's idea. "When I was in culinary school in Paris the chefs would say, 'When in doubt, add more salt, cream, or butter," he says.
As for sides, what's better than fried green tomatoes? Why, fried green tomatoes in the form of a Leaning Tower of Pisa (C). At least that was the trend for a time. And the taller the better. In fact, tall food was so in fashion you can even find a cookbook about it, Stacks: The Art of Vertical Food, published, of course, in 1999.
A cool glass of Beringer white zinfandel (D) accompanies an artichoke dip appetizer, complete with sliced Normandy Farm Bakery baguette (E). And to cap off the eve, a slice of Peninsula Grill's Ultimate Coconut Cake (F).
Oh times they have changed. Starting with, well, the starters. With so many small plates on menus, it's hard to choose. One could start with charcuterie, which can be found at nearly every local restaurant nowadays. But the question is what kind? Do you try fresh or cured as is the choice at Edmund's Oast? Or opt for the Macintosh's seafood (A) version?
And forget passe artichoke dip. Today Husk's boiled peanut hummus (B) is more en vogue. As for veggies, they must be fresh and preferably picked from within a 100-mile radius, like with Husk's tomato and homemade feta salad (C) or the Mac's bowl of grilled squash and eggplant with kimchi purée and peanuts (D).
For the entree, the Grocery's whole black sea bass roasted with fennel, olives, lemon and potatoes served with a salsa verde will do nicely (E) and with the eyeballs intact, thank you kindly. To wash it down? How about a Westbrook One Claw Rye (F)?
For dessert, Peninsula's Ultimate Coconut Cake still sounds good. Some things never change.