Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 793 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 5700 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

EVO – North Charleston, South Carolina

EVO01

EVO (Extra Virgin Oven), one of the very best pizza restaurants in America

America is a pizza obsessed nation.  Ninety-three percent of us consume at least one slice of pizza per month and collectively, we each eat some 46 slices of pizza per year.  According to Pizza Magazine Quarterly, the pizza industry’s number one business magazine and web site, there are nearly 70,000 pizzerias in the United States (or about as many pizzerias as Santa Fe, New Mexico has residents) to sate our love of pizza.  Almost two-thirds (or about 46,000) of those pizzerias are independently owned and operated.

With such a large number of pizzerias serving the pizza loving public, creating a list anointing the best pizza or any number of best pizzas in the country is an audacious endeavor (just try picking the definitive pizza in the Duke City).  Even defining the criteria for designating the best pizza is a plucky proposition considering the tremendous differences in style between purveyors of the sacrosanct pie.  In September, 2012, The Daily Meal recruited an august panel au courant with all things pizza and asked them to compile a list of the best pizzas across the fruited plain. After much deliberation and trimming, five spots were allotted to each of seven regions.

EVO02

The EVO dining room

Because the list of America’s thirty-five very best pizzas includes such paragons of pizza perfection as Pizza Mozza (#25) and Pizzeria Bianco (#26), two transformative pizzas reviewed on this blog, the list has great credibility with me.  Charleston’s contribution to the list is EVO which was rated number thirty-two on the list, placing it in very exclusive company.  Now, Charleston is world renowned for its incomparable Lowcountry cuisine and some of the best seafood in the country, but pizza?  

Yes, pizza and it’s not solely the Daily Meal who holds EVO in such high accord. In 2011, USA Today asked local experts to name just one great pizza parlor in each state and the District of Columbia.  The one pizza from South Carolina singled out was none other than EVO.  Not to be outdone, the Food Network’s Cooking Channel highlighted EVO’s Pistachio Pesto Pizza as one of the ten best pizzas in the fruited plain.

EVO04

Perhaps the reason EVO is so highly regarded is because it subscribes to many of the tenets which make Lowcountry cuisine so highly regarded.  That means seasonal produce from local farmers to give its guests a fresh and fabulous farm-to-table experience.  A whopping eighty-five percent of the locally sourced ingredients come from within a twenty mile radius of Charleston. Reading the ingredients on the salad menu is like perusing the vegetable line-up at a farmer’s market.

EVO, which isn’t Rachael Ray misspelling one of her cloying catchphrases,  actually stands for “Extra Virgin Oven. EVO’s pizzas are prepared in the namesake wood-fired oven which renders a perfect Neapolitan-style crust, thin and light yet formidable enough to hold up against a cheesy blanket and generously applied ingredients.  At 800 degrees, your pizza is ready in less than two and a half minutes.  The cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza is soft and chewy. Best of all, the pizza has the flavor and aroma of just baked bread with the char marks aficionados love.

EVO05

Assorted housemade pickles, bread, housemade pimento goat cheese

EVO eschews the rubbery out-of-a-bag glop the chains use, preparing and pulling their own mozzarella twice daily.  The pizza dough is also made twice a day and all breads are baked on the premises (or rather in the EVO bakery directly behind the pizzeria).  All soups and sauces are prepared slowly and with a lot of care and attention.  Add the term “house-made” to describe the restaurant’s sweet sausage, aioli and dressings.  You can taste the difference.

If freshness has a flavor, you’ll find it in a steaming bowl of EVO’s roasted carrot, ginger and apple soup garnished with toasted pistachios and creme fraiche.  If she-crab soup wasn’t already the signature dish of Charleston, this soup would be a good candidate for that distinction.   It’s an absolutely delicious soup.   The combination of roasted carrots and apples makes sense in that the carrots provide a pleasant sweetness and the tangy apples serve as a bit of a foil for that sweetness  The ginger lends just a bit of assertiveness while the ground toasted pistachios provide a savory quality.  Texturally, the soup has a thick, creamy but not gloppy consistency.

EVO06

Pork Trifecta: Red Sauce, Housemade Sausage, Pepperoni, Bacon, Mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano

My week-long visit to the Charleston area left so many aspects of Lowcountry cuisine unexplored that another visit or more is a must.  It took a visit to EVO for me to take in two other Southern staples: housemade pickles and pimento cheese, an appetizer served with the restaurant’s fabulous bread.   The housemade pickles include pickled green tomatoes and fresh cucumbers, both of which are spectacular.  Pickling isn’t necessarily intended to render vegetables lip-puckering tart.  Mission accomplished. Both tomatoes and cucumbers are crisp, fresh and pickled just enough to accentuate their natural flavors without obfuscating them.

Even better is the housemade pimento cheese.  If South Carolina’s nickname wasn’t “The Palmetto State,” it should be “The Pimento State.”  Pimento cheese is revered in the deep south, but nowhere more than in the Carolinas.   Although Cheddar is the traditional foundation for most pimento cheese spreads, EVO occasionally throws a curve ball by using goat cheese to which “personality” is added via cayenne pepper and finely chopped cherry peppers (pimentos).   The pimento spreads easily on the bread, but if you eat the entire loaf, you may not have room left for the pizza.  That would be criminal. 

EVO03

Sprecher Root Beer served on a Mason jar

As chronicled in my review of Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q,in South Carolina pork is king.  That doesn’t apply solely to barbecue.  EVO’s signature pizza is the magnificent Pork Trifecta, so named because it’s  topped with housemade sausage, bacon and pepperoni, three ingredients only a cardiologist (and the Child Bride) wouldn’t love.  This is pork candy for the rest of us, the true trifecta of porcine perfection and it’s better than I could possibly describe it.  Available on an eight- or twelve-inch size, it’s also topped with red sauce, the house pulled mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano, all in perfect proportion.

Whether or not EVO belongs on the pantheon of America’s thirty-five very best pizzas is debatable. It’s certainly among the five best pizzas I’ve ever experienced. So many great pizzas, so very little time…that’s the problem with trying to rank and rate the very best.

EVO
1075 E Montague Ave
North Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 225-1796
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pork Trifecta; Roasted Carrot, Ginger and Apple Soup; Assorted housemade pickles, bread, housemade pimento cheese

Evo Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Gullah Cuisine – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

GullahCuisine01

Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

No culinary tour of South Carolina’s Lowcountry would be complete without sampling Gullah cuisine at least once.  In the Lowcountry, Gullah represents several things: people, culture and language.   As a people, the Gullah represent a distinctive group of African Americans living along the island chains and coastal plains which parallel the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The Gullah people are directly descended from the  thousands of slaves who labored on the rice plantations in the moist, semitropical country bordering the South Carolina and Georgia coastline. 

Because of their relative isolation, the Gullah have managed to preserve their dialect and culture more completely than virtually any other group in the country.  Where Gullah culture is most in evidence is in the foods of the region.    Gullah cuisine reflects the rich bounty of the islands: crabs, shrimp, fish, oysters as well as vegetables (greens, corn and tomatoes).  Rice is omnipresent, served at nearly every meal.  You can’t really say you’ve experienced Lowcountry cuisine unless you’ve had Gullah cuisine.

GullahCuisine02

Chef Charlotte Jenkins

It’s often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Because the original Gullahs had very few cookware provisions, many of the dishes they prepared were cooked in one large pot. Fish, poultry and meat were cooked together with rice, vegetables, peppers, potatoes and/or legumes to create stews and soups still served today. Meats, fish and poultry were also smoked over an open flame, advancing the development of barbecue techniques still in use. Traditional Gullah cooking uses a special spice blend similar to Cajun seasonings in their assertiveness.

It can also be said that without the presence of the Gullah culture, there would be no Lowcountry cooking; it would all be Southern cooking. To the Gullahs, preparing and sharing food has always meant more than sustenance. Preparing and serving meals was often almost ritualistic in nature, feeding the soul as well as the body. The Gullahs describe their cuisine as “food that speaks to ya.” It certainly did speak to me!

GullahCuisine03

Cornbread with butter

The epicenter of contemporary Gullah cuisine lies just east of Charleston in the burgeoning hamlet of Mount Pleasant.  That’s where Chef Charlotte Jenkins plies her creativity, serving the best Gullah-soul food in the country.  That’s not just my opinion.  Southern Living magazine, Gourmet magazine, The New York Times and a phalanx of other publications have said so as well.  Chef Jenkins is a peripatetic presence at her restaurant and is as friendly as can be.  When she asked to see the photograph I took of her, she intercepted my “you’re very photogenic” response, replacing “photogenic” with “cute.” I’ll grant her that.  She is very cute.

Chef Jenkins had to surmount humble origins to achieve the acclaim she has earned.  She learned to cook Gullah the way her mother, grandmother and all other mothers that preceded her–by working alongside one another.  The work ethic and discipline she learned from her upbringing prepared her well for more regimented training at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston where she learned to adapt healthful elements into traditional recipes.  She launched Gullah Cuisine in 1997.

GullahCuisine04

Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

While pondering the menu, a single cupcake baking cup nestling a sweet crumbly cornbread with butter was delivered to my table.  It’s as simple and no-frills as cornbread can be, but that purity is what makes it so good.  The only thing wrong with the cornbread is that two or six more weren’t brought to my table.

If it’s sexist to admit preferring she-crab to he-crab, picture me a male chauvinist pig.  A week in South Carolina has left me besotted with she-crab soup.  Made from crab stock, blue crab meat, heavy cream and most notably, crab roe then finished with a splash of sherry, it’s a Charleston specialty.  The “she” portion of this soup, of course, is courtesy of the female crab roe.  Charlotte’s she crab soup is unctuous and replete with blue crab.  The sherry is discernible with its crisp, sweet, spicy and refreshing properties. 

GullahCuisine05

Smothered fried chicken with collard greens and red rice

Daily specials are priced ridiculously low, especially considering the quality and portion size. Great fortune smiles upon diners when smothered chicken is served. This isn’t a de-boned chicken breast out of a bag.  It’s a whole, moist thigh with an attached wing.  White meat a plenty is just below the surface of a thin-crusted skin.  Smothered means gravy and though thin, this brown gravy is flavorful (corn bread would have been useful here).  The collard greens and red rice are excellent, too.

The dessert menu lists only five items, but savvy diners stop reading after bread pudding. This is no pedestrian bread pudding. It’s in the pantheon of great puddings I’ve ever had, in no small part due to its simplicity. Served hot, it’s stuffed with spiced peaches and punctuated with raisins.  The spiced peaches are a revelation, pairing wonderfully with a soft, spongy bread.

GullahCuisine06

Bread Pudding

American cuisine owes much to the Gullah culture.  So much more than Southern cuisine, soul food and even Lowcountry cuisine, it’s great cooking incomparably exemplified by Chef Charlotte Jenkins.

Gullah Cuisine
1717 North Highway 17
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
(843) 881-9076
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Smothered Fried Chicken, Bread Pudding, Collard Greens, Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

Gullah Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Magnolias – Charleston, South Carolina

Magnolias01

Magnolias on a rainy Charleston afternoon

Some four million visitors flock to Charleston, South Carolina every year.  Charleston is the beguiling Southern charmer, a siren which lures guests with its storied history, artistic communities, architectural styles (which range from antebellum to art-deco), pristine beaches (on ninety miles of coastline) and, of course, incomparable Lowcountry cuisine.  Known as the “Holy City” because of the prevalence of churches on the city skyline, the sub-sobriquet “foodies’ heaven” is fitting; however, as songster Steve Miller reminds us in his hit tune Jet Liner, “You know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven.”

A great number of Charleston’s very best restaurants are clustered around the historic district, an area several  times larger and much more crowded than the Santa Fe Plaza.  Getting there is akin to being on a parade route, one with dozens of stop lights.  Arriving is only half the challenge.  Finding an empty parking spot is comparable to finding a car with working eight-track player.  You’ll drive around in circles for a while before finally wandering further out.  When you finally locate that elusive parking spot, you now have to traipse that much further on uneven cobblestone walkways to the restaurant while heat and humidity (or often the case, rain) sap you of energy and enthusiasm.  A restaurant had better be good for what it puts diners through to get there.

Magnolias02

Sourdough bread with a whipped butter

Located in the very heart of the historic district and situated in the site of the original customs house, Magnolias is worth the frustration and the trek. Open since 1990, it is one of the South’s most revered destinations for upscale Southern cuisine, a culinary approach it calls “Uptown/Down South.”  Magnolias is credited widely with helping spur the creative use of fresh seasonal bounty that sparked a revolution in Lowcountry cuisine.  Roadfood founder Michael Stern says it best: “…this restaurant has set standards of classic down south food served with uptown panache.”

A classically elegant fine dining restaurant combining true Southern flair with Charleston charm, Magnolias lives up to its name.  Though too early in the year to imbibe the sweet fragrance of blossoming magnolias, I could still appreciate the glossy leaves someone else would have to rake when they fall.  Freshly cut magnolia branches in clear vases festoon the main dining room and large paintings of magnolias hang on the wall.  An elevated horseshoe-shaped bar with tall stools provides the best vantage point if you’re into people-watching.  The most obvious observation may be that everyone is dressed better than you are.  South Carolinians are remarkably fastidious and ridiculously thin considering almost everything they eat is made with cream and butter.  Hmm, can their svelte physiques possibly be attributed to walking long distances from parking spots to restaurants?

Magnolias03

Blue Crab Bisque
fresh chives

The nattily attired wait staff is professional and on-the-spot with recommendations based on your taste preferences.  While you’re contemplating the menu and the day’s specials, a small loaf of sourdough bread with  a housemade whipped butter arrive, nestled in a white linen napkin.  The sourdough is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.  Because it’s such an excellent bread, it may be a challenge to save a slice or two for dredging up some of the wonderful sauces that will soon decorate your plates.

In that my stay in the Palmetto State was so relatively short (one week), I made it a point to consume as much blue crab bisque as possible. Yeah, that’s the reason.  It has nothing to do with the fact that blue crab is one of nature’s perfect foods (just ask Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate). Magnolias version of blue crab bisque may be the best I’ve had.  It’s served steaming hot and has a rich creaminess redolent with delicious crab meat.  Larry will probably attribute their deliciousness to the fact that these blue crabs migrated from Maryland.

Magnolias04

Down South Egg Roll

Perhaps the most famous (featured even on Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine) appetizer on Magnolias menu is the Down South Egg Roll, a crispy egg roll engorged with spicy tasso (a smoked ham), minced chicken and collard greens served with a moderately piquant red pepper puree, spicy ground mustard and topped with a sweet peach chutney.   These egg rolls have replaced the fabulous duck egg rolls at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro as my very favorite.  The key to maximizing their enjoyment is to ensure every sauce is represented on every bite though these egg rolls are fabulous even sans sauce.

Magnolias is open seven days a week and serves lunch every day but Sunday from 11:30AM to 3:45PM.  Brunch is served on Sundays.  There are significant commonalities between the lunch and dinner menus–not only in the starters, salads and soup menus, but even among the Down South Entrees.  This is a very welcome departure from fine-dining restaurants who demote lunch to overly expensive sandwiches.  One traditionally Southern entree which should be served for every meal (and even snacks) is fried chicken.  Magnolias is among the very best I’ve ever had, on par with Stroud’s in Kansas City.

Magnolias05

Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast
cracked pepper biscuits, mashed potatoes, collard greens, creamed corn, sausage-herb gravy

To honor my Kim, I ordered her very favorite foods, all served on one entree.  Picture a cold December day as the Dallas Cowboys are squandering yet seemingly insurmountable lead to lose another game.  My solace is buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes,  gravy, biscuits and creamed corn.  These comforting foods are all available in one plate at Magnolias.  The buttermilk fried chicken breast is absolute perfection, a large de-boned chicken breast marinated overnight in buttermilk then deep-fried to a golden hue.  The mashed potatoes are partially covered (not submerged as is my preference) with a sausage-herb gravy.  Two cracked pepper biscuits, creamed corn and collard greens round out this plate (and my belly).  This is comfort food at its very finest. 

Dessert (which I ordered only as a public service should you ever need to know what to have) is limited to six items plus a number of ice creams.  Being limited in number is certainly not synonymous with lacking in deliciousness.  The Southern Pecan Pie is fantastic courtesy of South Carolina grown pecans, a bourbon caramel sauce and a topping of vanilla bean ice cream.  As with most pecan pies, this one is almost preternaturally rich, but so addictive, you can’t stop eating it.

Magnolias07

Southern Pecan Pie

In 2010, Charleston was named America’s “Friendliest City” by Travel & Leisure Magazine Two years later, it garnered the magazine’s number one spot for “Fine Dining Restaurants.” Magnolias ranks with the very best restaurants in Charleston, serving memorable meals that beckon for a return visit someday soon.

MAGNOLIAS
185 East Bay Street
Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 577.7771
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 26
COST: $$$
BEST  BET: Blue Crab Bisque, Southern Pecan Pie, Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast, Down South Egg Roll

Magnolias on Urbanspoon