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Gullah Cuisine – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The Lady & Son’s – Savannah, Georgia

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Lady & Sons celebrates the cooking of celebrity chef Paula Deen and her sons

When I told friends and family of my impending visit to Lady & Sons, the Savannah restaurant owned and operated by former Food Network celebrity chef Paula Deen and her scions Bobby and Jamie, I expected a barrage of well-intentioned criticism.  The most “innocent” criticism would have to do with “a cacophony of cackling” and a “chorus of “ya’all” coming from the kitchen.  At least one dissenter, I believed, would accuse me of naivete in thinking the celebrity chefs might actually be present, much less actually preparing my meal.  The most cutting criticism–the one I feared most–would be  an accusation that a visit would actually be abetting racism.

Thankfully everyone to whom I mentioned my visit realized that the nature of any restaurant visit I make is with the express purpose of seeking enjoyment in the dining experience.  As such, you won’t read any mean-spirited personal attacks on this blog besmirching the character of Ms. Deen, who until recent years was as beloved a culinary glitterati as you’d find on the fruited plain.  It would be so easy to pile on, but my stance in doing so has always been right out of John 8:7: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

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Dining room on the third floor of Lady & Sons

Social commentary aside, there is much to be admired about Paula Deen, a true American rags to riches story who surmounted panic attacks and chronic agoraphobia to found a culinary empire that has made her wealthy and famous.  Her catharsis came from her cooking, first with a home-based catering business called The Bag Lady then in January, 1996, with the launch of her own restaurant, The Lady and Sons, in downtown Savannah.  In 1999, USA Today awarded The Lady and Sons its “International Meal of the Year” award.  Her first cookbook soon followed and its success, in turn, led to her first appearance on the QVC shopping channel.  In 2002, she landed her very first Food Network show.

The Lady and Sons and its attached gift store occupy nearly an entire city block in a large, weathered, three-story plus basement, 200-year old brick building on Congress Street with 15,000 square feet of dining, full service bar and office space.   Diners queue up shortly before the restaurant opens. As with many “pilgrimage” restaurants, conversation among those in line centers around what part of the country we’re all from.  There were few, if any, locals in line.  When your name is called, you’re handed a plastic card indicating whether you’re eating on the first or third floor of the restaurant (the second floor and basement are used for banquets).

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Cheddar Biscuit and Hoe Cake

The third floor dining room is meticulous and laid out for optimized efficiency.  The ceiling is arrayed in exposed ductwork and ceiling fans, perhaps the restaurant’s sole attempt at modernity.  Walls are festooned in framed artwork with a country theme.   Whether by design or not, the cynosure of the dining room is the buffet from which fragrant steam emanates and Southern delicacies are displayed.  By my estimate, at least seventy-five percent of the diners made their way, often several times, to the steely trays holding fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens and much more.  When you’re done with the savory portion of the buffet, you order a dessert from the menu.

Should you eschew the all-you-can-eat gurgitator’s fest, there are plenty of attractive options on the lunch and dinner menus.  In fact, none of the buffet items are duplicated on the menu.  As you’re perusing the menu, a server will deposit a Cheddar biscuit and a hoecake on a plate.  There are several condiments on your table, including syrup should you wish to treat your hoecake like a pancake.  If your tastes lean more toward the piquant, douse the hoecake in Paula Deen’s Tabasco-like hot sauce which is quite good.  The Cheddar biscuit needs nothing added thanks to butyraceous qualities that even prevent it from crumbling.

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Fried Green tomatoes

Credit author Fannie Flagg with popularizing fried tomatoes with her 1987 best selling comedy-drama Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.  Fried green tomatoes were pretty much unheard of throughout much of the fruited plain save for the Deep South where they’re practically a religion.  The Lady and Sons have perfected this starter over the years, serving a plate with five lightly coated green tomatoes topped with a roasted red pepper sauce.  The red pepper sauce has a sweet-piquant kick that complements the acidity of the tomatoes perfectly.  A ramekin with a homemade sweet Vidalia onion relish is a flavor contrast to the tomatoes.

During a visit to Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho earlier in the month, we were treated to a wonderful seafood bisque which transported me back to my youth in Massachusetts.  That bisque was so good, it prompted me to seek out its equal during my trip to South Carolina.  The blue crab bisque at The Lady and Sons is close.  As with all great bisques, it’s served with wisps of fragrant steam escaping upward, a preview of its flavor.  Heavy cream and sherry give the bisque its creaminess while an insane amount of blue crab meat gives it an incomparable flavor.

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Cup of crab stew

One of the more popular entrees, according to my server, is a fresh seafood platter offering your choice of shrimp, scallops or oysters, batter-fried or sauteed and served with coleslaw and your choice of sweet potato chips or jelly roll fries garnished with fried-collard greens.  The platter also includes ketchup, cocktail sauce and tartar sauce though you can also apply any of the condiments on your table (hint: that Paula Deen hot sauce is pretty good if you like cayenne.)

Only two things would have made the seafood platter better–doubling the amount of seafood on the plate and making it a true seafood platter by offering it with at least two, preferably three, seafood choices.  The seafood portion size certainly isn’t penurious, but it’s so wonderfully prepared, you’ll want even more.  One of the secrets to great oysters is breading them lightly and frying them to a light, golden sheen.  When you bite into them, you should be able to discern a slight crunch followed by the incomparable, sensuously gooey texture.  The best description of how they should taste I’ve read is, “they taste as if God prepared them.”  These qualities all define the fried oysters at Lady and Sons.

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Fried oysters, coleslaw, jelly roll fries, fried collard greens

Despite eight years of living in the Deep South (Mississippi), jelly roll fries were brand new to me.  They actually resemble fried green tomatoes in that they’re roundish in shape and have a fried golden hue.  They don’t taste like conventional French fries or even fried potatoes, but go very well with the cocktail sauce.  The coleslaw is made with fresh ingredients and very little salad cream.   Best of all, it’s more assertively flavored (thanks to bell pepper, onion, carrot, and parsley) than so many insipid coleslaws.

As in so many Southern restaurants, you won’t find a compendium-like list of desserts at The Lady and Sons.  In fact, there were only four choices, two–pecan pie and key lime pie–of which seem to be de rigueur at all Southern restaurants.  The key lime pie is very good!  It starts with a great foundation in which a Graham cracker crust is paired with slivered almonds, the latter a very pleasant surprise.  The pie filling is redolent with key lime juice, lime zest and sweetened condensed milk.  It’s not quite lip-pursing sour, but offers a discernible tanginess you’ll enjoy very much.

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Key Lime Pie (almond Graham cracker crust)

The American media seems bent on building up cultural icons only to tear them down at some later point.  Only the most resilient and contrite survive having their transgressions made public.  Americans are a forgiving people–perhaps because we have so much to forgive in ourselves–quick to embrace our fallen heroes. I’m pulling for Paula Deen to rebound and resume her place among the pantheon of great American chefs.

The Lady & Son’s
102 West Congress Street
Savannah, Georgia
(912) 233-2600
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fried Oysters, Key Lime Pie, Fried Green Tomatoes, Crab Stew, Cheddar Biscuit, Hoecake

The Lady & Sons on Urbanspoon