Monday, January 28, 2013

Fun Night At Pages Okra Grill And Winterfest 2013 On The Point

It was a busy weekend in Charleston with all the festivities. The Boat Show started on Friday at the Charleston Convention Center, Winterfest at Patriots Point on Saturday, and the worlds largest oyster festival on Sunday at Boone Hall Plantation. If I went to the boat show, I would probably end up buying one. For now, that folly is reserved for the near future. On my radar was the Winterfest and Lowcountry Oyster Festival. So, my weekend plans were set, but an added surprise entered the picture. Meeting a friend at Pages Okra Grill in Mt Pleasant came into the mix. I had been wanting to check out this restaurant for some time now and its location on Coleman Blvd was perfect.

Reservations are not necessary but for larger groups it is expected. The time was set for 6 pm. We were seated immediately upon entrance and handed our menus, which were well-arranged and colorful. We perused the menu while sipping on our drinks, wine for my friend and sweet tea for me, which is my most common selection when I am searching for a quick choice. I was reserving the harder stuff for the Winterfest.

Our choice for the main entree was the Fried Flounder. You can choose between two fillets for $8.99 or one for $6.99. My friend asked, "Is it fresh?" The waitress replied back, "We only serve fresh." "You can always tell fresh fish from fish that is not," my friend noted. The challenge was on, is it or isn't it? We would soon find out. It comes with two hush puppies and a choice of two sides. This is where the fun came in for me. The list consisted of southern sides. I have to admit, I am a Northerner and not overly familiar yet with all the particular southern delicacies. We had a little discussion about okra and collard greens. My friend, Beth, is an okra lover, so I went with her instincts and ordered the fried okra. We parted ways on the collard greens. I chose green beans, and not because I had anything against collard greens. I will venture there on the next opportunity.

We settled into some good conversation and before we knew it, our entrees were delivered. The coating was light and the flounder was flaky. It passed the scrutiny. It was determined to be fresh. Not a single hint of fishiness or the smell of it. The hush puppies were very good, and I can knowledgeably comment on this because I've had hush puppies before. I was pleased with the fried okra and the green beans. My friend confirmed. The final analysis: Beth said, "I am stuffed." And asked me, "How about you?" I smiled and said, "I am satisfied."

Our waitress was cheerful and polite. She engaged herself in conversation by asking me if I brought her a box of chocolates. There is a story there. She kept our glasses full and the table cleared of empty dishes. The interior and decor was simple and undramatic, but pleasant. There is a large outdoor seating area, but on this chilly 40 degree night the inside was the better choice. I will return to Pages Okra Grill, maybe next time to try their breakfast menu. I heard it is good.

The time had come to make the short trip to Patriots Point. It was advertised there would be 25 tons of snow transforming the Lookout Pavilion into a ski lodge. So, I envisioned mounds and mounds of snow, plenty enough for a good northern type snowball fight or a snow angel or two. When we arrived and paid the ten dollars to enter, the 25 tons looked like you could cover a yard with it, and a very small one at that. Granted, the snow was dumped earlier in the day and began melting in the Charleston sun, but 25 tons disappeared that fast? Beth observed, "You are going to have a hard time coming up with something to write about on this event."

So, here it goes. I had a beer, Beth had wine; the bartenders were somewhat stingy on the wine. We listened to dance music and watched the fun seekers do a line dance. Stood by the fire to warm our backsides and listened to more music. At various intervals swayed to the beat and entertained a few dance moves. A Rail Jam demonstration was one of the highlights. Snowboarders slid down a man-made ramp with flashing lights onto a small patch of slushy snow at the bottom. I had another beer, Beth had another wine. Listened to more music and at the end I made one snowball.
This is the thing. I am a simple person and it doesn't take much to keep me happy. I like music and I like dance. More snow would have been ideal. If I wanted to see more snow, earlier would have been wiser. I believe most everybody that came after 8 pm was there for the music, dance, and booze. In the final analysis, I had a great time because I was sharing it with a friend. Hope you enjoy the pictures. I am Looking forward to seeing everyone in warmer weather and this years editions of Party on the Point.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The 30th Annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival At Boone Hall Plantation-The Mighty Oyster Returns

The mighty oyster
It never occurred to me the warmest months of the year, May through August in the northern hemisphere, do not contain the letter "r", but all the other months do. Actually, I never really thought about it, until now. Why this sudden realization? It's oyster time in Charleston and the 30th Annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation will take place Sunday, January 27th. In the spirit of this well-liked festival, coined as the world's largest, I decided to do some oyster research and found this interesting fact.

It was once believed you should not eat oysters in any month that doesn't have an "r" in it. The truth is that oysters are safe to eat all year round; they just aren't as good in the summer months, when the waters are warm. This is when the oysters spawn, and their flesh turns milky and soft. Winter is a better time to eat oysters because that's when the water is coldest and the oysters are firmer, plumper and the flavor is best. Thus, this explains why you don't see any oyster festivals in the summertime.

My take on the consumption of the slimy bivalves is you either like them or you don't. I am in the don't category, unless they are coated and fried. What possessed the first individual to have even considered consuming the slippery, white matter is a mystery. Perhaps, that person saw a sea gull pick one up, fly into the air, drop it on a rock, and then eat its fleshy parts. Curiosity being what it is, that person decided to give it a try and loved it. To tell the truth, I have been in the Charleston area seven years and haven't as of yet indulged in the oyster frenzy. Maybe, it's time I give the roast a try.

Roman emperors paid for them by their weight in gold, Casanova and Cleopatra believed in their powers as an aphrodisiac, Abraham Lincoln had parties where only oysters were served, and Native Americans voraciously consumed them. The peninsula of Charleston was known as Oyster Point and White Point Gardens got its name from the piles of oyster shells found there. Charleston's oysters grow naturally in clusters, but between the years of 1830 and 1869 a high quality oyster appeared on the scene that did not grow in clusters. It was called a Millpond Oyster and it grew as a single, large oyster. Millponds were used by the Charleston lumber industry before steam power appeared. Logs would sink to the bottom and the oyster spat would attach themselves and grow. When the use of millponds were abandoned, this delicacy disappeared from Charleston markets.

View Larger Map

It is believed the best oysters in Charleston come from the Bulls Bay area north of Mt. Pleasant. The reason being the bay's topography. Bulls Bay is a large but shallow stretch of water. The entire bay is open to the ocean; the amount of water that can flow in and out is not limited by narrow inlets. The tides flush the bay and surrounding creeks with each lunar cycle creating a convergence of high salinity water with the incoming tides and an eradicating of low salinity rain water and runoff with each outgoing tide. Saltwater makes for good oysters and great festivals.

The Lowcountry Oyster Festival has been named one of the "top 20 events in the southeast." Over 80,000 pounds of the slimy mollusks will be made available to be shucked and eaten by over an estimated 10,000 visitors. There will be "Oyster Shucking" and "Oyster Eating" Contests. JetBlue will be giving away tickets every hour on the hour and will be good from February 28, 2013 - February 28, 2014. If you are not an oyster-lover there will be a food court setup featuring 8 different Charleston area restaurants. There will be live music on the main stage, wine, a selection of domestic and imported beers. A Children's Area, hosted by Pluff Mudd Circus, including jugglers, aerial artists, and bounce castles will be on site. It starts at 10:30 am. The morning for Sunday looks to be cool, around 40 degrees, but it will warm up to a high of 58 degrees. It closes at 5:00 pm. General admission is $12.

Boone Hall Plantation scenery
Charleston residents love their oysters, but they love their boats too. This weekend is the Charleston Boat Show at the Charleston area Convention Center, January 25-27. General admission on Friday is $5 and $9 Saturday and Sunday. For all the information go to Charleston Boat Show.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A June Day In January-A Charleston Beach On A Third Thursday

Breech Inlet and the Boathouse Restaurant
It was third Thursday, January. The morning was Charleston sunny and warm. The past few days have been June like in weather, but things can change quickly. A life lesson I have learned these past couple of months, and it is especially true when it comes to the weather. So, my plan for the day was to make the journey to my favorite beach area on the Isle of Palms called Breech Inlet, a swift moving stretch of water separating the Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. I enjoy watching the kite surfers navigate the calmer waters in the Bath on a breezy day. I have over the years indulged in the practice of releasing bottles containing messages with an email address included into the outgoing currents to see where the salty waters would carry them. Thus far no responses have been received.

I will spare you the total sum of mundane moments of this third Thursday, beginning with the traditional practices associated with my morning routine of preparation for launching me into the outer spaces of the day. I was unaware of an approaching cold front, until a quick visit to a friends house informed me of the expected change due to arrive later in the day. For lunch, I stopped at Coastal Coffee Roasters in Summerville and had roasted turkey topped with swiss cheese piled on a croissant for lunch with a side of friendly coffee house chat. Always great seeing my close friends at CCR.
Isle of Palms

The beach at Breech Inlet was fairly empty, three other people and two dogs, not including the occasional walkers. There was a nice breeze, but the ocean waters were strangely calm. The waves gently rolled onto the beach. The words of a 1977 song came to me while contemplating over pleasant thoughts and imaginations as I gazed out over the blue waters. "Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me" was the title that played in my mind and these words.

"I look to the sea,
Reflections in the waves spark my memory,
Some happy, some sad,
I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had,
We lived happily forever, so the story goes,
But somehow we missed out on the pot of gold
But we'll try best that we can to carry on."
Isle of Palms
The words "carry on" struck an emotional string as I reflected on a recent, life-altering event resulting in a renewed conviction. We must take every opportunity that is presented to us each day to share something good with those we have the occasion to reach. I took pictures and wrote messages in the sand. I unfolded my sports chair at the water's edge and tossed the bottle with the message into the strong outgoing tide. I watched it disappear into the distant surf, carrying with it the hope of achieving the desired purpose. The colorful kites of three surfers soared in the balmy breezes across the inlet in the surf of Sullivan's Island. But the skies were beginning to darken out beyond Charleston. The predicted cold front was approaching. It was time to go.
Vacation house on Isle of Palms
It was Third Thursday, and that meant party time in Summerville. By the time I arrived downtown for the festivities, the air had cooled considerably and the rains were descending. It seems as though a pattern has set in these past couple of months. This was the second month in a row it had rained on Third Thursday.

I started the night at Accent on Wine where friends were already sipping on wine and slurping specialty beers at the bar. I sat next to a woman who was smartly dressed in black and red, killing some time before a late day business appointment. She was a very out-going person who shared some humorous stories from her college days and revealed being a newlywed. That is just the way it is when you visit Accent on Wine. Conversations come as easy as Sunday morning. Every Tuesday is wine tasting night with a twist, so come on over and share in the fun.

Next stop was Marigolds, a locally popular, family owned boutique selling one of a kind antiques and exclusive home decor located on the end of Short Central. My daughter, who lives in Ohio, was interested in purchasing a vintage travel poster she had seen on her last visit. It was a poster of Paris. Getting it to Ohio was the challenge, and arrangements were considered. Despite the earlier rain, the owners said they had a good night. Everyone who visited the store bought something.

I ended the days activities where it began, at Coastal Coffee Roasters. It was open mic night. If you can sing, if you can play, and you have the oysters to do it, the mic is yours, not including yours truly. My singing career recently took a hit when that unexpected event altered my voice box. I won't be hitting those high notes for awhile. It's not karaoke, you should have some talent of a sort to participate.

It was a good day, but any day spent on the beach, especially in January, is a good day. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Monday, January 14, 2013

High Cotton Restaurant In Charleston During Restaurant Week 2013 -Great Dining Experience With White Gables Residents

I had a change in plan for Charleston's Restaurant Week. Sermets Downtown was to be first on my list of restaurants, but I received an invitation to join a group of White Gablers at the downtown restaurant High Cotton. So, I couldn't pass it up. High Cotton is part of a collection of unique restaurants owned and operated by Maverick Southern Kitchens. Located in the heart of the French Quarter on East Bay Street, it is surrounded by the best of historic Charleston.

The words "high cotton" is an old southern idiom going back to the cotton plantation days of yesteryear. When the cotton plants grew high, it meant a good crop and good times were ahead. It was also easier to pick, not requiring the picker to stoop down to low. "High Cotton" was also the title of a country song by Alabama from their 1989 album "Southern Star." The narrator of the song reminiscences about his youth and how his younger days were good. With this in mind, "The Best of Times" is behind the restaurants name High Cotton, billed as "reflecting fine dining at its best, projecting wine and food professionalism, low-country cuisine at its finest, and a classic high society comforting decor."

High Cotton ranked number 18 in Tripadviser's reviews of Charleston restaurants. Urbanspoon's list of Best of Charleston put High Cotton at 15. On Opentable's Diner's Choice Award for "most booked," High Cotton came in at six. The Charleston City Paper's Best of Charleston 2012 honored such restaurants as Fig, Hall's Chophouse, Hominy Grill and others, but High Cotton was not anywhere to be found in any category. Southern Living's favorite choices listed McCrady's as number one and seven other restaurants, but again High Cotton was missing. So, High Cotton had their work cut out for them as to where I would put them on my list.

You couldn't ask for better weather on a January day in Charleston. Keri and I arrived downtown around 4:30 pm. The streets in the French Quarter were lively. After a street by street search for a parking spot that yielded no results, we settled for the Vendue Range parking garage. Reservations were set for 5:30 pm, so we had an hour to burn. We took a short walk to the Fleet Landing Restaurant to sit by the water and have a couple of drinks. The tide was out, so the smell of pluff mud was strong but the drinks were not, light on the alcohol. The time went by quickly and we headed back to East Bay Street and High Cotton.
High Cotton Bar with Gerry, Keri, Teddy, and Marilee
While waiting to be seated at our table, we introduced ourselves to other members of our party we didn't know and had a cocktail in the step-up lounge. The Charleston Cocktail I sipped was pleasant. Keri had her usual Pinot Grigio. A band was playing light dinner music as we watched the Ravens play the Broncos. Once all twelve members of our party arrived we were directed to our table, which was appropriately arranged with the necessary utensils you would expect to find at a classy restaurant, menus placed at each seat. The waiter fielded our questions pertaining to the 3 for $30 menus, graciously describing in detail the ingredients of some of the more unusual appetizers and entrees like the Pan Seared Stuffed Quail and Bacon Wrapped Rabbit Loin. The waiter repeated, "Bacon wrapped, need I say more." Both dishes contained a stuffing accentuated with sausage. Those of our party who indulged in these two selections were fully pleased.
Pan Seared Stuffed Quail
Kurios Farm Bibb Lettuce
My appetizer choice was Kurios Farm Bibb Lettuce with spicy pumpkin seeds, goat cheese, red onions, marinated baby tomatoes, and tarragon vinaigrette. The goat cheese caught my attention and the vinaigrette was gratifying. Keri was more audacious in selecting the Stuffed Quail, which surprised me since she didn't care for sausage. For our entrees we both chose the Roasted Atlantic Flounder with corn and crowder pea ragu, pear, radish and watercress salad. The fish was suitably flaky and cooked in Joseph Drouhin Macon Villages wine, the perfect accompaniment. Our meal was topped off with a Warm Honeycrisp Apple Tart. James, who sat across from me, enjoyed the Rabbit served on top of Geechie Boy grits, which aroused my curiosity, the grits that is, and the name Geechie Boy. He tentatively allowed me to indulge my curiosity with a knife tip of his grits. "Not too much," he jokingly quipped.
Roasted Atlantic Flounder
The room where we ate was comfortable and inviting. The ceilings were high, creating a feeling of spaciousness. Numerous ceiling fans with palm leaf paddle blades turned overhead. The building's large windows added to the feeling of openness, offering a view of East Bay Street. The lighting was just right. The food presentation was deliciously appealing and harmonized. The staff, from bartender to waiter, were superb. Benjamin was engaging, diligent and attentive. I have seen a waiter scrape the crumbs off the table only one other time in my dining experience, and that was at a five-star rated restaurant. Water glasses were always full. Never felt hurried, even after the meal was completed. I was delightfully pleased with my experience at High Cotton, a good start to Restaurant Week.
Benjamin the waiter, Gerry, Teddy, Keri, Marilee, Paul, Mike,
 Lisa, Brandy, James, Marsha, and Tom. Yours truly behind
the camera.

I had a wonderful time making new acquaintances with fellow White Gablers and getting reacquainted with other previous White Gable acquaintances. The conversation was both amusing and informative-ranging from raising kids, to funny life experiences, to solving ongoing social issues. A surprising connection was made when I found out some members of our party were Cleveland Browns fans. Six of our group ended the night across the street at Charleston Cooks, a kitchen retail shop that also offers cooking classes, and from there the Vendue Rooftop Bar. We were in high cotton.

In conclusion, I learned two new things. This was the first time I heard of the name Geechie Boy. The Geechie Boy Mill is local and located on Edisto Island. This keeps with the Lowcountry tradition of using only local ingredients to maintain and achieve the authentic Charleston cuisine and dining experience. The second thing I learned was the proper way to put a napkin on my lap. I never really gave much thought to it. I always just fully unfolded the napkin and spread it across my legs like a blanket, that is, when I even used a napkin. I was instructed to fold the napkin into thirds and then place it on my lap. Thank you Keri, you may yet turn me into a cultural socialite.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

One Charleston Hotel Ranks Number Two Among The World's Best-Plus A Hotel Horror Story

Rosen Plaza Hotel pool
I have always loved staying at hotels and resorts. The moment I drop my suitcase on the floor of the room, it is confirmed to me that I am finally on vacation. Then, the very first thing I check out, even before I crack open my suitcase, is the pool. In fact, the quality of the pool can make or break a deal. For the most part, I have been very satisfied with the hotels I've stayed at. There have been only a few occasions where I've made a quick exit because of disappointing conditions. You can call them hotel horror stories.

There was this one stay in Orlando, Fla. We had received an invitation to check out a time share. Upon arrival, we received our papers and hotel assignment, which was an Extended Stay Hotel, a chain I had no experience with. I had an initial uneasy feeling about the hotel when we pulled into the parking lot and it turned into a queasy feeling when I saw the bulletproof glass that encased the reception desk. We signed in and took possession of the key. We entered the room and the queasy feeling turned into a revolting feeling. The pillow cases on the bed were a dirty shade of white. When we pulled back the bed covers, there were little brown dots on the bed sheet, and they were moving, and so was I, right out the door past the bulletproof reception desk and to the car.
Rosen Plaza Hotel
It was late, so finding an alternate hotel was difficult and costly. The next day, at the time share tour, we wisely voiced our displeasure and disgust. They compensated with amenities and two free nights at the Rosen Plaza Hotel on International Drive, an award-winning 832 room hotel with a beautiful pool. I soothed away the previous day's discontent in the hot tub next to the pool.
First World Hotel
When I vacationed in the city of "Lost Wages", I stayed at the third largest hotel in the world, the MGM Grand. The MGM  Grand boasts a total of 6852 rooms. It is topped out by another Las Vegas hotel, the number one Venetian/Palazzio Megacenter, with 8108 rooms and suites. In fact, of the top 10 biggest hotels in the world, Las Vegas is home to six. The First World Hotel in Malaysia came in at number four with 6118 rooms and was at one time the largest, but despite giving up number one status, it by far still remains the most colorful hotel in the world. A Russian hotel named Hotel Izmaylovo came in second. With an abundance of rooms available at any of these behemoths, booking should never be an issue. But does bigger mean better?
Copacabana Palace
Don CeSar Beach Resort
None of these hotels appeared on Five Star Alliance's 2012 list of Top 30 Luxury Hotels and Resorts worldwide, but a Charleston hotel did, and why not. Since Charleston was named the number one destination in the world by Conde Nast Traveler, it is only fitting one of its hotels appears on a list somewhere even though it comes in as a virtual lightweight with only 360 rooms and suites. This Charleston hotel, respectively honored, came in at number 2 on the list, beating out some of the absolute best and most luxurious hotels in the world. No small accomplishment when you consider some of the prestigious names it beat out, like The Carlyle in New York, Waldorf Astoria in Chicago, St Regis Grand in Rome, Copacabana Palace in Rio De Janeiro, Viceroy in Bali, and Don CeSar Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach to name some.

Charleston Place
Charleston Place is more than just a hotel, it is a complex including a collection of world-famous stores, a Mobil Four-Star restaurant, and a spa. It was the single initiative that set in motion the beginning of the revival of Charleston. On the list of the top 10 hotels in the Holy City, it is number one.

Charleston Place is like a time machine. Housed within its brick exterior is the Charleston of today. Step out its doors-and your imagination will take you wherever you want, past or present.

There are no ghost stories that I know of associated with the hotel, unlike other hotels and inns in the historic district. But give it time, maybe a former JCPenney employee will appear looking for some closure(Charleston Place is built on the lot where a JCPenney once stood). Consider some of the special offers and packages being offered during 2013.

During Charleston's Restaurant Week, other top hotels are offering discount rates. Charlestowne Hotels will be offering up to 20% and 30% off, which include six downtown hotels such as Andrew Pinckney Inn, French Quarter Inn,  Harbourview Inn, The Elliot House Inn, King Charles Inn, and The Society House. For the complete details go to Charlestowne Hotels. Charming Inns are a collection of these downtown hotels: John Rutledge House, Fulton Lane Inn, Wentworth Mansion, Kings Courtyard Inn, and Circa 1886 Restaurant. For the complete details go to Charming Inns.

Do you have a hotel horror story of your own? Feel free to share it in "Comments".

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Charleston's Restaurant Week Runs January 10-20, 2013-Come Dine With Me

Another year has come to an end. How swiftly time passes-made new friends, shared good times. Much to be thankful for, especially family, and life, considering how quickly it can change from one moment to the next, involuntarily surprising you with a whole new set of circumstances you did not expect or plan on. I had such an experience closing out the year that temporarily put me out of commission. But to succeed at weathering the storm, I had to adapt to the new set of circumstances and bolster my bridge to the future.

It is a new year and I am ready to get back into the swing of things. What better way than participating in Charleston's Restaurant Week, a celebration of the world-renowned cuisine of the Lowcountry. The 10 day feast starts Thursday, Jan. 10 and runs through Jan. 20. As in the past, participating restaurants will offer fixed priced menus consisting of three items for one price-3 items for $20, $30 or $40. For all you culinary techies out there, a new feature launched by The Greater Charleston Restaurant Association is available for your convenience. A new smartphone app that gives information about restaurant events, a tip calculator and parking assistance. Go to your app store and search for Charleston Restaurant Association or CRA to download.

In celebration of Charleston's Restaurant Week, I have compiled some interesting facts about the restaurant industry for you to chew on:

1) Does this apply to you? One-half of all adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives, and one-third got their first job experience in a restaurant. As for me, I was not one of them. My first job was working as an assembler at a company that manufactured x-ray equipment. As for people who become restaurants owners, 80% reported their first job in the restaurant industry was an entry-level position. I guess you could say, it is in their blood.
2) Charleston Restaurant Week is such a huge success because 93% of consumers say they enjoy going to restaurants. In addition, 2 out of 5 consumers say they are not using restaurants as often as they would like.
3) On what day of the week do you favor to eat out? The most popular day to eat out in the U.S. is Saturday. Second is Friday, third is Sunday. Monday is the slowest day for restaurants. When was the last time you ate out on a Monday with your family? If you want to avoid long waits, Monday looks like the obvious choice. Now, if everybody changed their dining day preferences to Monday, Sunday and Friday could get bounced. I just don't see that happening to Saturday.
4) The restaurant industry is the second largest employer in the United States. More restaurant employees are women than men. More restaurant employees are single than married. Guys, forget the bars, become a restaurant employee.
5) The word "restaurant" comes from the French word "restaurant." I wondered if this was true, so I entered the English word "restaurant" into Google Translate to get the French equivalent and voila, "restaurant" appeared. According to the popular story, a Paris chef named Boulanger in 1765 began offering a choice of nourishing soups for passersby to sit down and enjoy. On a board hanging over the door, he painted the word "Restaurant," meaning "to restore."

Last year, I visited the Husk and it was my best dining experience of 2012. You can read about it in my article "The Husk Restaurant In Charleston-Great Southern Gourmet Experience And Beautiful Location." I am looking forward to the same in 2013. The list of fine restaurants to visit in Charleston is long and celebrated. Some of the restaurants I have on my radar for Restaurant Week are Sermets Downtown, Mellow Mushroom Downtown, Circa 1886, and Blu Restaurant and Bar. For the complete list of participating restaurants, click on The List for Charleston's Restaurant Week. I look forward to seeing you the week of January 10 to 20. When you see me, be sure to say, "Bon appetit."