Thursday, July 25, 2013

Walking On The Waters Of Shem Creek-Stand Up Paddleboard Style

I parked my truck near the Water's Edge on Shem Creek and made the necessary preparations. I put my keys and cell phone into a plastic bag, grabbed my sun glasses, and bank card. The rental shack of Nature Adventures Outfitters is attached to Mt. Pleasant Seafood. It would be my first time paddleboarding.

I signed up for the three hour rental for $28 and was instructed to wait on the outdoor carpeted area next to tables stacked with life jackets. "Are you an experienced paddleboarder or is this your first time?" the attendant inquired. "First time," I excitedly responded. "Pick out a life jacket and wait for the guide to give you some tips." A young couple and myself would be paddling solo. The guide was giving final instructions to the group ahead of us.

It was now our turn. The guide instructed me to raise my arm as high as I could and told me to bend my wrist down. He adjusted an oar according to that height. He did the same for the couple. He demonstrated the fundamentals of proper paddling and showed us how to raise ourselves to a standing position on the board. "Does anyone have electronics on them?" he asked. "I do," I said and showed him the plastic bag containing my keys and cell phone. He pulled out a blue pouch with a snap on it, put the plastic bag into it and instructed me on how to roll it up to waterproof it. He snapped it to my life jacket. We were now ready to embark on our adventure.

We went down a ramp covered with pluff mud-soaked carpets to the edge of the creek, which was six feet lower than high tide levels. It was low tide. We proceeded to mount the boards one at a time starting in a kneeling position. With the water levels so low, standing would have been trickier. I pushed off with my paddle into the gentle current and pointed the board towards Charleston Bay.

For now, I wasn't confident enough to stand up. I remained kneeling and experimented with the proper paddling basics. After a few strokes, I was comfortable with my technique and picked up my speed. The board glided over the water. There was a strong wind coming in from the bay that made paddling more strenuous. Under the present circumstances, I decided to take pictures on my return, with the wind at my back. Cruising past the restaurants, shrimp boats, and the end of the boardwalk, I entered the open waters with Crab Bank Island straight ahead, my first planned destination. Thank goodness, the boat traffic was light.

As I neared the island, the chatter of the feisty gulls grew louder. Ten feet in front of me an enormous figure rose from the water. To my surprise, it was a manatee. My encounter with the lumbering giant of the coastal waters was brief. It slipped below the surface out of sight, but not forgotten. The tip of my paddleboard grazed the shore of the island as I kept a watchful eye for its reappearance. It had parted company, but forever etched in my memory.

The pelicans were indifferent to my presence, but the gulls danced and voiced their disapproval. I soaked in the aura of Charleston's coastline and began to take pictures. I was joined by two other paddleboarders, one was a local and the other was from Washington DC. Shortly after, the young couple arrived. We sat on our boards and shared some friendly, southern style pleasantries. I was the last to leave the island. It was time for me to take my paddleboarding to the next level, standing up.

The stiff breeze blissfully nudged me along. The return to Shem Creek was quicker. I removed my cell phone from the pouch and began to click away. Dolphins effortlessly swam past no more than four feet away. I floated next to the massive shrimpers, cruised along side tour boats, sat on the floating docks by the boardwalk and people watched with my feet on the board, briefly saw another manatee, and waved to tourists on the decks of the restaurants and bars.

With the low tide, the underbelly of Shem Creek's dock system was exposed. A skeletal labyrinth of pillars both old and new, some fractured by the wear and tear of age and the salty life. It was both eerie and beguiling. A tangled decoupage of wood, stone, roots, netting, and marine debris partially covered with crustaceans common to the area.

I would circle back at the bridge and let the incoming current carry me for another glimpse of the Shem Creek waterfront. Even though I had seen it many times before, I was now seeing it from a dolphin's vantage point. I did that several times before turning into my entry point thoroughly gratified with my paddleboard excursion.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Trials And Triumphs Of A Lowcountry Walkabout

Sunday, I went on a Lowcountry walkabout. The day began with plans of fishing at Bulow Landing. A friend told me about the place and shared stories of the fish he caught there. The ideal time is two hours before high tide and two hours after. I packed a couple of sandwiches, a drink, got in my truck and headed to Bees Ferry Rd and Savannah Blvd where I searched for shrimp. After trying to locate a bait place, I ended up purchasing a half-pound at the Publix off of Savannah Blvd.

Bulow Landing is a paved boat ramp on Rantowles Creek, also popular with paddlers. When I arrived, the tide was already heading out. The ideal time was missed. Despite this set back, I decided to make the most of it. I baited my hook and tossed it into the fast moving current. It moved swiftly up the creek, making it necessary for me to reel it back. I tossed it in a second time. On this attempt, it got hung up on an oyster bed. My only option was to break the line. In the process, my rod tip broke off. In this short span of time, things were not exactly working out for the best. I rebaited and tossed it in again. It started to rain. After a few more casts and somewhat wet, I packed it in and headed out back onto Savannah Blvd.

I recalled seeing a sign pointing the way to Kiawah, Seabrook and Beachwalker Park while searching for bait earlier. It was at that moment I decided to turn at recalled sign onto Main Rd and follow the gray snack to wherever it would take me.

The spotty rains had passed for the moment and the sun was shining. The first notable landmark I ventured onto was the Limehouse Bridge over the Stono River. I was tempted to make the turn to Limehouse Landing located just below the bridge to try my luck again, but I resisted and pressed on.

Main Rd became State Rd, which ended at a traffic circle where Kiawah Island Pkwy led to Beachwalker Dr and the beach access. To my dismay, parking was $8, but I made a deal with the person at the parking booth and was able to park for free. I told her I would only be there a 1/2 hour at most. From the parking area, the view of Kiawah River was beautiful. The wooden walkway to the beach was picturesque. The beach was spacious, and this should be of no surprise, excellent for beachwalking, but I wasn't there to beachwalk. I stuck my feet in the water and took pictures. On the way off the beach, I stepped on some nasty beach prickers while trying to get one more good shot of the river. Ouch. I exited with a wave of thanks to the booth attendant. Next stop, Freshfields Village.

The Village is an eclectic island oasis of shops and restaurants located at the crossroads of Kiawah, Seabrook and Johns Island. There are 500 large trees, including over 200 palm trees adorning its streets and landscape. All of the trees were transplanted from the Coastal Islands. It has a man-made lagoon stocked with two alligators considered village "mascots". At present, The Andell Inn is under construction and slated to open early 2014. The hotel will have 100 rooms starting at $250 a night. I just might consider a stay during its grand opening.

Driving back from Kiawah, cruising in and out of the broadening shadows of the old live oaks lining the road, I made a quick stop at Angel Oak. While I was taking pictures, a young man standing nearby in awe of the sprawling tree summed it up when he said, "I have never seen anything like it." Angel Oak looks like a giant octopus covering 17,200 square feet of real estate and from tip to tip its longest branch is 187 ft. At 500 yrs young, it has survived hurricanes, civil war and everything else the Lowcountry has been able to throw at it.

On the road again, I finally did make the turn to Limehouse Landing. I fished with an watchful eye on the horizon. Dark clouds relentlessly moved in from the southwest with lightning and the threat of heavy rains. No luck fishing. It was 5:30 pm. It was the end to my triumphant Lowcountry walkabout.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Fish House On Patriots Point-Superb Food And A View Second To None

It was to be an unusual day for me. I would be stepping out of my comfort zone. Store hopping was in the works. This is a rare event and the kind of activity I generally shy away from, but is at times knowingly necessary. There was this space that needed filling and an idea for a wall arrangement. I was joined by a friend who, by the way, loves to shop and is both talented and knowledgeable when it comes to designing spaces. Coleman Blvd in Mt. Pleasant was to be our destination, a mecca of antique stores.

The first order of business with the noon hour approaching was food. Mixing some pleasure with the business of the day was also part of the plan, but an ordinary lunch it would not be. Coleman Blvd is also a gateway to a mecca of outstanding water-side eateries and watering holes. The Fish House for one, Patriots Point's newest culinary attraction and the first to come in view while crossing the Cooper River from Charleston to Mt. Pleasant via the Ravenel Bridge.

The Fish House has been open for a little over a month and has created plenty of buzz since. From atop the bridge, the view of the restaurant on the Point, in the distance, was impressive, but standing on location, at the restaurant's waterfront setting, the view was even more extraordinary.

We entered the restaurant. The rooftop bar was our desired destination but upon arrival we found out it would not be open to patrons until 3 pm. We were so interested in having lunch in an open-air setting. As we mulled over the options, the bartender on duty heard our conversation with the hostess and offered his assistance. He summoned the manager and had the roll-up windows, which were presently down, opened. We were seated at our table fully satisfied with the warm Charleston Bay breeze surrounding us. The bartender offered to whip me up a special island drink. I accepted and the server delivered the concocted Rum Runner and my friend's Cranberry Vodka.

According to the rules for proper use of napkins, I appropriately laid it in my lap. My friend, very fussy about proper etiquette, was impressed. We sipped our drinks, soaked in the awesome view, and surveyed the lunch menu. My friend inquired of the server, "I'm interested in the Fish Sandwich. What kind of fish is it?" "It is mahi-mahi," answered the server. "I'll take it." I was going to keep it light and selected the Caesar Salad. I normally wouldn't choose salad as a main dish. I'll blame it on the sea air or maybe I wasn't really that hungry after snacking through the morning. Regardless, I am glad I did. You don't hear me use the adjective "superb" often. In this case, it is appropriate.

The Caesar Salad was a dish of prosciutto-wrapped romaine lettuce hearts, parmesan cheese tulle and sourdough croutons. The prosciutto was a pleasantly mouth-watering touch and the whole wrap appeared to be slightly charred, which gave it a smoky flavor. I savored every slice. Yes, I used a knife to eat a salad. My friend said the fish sandwich was very good.

The restaurant's numerous large windows and high ceilings give the seating areas an open, airy atmosphere. The wood beams, black lights and black fans hang from above in contrast to the lighter ceiling. Pictures and replicas of local saltwater specimens are everywhere, reminding you of the reason you are here, a good fish dinner. The historic Charleston skyline, the USS Yorktown, and the Charleston Harbor Resort Marina can be seen from literally every table and the rooftop bar's view is second to none. A point of interest-The bar top on the first floor is made from broken bottles of Sky Blue Vodka. It's an awesome centerpiece to gather around for a cocktail.


The staff from first contact to receipt was hospitable, friendly and helpful. The bartender went above and beyond his duties and that impressed me. Finally, thank you to Charles Arena, Jr. and the kitchen staff for an excellent culinary experience. I will be returning for the dinner menu.

We spent more money in the Fish House store and then bid farewell to Captain Morgan. Next stop, Shem Creek and the Water's Edge. We sat at a table next to the docks and watched the dolphin, the paddleboarders, and boaters while sipping on one more Rum Runner. I was now primed and ready to take on the exhausting task of store hopping for decorative accessories.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Oscar's in Summerville-A Place To Be Or Be Seen For Dinner

When talking about restaurants in Summerville, Oscar's invariably enters the conversation. By those who have eaten there, the references are for the most part complimentary. In my investigation of the reviews compiled by Tripadvisor, the majority proved to be largely positive. Great food and excellent service were common descriptives. Conversely, a common ingredient found in the very small number of negative reviews was over-priced. So, up until recently, I only knew of Oscar's renowned reputation through those passing conversations and what I found on the internet.

One most recent Wednesday evening, while pondering over a verbal list of local restaurants with a friend, Oscar's entered the mix by way of suggestion from my friend after I hesitantly contemplated Firewater Grille as our final choice. Since I had never eaten at Oscar's, I thought this was the opportunity to find out for myself whether it would measure up to the hype. My friend added, "It is more expensive." Despite the caution, we made our way over to its location at 207 West 5th North Street.

Oscar's has built up a reputation with Summerville residents for some time. It has been at this location for over thirty years. We parked the truck and entered the black shuttered, tan colored building. The young hostess was cordial and friendly. I asked if there was any outdoor seating. There was none, but she mentioned what the restaurant referred to as the porch and asked if we wanted to check it out before deciding. She led us to a simple room with a step-up section furnished with smaller table settings than what was in the lower section. Fans turned silently overhead. We accepted and the menus were placed before us on the table.

For a starter, I engaged in some light banter with the server over the specialty drinks. Sometimes, specialty drinks tend to be light on the alcohol. So, I jokingly expressed my hopes that if I were to choose one of their specialty drinks, the alcohol would be noticeable. She assured me it would. What else could she say. The proof would be in the drinking. I chose a mixed drink containing kahlua and vanilla vodka called Vanilla Paradise for $6.50. My friend chose wine. We surveyed the menu choices and the prices.

Upon the servers return with the drinks, we inquired about the different entrees, which she willingly addressed. I chose the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast served with Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese and Speckled Butter Beans for $15. My friend chose the grilled Chicken Breast with a Hollandaise Sauce and two sides for $15. With the picks out of the way, I took a sip of my drink. It was pour-fect. I nodded my approval. The alcohol content was proven with the passing of time and I was satisfied with the resultant affect.

In regard to my entree, the buttermilk coating was not dry or soggy. The chicken was juicy and tender. The Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese was surprisingly tasty. The Speckled Butter Beans were sufficiently satisfying but nothing I would write home about.

I did not get the opportunity to experience the main dining room. I did briefly peek into one of the dining areas while we waited upon the hostess. The atmosphere appeared pleasant. The furnishings were graceful and consistent with the age of the establishment. We walked through the room with the bar on the way to the porch. It exuded a warm, ambient quality, great for nurturing a drink and light conversation. The porch, where we sat, had half windows all the way around. It was less crowded yet somewhat louder since there was a large group seated not far from us, but we were there by our own choice. We would have rethought our decision to sit in the porch.

I can say to my local friends, I have experienced Oscar's. It was delightfully satisfying. The portions were adequate and the service suffice, but for that price range I would personally choose restaurants in Charleston. I am not saying I wouldn't return to Oscar's if at some point in the future there would be an invitation. I invariably cater to the allure to visit Charleston.

 For an upscale culinary experience in Summerville, Oscar's is the place. It has and will remain a favorite among its more loyal Summerville residents. It has thirty years of hometown experience and bears the logo, Summerville's place to be and be seen. So, if you are considering a visit, go to Oscar's menu for a sample of their dinner offerings and prices. Open 11am to 10pm.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Ordinary On King Street-An Oyster Hall Ernest Hemmingway Would Fancy

Paris café Le Dome
In the 1920's, Ernest Hemmingway was in Paris. He sat at a cafe and ordered a plate of oysters and a glass of wine. After consuming the mollusks and vintage he described the experience. He wrote, "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

It was this passage that sparked Jon Rowley's passion for oysters. As consultant to restaurants and seafood companies, he has received national marketing awards and considerable media coverage for restaurant oyster programs and promotions he has initiated. He is also credited with coining the word "merroir".

"Merroir" is used to describe an oyster's tasty relationship to the briny water it lives in. It is a twist on the French word "terroir" which refers to the unique flavors and qualities that a growing region imparts on the products raised there, as with grapes and wines.

"Merroir" brings to mind another observation penned by Tom Robbins, "Eating a raw oyster is like French kissing a mermaid." Alas, I can only imagine. When it comes to French kissing a mermaid or more precisely slurping oysters, I am a virgin. I have been to the oyster festivals in Charleston and watched people voraciously consume mountains of the beloved crustaceans, but I have resisted its affections. I like to chew my food.

Either way, "merroir" is a word associated with a new oyster hall in Charleston, The Ordinary. Its address is the once-upon-a-time Bank of America building on upper King Street built in 1929 renovated. Hall is a fitting designation for this fairly new American brasserie considering it has 22-foot ceilings. The massive bank vault door that once secured the money remains as an eye catching centerpiece. It separates the raw bar and the kitchen.

Chef Mike Lata speaks of "merroir" as he describes the oysters found in South Carolina's waters known for their briny, juicy burliness and rarely found outside this area. Two local oysters served are the Capers Blades and Otter Island wilds. Caper Blades are grown in Bull's Bay and Otter Island wilds are harvested around untouched Otter Island located between Edisto Beach and Hunting Island.

One notable difference between the two oysters is their shape. Capers Blades have sharp and elongated shells and Otter Island wilds are rounder and very flat. A second difference is where "merroir" comes in. The taste of each oyster is related to the waters where it is harvested. The Otter Island oyster is "considered by many to be one of the best wild oysters to ever be harvested in South Carolina characterized as being meaty, salty yet sweet, full flavored South Carolina oyster." The question remains, will you agree? Only one way to find out.  

While it is an oyster hall, other menu offerings include cold and hot dishes of clams, lobster, and a crispy grouper sandwich. Large plates of Swordfish Schnitzel, Black Bass Provencal, Grilled Wahoo and Blackened Mahi Frites are offered with vegetables and sides. All wine offerings are shellfish driven.

So, take the hint from Hemmingway and be happy and make plans to visit The Ordinary. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 3pm to 11pm. Location is 544 King Street.

Vote for the Best Iconic American Foods. Charleston, SC-Shrimp and Grits is a nominee. The final results will be posted July 24th.