Thursday, July 24, 2014

Charleston Culinary Tours--A Food Extravaganza Of The Extraordinary Kind

My first two attempts at finding an open parking garage in and around the Vendue Range proved unsuccessful. Finally, after navigating quaint alley ways and passing numerous lights, I found an open garage on Cumberland, though it left me with a bit of a jaunt over hot pavement in the oppressive afternoon Charleston humidity. Sweat beads marked my shirt.

My destination, the second floor of the Southend Brewery where Mr. Hoon Calhoun of Charleston Culinary Tours awaited my arrival with a timely glass of ice water for an opener, followed by a teasing glass of craft beer with a peach flavor, then a satisfying, fall-off-your-chair bowl of She-Crab Soup. From that moment, I settled in for what proved to be a culinary extravaganza of the extraordinary kind.

Dressed like a Barbados Rum Runner and sporting a wide brimmed hat with a smile to match, Mr. Calhoun began his narrative with some information about himself. "If you don't want an honest opinion, don't go to a Calhoun," he informed the diverse group of varying ages from places like Michigan, Maryland, Mt. Pleasant and as far away as Paris, France. The culinary fair continued with a plate of very Southern Fried Green Tomatoes followed by a Texas Toast with Smoked Bisque flavored by a melted Smoked Gouda and topped by a mustard based Cole Slaw.

"The food a culture eats is as important as the laws it makes and the wars it fights." With this profound statement, Hoon began to lay out the history of the famous cuisine Charleston has become world renowned for and the people responsible for it. Already plenty of mouth-watering cuisine and it was only the first stop.

After a informative walk past historical points of interest, one of which was the first theater in America, the Dock Street Theater, we arrived at out next stop on Meeting Street. Eli's Table is known for their breakfast-brunch menu, which is served until 4 pm. We were seated at a long table with an elegantly laid out setting in a cozy room with wood floors, yellow walls, yellow napkins, and brightly colored paintings. We were introduced to the restaurant's chef, Jimmy Carter. Servers brought out each offering with full description to long for me to write down, so I will only state the basic.

The first serving was a creamy soup called Blackberry Bisque. I didn't know whether I should scoop it or drink it. Tasting more like a dessert, it was none-the-less heavenly. Next, we were treated to some old Charleston style Shrimp and Grits paired with a local Tasso Gravy.

Like a smooth caramel sauce, Mr. Calhoun drizzled on more history related to the Kiawa Indians contribution to the Southern culture, the varying stages of stone ground corn and the illustrious history of Duke's Mayonnaise-- just one of many true Southern originals. A delightfully superb Southern Pecan Pie closed out our visit at Eli's Table and we departed for the next and final restaurant on the day's itinerary.

A short stroll on Meeting Street brought us to the steps of the Gibbs Museum of Art across from the Circular Congregational Church and finally to 15 Beaufain Street, home of the Leaf. A Tuna Cucumber, Caprese Salad and a Duck Spring Roll filled with Portobello Mushroom and Mashed Potatoes covered with a Dijon Mustard Sauce was a remarkable finale.

Learned the Peach Tree Trail was really the Pitch Tree Trail, the Cotton Gin was an accidental abridged form for Cotton Engine, and Southern Mamas guarded their recipes like the National Archives guards the Declaration of Independence. With Bellini in hand, I saluted Chef Kyle and Tour Guide Hoon Calhoun.

I've always said, "I'd rather be doing anything instead of nothing as long as I am doing something," and the Downtown Culinary Tour was really SOMETHING. The three restaurants visited represented Charleston's culinary community honorably. Two of the restaurants would not have been on my radar for the coming Charleston Restaurant Week, but after taking the tour, I would highly recommend them. Our guide was charming, hospitable, knowledgeable, and tastefully artful in his narratives--the best of the best. I give the tour five stars--a must experience for both resident and visitor. It genuinely combines the best of Charleston history, food and cocktails. I would gladly take the Upper King Street Culinary Tour. Thank you Lorrie Dixson of Eskimo Advertising.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sip And Savor Summerville's Popular Drinking Establishments--The Newest Addition In The Trolley Tours

In the late 1880's, the dry and refreshing turpentine laden atmosphere of Summerville figured dramatically in a declaration originating out of Paris, France where a Congress of Physicians named it one of two places in the world best suited for the treatment and cure of pulmonary disease. The impact was almost immediate and the town was launched into a Golden Age of economic prosperity and international fame.

The anticipated rise in tourism energized the local government and plans were inaugurated to address the incursion of visitors. Grand inns were built and opportunistic residents turned their homes into bed and breakfasts. To entertain the visitors during their leisure time, tourist attractions were incorporated and tours of local points of interest were arranged. Over time, social, economic and natural upheavals blew through the Flowertown in the Pines and the days of prosperity went quietly into the night.

In 2012, a beloved local magazine dedicated to "celebrating the character, beauty and pace of the South Carolina Lowcountry with Summerville at the center" stepped out on a pretty thick pine tree limb and made a dramatic declaration pronouncing Summerville as the Birthplace of Sweet Tea.

A new day dawned and the town has since been launched into a new Golden Age. Local organizations committed to bettering the community and its businesses embraced the sweet tea renaissance. The Sweet Tea Trail was inaugurated and tours highlighting Summerville's illustrious past and present have been organized in partnership with the Lowcountry Trolley. The Good Eats on the Sweet Tea Trail has been a huge success.

The newest addition to the Trolley Tours was previewed on Saturday, July 19th called Sip and Savor or Drink the Ville. A cocktail hour trolley tour beginning at 4 pm, it takes you on a scenic drive through the historic district of Summerville stopping at three of its favorite establishments. Cocktails, wine or samples of local brews await your arrival for you to sip and savor--bartenders choice. It departs from Oscar's Restaurant on the 3rd Saturday of the month and tickets are $27.

After a couple of pictures in Oscar's reception area and a few welcoming words by our guide, Tina Zimmerman, we were instructed to gather at the bar and choose between two cocktails named Old House Crown and South Cackakackey(Cackalackey is a nickname for Carolina). If you were there as a couple and you incorporated a bit of shrewdness, the choice was easy and rewarding--each mark a different selection and enjoy both cocktails by sharing.

While we sipped the outstanding drinks Tom, Oscar's representative, introduced the bartender and shared the contents of the cocktails. While going over the dinner selections for that evening, he flavored his narration with some humorous quips, also introducing himself by what he referred to as his Indian name, Running Tab. Crab dip on a small cracker was placed before us as a teaser. The sly maneuver left you wanting more.

After a pleasant ride on the trolley, our second stop was Miler Country Club or better known by long time residents as the Country Club of Summerville. An interesting piece of golf course history mixed in with a full glass of a refreshing sweet tea concoction and cups of Palmetto Cheese and Chicken Salad was offered up.

We were cooled by the "Big Ass Fan" while sitting at tables on the Candlelite Pavillion. Another group picture and we were on the road to the "C" of Summerville or Coastal Coffee Roasters, our third and final stop.

The "C's" community table was lined with glasses of Sierra Nevada and platters of jelly covered bread. Those who didn't want to drink beer were accommodated with a replacement beverage.

Brad Mallett, owner and orchestrator of the "most popular venue in Summerville", welcomed the group and spoke about the "C's" driving force, community spirit. Besides roasting the finest coffee, it is a gathering place for talented musicians and artists, imaginative writers, and aspiring entrepreneurs. Plans are underway for a brewery on sight.

The group ended the visit gathered at the painting of Bill Murray drinking coffee for a parting snapshot--something of a tradition these days.

After the tours completion, feedback and suggestions on ideas or improvements were encouraged. In my humble opinion, the three stops were an appropriate number. A fourth stop might have put me over the edge of feeling pretty good. The scheduled hour and a half went by quickly. Depending on distances between stops, possibly 5 to 10 minutes, it appears twenty minutes was enough time to complete your drink and if not, you were allowed to bring in onto the trolley to finish off while traveling to the next establishment. When you consider drinks cost on a average of $5 to $7 dollars, adding appetizer teasers, the $27 ticket appears reasonable.

It doesn't take much to please me. I am happy doing most anything along as I am doing something. The tour introduces you to Summerville's drinking establishments and a preview of what they have to offer residents and visitors. It was a pleasant romp on the trolley. I didn't pay much attention to the passing scenery--more occupied with conversation with fellow participants, which was a gratifying by-product of the tour. After all, drinks and conversation go together like Summerville and sweet tea.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Five Top Places For Being Knee Deep In The Water On A Beach Somewhere In Charleston

There has recently been a host of songs topping the Country Music Charts praising the gratification of putting toes in the water, sitting on the edge of a pier to drink a beer, being knee deep in the water somewhere with blue sky breezes or picturing yourself in the salty evening air on some beach, somewhere with cold margaritas and the only worry in the world is whether the tide is going to reach your chair--paradise served up on a guitar and a quarter note.

With three beautiful beaches in close proximity to its downtown district and a harbor connected to waterways lined with numerous edge-of-the-water bars, Charleston offers an endless array of prospective venues where a person can appease all of the previously mentioned salt water comforts. You no doubt have your favorites.

So, let us shake off the stress of the day, kick off our shoes and follow the way of the opportunistic pelican and frolicking dolphin to five waterside locations I place on the top of my list of favorite toe dipping locations. Places where palm trees are growing, a warm breeze is blowing, a beautiful sunset is burning up the atmosphere, and there's music and dancing and lovers romancing in the salty evening air.

1) Folly Island--Morris Island Lighthouse--"knee deep in the water somewhere."
On the north tip of Folly Island is a secluded stretch of beach with a scenic view of the Morris Island Lighthouse. It is a considerable walk from the parking area to the beach and because of the currents it is not a favorable place to swim--reasons why you will not see large numbers of people. On the walk to the beach, you will pass remains of building foundations left by Hurricane Hugo. Old, graying trees lines portions of the beach and make for great pictures with the lighthouse in the background. It is a great place to wade out into the water and cast your fishing line for a variety of fish.

2) Botany Bay Beach--"the only worry in the world is whether the tide is going to reach your chair."
Botany Bay Beach is part of Botany Bay Plantation. The beautiful beach is a pleasant half mile walk from the parking area. Weather worn palmetto trees grayed by the salty sea breezes and age line the sea shelled beach. Visitors indulge in a peculiar custom of lining the trunks of downed trees with sea shells and hanging them on their branches. Some people come to swim, some come to fish, some come to look at the shells, some come to take photographs and some spread out beach blankets under beach umbrellas. Walking into the waters close to the shore can be precarious due to the numerous sharp shells in the water. Botany Bay Plantation personifies the reasons why I love Charleston and the Lowcountry. It is idyllic.

3) Breach Inlet--Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island--"toes in the water."
During the day, you can spot me standing on the shore with baited hook drifting in the currents of Breach Inlet--an ideal place for surf fishing and watching the dolphins splash around. It is never crowded. There is no swimming here because of the dangerous currents, but it is only a short walk to where you can swim. You don't have to pay for parking like you do near the connector and Front Beach. Great place to view the kite surfers across the inlet on Sullivan's Island on a breezy day. It is also my favorite location for releasing wine bottles into the outgoing current with messages in them. I have a great story about one of the released wine bottles. At sunset, you may find me at the rooftop bar of the Boathouse Restaurant.

4) Front Beach--Isle of Palms--"picturing yourself in the salty evening air on some beach, somewhere with cold margaritas."
Isle of Palms was the first beach I went to when I moved to the Charleston area. During Spoleto Festival, it is the location of the sand sculpting contest. I have fished by the pillars of the pier in the past, but I come here mainly to people watch. You will often find me sitting on the upper deck of Coconut Joe's overlooking Front Beach and the pier drinking a Corona or an alcoholic concoction. Ice cream stands and shops are nearby on Ocean Blvd.

5) Red's Ice House--Shem Creek--"sitting on the edge of a pier to drink a beer."
Red's Ice House on Shem Creek is a popular restaurant/bar located in Mt. Pleasant. The views from its water-side decks on the boat busy Shem Creek are spectacular, especially around sunset. It attracts a high-energy crowd with only one objective on their mind, fun. It has its own dock where boats can pull in and out throughout the night, a full service bar close to the action inside and out, and an upper deck for the ultimate view of Shem Creek. It also has a dog-friendly policy, which I soon became quite aware of from the slobbery licks on my hand as I walked on the outside decks. I like sitting on the edge of the pier/dock and stick my feet into the water near the Palmetto Breeze. During the day, you will see plenty of paddleboarders and kayakers along with plenty of pelicans and dolphins.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Sociable Bay Street Biergarten--Bavarian Inspired Southern Food And Pour Your Own Beer

Essential to the overall experience of enjoying a good craft beer is making the perfect pour. There is nothing more frustrating to a beer drinker than having to wait for an oversized head to dissipate, and not to leave unmentioned, it is less appealing. Creating the right amount of foam head adds to the overall presentation, but even more important than the aesthetics is the proper releasing of the beer's aromatics. It is an acquired skill first time patron's of the Bay Street Biergarten soon learn comes in handy when using its forward thinking communal tap tables--tables with self serving beer taps.

The day I visited the Bay Street Biergarten the plan was to spend the evening on their outdoor patio listening to the jams of local singer/songwriter Chelsea Summers. A late afternoon thunderstorm moved the party indoors. It was packed out with soccer enthusiasts decked out in the colors of their favorite teams watching the games on large screen TVs located throughout. Its flag-draped, wood-beamed, high ceilings gave it the feeling of spaciousness. Booths lined one wall while larger circular tables were located on a step-up area. The communal tables were scattered about in front of the main bar.

The location of the Bay Street Biergarten historically was at one time called the Wilmington Railroad Depot--also referred to as the Northeastern Railroad Depot in other accounts. During the evacuation of the Confederate Army from Charleston in 1865, the depot was the scene of a horrific tragedy. Filled with powder and explosives at the time of the exodus, women and children of Charleston rushed in to see what they could get. Some of the gun powder caught on fire and the building was blown up. In the explosion, 250 of the women and children were killed and wounded. The remaining ruins was reconstructed in the late 1800's.

An I witness account by Lt. Moses Lipscomb Wood, of Company F, the 15th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, "The Thicketty Rifles," recorded the event in his "War Record" as follows: "I was in Charleston on the night before and the morning it was evacuated, and was put in charge of a detail of about 75 men to load what cars (of the Northeastern Railroad) we could ahead of us. We had not been out of the depot long before the women and children rushed in to see what they could get. The depot was filled with powder and explosives and caught on fire and was blown up—causing the most pitiful sight I saw during the war. Women and children, about 250, were killed and wounded, and some were carried out by where [we] were in line on the streets, with their clothing burned off and badly mutilated."

It has 24 beers on tap behind the bar, 60 taps throughout the building, all delivered by a state of the art tap table system. With the purchase of a preloaded RFID card, you can access a selection of flavors, information about the beer, how much you are pouring and your pouring history at the stationary iPads at each communal table and Bier Wall. The beer flows from a keg cooler in the back of the building and is pumped by a glycol cooling system through 156 feet of draft lines. To help you avoid the oversized head foam, you can download information on how to make the perfect pour off of their website.

The communal tap tables do not need reservations--first come, first serve. A great setting for making new acquaintances, building new friendships and sharing food. It was enjoyable watching people pour their own beer and talk about what went wrong--return customers had a bit more experience. After the rain passed and towards the end of the night, we had a couple of shots at the bar on the large, outside brick patio--skillful and friendly bartenders.

Aside from having the most progressive technology the beer industry has to offer along with giving you the experience of pouring your own beer, the Bay Street Biergarten also has its own parking lot, which gets a big "cheers" from me. No searching for quarters to put in the meters or driving into parking garages and paying high fees.

Bay Street Biergarten is as close as you can get to an authentic Munich beer hall in the south with a goal to support Charleston’s local, ever-expanding brewing, distilling and farming communities. It offers Southern food with a flavor of Bavarian inspiration paired with the finest craft beers and quality socializing. It was as fresh as the bay air coming in from the nearby port and as charming as Charleston history. It was a stout experience.

Located at 549 East Bay Street, Charleston, SC.