I’m spending Christmas in Charleston, South Carolina with Therese and her mom Eileen, and I can tell you, this is nirvana for people who like to eat. Not that there aren’t other things to do – and we are doing other things, and I will fill you in on that – but you could eat in a different amazing restaurant every day, and it would be a long time before you would have to repeat yourself. And my impression is that pretty much any place you go is going to be good – Charleston is similar to Paris, France in that respect – whether you spend a couple of bucks or empty your piggy bank, you will enjoy yourself.
Monday, December 23rd
We arrived midday on Monday. I did a little writing while Therese went off to explore the downtown neighborhood around our hotel, the Hampton Inn-Historic District. Eileen arrived in the afternoon, and in the evening we went to our first event, a Holiday Progressive Dinner. There were supposed to be horse-drawn carriage to take us from one venue to another, but with the rain, Plan B was instituted to use Trolleys. There are a couple different trolley lines that take you around the historic district for free, but our trolleys were just for us attending the progressive dinner.
We started with hors d’oeuvres at the Kings Courtyard Inn, then had a three-course dinner at Circa 1886 Restaurant, and then had dessert at the John Rutledge House Inn. Each venue was extraordinary, and for the first two, I did well in eating dairy free. Of the hors d’oeuvres, only the shooter had yogurt in it – the shrimp roll, plaintain chip with dip and beef puff were all good for me, and I noshed happily.
Then for dinner, Therese had alerted the restaurant about my allergy, and they had my back. Instead of cream of cauliflower soup, my appetizer was salmon tartare with cucumber, small fried mushrooms and a slice of strawberry. My salad of romaine hearts was covered with a basil vinaigrette instead of ranch dressing or something, and wow, this dressing tasted marvelous. And the pork chop entree with collard greens and boiled peanuts was outstanding – except for the peanuts, which were either disturbingly under-cooked or just not to my liking.
The dessert venue was extraordinary. The John Rutledge House, built in 1763, was the home of John Rutledge, one of the writers of the U.S. Constitution and South Carolina’s first governor. It is now used as a boutique hotel, and the suites are magical. But their dessert spread, while gorgeous, was completely off-limits to me: I asked our hostess to check if anything was dairy free, and she came back to tell me that only the fruit added to decorate the plates of cakes was ok for me. Grrrr. The plates of cookies and cakes were calling to me, and I had to abstain.
Tuesday, December 24th
Christmas Eve was highlighted by our trip to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens on the bank of the Ashley River, a 30-minute taxi ride from downtown Charleston. There is more to say about Magnolia than will fit into this blog. I will mostly let the pictures tell the story. But I will say that it is the oldest public garden in the U.S., if not the world, first opened to the public in 1872 by Reverend John Grimke Drayton (a fairly forward-thinking guy who educated his slaves, in violation of South Carolina law, and then converted the plantation from rice farming to gardening, working the grounds himself alongside his newly-freed black workers). Then a century later, Drayton’s grandson John Drayton Hastie Sr. extended access to the grounds from just weekends to every day of the year. Cabins that housed slaves before the Civil War are still standing, a testament to that abominable system (and life was relatively good for slaves at Magnolia, which means they lived into their 20s, instead of dying before their 18th birthday like on other plantations).
I was still smarting from having missed out on dessert the previous night, so when Therese suggested we check out Christophe Chocolatier when we returned to our hotel in the late afternoon, I scampered over there just before they closed for the holiday.
I had to convince Christophe himself that he should let me in, that I would only take a minute. By the time Therese and Eileen caught up with me, I had already found out which chocolate was dairy free, and purchased 2 chocolate bars with nuts and fruit and a cone of chocolate covered almonds. I was very happy!
After a break, we took a taxi to the City Market area for dinner at Lowcountry Bistro. Lowcountry cuisine is a specialty of Charleston and much of South Carolina’s coastline which is “low” in terms of being below sea level, not in terms of representing low or high culture. Dishes like po’ boys and shrimp and grits connect South Carolina to places like Louisiana. At Lowcountry Bistro, there was lots of this good, rich, satisfying stuff to be had. Of course, it was hard for me to find something not drenched in butter or swimming in cream. But I did have a nice mixed green salad with rosemary vinaigrette (the second time I tasted an awesome dressing made with herbs), and a cornish game hen entree with collard greens and butternut squash. A great finish to an outstanding second day in Charleston.
Wednesday, December 25th
Christmas was kind of a off day for us. We mostly took it easy, having a nice lunch at Magnolias Restaurant and dinner at Poogan’s Porch. I pretty much ordered the same thing for each meal – duck breast and Brussel sprouts – but they were actually fairly different. Magnolias’ version had lots of crispy bacon to go with the sprouts, and the breast was a little too well cooked, giving it a very hammy flavor. At Poogan’s, the sprouts were al dente with just a hint of the duck fat and bacon in which they were sauteed, while the breast had a crispy skin but a nicely pink center.
Poogan’s Porch is in an old house, and the various rooms of the house are set out as different dining rooms, etc. Our table was in a room on the second floor.
Including today, we have three more days left in Charleston, three more days to eat great lowcountry food (and other great food), three more days to experience what goes on around here at holiday times. We will be going to see a performance of the Nutcracker performed by Moscow Ballet, taking a harbor boat tour, riding through a holiday light show in a park. I will tell you about that when I get back from Charleston.