Visiting Charleston, S. C., that grand, sophisticated lady of a city, is like traveling to a foreign country except that you do not have to change your money, you can drink the water and you can understand most of what is said without much translation.
In addition, Charleston is a foodies paradise, with a world-class collection of restaurants.
This "low country" area, as it is called, is swamped with history. Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began (called "the Recent Unpleasantness," by some Charlestonians), is a short cruise across the harbor.
There are also several nearby plantations that offer glimpses of times gone by.
We drove 25 minutes out of Charleston to Middleton Place (4100 Ashley River Rd.), with Americas oldest landscaped gardens, which had a gigantic crape myrtle, a live oak with 145-foot branches, plus camellia and rose gardens. This was a successful plantation until five years after the owner signed the Ordinance of Secession, which separated the Southern states from the Union. Guides there remain puzzled as to why Northerners would ever want to destroy this particular property.
Just outside the magnificent gardens, we walked past a low, brick-strewn hill that marked the one wing (or "flanker") of the original house that the Yankees destroyed at the end of that Recent Unpleasantness. The mansion has many family portraits and some fine pre-Unpleasantness furniture.
Nearby Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Road) was another plantation worthy of a visit even though it has no furniture in it. During the Civil War, the owners removed the lead flashing from the roof and donated it for bullets. As a result, water got in the house and ruined the ceilings, which had to be rehabilitated before tourists could enter.
Within Charleston, we toured the fascinating Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, where imprisoned puppet pirates told of hardships that made Johnny Depps problems in Pirates of the Caribbean seem like a walk on a padded plank.
The Edmonston-Alston House at 21 East Battery dates from 1825. The separate house out back, which held the kitchen and slaves quarters, was called "the dependency." Ah, the wonders of Southern language usage.
The veranda has a joggling board, which allows lovers to sit and sway on a sagging length of lumber. I could learn to love joggling.
Art on the Go
To fall in love with Charleston, SC, is to fall in love with its cuisine, its restaurants and its food events.
If you visit Charleston, arrange to spend a Saturday morning with Amanda Dew Manning of the Carolina Food Pros (843 723-3366). This delightful and infinitely enthusiastic foodie served in the Department of Agriculture under President Clinton. She regularly leads treks into the best and most interesting in Charleston food.
We began our three-hour-plus tour at the weekly outdoor market in the park in front of the Francis Marion hotel, where Amanda exclaimed, "Look at this perfect okra!! The sugar figs are here, oh yes, oh, oh!!"
We tasted and toured the various stands offering whatever fruits and vegetables were fresh that day. Then we walked to Lucas Belgian Chocolate (73 State St.), which provided an in-depth education about the vast differences between true chocolate and the almost tasteless stuff found in most inexpensive chocolate bars. It was a perfect dessert ending to a not-to-be-missed food tour.
We stayed at the Francis Marion Hotel (387 King St.), a gloriously restored, comfortable hotel with 230 newly renovated rooms. Try to reserve the Presidential Suite that offers unparalleled views of Charleston plus a dining room, living room, kitchen and two bathrooms. Dont forget the traditional breakfast with delicious grits, smoked meats and fresh fruit.
One delightful evening, we attended the first annual Palette/Palate Benefit, which is such a good idea that other cities ought to imitate it. On that warm July night, when galleries and perhaps even restaurants might want for customers, 14 restaurants were paired with 14 art galleries to the delight of over 600 art and food lovers. For a nominal charge, Palette/Palateers could go from gallery to gallery, experiencing the art, sampling the special tastes of one of the restaurants and having glasses of wine.
If you want to know more about creating a similar event, call the incredibly competent (and beautiful) Sherrie Bakshi of Stylee PR at 843-216-7417. She worked for over two years to make that evening a success.
Heaven for Foodies
Charlotte also has a plethora of excellent, distinctive restaurants. Here are some not to miss when you visit:
SNOB a.k.a Slightly North of Broad (192 East Bay) is in a former, 19th century warehouse and is a large, open room of high energy and joyous cooking. Our favorites included the shrimp and grits with a tomato broth, gazpacho and the crab salad. GQ Magazine has awarded a Golden Dish for SNOBs grits.
At the Cintra Ristorante (16 N. Market) executive chef Thomas Clayton outdid himself with a meal and wine pairing that left us satiated and giggly. The tuna and wahoo tartini rested on a glass that held tiny goldfish, which led me to feel sorry in case the living goldfish noticed the bits of fish flesh above them. The halibut was tender, the asparagus salad was a delight, while the oyster and watermelon soup was, well, interesting.
Tristan (55 Market) offers world cuisine with an emphasis on fresh ingredients in a sophisticated setting. Every course was more delicious than the last. If available, be sure to order the cucumber melon sorbet. Tristan is presided over by the energetic, generous Ciarn Duffy, a chef from Dublin and Atlanta.
At Cordavi (14 N. Market), each course surpassed the last: corn soup served in a plastic syringe that we squirted in our mouth, barramundi raised on soy and protein, the braised short ribs had been slow cooked for 36 hours. We ate a poached quail egg, seared duck breast in tomato confit, fillet with a parsnip puree bordelaise sauce and caramel jelly in a green apple sorbet. Everything was so fancy and so special, I almost expected the chefs to immolate themselves at the end of the meal.
The food, the history, the people, the active restoration of so many 160+-year-old homes, and the delight of discovery: Charleston is a destination that is not to be missed.