I had the great opportunity to be in Charleston, S.C. last week for a work conference. As my dear readers may know, Charleston is nirvana for a foodie. The farm to fork scene is vibrant and bustling. The seafood and Low Country cuisine are extraordinary. I’m now fully convinced you just can’t find a bad restaurant in Charleston. Great food combined with the sheer beauty of Charleston’s architecture and the friendliness of its citizens make this charming Southern city hard to resist.
One of the great traditions of Southern cooking is the time-honored dish of Shrimp and Grits. The whole history of Shrimp and Grits can be found in a great article by Elyse Vincenty for Deep South magazine. According to the article, “[I]n 1982, when Bill Neal became a chef at Crook’s Corner, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he forever changed the status of shrimp and grits. Neal used a simple recipe of cheese grits fused with cheddar and parmesan as a base, and then topped it off with jumbo shrimp as well as mushrooms, bacon and a few other ingredients. After Craig Claiborne of The New York Times visited the restaurant and published Neal’s recipe in 1985, the once humble dish started gaining widespread popularity.” For years, I’ve relied on this amazing recipe — much to the gastronomic acclaim of all who have eaten it in my home.
On the plane ride down to Charleston, I thought to myself, “I wonder if the Shrimp and Grits in Charleston are any different?”
So, I committed then and there to trying the Charleston versions of this addictive dish. Four nights. Three versions. Plus a bonus. Here we go:
Hank’s: Imagine a great steakhouse. Hank’s is that, but for seafood lovers. The décor is clean and fresh with a variety of the great seafood from the Atlantic sketched in beautiful detail as a border on the walls of the restaurant. According to the restaurant’s website, Hank’s is a local institution and has been “[v]oted Best Seafood Restaurant in Charleston for 15 years running by readers of the Charleston City Paper.” Chef Frank McMahon leads the team at Hank’s and his food reflects a deep appreciation for fresh, local ingredients.
My meal started with local oysters. Small, delicately briny and cold, the bivalves were beyond delicious. Then, on to the star of the show. Hank’s Shrimp and Grits are decidedly different then any other version I’ve had. Steeped in a lush tomato, garlic and parsley butter sauce, the shrimp were incredibly fresh (tail shells still on) and served over smooth and creamy, stone ground grits. Amazing smoked Andouille sausage cut into small chunks and blended with the sauce added spice and a great balance to the sweetness of the shrimp. Un-be-lievable!
We did order dessert – a banana cream pie which is the specialty of the house and a chocolate bread pudding. The pie was just o.k. in my opinion. I didn’t think it had enough banana flavor to contrast with the chocolate crumb crust. The chocolate bread pudding, on the other hand, was very good and satisfying for this “always order dessert” crew.
Our group had to be split into two tables. Urban legend from the evening tells how the reaction of one of our crew upon tasting her dessert selection — the Creamy Peanut Butter Pie — was quite, well…orgasmic. I’ll just leave it at that.
Coast: Tucked on a small alley off of John Street, Coast maintains a cool, warehouse eatery vibe. The 40-foot high ceilings and exposed brick add to the historic feel of the place.
My meal started (again!) with oysters. A little bigger than the ones served at Hank’s, but still beyond delicious. Briny and cold, with a great mignonette – I could have eaten a dozen on my own.
Unfortunately, the Shrimp and Grits were…meh.
The shrimp tasted like they had been previously frozen. The texture was mushy and the taste bland. Served over coarser grits, the sauce was like a thick butter gravy with bacon and lots of onion and green peppers. At best, the dish was o.k.; at worst, it was gelatinous and lacking in any distinctive flavor other than the peppers and onions. Sorry Coast.
While the Shrimp and Grits didn’t impress, other dishes definitely did. A vegetarian colleague ordered a great vegetable plate. A small loaf of airy, jalapeno cornbread accompanied the dish. Hands down, it was the best cornbread I’ve ever had. Don’t miss it if you go. And, don’t pass up the Coast Lime Pie. A heap of mousse-y, light, limey lusciousness on a homemade graham cracker crust awaits you. Yum!
Hominy Grill: Located in a residential district, Hominy Grill is a charming restaurant with a true Southern heart. Decorated in white bead board with simple wooden tables decorated with ball jars and fresh flowers, the restaurant is truly welcoming.
According to its website, “Hominy Grill feels as though it has been open for generations, in fact this landmark has only been dishing up its simple, clean fare since 1996. Combining the traditions of the past with the bounty of land and sea, James Beard Award winning chef/owner Robert Stehling lets the Low Country’s unique cultural history and flavors guide his cooking.”
How true. My dinner gang ordered some great appetizers. The okra and shrimp beignets as well as the jalapeño hushpuppies with sorghum butter were really good. The mixed salad was fresh with a homemade vinaigrette. And for the first time, we tried boiled peanuts! Yes, they tasted like peanuts but the texture is a little funky for those of us who are used to dry roasted peanuts.
The Shrimp and Grits were awesome! Very similar to the Crook’s Corner recipe, the shrimp were fresh and firm in a lovely light roux with mushrooms and bacon over creamy cheese grits.
Our vegetarian and pescetarian both ordered the tomato pudding side dish. Raving about how good it was doesn’t even come close. So, as I surfed Hominy Grill’s website after I got back home, “what to my wondering eyes did appear?” The recipe for this Southerner’s Southern dish. Bless the restaurant that shares some of its most requested recipes! Feel the love. And for your dining pleasure, here it is:
THE HOMINY GRILL’S TOMATO PUDDING
- 28 oz. canned whole tomatoes
- 3/4 c sugar
- 1/4c whole butter
- 3 or 4 slices white bread, cut into cubes
What to do:
- Pour the canned tomatoes into a medium size mixing bowl and break up with a large spoon. You don’t have to crush them but break them open.
- Put the sugar on top of the tomatoes then the bread. Now pour in the melted butter, salt and black pepper, pour into a buttered casserole dish.
- Bake on 375 until bubbly and golden brown.
Chef Stehling includes some specific tips for this recipe: “Yes, there are some helpful professional tips I can give you. At Hominy we use Brioche, a rich, eggy, white bread and a slice of day old cornbread, both of which we have normally lying around the restaurant. You want to pay close attention to the order you combine the ingredients; the butter goes on the bread before everything is folded together. This helps you get that golden, brown toasty flavor out of the dish. Beware of tarting up the dish with fresh herbs or tomatoes. It is what it is.”
Despite the true need for a stomach pump, we all were gluttonous and ordered dessert. It was a tough choice because all the dessert reviews for the Hominy Grill we looked at raved about every dessert. The much-touted chocolate pudding was our first choice. Not really pudding-like at all in its consistency, the dessert was much more like the classic, thick, chocolate-y and rich pot de crème. Fantastically good.
We also ordered the caramel cake – a dream of light and airy, white cake with a rich, but light-colored caramel frosting to complement the delicacy of the cake. Heaven on earth! Our pie-man chose the pecan pie (no ice cream or whipped cream, thank you very much!). He was quite content with that choice.
Husk: Our last night in Charleston was spent at Husk. Seeing and tasting are believing when it comes to a restaurant’s commitment to locally sourced ingredients. When you walk in, there is a chalkboard that lists where all the ingredients come from. Very, very cool.
According to Husk’s website, the restaurant is “the newest offering from James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s and the Neighborhood Dining Group, transforms the essence of Southern food. Led by Brock and Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes, a Lowcountry native, the kitchen reinterprets the bounty of the surrounding area, exploring an ingredient-driven cuisine that begins in the rediscovery of heirloom products and redefines what it means to cook and eat in Charleston.”
So, Husk only serves Shrimp and Grits for lunch. In addition, the menu changes daily. The night we were there, one of the appetizers was a soft poached egg with Jimmy Red Corn grits, mushrooms, spinach, preserved tomato broth, N’duja sausage and Manchego cheese. Oh yeah. That’s what I ordered. Breaking into the egg yolk, wonderful magic happens with the preserved tomato broth sauce. I could eat this for breakfast almost every day.
Dinner was a delicate, pan seared triggerfish over creamy butternut squash and roasted winter vegetables. The mixture of textures and flavors was artisanal and complex with the farro’s chewiness complimenting the silkiness of the fish, the sweetness of the roasted rutabaga and celeriac and a lush, Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
Our beloved vegetarian had what is undoubtedly the most beautiful (and tasty) vegetarian plate I’ve ever seen. Check it out:
And for dessert, another caramel cake – this one salted caramel – that was heavy, decadent and a carnival for the taste buds. We must mention that we also had an order of warm, sugared donut holes with a dipping sauce of crème anglaise. Is there really anything better than warm, fried, sugared dough?
Final Hyland Highway Shrimp and Grits ratings:
- Hominy Grill
- Hank’s (a very, very close second)
- Coast (for its oysters, cornbread and Coast Lime pie).
Put Charleston on your foodie list. Go hungry. Take time to work out in the morning and plan to walk at least a mile after dinner. Your tastebuds will be in heaven and your digestive system will thank you. I can’t wait to go back! I still need to try Jestine’s Kitchen, Poogan’s Porch, The Ordinary and so many more!