Rain was falling in fits and starts on a late afternoon in downtown Charleston, and sodden azalea blossoms were scattered across the sidewalk along Queen Street.
“It’s bourbon weather out there,” the bartender said as we ducked into a well-known establishment that was just opening for the long night ahead.
Now “bourbon weather” might suggest an occasion to hunker down in some quiet watering hole, but it was late spring in Charleston, and at the Bar at Husk (where there are scores of bourbon options) it wasn’t long before every bar stool was taken. Some leaned against the building’s century-old brick walls; others climbed the stairs to the lounge for a languid cocktail hour. We remained at the bar, sampling salty slivers of cured ham and sipping navy-strength rum sweetened with strawberry syrup. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and we were all basking in bourbon weather.
Over the next three overcast days, we learned that the Bar at Husk wasn’t the only place drawing crowds in dicey weather. Up and down King Street, along chic and sometimes shabby lanes, and in nondescript areas on the edge of downtown, people were sampling local beer and inventive cocktails and feasting on everything from pickled shrimp to rabbit pÃ¢tÃ©. Like us, they were pursuing a favorite Charleston pastime: eating and drinking from morning until night.
On our trip, my friend Jill and I aimed for a taste of both old-school Charleston and new.
Amid Charleston’s prodigious wave of new restaurants, four-month-old Edmund’s Oast stands out not just for its curious name (oast is a kiln for drying hops, Edmund is the first name of a Revolutionary-era rebel brewer), but for the intriguingly weird ideas hidden in the restaurant’s various menus: chicken gizzard and duck heart tagliatelle; peanut butter and jelly beer; spiced turnip custard. The team behind the constantly evolving menus is clearly having fun dreaming up new ways to showcase the mostly local ingredients they rely on.
Above the kitchen, dangling charcuterie meats behind glass resemble works of art, as do the graphically arranged signs listing the 48 drinks on tap (mostly regional beers, including those brewed in-house).
Mike Lata, the chef and co-owner of this seafood restaurant and raw bar, has a thing about oysters. “It’s amazing what you can do with an oyster,” he said recently. “You can poach them, broil them, smoke them, pickle them.” He estimates that some 7,000 oysters a week are consumed at his restaurant - mostly raw, but a recent menu also offered them baked with ramp butter; crispy with beef tartare; and smoked with hot sauce. There are oyster sliders, and, if you happen to be here for the once-a-week Southern fish fry, you are likely to find a plump fried oyster alongside the triggerfish and soft-shell crab (or whatever is fresh that day) that have been soaked in buttermilk, battered and fried to a light crisp.
Besides the daily meal that includes, for example, Caribbean fish stew on Thursdays and a seasonal fish schnitzel on Wednesday, the seafood-centric menu lists only a few large plates. Selections from the raw bar, and shellfish towers up to three tiers high, are the most popular items.
Even in Charleston, with its grand churches and meticulously restored houses, the looming Wentworth Mansion, built by a cotton merchant in the late 19th century, is a startling sight: mansard-roofed, pressed red brick, a cupola atop it all. Behind the mansion, which is now a hotel, the carriage house where the formal Circa 1886 operates, resembles a dollhouse. We strolled down the leafy walkway, enchanted.
Twenty minutes later I was trying to put my finger on what, exactly, made the place feel so stodgy. Was it the greenish-beige tones that seemed to absorb all light? Was it the near silence? “No one’s talking,” said Jill. “Did you notice that?” Our waiter, however, talked. He dutifully explained the dishes in precise detail, but without particular enthusiasm. He nodded, asked us if we had questions, and told us that if we wanted dessert we should order it with the meal.
The meal began with ultralight plantation rice rolls - “with just a hint of orange zest,” our waiter said - and a chilled asparagus salad with a peppery buttermilk dressing. A mound of crab macaroni and cheese, sporting a crisp Parmesan tuile, was filled with crab and cremini mushrooms. Muscovy duck breast with a tangy rum-lime gastrique and an exotic star fruit papaya sambal, was a pretty, if slightly fussy, assemblage of extraordinarily tender meat over dirty saffron rice.
Then dessert arrived. We gasped. It was as if Salvador Dalí had been reborn in the kitchen as a pastry chef. The plates - simply described as caramel banana cake and lemon ice box pie on the menu - were festooned with flowers, curlicues of sauces, a banana slice here, a single blueberry there, flourishes of blackberry coulis, sprinklings of lemon zest, striped chocolate flutes like sorcerer’s wands.
“Now you understand why we ask that you order in advance,” said our waiter, whose smile was, for the first time all evening, genuine.
This 24-year-old restaurant in the heart of the historic district is a Charleston classic that could be described with the same adjectives used to organize its versatile menu - Pure, Lush, Southern and Cosmopolitan.
Our waiters, assigned two to a table, introduced themselves by first names and weren’t beyond offering an opinionated menu preference or two. Around us, guests seemed at ease in their finery. The swirling activity, the music, the laughter and lights: There was something simultaneously glamorous and comfortable about the place.
We cherry-picked from the four menus, favoring the Southern list, where we found the restaurant’s signature crab cake, a lush pillow of lightly seared crab surrounded by tiny tomatoes and creek shrimp in a dill-lime sauce. “Held together with hope and love” is the way the chef Michelle Weaver later described her efforts to limit the filler so that the result was “more crab than cake.”
“There’s a lot of interest in the hip, cool places these days,” said Mickey Bakst, the general manager of Charleston Grill, a few weeks later. “We'll never be that. But sometimes people just want to feel pampered.”