Back in our summer Dish issue, I sounded off on one of my latest hobby-horses: the desire for Charleston to move beyond the current pan-Southern mode of fine dining and explore a cuisine with a more tightly focused Lowcountry identity.
Apparently I’m not the only one feeling the magnetic pull of our particular place and time. The first two dining events of the Charleston Wine+Food Festival have been explicitly local in theme and focus. First there was the Local Catch dinner, which kicked off this year’s “pre-Festival” events over Labor Day weekend with an only-in-Charleston seafood feast that starred fish plucked fresh from the Atlantic just the day before by the very chefs who cooked it.
The festival upped the ante with last week’s Ultimate Critics’ Dinner, for which I was fortunate to join a panel of local and national food critics to select six worthy chefs to prepare the “ultimate” Charleston meal.
The event is now in its third year, and each iteration has matured its character. For sheer historical significance, it would be difficult to top last year’s venue: Fort Sumter, the island fortress upon which the first shots of the Civil War were fired. But Angel Postell and the Wine+Food crew had yet another trick up their collective sleeve.
This year, the meal was held at Ashem Farm, the former home of Emily Ravenel Farrow, who passed away in 2011 and left her property to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, who in turn transferred it to the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. It will soon be opened as a public park, and the Critics' Dinner was one of the first public functions to be held there.
Mickey Bakst of Charleston Grill was back as host, and he led guests on a tour not only of Ashem Farm but of Charleston culinary history, too. The evening was built around a theme closely linked to that particularly place, for Emily Farrow loved Sarah Rutledge's classic 1847 cookbook Carolina Housewife, and each chef picked recipes from it and used them as inspiration for the meal.
Jeremiah Bacon of the Macintosh and Oak kicked things off with folds of tender beef tongue atop light chive-accented biscuits and smoked fish on delicate Johnny cakes. The diners then paraded up a slight hill toward the horse barn, where the selection from Husk’s and McCrady’s Sean Brock awaited.
The first was salsify dressed “in imitation of fried oysters.” Salsify is a white root vegetable, and Brock boiled, pounded, and molded it into an oyster-sized patty that he fried golden brown and topped with a dollop of cream and chives. Servers slso circulated trays of tiny cups holding Seminole Soup, a hearty concoction with rich, firm white meat that, as Brock revealed with mischievous delight, was actually squirrel simmered in a broth accented with, of all things, pine tree tops. And, in case you were wondering, squirrel and pine tree tops taste good.
The appetizers were accompanied by cocktails with a definite local flavor, too. “The Ashem,” a variation on the mint julep, took a recent immigrant — citrus vodka — and welcomed it in local style with mint simple syrup, lemon-tinged iced tea, and a splash of rainwater Madeira. In “The King Edward,” Blenheim’s ginger ale added a touch of heat to a sweet blend of bourbon, rum, and cherry liqueur.
The main dinner was held under the glowing lights of a huge pavilion tent. Mike Lata opened with a deft take on Rutledge’s “caveach of mackerel,” though he had to substitute swordfish since, as he put it, that’s what the sea had delivered that day. Lata picked up on the recipe’s original spicing, including nutmeg and mace, and added a colorful array of fresh vegetables — beautiful pink beets, green herbs, and sweet potatoes carved into bright orange rings.
Josh Keeler of Two Boroughs Larder was drawn to Rutledge’s lamb’s head soup, and his version may well have been my favorite item of the evening. Dark, savory lamb meat was accompanied by a chunk of crisp-seared lamb belly, chewy buckwheat noodles, wild mushrooms, and a slice of marinated quail egg, all wading in a pool of smoky, slow-simmered broth that left the carnivores at the table reaching for the breadbasket to sop up every last drop from the bowl.
Charleston Grill’s Michelle Weaver produced a tasty demonstration of why guinea fowl should be a regular item on Charleston menus. Her fricassee of the succulent dark meat was served over a scoop of tender Carolina pilau spiked with country ham.
Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad rounded out the entrees with an equally luxurious veal loin accompanied by fresh local greens and turnips in a fragrant braised beef tail jus.
Patrick Emerson, the wine and beverage director for Maverick Southern Kitchens, delivered intriguing and spot-on pairings for each course, including stepping up to Josh Keeler’s challenge and serving a white wine — an unusual buttery Marsanne blend from Cotes du Soleil — with that rich lamb’s head soup.
Emily Cookson, also of Charleston Grill, rounded it all out with a magnificent “rose Charlotte” — a ring of light spongecake filled with a sweet, airy cream and topped by a single brilliant red raspberry.
For me, the whole meal amounted to an encouraging experiment in local food history. It was not an exercise in historic preservation or faithfully replicating ancient recipes. Instead, it looked to the past for inspiration then executed it with today’s ingredients and sensibilities. Far from a uniformity of style and taste, the concept resulted in splendid variety.
“The menu tells you who cooked each course,” one of my tablemates commented as we tucked into Frank Lee’s veal dish, “But it doesn’t need to. You could guess just from the food itself.”
Indeed, each chef’s signature style showed through in their dishes: Lata’s fresh simplicity and flawless vegetables accenting vibrantly fresh swordfish, Weaver’s touch of luxury in the guinea hen, the deep, slow-steeped intensity of Keeler’s smoked lamb broth. And yet, they were all tied back together in a wonderful way to a single unique place in the Lowcountry, which is more than enough for me to declare the event a resounding success.