Face it. We live in a bubble. Through a combination of natural narcissism, and outside hype from a litany national “Best Of” lists, we have long since drank the proverbial Kool-Aid when it comes to our food scene. We’re the best in South Carolina. Nay, we’re the best in the Southeast. Nay, we’re the best in the nation! Cue the maniacal laugh…
An objective eye would tell us that, yes, we have an incredible collection of restaurants and providers to be proud of, but we’re not alone. Even within our state, sister metros Columbia and Greenville are coming on strong. The latter sports some serious, arguably destination spots (I’m looking at you, American Grocery), and a solid annual food festival that saw its eighth incarnation this year. This is not a fresh conclusion – John Mariani asserted as much earlier this year in his “Food for Men” blog with Esquire, for example – but it bears repeating.
Euphoria Greenville has increased in stature since its humble beginnings in 2006. Charleston Chefdom has clearly taken note, as this year’s guest list included local luminaries Craig Deihl (Cypress), Frank Lee (SNOB), Kevin Johnson (The Grocery), Mike Lata (FIG/The Ordinary), and the Silver Fox himself, Jeremiah Bacon (The Macintosh/Oak). Chef Bacon’s participation centered on a beer dinner at, appropriately, Bacon Bros. Public House, an über-porky, charcuterie-forward, farm-to-table joint opened by Anthony Gray on the east side of town earlier this year. Chef Gray also has deep Charleston ties, with a CV sporting years of cooking for the Maverick Southern Kitchens, culminating in the opening of High Cotton, before moving on to other ventures in Atlanta. Bacon and Gray actually cooked together at SNOB 10 or 15 years ago.
The dinner was held on the back patio while regular dinner service churned inside, and the set-up was ideal. An entire makeshift kitchen was on the deck, giving diners a direct view of the chefs at work and an incredible sensory experience throughout the meal. With crisp, early-fall weather and clear skies, it was a setting to remember.
Entrance to the patio was met with a choice of reception beers: Terrapin Recreationale, a hoppy, canned pale ale, and Thomas Creek Octoberfest, Greenville’s local version of the malty seasonal. Passed nibbles foreshadowed the protein-athon to come. Housemade Italian sauage, mortadella-in-a-blanket, and “Greenville Hot” Manchester Farms quail legs (a spin on the restaurant’s “Greenville Hot Chicken”) were all solid, sodium-rich delights that left the crowd ready to dig in further.
The first seated course was a honey crisp apple and arugula salad, dressed with a few Mepkin Abbey oyster mushrooms, requisite pork belly, and a cider vinaigrette with enough acidity to cut through the fat with a little help from the apple.
The pork belly was the highlight here, again no surprise, with an excellent fat-to-lean balance in each chunk. There weren’t enough mushrooms in my portion to assert themselves, but they sounded like a good accompaniment. Thomas Creek’s Dockside Pilsner, a silky smooth and tame take on the German staple, provided a great palate-scrubbing undercurrent. Something overly hoppy or assertive would have confused the interplay of flavors.
Terrapin brought out their so-called “O.G.,” Rye Pale Ale, to accompany the bologna-stuffed Manchester Farms quail. The 2002 GABF medalist continues to be a solid offering, showing a slightly floral bouquet of hops and a signature sharp rye bite. That bite proved a crucial foil to the heat and sodium from the meat conglomeration. I say “conglomeration” because the whole table was perplexed by what looked to just be bologna.
Chef Gray came by and explained the painstaking process of stuffing the quail three days earlier, then putting it through multiple rounds of sous vide until it became one with the bologna. An interesting feat, though the bologna was clearly wearing the pants in the relationship, to the point where the quail was nearly lost.
The next two courses were stars. Exquisitely-braised rabbit sat atop a dense potato cake, which somehow retained its crunch even as it sat in an aromatic stew of roasted tomatoes.
The stew had all the depth of character one could ask for. Moreover, once you cut into the crust of the potato cake, the filling melted, creating a beautiful mashed potatoes and gravy effect. Stupendous. The pairing with Thomas Creek’s Chocolate Orange IPA seemed questionable, but it was a hit. A normal IPA would never have fit the flavor profile of the dish, but the dark bitterness from the cocoa nibs and zest of orange married well with the aromatics. I’m not one to say no to ricotta salata, but this dish would have succeeded without it.
Lamb neck ravioli was on the table my first night dining at Macintosh, and it was a game changer. Luckily for the crowd, this preparation was very similar to Chef Bacon’s hometown version: two huge raviolis stuffed with succulent lamb were enough for each diner. They sat atop an onion soubise and a handful of chopped summer vegetables.
The only real “big” beer of the night was the pairing here with Thomas Creek’s Up the Creek Extreme IPA. This has greatly improved since I first tried it a few years ago. At 12.5% a.b.v. it’s nothing to trifle with, presenting like a hoppy American Barleywine more than anything. It held its own with the complex dish, interlocking nicely with the soubise.
Terrapin’s Tree Hugger seemed an odd pick for the dessert course, only because its moderate a.b.v. is like falling off a cliff from its big alcohol predecessor. The complete change in tone, from the night’s savory onslaught to this rich, sweet sorghum cake, allowed it to work.
The Altbier’s malt character, a departure from Terrapin’s otherwise hoppy lineup, fit like a glove with the toffee, pecans, and figs.
Diners hung around to chat up the chefs and beer reps before presumably heading back downtown, as Bacon Bros is situated about 15 minutes away from the action.
Chef Gray’s regular menu, especially his charcuterie program, is marvelous, so don’t hesitate make that trek if your find yourself in Greenville anytime soon. Same goes for Thomas Creek. The state’s second-oldest brewery (behind Palmetto) turned 15 in July and is undergoing a massive expansion to keep up with demand.
Timmons Pettigrew is the author of Charleston Beer: A High-Gravity History of Lowcountry Brewing, and Co-Founder/Editor of CHSBeer.org. Follow him @CHSBeer.