If you haven't noticed lately, perhaps because you're not tuned into the City Paper's Nosh Mob, or don't follow the twittering food rants cranking out across town, then you may have missed the latest affordable trend — snacks.
We're not talking a bag of Fritos here, or even a plastic pouch with a Slim Jim followed by some Lance crackers snagged off a revolving carousel. Lately our bar scene has been experimenting with more upscale fare. We've always loved places like Tin Roof, with its deliciously lo-fi bar food, and we certainly cherish slurping down a dozen oysters at Pearlz and Amen Street or sampling a big bowl of boiled peanut hummus at Midtown Bar and Grill, but lately we've been bellying up to the bar at some downtown spots for our own impromptu culinary tour.
Henry's House — the newly renovated maze of barrooms, rooftop Persian rug rooms, and velvet rope dance club on the Market — is custom-made for a young clientele, and for that reason, we go early, around 6 p.m., when the bartenders and servers are still shining the upstairs bar, chatting about their 4 a.m. escapades, and pouring each other shots to prepare for the coming onslaught of humanity. If you go too late, you might end up eating next to a sofa with some twentysomethings sprawled out in full make-out mode, but a quiet table in the early evening reveals a decent selection of appetizers, salads, burgers, wraps, and tacos subcontracted from Cru Catering down the street.
Selections are upscale — foie gras torchons (that can also top the burgers) and pimento spread spiked with bourbon. But the stars are the burgers and tacos. It's quality stuff, if slow to come out of the kitchen. The burgers (single $7.95, double $10.95, triple $13.95) are big, juicy, and cooked to order. The tacos are overstuffed and filled with crunchy fried shrimp or Angus beef. And the black bean cakes (3 for $11.75) are an earthy delight. Afterwards you can dance off that triple-decker beef monstrosity at the NV lounge, which was an additional $5 bucks at the doorway the night we visited.
If the Market isn't quite your style, you should head down to McCrady's and sample the new bar menu being whipped up by Chef Sean Brock. If you were expecting the molecular genius to rear his head and plate up something seemingly from outer space, you'll be sorely disappointed. Brock has found his calling on the farm, and the cuisine has moved in that direction as well. The bar snack menu changes, but it's always a celebration of local production, most definitely with a Southern twist.
He's forming duck rillettes (think confit) into little balls and deep-frying them with a crispy crust ($8), frying up homemade bread and butter pickles and dipping them into ranch dressing ($6), and slapping down a beef tongue terrine, more akin to souse than pâté ($8) with Russian dressing and a little pink quail egg halved on the side. If that's not down-home enough for you, then you'll need a plate of the fried bologna with beer mustard ($7). All of these nibbles are designed to go with the new pre-prohibition cocktails being served, altogether a neat way to experience Brock's new Southern cuisine at an affordable price.
For a more substantial and esoteric platter, mosey over to The Blind Tiger and sit down on Chef Mitch Wyman's barstool. It's a French menu, surely owing to Wyman's time spent at Rue de Jean, adorned with subtle irreverence. Here, among the flames of the open kitchen and possibly a giant tub of once-fried frites, he'll sling out plates of escargot ($6.50) and fried pierogies with bacon, onion, and crème fraiche ($8). They have Quiche Lorraine ($8) for the sensitive types, some decent lump crabcakes ($14), and an $8 burger worth every penny. For more substantial appetites, he serves up the best butcher steak for $15 in the entire town — add three more bucks for those crispy French fries.
All of this adds up to a great opportunity to stroll the town on a mission for fine food. These are Charleston's new tapas, perfect for a quick nibble before heading on to the next stop, and it should become a tradition. We should have more of this at our downtown bars, a walking tour of options for these beautiful blue skies of early spring.