Twenty-nine dishes in three days. That's what I've had to tackle for a story on this year's Citrus Celebration, a contest and collaboration with Limehouse Produce and some of Charleston's finest restaurants to showcase lesser-known produce in creative new ways. I drove, walked, and ran all over the area, evading meter maids and side-stepping tourists in my quest to taste every drink and food item our fearless foodies have to offer.
The celebration focuses on four fruits: Cara Cara oranges, Satsuma tangerines, Pumellos, and Meyer lemons. A panel of judges will be visiting the top five places from each category, and they'll select a winner for the Best Citrus Dish and Best Citrus Drink. Each winner gets mad promo — the winning dish will be featured on the side of a Limehouse Produce truck, and the winning drink will be featured in Local Palate magazine. More importantly, though, are the bragging rights.
All of this is an effort to shift our citrus consciousness away from the average, ubiquitous lemons and limes lying in wait at every grocery store, behind every bar, and on every kitchen counter. We tend to pigeonhole our produce — sad, considering all the resources that lay at our feet. Weston Fennell of Limehouse says, "We wanted our seasonal promotion to breathe some life into an otherwise spare time of year. A lot of people don't realize that citrus is harvested from December to March, and nothing adds brightness to a dish or cocktail like sweet, tart citrus fruit. We saw a great opportunity to engage customers and educate each other about a whole category of produce that often goes overlooked."
So, by duty, I had to try them all. Trekking the city in a gluttonous rampage, snatching up bites of zesty, zingy goodness, gulping craft cocktails, and mad-dashing to the next stop for more — it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. It was a harried, circuitous route, and I don't recommend you follow my lead. Instead, check out the much more organized trail we've made for you, with some travel diary notes; many of the entries in the contest are available for the public to try from now through the month of February. The best part: you don't have to do it in three days.
A few tips. If you don't see a dish on the menu, ask. A few, for various reasons, aren't. (Sorry.) An asterix means they're not always available. We organized our list in alphabetical order by chef.
The Macintosh: Broccolini with Pickled Mustard Seeds, Red Navel Oranges, Fish Sauce, and Stono Farms Poached Egg
Egg yolk is nature's sauce — it makes everything better. Match that with sweet orange and some toasty char from the grilled broccolini, and you're going to be just fine. Pair it with one of new beverage director Ricky Dunn's cava-grapefruit cocktails, which rolled out on an updated bar menu last week, and you'll be even finer.
Circa 1886: Cara Cara Orange and Barbecue Crab Salad with Corn, Sundried Tomato, and Pepper Crumbs
The crumbs, made from dried corn kernels, are a nice, crunchy complement to enormous chunks of crab. The smear of orangey barbecue sauce on the plate doesn't add much in the way of smokiness, but it brings a sweet yet zingy element that's right where it belongs. It's a Lebowski sauce — it really ties the whole dish together.
The Granary: Hiser Farms Clams with Meyer Lemon, Cara Cara, Satsuma Mandarin
Florie snips fennel fronds from The Granary's herb garden before serving and adds diced charcuterie to the dish. (On the day I went, it was a sweet, spicy sopressata.) Try not to let the clam shells hit you in the nose as you go to drink the Westbrook White Thai beer broth.
Vincent Chicco's: Citrus Trek Olive Oil-Seared Golden Tilefish with Basmati, Chow Bacon Black-eyed Peas, and Meyer Lemon Chimichurri*
Vincent Chicco's: Angus Ribeye with Pork Cheek, Fig Ravioli, Satsuma, Cara Cara Chianti Reduction, Red Wine Figs, and Sorghum Pecans
Michael's on the Alley: Citrus Trek King Crab, Pumello Salad and Black Truffle and Hazelnut-Crusted Goat Cheese
Lemieux's a triple threat — all three of his entries are quite good. My draft pick, though, is the ribeye. The pillowy fig and pork cheek ravioli it sits upon are nuanced, and the sorghum pecans, much like the brown sugar candied variety, hit notes both sweet and smoky.
Elévé: Tuna Crudo, Pumello and Cara Cara Oranges, Satsuma Tangerine Gastrique, Meyer Lemon Crosta, Fresno, Fennel, and Radish
So, all this happens on one plate. Chunks of ruby red tuna are crusted in dehydrated, slightly crispy Meyer Lemon zest, served atop and aside of, well, lots of stuff. You won't get the same bite twice, but each one will be a tasty discovery.
Burwell's: Lobster and Octopus Gyro
Served atop a section of tree trunk, this open-faced gyro with a smoky tahini base is adorned with a veritable garden of ingredients. Watermelon radishes and herbs add so much color that this looks like a faerie offering, but you get to eat it.
Zero George Café: Hamachi Collar, Various Textures of Citrus, Chicory, Truffle Miso
Petrillo's got the kitchen tweezers out, painstakingly adding each element to his dish piece by piece. Fish collar (the section behind the head and the gills) is an under-appreciated cut here in the U.S., but it's prized elsewhere for its buttery texture and mild flavor. Petrillo ramps it up by adding culinary curiosities like crispy, dehydrated Cara Cara, geleed Pumello, and herb flowers, each placed thoughtfully and meaningfully on the plate. It kind of breaks your heart to dismantle it, but you won't be sad for long.
The Ocean Room: Burrata with Citrus
If feasting on a big dollop of fresh cheese while looking out onto the ocean isn't enough temptation for you, the plate is lovingly adorned with grapefruit, citrus vinaigrette, basil gel, and black pepper brioche crisps (which deserve a basket all to themselves).
Hank's: Snapper with Royal Trumpet Mushrooms, Sunchokes, Micro Basil, and Truffled Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette*
The crispy-seared snapper is exceptional, but those sunchokes though. The artichoke-y, potato-y vegetable is perfectly tender, and Richardson has left the skins on for textural complexity. Meanwhile, truffles and Meyer lemons should get a room. Everything works together perfectly.
Bohemian Bull: Satsuma Duck Egg Roll
After confiting some duck thighs, Young mixes in Satsuma tangerine zest, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, shiitakes, green onions, garlic, and ginger, and uses it to fill his fat, crispy egg rolls, a welcome riff on the Chinese fave, orange duck. The soy-chili sauce, infused with more Satsuma, would be mighty nice spread on a slice of white toast. Dunking the egg roll in it — next-level.
Why can't everything in life come in a tuiles (a light and crispy vanilla cookie cup)? Both the truffle and the sorbet honor the citrus well, but a tuiles filled with Parker's little jewels of petit fours? That's entertainment.
Poogan's Hospitality Group: Satsuma Cookies & Milk
As if the hazelnut-tangerine thumbprint cookies aren't good enough (and they are), the twee posset of thickened milk — like a crème brulee-yogurt hybrid — makes you feel like a grown-up as you eat a classic after-school snack. Plus you get a fun spoon. That's a grown-up reason to order something too, right?
The Glass Onion: Meyer Lemon-Buttermilk Custard
Sigh. A buttermilk crème custard topped with Meyer lemon curd. Don't go alone. You'll eat the whole thing in six minutes and then feel guilty, or so I've heard. Bring a swimming buddy and dive in.
Fish: Wishful Thinking
Cold butter rum syrup — a feat in and of itself — blends with Satsumas, coriander, allspice berries, crème de cocao, and sherbet syrup for a dessert drink... that I drank at 9:30 a.m.
Burwell's: A Thriving Haven
A kind of tropical punch winterized by bitters and fresh herbs, Jonathan Calo's cocktail really does taste like it's thriving.
Indaco: The Jewel Runner
Chafin looks like a badass as he crushes huge Pumellos behind the bar. Roughly the size of a huge grapefruit and similar, but sweeter, in flavor profile, the fruits' juices aren't the easiest to extract. But he's doing it and combining the juice with Green Chartreuse, Herbsaint, and Hat Trick Gin, and topping the drink off with house-made coffee-pecan bitters. The result is a funky, herby concoction that's anything but boring. Tame drinkers may not appreciate this one, but those who crave something a little different will be enthralled.
SOL Southwest Kitchen & Tequila Bar: Spiked Winter Lemonade
SOL's lemonade is made with vodka, Meyer lemons, and juniper berry/rosemary simple syrup. A grilled lemon slice and rosemary sprig add depth and complexity, transforming the summery drink into a winter one.
Home Team BBQ: Gomero Blanco
A collab by the Home Team "team," this cocktail of fresh Ruby Red grapefruit and lime juices and tequila is enlivened by my new obsession: Grapefruit Stiegl Radler, a dry, low-alcohol beer that I want to pour on everything from salad to cereal. So thanks, Home Team, for further corrupting me.
Poogan's Hospitality Group: Sgt. Jasper's Satsuma Smash
Cara oranges and honeyed apricot/smoked hickory bitters give this drink layers. It's fresh and hearty all at once, with spicy back notes.
Cassandra Stoiber Edwall
Elévé: Élevé au soleil
Edwall says her drink ideas come to her in dreams. Maybe that's why this play on a French 75 is so light and ethereal. She makes an oleo-saccharum of Meyer lemons, which is the natural oil derived from breaking down the peels to release their essence — a trick commonly used by 19th-century barkeeps as a way to provide an elegantly citrusy flavor and aroma, but not used nearly enough today. She adds Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka, St. Germain Liqueur (because, St. Germain), and a rather dry Roderer Estate Brut, topping the whole thing off with a spear of blackberries and a sprig of mint. So dreamy.
Prohibition: Yeamans Collins
If you're looking for some alcohol lore, talk to Farley for a few minutes. His ability to recount the history and eccentricities of spirits galore will leave your head spinning. His take on a Tom Collins pays homage to the golf-club yuppies of Hanahan, where he grew up, and is a heady concoction of Bombay Sapphire, Meyer lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, and ginger beer.
Prohibition: L'amore Swizzle
Gordan's take on a tiki drink doesn't lack his signature whimsy. Fresh lemon juice, Montenegro, Amaro, Faretti Biscotti Liqueur, and Bacardi Ron Anos are topped off with aromatic bitters and served in a tall, fun glass of crushed ice.
Circa 1886: Oughtanot
As in, you "oughta not" have another. Cute, no? Cointreau, Meyer lemon, and Veuve Clicquot champagne are pleasant, but what really sets things off is a dash of plum drinking vinegar — it adds enormous flavor without overwhelming with booze.
The Cocktail Club: What's the Word?
Schenzel uses MSG extract (don't judge), aperitivo, and Yellow Chartreuse — which has a subtler, less botanically-complex body than its green cousin — to punctuate Silver High West Oat Whiskey. If you don't normally go for whiskey, this is a good gateway. The white whiskey has a much milder flavor and allows other ingredients to come through.
Cypress: The Naranja
This cocktail is packing some pretty serious heat from freshly muddled jalapeño and clementine, with a punch of ginger and Altos Tequila rounding things out. A nice sipper for anyone looking for a tastebud-tingler.
On Forty One: Chinese Christmas
Man, this Satsuma juice drink is good. Zekus created it with Asian holidays in mind, when fresh fruits are often given as gifts. Hat Trick Botanical Gin, a nice kick from red and green jalapeño simple syrup, and flavor notes from star anise, lemongrass, and lime juice give the drink a complex but balanced body. Screw the fruit — let's start gifting this instead.