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16 November 2012

Tonight's Episode: You have to DishCrawl before you walk

I hate opening night. Having opened restaurants and seeing from that end the growing pains, I try not to be judgmental. Execution can vary, communication can be spotty, the rhythm of the kitchen hasn't developed yet. This fear of opening night tempered my expectations for the first ever Charleston DishCrawl. There were hits and misses, and some outright drops, but I think there is an opportunity here, if properly executed.

DishCrawl is a concept that has evolved from the growing culinary scenes in larger cities around the country. An opportunity to go from restaurant to restaurant, pub crawl style, to try smaller bite versions of signature dishes and meet with the culinary minds behind them. Very much in the style of a progressive dinner. At least thats how it is supposed to work.

Joining The Girl and I is the Birdwatcher, who was excited to explore some places she had never been. We started the night at the venerable Carolina's.  This upscale southern bistro harkens back to long-time favorite Perdita's, even featuring some of the original menu items. Now, I have to admit I haven't been in this restaurant since my good friend Chef Gavin was the exec there (he was already in New York by the time he won a season 1 episode of Chopped). I don't remember it looking so upscale or so well appointed. The space is actually very lovely, but things unraveled fast.

The missteps that would plague the first stop were all organizational. No direction was given on, well, what was going on. People mingled, people sat, people ordered drinks. Out comes two tables worth of food. People stared, afraid of what to do. Would every table get food? Finally, word was passed to go to the tables and take as you will. No description, no chef, no explanation. So, it was up to us to decide what we were eating.
The first of the three dishes was an open faced Rueben, we think. It was tasty, with a nice pickle and a tasty pastrami (we think). Nothing inspired, but tasty. Next was a homemade potato chip with a...um...French Onion dip maybe? The photographer from Art Institute and I had a spoon licking competition to try and identify the flavors. The dip itself was actually tasty, with an almost relish quality to it. Toss that on some hotdogs and I'd be happy. The chips were crispy, which I love, but so salty and thin they overpowered the little bit of dip you could get on them. The third app was a hush puppy that had some sauces that we were not able to get to. The bite was nice, very sweet, but lacked a textural element such as corn or bell pepper that would break up the monotony of the puppy. Overall, nothing said "You need to come back." We were ready to move on


Next up, 'Cesca, the Italian trattoria filling the old Buccaneer (or City Bar) space. The interior is actually very attractive. The main dining room is very elegant and an example at how far the design in Italian restaurants has come from the cheesy portraits of the Italian countryside. 'Cesca was a little better organized, with tables ready for you to grab plates and go, but the food was a little cold. Also, again, no one to come out and explain what we were eating. So, the first dish was some kind of fritter. I'm sure there was cheese involved. If hot, I think it would have been fantastic. The second dish, The Girl's least favorite of the night, was a ravioli with goat cheese maybe? The filling was actually pretty good to me, but the pasta was cold and the olive oil was super aggressive, not only making it greasy but covering most of the plate. The oil also made it difficult to eat the third dish, a crudo of salmon? The oil made the lettuce leaf useless and also stole the brightness of the fish (a dish I really wanted to like). Overall you could see the flavors, but early plating and arranging the overuse of oil doomed the dishes. We will have to make a trip in to do a seated dinner to better judge 'Cesca.

Third stop was the one I had the least amount of hope for. Lowcountry Bistro comes from the 82 Queen family. It's location on the Market (In the old Garibaldi's) and its menu of Southern staples seemed aimed at the black sock-and sandal tourist crowd. If they had crow on the menu, I would eat it. Expectations were not only surpassed, they were blown away. The truth of Lowcountry Bistro is that it is a love letter to Southern ingredients. The care of preparation, and the focus on the beauty of the ingredients, shines through. It is that ingredient-driven cuisine that gets my heart pumping.

The experience at Lowcountry Bistro is what we were promised DishCrawl would be. Sous Chef Victoria (engaging and passionate advocate of locally sourced produce) came out to explain her dishes, which were delivered hot to the table. What wonderful dishes they were!

First up, the shrimp and grits. Parmesan chive grits with a tomato bacon sauce make a strong dish start. Luckily we started there, because the next two dishes were the favorites of the night. The Girl's favorite was the fried green tomato with white cheddar and country ham grits with herb aioli. The grits were actually a star on their own (even given my own hatred for them), showing yet again that hand milled is the way to go. The tomato was perfectly breaded and seasoned, and every bite held together without loss of breading. Five star take on a classic. For myself, the chicken and waffle was the star. A sweet potato bacon cornbread waffle with crispy chicken and a bourbon reduction that hit on every mark. The pecan butter didn't work on this smaller portion (lacked enough waffle to spread/melt) but was very tasty. The bourbon reduction is a decadent and delicious syrup that beats the pants off of Mrs. Butterworth. Home runs across the board. It is also about this time in the DishCrawl the socializing really found its stride, as people began making friends. I think everyone was finally getting into it.


We finished out the night where I've finished many nights downtown, Kaminsky's , for one of their typically delicious deserts. Like LB's before, they had tables set up for us and someone to explain what we were having. This time it was an apple-cranberry strudel crisp with vanilla bean ice cream and apple cider. This would have fallen flat if not for the tart of the cranberry. The cranberry ABSOLUTELY sells the dish. The portion was actually well more than enough to feed two. Excellent way to end the evening.

The Girl, the Birdwatcher, and I agree that there is potential here. The issue is both organizational and expectational. I'm not sure what, exactly, Carolina's and 'Cesca were expecting, but it wasn't what we were expecting. There also needs to be a firm hand guiding and informing us from the very beginning. I would be interested in seeing how things are working 3 months from now, and if the kinks have been worked out.




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