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Taste of Travel: Charleston, S.C.

Southern Fusion : With caviar and fried green tomatoes on the menu, how can anyone ever get back to all that Spoleto arts stuff?

May 11, 1997|ELLIOTT MACKLE | Mackle, former dining critic of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, spends weekends on the South Carolina coast

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Edgy about hitting a 7 p.m. reservation at the city's hottest new restaurant, we threaded our way down teeming North Market Street on a recent Saturday. Pedicab, auto and one-horse carriage traffic was heavy. The single-lane sidewalk was blocked by an emerging busload of bright-eyed couples clad in pastel hoop skirts, butternut gray Confederate-style uniforms and, in a few cases, high-top athletic shoes.

The undergraduates were headed toward a pre-prom feast in one of the old cotton port's disinfected honky-tonks. But we had better things in mind: a quiet table in the dining room of the ultra-luxurious Peninsula Grill.

Droll Charlestonians have joked for centuries that their city occupies the narrow tip of land where the Ashley and Cooper rivers run together to form the Atlantic Ocean. The Peninsula Grill is thus properly, Charlestonly traditional--green velvet-lined walls, 19th century oil portraits, woven sea grass floor mats--yet so wittily conceived as also to feature beluga caviar served with fried green tomatoes and quail eggs and a cadre of actor/model waiters slick enough to step into anybody's prime-time "Savannah" style soap with no advance warning.

The banquet spread before us over the next three hours included chef Robert Carter's low-country oyster stew with baked grits cake, thumbnail-size Johns Island clams with smoked bacon, sweet corn and wild mushroom bruschetta, benne (or sesame) seed-crusted rack of New Zealand lamb with coconut-mint pesto, rosemary-and-lemon marinated chicken on roast garlic sauce, fresh-herb risotto, stewed collards with country ham and cream, coconut cake and roast banana souffle with warm chocolate sauce.

Over coffee (memorable, like almost everything else), a local observer remarked that the candle-lighted room was filled not with tourists but with mostly familiar faces, the majority paying strict attention to updated versions of the region's native, if once-endangered, cuisine.

"But everyone--the big names from all over--will come through this place during the Spoleto Festival USA [May 23 to June 8]," she added.

No wonder. Rice, fresh seafood, French tradition and African ingredients such as benne seeds are the cornerstones of the low-country cooking now enjoying something of a renaissance. The distinctive local style was developed over three centuries in the townhouses, plantation kitchens and slave quarters of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. A rich amalgam of shellfish stews, corn (including corn sticks and the airy souffle called spoon bread), okra from Ethiopia and collards from the eastern Mediterranean, it is notable for blended African-Huguenot rice dishes such as Hoppin' John, the bean-studded pilaf eaten for good luck on New Year's Day.

Frequently cited by regionalists as a close second to the Creole cooking of New Orleans, low-country cuisine has been documented in books such as the Junior League of Charleston's 1950 spiral-bound classic, "Charleston Receipts." (With more than 670,000 copies printed, it is one of the best-selling regional cookbooks of all time.) Yet the city's cooking survived well into this century as a hothouse species with no better chance of enduring than the aristocratic tradition of formal dinner at 2 p.m. served by full-time butlers.

During the last two decades, a number of influences including the Spoleto arts festival and the arrival of a band of ambitious, inquisitive, outsider chefs have transferred Charleston's bounty from domestic kitchens to an increasing number of well-managed restaurants that please both the locals and the rising tide of visitors.

Spoleto Festival USA, founded in 1977 as the American branch of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti's Italian-based Festival of Two Worlds (Menotti has since withdrawn from participation in the Charleston event), attracts singers, dancers, musicians, actors and the public for an annual, two-week round of artistry, choreography and revelry.

Like earlier editions, this year's schedule offers indoor and outdoor performances such as Alban Berg's opera "Wozzeck"; dancing by the San Francisco Ballet and Twyla Tharp at Gaillard Municipal Auditorium; Benjamin Britten's "Curlew River" in the Romanesque Circular Congregational Church; the premiere of a jazz/film/bebop "Lulu Noire" at Sottile Theatre and, in the stylishly reconstructed Dock Street Theatre, a daily miscellany of chamber music, readings (Reynolds Price, Bob Shacochis) and conversations with artists (John Corigliano, Meredith Monk).


Nearly all venues are downtown. Because the area is not only flat and compact but dotted with restored houses, churches and monuments (pick up a map at the Visitor Information Center at 375 Meeting St.), it is possible to eat agreeably before and after events. Formal dining as well as snack strolling--sandwich in one hand, libretto in another--are not only feasible but pleasurable ways to experience what may be America's best-preserved 19th century city.

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