“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged-shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. . . . In its shadows you can find metal work as delicate as lace . . . it’s not a high-kicking, glossy lipstick city.”
These words from legendary author Pat Conroy display two important truths. First, Charleston is truly a southern treasure. Second, Pat Conroy is a much better writer than I am. Given that he also put out a cookbook, he also might be a better chef than I am. Not that that’s anything to be ashamed of; I’m a big fan of Pat Conroy and I’m well aware of my limitations.
But luckily, I don’t have to know how to make Lowcountry cuisine from scratch to know how to enjoy it. Truthfully, Charleston is one of the best food cities in the country because of its abundance of options. Much like New Orleans is a fantastic place to eat because of its cultural influences and access to natural resources, the same is true of Charleston. If you can’t find something to enjoy in this city, you simply haven’t spent enough time looking.
Truthfully, you shouldn’t have to spend much time looking, because it doesn’t get much better than the Hominy Grill. Located in downtown Charleston, Hominy Grill has been winning rave reviews ever since it opened in 1996. It doesn’t hurt that chef and owner Robert Stehling’s story is the ultimate example of hard work winning the day. He began his restaurant career washing dishes at a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C. and ultimately rose to eventually open his own place. When he did, he showed that he knew what he was doing, winning acclaim as the best chef in the Southeast from the James Beard Foundation. That’s pretty high praise, and it’s why this place has been high on my list for many years.
From the moment you sit down to get started at Hominy Grill, you know that you’re not in the typical restaurant. One of the most obvious signs is the opening appetizer that greets its diners. At many restaurants, you start out with bread or crackers, which can range from quite good to forgettable, but usually don’t impress anyone that much. At Hominy Grill, much to Amy’s delight, you’re presented with a bowl of boiled peanuts.
If you’ve never been to the Southeast, boiled peanuts are about as Southern as you can get. The peanuts are boiled in their shells and then served, and when they’re done right, they are fantastic. These peanuts are most definitely done right. The taste and texture of them can best be described as like a good mashed potato. I’d never had peanuts boiled this well, and I loved every bite of them. However, boiled peanuts can also be a trap because if you eat too many, you’re going to miss some of the great things on Hominy Grill’s menu.
One example was our appetizer. Amy loves fried green tomatoes, and it was pretty obvious when we saw them on the menu that we’d be trying them here. Fried green tomatoes can be tough to pull off because the key to them is the breading. If the breading doesn’t work well with whatever you’re frying, the dish suffers, and that’s especially true with fried green tomatoes because of the moisture in the tomatoes.
This breading, however, was crispy the entire way through and didn’t interfere with the taste of the tomato. If you’ve read my work before, you know that I am very particular about my breadings. I want to taste what’s inside the breading, and Hominy Grill absolutely delivers with these tomatoes.
With her appetizer choice out of the way, it was my turn. From the moment that Amy and I decided we were going to Charleston, I knew that I’d be getting some she-crab soup. She-crab soup is a Charleston staple that gets its name from the fact that it can only be made from female crabs. That’s because a good part of its flavor comes from the roe (eggs) that are only found in the female’s body. The roe and crab meat are blended with milk or cream into a bisque, and the most important non-crab addition comes in the form of sherry.
I’m not a wine drinker, as has been well documented here, but I do love when alcohol in my food makes something better. The flavor of sherry is a major bonus in a good crab or lobster bisque, and I knew that I had something good coming when I could smell the sherry as it was brought to our table.
I’ve had some good crab soups before. This was unlike anything that I’ve ever had before. This bisque is creamy and full of crab meat in every bite. The flavor is simply perfect, and if not for what I knew was coming, I would have wished I’d ordered a bowl instead of a cup. It’s definitely one of the best soups I’ve ever had.
But the main thing I was here for was the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, which might have a terrible name, but is one of the best creations I’ve ever tasted. If you’ve ever had chicken-fried chicken, you’ve got a basic idea of what makes the Nasty Biscuit so outstanding. Basically, the Nasty Biscuit consists of fried chicken breast on a biscuit, covered in cheddar cheese and sausage gravy. As for the name, it comes from Stehling’s mechanic.
Apparently, Stehling and his mechanic would occasionally go to breakfast together at Hardee’s, and the mechanic would flirt with the Hardee’s workers in an effort to get them to pour sausage gravy on his chicken biscuit. The workers would jokingly tell him he was “so nasty”, and inspiration struck Stehling, as it does with the best chefs. Soon after, the Big Nasty was born. There was one hitch, however: national chain McAlister’s Deli already had that name trademarked for its open-faced roast beef sandwich. So in 2013, Stehling avoided a lawsuit and changed the name to the Charleston Nasty Biscuit.
Under any name, the Nasty Biscuit is fantastic. The biscuit is perfect, firm on the outside and soft on the inside. In my opinion, the mark of a good biscuit is that it can be eaten and enjoyed on its own, without any additions. If you’ve ever had a biscuit at a hotel’s continental breakfast, you know that most biscuits there are incredibly hard and require gravy or jelly just to make them edible.
Not so with these biscuits. The gravy is simply making an already good thing better, which is how a good biscuit should be done. As far as the gravy goes, it’s unlike any that I’ve ever had before, and that’s because of the cheddar cheese. While in the restaurant, I didn’t realize at first that the cheddar was there. I looked for the cheddar briefly before deciding that I didn’t care if it was on there or not because the biscuit was so good.
It was only when I sat down to write this blog that I looked at the photo and realized the cheddar had been there all along. First, they use white cheddar here, not the orange that many American establishments love. That’s a big plus for me, because white cheddar is one of my favorite cheeses. Second, the cheddar actually melts into the gravy, taking the flavors to another level. I’m not the biggest fan of gravy on its own, but this was more than gravy. This was more of a Mornay sauce, and the flavor was spot on. With some onions, peppers and chicken stock thrown in, the gravy was simply perfect.
Amy opted for the shrimp and grits, the other major specialty of the Hominy Grill. In fact, when we placed our order, our waitress immediately told us that we knew exactly what we were doing. That’s always a good sign when the staff compliments your order after you’ve placed it, because they’re not in any kind of sell at that point.
They don’t really need to sell this dish, either. The shrimp and grits are fantastic, and truthfully, with their name and location, they should be. Charleston is well-known for quality seafood, and hominy is actually the basis of grits, as it’s ground up to make the dish. So this should be a signature dish, and it absolutely delivers. The shrimp are plump, juicy and well-cooked, while an addition of bacon and mushrooms provides great flavor and texture to work with the base. Amy is hard to please on her bacon, but this bacon worked perfectly for her, as did the rest of the dish.
If you’ve read this far, you might notice that I haven’t even mentioned sides yet. That’s because sides don’t come standard at the Hominy Grill. Truthfully, in terms of eating, you don’t need the sides because portions are pretty large, and one entree is going to be enough for one person. But if you have a side or two that you want to try, Hominy Grill offers 16 different standard options, plus a couple specials. To get the most diversity, you can opt for a plate of three sides with a piece of cornbread, which is what we chose.
Sides can range from the expected, such as the macaroni and cheese, which is still quite good, to the truly unique of deep-fried grits. Yes, you can actually get cheese grits battered and fried here, and while they are heavy, they’re definitely delicious. I’d recommend sharing them so that you get the great taste without overindulging on them. Our third choice was one of the specials, which was squash and hominy with feta in a tomato base. They’re all good complements to your main dish without stealing the show from the entree. I’d order any of them again.
The thing that does steal the show from the entree, however, is the dessert. Hominy Grill has several homemade desserts to choose from on their board, but if you’ve never been here before, you absolutely have to try the chocolate pudding. In fact, once we requested it, our waitress said that she all but forces her customers to order it if they haven’t decided on dessert. Well, then.
After one bite, I could see why. This is the best pudding I have ever tried, period. The texture of the pudding is more like the interior of a truffle. It’s the perfect mix of not being too firm and not being too soft, and the chocolate flavor is simply sensational. The whipped cream on top is a beautiful complement, and the only complaint I had with this dish was that I wanted more. This has to be one of the best desserts that I’ve ever tried.
Apparently, their other desserts are every bit as good. I had about five desserts I would have loved to try, including the chocolate peanut butter cake and the brown sugar pound cake, both of which sound like they’d be instant favorites of mine. Brian Hurst swears by the pecan pie, and after seeing this picture that he was kind enough to share, I can see why.
Hominy Grill might have only been around for the past 21 years, but they’re not kidding when they say it feels like it’s been around for generations. This is exactly what I think of when I think of eating well in the Southeast. The best way I can probably sum up their reputation is this: On my way out to my car to retrieve my phone, I was stopped by a man on vacation with a simple question, “Is this the place that serves the famous shrimp and grits?”
Yes, it is…along with a lot of other great stuff.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. You’ll be able to get a lot of great breakfast options at breakfast, including the Nasty Biscuit and shrimp and grits, but lunch and dinner are when you can try the desserts and the plate of sides. It’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for breakfast
Wait during my visit: None. That could be because of the small parking lot, or it could be because we were fortunate. I’m not entirely sure, but plan on a possible wait just to be safe
Location: Hominy Grill is located at 207 Rutledge Ave. in Charleston, S.C.
Cost: It’s not cheap, but it isn’t too terrible either. The most expensive thing on the menu for brunch is the shrimp and grits, which comes in at $19. However, be warned: you will spend a good amount of money here, not because the cost is so much, but because you’ll want to try so many things. Plan on about $30-35 a person to allow for sides, soup and dessert.
Parking: There is a very small lot by the restaurant, and you basically just have to hope you catch it at the right time. Charleston is not a car-friendly city, so you’re in for a mess if you have to search for street parking. I gave it two circles before getting lucky, and you might want to do the same.
Seating arrangement: The tables are kind of old-timey, like you’d expect in the old South. They are, however, designed for today’s customers, so you shouldn’t have issues with them.
Website: Hominy Grill
Specialty items: Nasty Biscuit, Shrimp and grits, Chocolate pudding
Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve been active here, but I had a great reason for that. I simply haven’t had time to blog as of late, mainly because I spent the majority of the past three months undertaking the most important change of my life: giving Amy a new last name.
Yes, after almost a year and a half of being engaged, my wonderful fiancee is now my wonderful wife, and I am even luckier than I already was. Of course, with a wedding comes a honeymoon, and it simply wouldn’t be our lives if the two of us didn’t find ourselves a great restaurant or two while enjoying the start of our lives as a married couple.
One of those places proved to be in Greenville, South Carolina, the largest city in the Upstate region of the Palmetto State. Located along Interstate 85 between Charlotte and Atlanta, Greenville has quietly positioned itself as an underrated gem in the shadows of its two larger neighbors, mainly because of the sheer beauty that is its downtown. After all, there aren’t too many places that feature a downtown with a natural waterfall, and it’s even rarer for such a situation to occur in a city of 400,000 (OK, technically Greenville has a population of 62,000, but that’s only because of South Carolina’s very weird laws on city annexation that make it virtually impossible for cities to grow their official populations in the state), which has helped make Greenville an attractive place to live.
Of course, when that’s the case, that means there are going to be good restaurants to be found. In Greenville, that’s especially true because of the city’s competition not only with Charlotte and Atlanta, but also with fellow South Carolina city Charleston. The Lowcountry (South Carolina is divided into the Lowcountry, the Midlands and the Upstate) has long had a reputation for great cuisine on the beach, and although the Upstate can’t do anything about its geography, it can certainly compete on the restaurant scene. In fact, according to an Esquire article in 2013, Greenville has 110 restaurants within a mile and a half of its Main Street, and that’s just downtown.
Appropriately, one of the best downtown options is The Green Room, located right on Main Street just north of the center of downtown. Unlike the rivalry of Nashville vs. Memphis, the rivalry of Upstate vs. Lowcountry appears to be a friendly one, as The Green Room claims that its style is “Upstate Casual”, which supposedly blends the “casualness of the Lowcountry with the sophistication of the Upstate.” Hmm, that was subtle. Maybe this rivalry isn’t quite so friendly after all.
Friendly or not, it was good news for me, because I’ve clearly learned nothing from my experience in Louisville and headed downtown in shorts, which meant that my wife and I needed a place that doesn’t have a dress code to enjoy our evening in the Upstate. Luckily, not only does The Green Room oblige, but it has a reputation for being home to some of the best fries in the country. Well, that certainly got our attention, considering how much I love famous things and Amy loves potatoes. Possibly the best fries in the country? This was something we had to try for ourselves.
But the fries wouldn’t come right away, because first on the agenda were The Green Room’s mini crab cakes. Amy will choose crab over almost anything when it comes to seafood, and crab has been one of my favorites too for as long as I can remember (thank you, growing up on the Eastern Seaboard), so this was definitely high on our list. It proved to be well-justified, because these crab cakes are some of the best you’re going to find anywhere. What makes them work so well is the chipotle remoulade sauce they’re served with, which provides the perfect amount of zing without overpowering the crab, a delicate balance to manage.
The crab cakes are blended together perfectly and hold both texture and flavor in every bite. About the only negative is that they aren’t very big, which is both a positive and a negative in the fact that they leave you wanting more. It’s a negative because you’ll wish you had more crab cakes, a positive because it’s a perfect preparation for the rest of what The Green Room has to offer.
For me, that included the other thing that The Green Room is well-known for: the TGR Meatloaf. Apparently, this is by far their most requested dish among regulars, and it’s an order of two pieces of chipotle-glazed meatloaf, a side of jalapeno macaroni and cheese and a side of bacon-creamed peas. Considering that two of those include some heat and I readily admit my low spice tolerance, you would think that this dish would actually be a nightmare for me, rather than something on my list. But actually, I really enjoy a good meatloaf and only have it very occasionally because it’s Amy’s worst nightmare. Given the reputation, heat or no heat, I had to give this a try.
It’s good. It’s very good. First off, the heat is nowhere near the level of Prince’s or Hattie B’s, it’s more of a burst of flavor than anything. It’s very well done, because the key to any good meatloaf is the glaze, and the chipotle glaze is different but excellent, making this an outstanding entree. As far as the sides go, the real star is the bacon-creamed peas. The inclusion of bacon is a stroke of genius and creativity that adds a nice unique layer of flavor to what could otherwise be fairly mundane. The macaroni and cheese is also good, opting for the less is more approach to heat as well with only a small amount of jalapeno noticeable. It’s then topped off with a slice of corn bread and some really good honey butter, which is an excellent finish. The honey butter works beautifully with the corn bread as a nice touch of sweetness, a necessary component to proper corn bread.
To that, we added a Southern staple, fried green tomatoes, which are very well done here because of the addition of an herbed cream cheese as a topping. These can be had as either an appetizer portion or a side portion, with the side portion giving you two tomato slices and I believe the appetizer being at least four. The tomatoes are excellent, as the breading is neither over the top nor totally bland, and the cream cheese counteracts the red pepper relish very well. I’d definitely get these again.
Amy felt the same way about her Green Room Salad, which included delicacies such as gorgonzola cheese, cranberries, apples and a homemade black fig balsamic dressing, which gave an interesting level of sweetness to the flavors. She also added blackened salmon to her salad, which came out well seasoned and meshed with her salad perfectly. I’d just had a rather bland salad a couple days ago in Georgia, and she made sure to note the contrast between that salad and this one she had. Nothing says that a salad has to be boring, and with a perfect blackened salmon on it, this salad was anything but.
As far as the fries? They’re parmesan truffle fries with parsley seasoning, which is what makes them such a great experience. The key to using truffle as a seasoning is to be very light-handed, because a little bit of truffle oil goes a long way, and too much of it can totally overwhelm the flavors. But The Green Room didn’t get its reputation by failing to balance the flavors on its fries, and it’s the parmesan and the potato flavors that are allowed to shine through here. These are outstanding and well worthy of their lofty billing. The only danger is that you might not want to order these if you’re on a first date, because the multitude of dried parsley can and will stick in your teeth upon consumption.
But if that’s the worst thing that happens, that’s a pretty enjoyable meal. Greenville might not yet have the reputation that its more famous neighbors do, but it certainly has the quality that earns such recognition. With excellent entrees and some incredible sides, The Green Room is absolutely worth the trip to the Upstate.
Time to go: Brunch, lunch or dinner. The Green Room has different menus for each time of day, so be sure to check before you go.
Wait during my visit: None, but I have heard the lines here can get very long at peak times, so plan ahead.
Location: The Green Room is at 116 North Main Street in downtown Greenville, S.C.
Cost: It really could be a lot worse in some areas, while a tad high in other aspects. Most entrees will cost about $15-20, while the sides can get expensive at $6 each. However, the fries and tomatoes are quite worth the extra cost.
Parking: Not that bad, considering that Greenville’s downtown offers free parking after 6 p.m. and two-hour free parking during normal work hours.
Seating arrangement: Booths and bar stools
Website: The Green Room
Specialty items: Parmesan truffle fries, meat loaf