There are two cities that I could return to again and again - and again - and never tire of: Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. On the surface, you may think they have a trapped-in-amber quality - and they do in the very best ways - but they are two cities with an edge, defying convention and breaking free of common perceptions.
Charleston clings to the edge a little closer than Savannah, but both cities are constantly reinventing and renewing, whether that's through maintaining and preserving a sense of history of old buildings by adapting them for new use (see some of the decades-old buildings the Savannah College of Art and Design has renovated) or by being a national attraction on the culinary scene (Sean Brock, anyone?), where you can find food that's both traditional AND modern and like no where else all at the same time.
I lived in Georgia from 2001 to 2003 when I was getting my Masters at Georgia State University - in fact, I only applied to all-Georgia graduate schools because I wanted to live in the state for a while and experience the South, a South much deeper than Virginia. And, if afforded me a closer proximity to Savannah, another bonus.
Any chance I get - and it is way too far and few in between these days - I visit Charleston and Savannah and absorb the sea salt air, coastal, flow-y, Spanish moss vibe, southern hospitality and all-around decadence that is ingrained in the air, soil, trees and streets. These cities know how to live and take care of people.
So take a quickie photographic tour through the lens of my most recent visit to the Hostess City of the South, spring 2015, and try not to fall in love.
It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway!), the fast-casualization – an industry buzzword for "fast food, but healthier for you" – of dining in the U.S. is happening and its in your face. Au Bon Pain, Panera Bread, Chipotle, Shake Shack and the like all fall into the "fast casual" category, and they are virtually everywhere. Every new shopping center development has at least one (plus a Target. . . And a Bed, Bath & Beyond. And a Five Below, but I digress.) And I am not demonizing them, because I'll pull over at an Au Bon Pain for a cheese danish any day. And the turkey artichoke panini that Panera used to have on the menu was on point. I'm all for when corporate dining establishments realize that using as-fresh-as-possible ingredients in their menu items is good for everyone.
Countless locally owned take-out joints and on-the-go, mom-and-pop cafés in cites and towns across America pre-existed these omnipresent, fast casual eateries – they saw a good thing and sought to capitalize. It's the American way. What the Paneras and Chipotles of the world don't have is a sense of place or uniqueness. They are not "one-of-a-kind." Richmond's Sally Bell's Kitchen (708 West Grace Street), however, is singular.
The irony is (hopefully) not lost on anyone that Panera and Chipotle have set up shop within a stone's throw of Sally Bell's in the VCU-revitalized section of Grace. The adorable little take-out sells boxed lunches featuring all-time classic southern staples just like Granny use to make, like potato salad, macaroni salad, deviled eggs, 10+ flavors of cupcakes, and a variety of sandwiches, from chicken salad and pimento cheese to roast beef and Swiss and egg salad.
Walking through the dual-doored entrance, seeing the brightly frosted upside-down cupcakes lined up behind the glass, and peering back into the kitchen itself where the made-from-scratch magic happens, is an experience in itself. I like what I like, so I typically go for the chicken salad with potato salad side and chocolate with yellow batter cupcake. The box comes with a delicately wrapped deviled egg and pecan-topped cheese wafer. It's the perfect meal for a hot summer day, when your appetite gets worked up from the heat and you need some tasty carbs, starches and proteins to get you going again.
A testament to Sally Bell's originality in the culinary arts, not just in Richmond but nationally, is its recent honor by the James Beard Foundation, which named it an American Classic, recognizing it's "timeless appeal." Not long ago, Saveur glowingly referred to their lunches as "paradise in a box," and Southern Living listed it among "The South's Best Cheap Eats Under $10."
Sally Bell's has operated on Grace St. since 1924. About a year ago, it was reported that VCU purchased the property where they run the shop, and has plans to develop it down the road. No doubt many will be sad to see Sally Bell's move to a new location, because – and to use another industry buzzword – this modest sandwich shop and bakery is Grace Street's real "anchor tenant."
This time last year, I was at work on one of the greatest assignments a girl could ask for – photographing the Richmond brew community in all its splendor for the book, "Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City" published by The History Press, which is based in Charleston, S.C.
The book was released in the fall of 2014. The author is, of course, Lee Graves, then "The Beer Guy" columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and all around craft beer historian and aficionado. A few weeks after its release, news had come from the publisher that the book had already gone into a second printing. Hopefully by now, it's in its third or fourth.
When I moved back to Richmond in 2013, I had no idea that craft beer was over-taking the city. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery seemed to be catching all of the buzz at the time, with others like Strangeways Brewing, Midnight Brewery, Isley Brewing Co. and Center of the Universe Brewing Co. hot on their heels. I had to up my knowledge of the suds scene, so I dove right in and wrote a story on the "brew trail" from NoVa to RVA for Northern Virginia Magazine.
In the article, I quoted Strangways' founder Neil Burton, who referred to Richmond’s brew scene as "'probably the fastest growing in the United States,' noting the surge in the number of breweries from three just two years ago to nine in early 2014."
Well, since then, even MORE breweries have taken root, including Ardent Craft Ales, Triple Crossing Brewing, Rock Bottom (Restaurant and) Brewery, Rusty Beaver Brewery, and not counting the myriad of pre-existing brewpubs, bottle shops and homebrew supply stores – too many to name here – and new brewery announcements that seem to be unending.
Before aaalllll of these new craft beer brewers, however, there was Extra Billy's Smokehouse & Brewery and the grandaddy of local beer-makers, Legend Brewery. (And yes, there were others before those, but you can read about that history in "Richmond Beer.")
As I whittled down the top candidates from all of the photos I took that summer to submit to the publisher, there were many others that I loved that just couldn't all get squeezed in because – hey, they can't all go to print – so I'm sharing some of those faves here with this little "Richmond Beer" retrospective.
Lee Graves may have put it best in the book when he said that "the story of beer reflects the story of Richmond itself. . . . Richmond has always loved, embraced and celebrated beer," a current sentiment that's "coincid[ing] with a renaissance on several fronts – brewing, dining, artistic creativity, urban hipness, outdoor recreation and civic pride." You can see and feel it when you walk down the street or take a sip of a Honey Ginger or Gingerbread Stout. That's the taste of history being made.
Charleston, S.C. is one of my favorite cities. So is Savannah, Ga. (which will be a separate post.) What I love about both cities are their deep sense of history, character, reverence AND hedonistic charm - it all mixes together and permeates the air, the streets and the people. While both are deeply southern, Charleston is a bit more upscale, Savannah a little grittier, but no less welcoming.
In Charleston, the main strip is sandwiched between King Street and Meeting Street, an area packed block-to-block with only-in-the-South-type cafes, boutiques, restaurants, markets, museums, historic sites and other things-to-do-and-see. One truly needs at least a week - if not more time - to uncover all that Charleston offers.
Charleston's side streets are even more interesting, and are quickly being filled with shops that you need to just drive around and discover on your own, on a whim. The less touristy sections will also give you a chance to see some incredible historic homes, where you can peer in through the wrought iron gates at the dressed up entryways and secret gardens.
I was in Charleston in May, and only had two full days to spend there this go-round. I've visited a few times before, so fortunately I could point myself in the right direction. But the city - much like any desirable city - changes year to year. Even still, when I arrived, I made a beeline for the Battery, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers converge at Charleston Harbor. White Point Garden, a live oak-filled waterfront park, and Rainbow Row, a cluster of famously colorful antebellum homes, are also located here at the tip of the peninsula.
Later, I returned to King Street because, quite frankly, I wanted to shop. Because of my affinity for baked goods, I made sure I allocated time for a hard-target bakery spree - if there was a bake or sandwich shop (because, like Liz Lemon, I love a good sandwich) within a reasonable radius and time allotment, I was there. The hit list included Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts, Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, Cupcake Down South, Queen Street Grocery and Bull Street Market (which I knew of before, and LOVE). I missed Butcher & Bee, and Saffron Bakery, and apparently several others, this time around. And yes, I did visit Southern Season in Mount Pleasant to stock up on local brews (like this lovely Gose, a German-style sour wheat beer from Westbrook Brewing Co.).
I only had a chance to visit one restaurant while there (because the wait was short, and we were hungry dammit). Those "Best Charleston Restaurant" lists have been compiled but others and you can find them here and here if you need guidance on where to get your grub on.
In addition to sight-seeing and bakery-escapading, the rest of my time in Charleston was spent meandering the back streets, gazing at the mansions and architecture, or exploring Sullivan's Island.
Charleston has a lot in common with Richmond. . . motor down Monument Avenue or take a walk along East Grace Street in Church Hill anytime and - except for the lack of palmettos and Spanish moss - it feels like you could be in the Holy City. Looking forward to a return visit.
The Church Hill neighborhood has been garnering quite a bit of attention lately in the press. . . I've always admired the area for its "stately" homes and architecture, cobblestone streets, views of the James River and strong sense of history and preservation. Over the past several years, however, the food scene has been attracting just as much attention, and of not just locales, but folks from around the region and nation.
When I heard about The Dog & Pig Show (314 N. 25th St.), the name alone intrigued. When I had a look at their menu, I knew this was going to be an instant favorite.
The Dog & Pig Show proprietors James and Isabel Eckrosh opened the humbly-sized yet hotly-anticipated new take-out restaurant winter 2014. The menu is described as "South Central Asian cuisine meets the American South and the Big Easy." (More on the history of its opening here.)
With re-mixed deeply southern-slash-Asian staples like the Pulled Pork Po' Boy, Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Tomato Habanero Soup, Laotian Style Hot Salad and other rotating menu items, its tempting to not order everything on the living wall menu board, walk out with an arm-load of take-out, and just hold your head high knowing full well you are a glutton. I reigned in that impulse.
Instead, I ordered the Shrimp & Grits (consisting of Gulf Shrimp, Cheese Grits, Bacon Butter, Kimchi, Garlic, Herbs + Roe), which is one of my all-time favorite southern dishes, and it met every expectation – spicy, but not too spicy, and full of rich, savory, buttery flavor.
Not to be overlooked are The Dog & Pig Show's baked goods, which get a big fat "heart" from me every time I see a pastry or biscuit Instagrammed by the restaurant. Think Strawberry and St. Germaine Ricotta Tarts, Carmel Crack Latte Cookies, Lavender and Cardamon Alfajores and more creative sweets. Below, the Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie. . .
Needless to say, The Dog & Pig Show is an incredible, raise-the-bar-even-higher addition to Richmond's burgeoning "food scene," and. . . I will be back for that Chorizo Biscuit.
I'm trying to determine if "instant" craft cocktails are something I should be buying. . . I saw this in Fresh Market (Carytown) the other day, and I'll admit it intrigued me, so plopped it in my grocery basket.
Owl's Brew produces three different kinds of micro-batch, fresh-brewed, tea-based blends for cocktails: The Classic, a blend of English Breakfast lemon and lime, Coco-Lada, a blend of black tea, coconut, chai spices, pineapple juice and agave, and Pink & Black, a blend of darjeeling, hibiscus, lemon peel, strawberry and agave. I'm a fan of the sweet taste of hibiscus, so I went with the latter.
The concoction called for two parts brew (Pink & Black) and one part booze (vodka was my choice, although you can mix it with tequila or whiskey as an alternative). I added a couple of strawberries for a little more of that flavor.
I gotta say, even though it was the easy way out - I didn't get to muddle anything - it was still a refreshing vodka cocktail. At least I added a little of my own "craft" in there by tossing in some strawberries, which, by the way, are the best part of the cocktail once you get to the bottom (IMHO). I still like the idea of going through all of the effort of creating a drink largely from scratch, but if your "happy hour" just can't wait, then go for a ready-to-pour mixer like Owl's Brew. Although I do want to make this next, with no help.
I did a very quick search online for salsa recipes, and thought Alton Brown's looked easy enough. BUT. . . I didn't add jalapenos, ancho chiles, olive oil or lime. Or chili powder. So I guess I really didn't follow his recipe, but I was inspired by it.
Here's what's in mine:
a variety of tomatoes, including the Goliaths growing on my balcony
a variety of peppers, including the Giant Marconi, also growing on my balcony
salt and pepper
...and shot (or two) of Stoli
I don't know why I was compelled to add vodka, other than I'm interested in the combination of certain "spirits" and baking, especially when added to desserts, so it made sense on that level. Either way, my recipe turned out nicely - garden fresh - and that's all that matters.
I'm not a cocktail expert. . . but how hard can it be?
I picked up an interesting-looking book called The Cocktail Club: A Year of Recipes and Tips for Spirited Tasting Parties at Mongrel in Carytown recently, hoping it would spark some creativity in the art and science of cocktail-making in my kitchen. I have immersed myself as much as humanly possible in the world of beer the past six months - its time to expand my palate a little (but I'd try out home brewing if I had the space.)
So summer. . . it's the ideal time to experiment with different cocktails, which I have a feeling I will be modifying, based on my tastes. I found a nice collection of recipes on TheKitchn.com today, "20 Summer Cocktails with Fresh Herbs," and I may end up making half of them, they look so good. (The author of The Cocktail Club, incidentally, is a columnist for TheKitchen.com! I knew I picked the right book. . .)
The first one I selected was Peach Whisky Smash. . . I had some Apricot Simple Syrup (snagged at Union Market in Church Hill) already, and I wanted to make a cocktail with peaches in another recipe, so picked up some apricots at the grocery, and tweaked the recipe. Instead of peaches, I subbed apricots, of course, and in lieu of mint, I added basil. I have gobs and gobs of basil on my upper floor deck, and I don't want to see it go to waste.
I wasn't sure about the combo of basil and apricots but. . . I was pleasantly surprised how tasty it turned out - and how "not too shabby" my cocktail-making skills are!
I don't have a lot of experience with terrace gardening. . . but as someone who loves growing and nurturing flowers (a photography obsession) and gardens, I had to plant a few things on my upper level apartment balcony. It's been a learning experience.
What I have planted:
While some plants are thriving better than others, the "testing" what works and what doesn't is almost as much interest to me. There is a surprising amount of heat that's generated on an upper floor deck... I thought it would be cooler and more breezy up here. But it bakes everything, and I have to water almost twice daily. I'm pretty sure all of my plants would be happier in the ground.
That said, the tomatoes are faring well, but the peppers will bud flowers and then drop off. A recent transplant has helped. The artichokes, which I don't see grown often around here, started off promising... ...and then I transplanted them into separate containers, and then they had to recover from transplant shock. They are picking back up now, but it may be too late in the season for them to get to where they need to be. At least I know that I can seed them with success. The fennel also don't like being container-bound, but I over-planted anyway so there is a crowding issue.
You can almost see the changes in each plant daily as they grow. . . It will be interesting to see how they develop over the summer, and adjust and adapt.
For my inaugural post, it would seem natural for one to offer up a blog purpose or mission. . . but I'd rather start with some photos of bubbles.
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