Recently, I took a road trip down to South Carolina’s tropical(ish) paradise, the Lowcountry. The Lowcountry region is in the southernmost, coastal region of the state and is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Savannah River and the state of Georgia.
The cuisine of the Lowcountry is a complex mix of Gullah cuisine, soul food, and Southern cooking and includes (details courtesy of Discover South Carolina):
Garlic crabs – Crabs dusted in flour, fried and drenched in a garlicky butter sauce
Hoppin’ John – A rice pilau (pronounced “per-low”) studded with field peas
Okra soup – A thick stew consisting of tomatoes, rice, okra, seasonings and seafood or meat
Red rice – Rice cooked with tomatoes, bits of pork, celery, onions and peppers, sometimes paired with shrimp
The list goes on with she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, grilled and roasted oysters, bbq, Frogmore stew (a boil of shrimp, sausage, fresh corn, potatoes and onions named for a small town in South Carolina)
Needless to say, I took this short jaunt from Raleigh to relax by a pool under swaying palm trees and indulge in the renowned regional cooking. Of all of the restaurants I tried, Nectar Farm Kitchen in the gorgeous Southern gothic town of Bluffton had the most interesting menu – such Southern flair and ingenuity! Here are the starters served at brunch.
While perusing the menu, I decided to post this picture on my Facebook page and ask this:
Okay, gang, so these are the starters for brunch. If you were here with me, which one would you order? (Click the picture for the full starter menu). I gotta know about the Southern Poutine. But, whew, those deviled eggs with cracklings…
Some people posted their choice, some texted me, and some even sent an email. The results? The winners were:
1. Deviled eggs – These were hands down the top choice – folks were fascinated with the combo with orange marmalade and chicken cracklings
2. Sticky buns
3. Fried green tomatoes
4. A tie between the deviled crab balls and the poutine
I have to tell ya’ – I was surprised that the tomato hand pie barely registered. This sounds glorious.
So what did I get? Well, whenever I try breakfast in a Southern restaurant, I HAVE to try the grits. I judge all places by how they do their grits.
And the verdict? AMAZING grits. They were thick and dense while at the same time still creamy. Grits should be thick enough that you can make use your spoon to shape them into a mountain , like Richard Dreyfuss did in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with his mashed potatoes. Grits, when cooked properly, can also be a beacon as to where the aliens will be landing. I also tried the grits at Nectar’s Hilton Head location. Alas, they were not as good. They were runny and not as flavorful. Those grits could be used to fashion a river, but not a mountain.
I did learn that Nectar is owned by the Serg Restaurant Group, a group that dominates the culinary scene on the island and surrounding area. This restaurant group quite brilliantly produces a Lowcountry “Menu Guide” that features, of course, their restaurants and menus. These guides can be found all over the island and tourists grab them up and make their restaurant choices based on this guide. It is smart marketing in an upscale area where most tourists seem to be over 55 years old and still look at physical, printed publications for travel and food tips. (I did bump into one of my favorite Hollywood actors – Luis Guzman – while lounging at the pool at my resort. He was there as master of ceremonies for the Hilton Head Seafood Festival) He is my favorite character in the film “Boogie Nights”: “Wear what you dig, man. Wear what you dig.”
Alas, I was not in the Lowcountry long enough to explore Gullah cooking. I am still kicking myself for not carving out extra time for this. But I had to come back to Raleigh to take the ServSafe Manager exam (measures your knowledge of health and safety in a professional kitchen) so that I can be a standout to hire for a cooking job. I have decided that I want to cook professionally in some form or fashion. Or at least learn much more about the back-of-house operations. Unfortunately, I was so busy eating out and pondering food and walking my dog on the beach and reading Eric Ripert’s autobiography that I didn’t study for the ServSafe exam like I should have. And I am really worried that I failed it. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Bottom line, the Lowcountry is worth a vacation trip just to explore their culinary arts alone. The beach and palm trees and gorgeous marsh country are all a part of their food history and you will not be disappointed. Oh, and I did try another of the Serg Group’s restaurants, One Hot Mamma, and I have a LOT of good things to say about that. But that is for another time.