The Farmers Market Dinner at The Swamp Fox Restaurant: Something to root for!
The Francis Marion Hotel casts a wide shadow over the Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square. But no grass grows under the culinary feet of chef de cuisine Ryan Kacenjar.
Every Saturday morning from April to December (the season of the market), Kacenjar makes his way through the market; dodging the lines at the Charleston Crepe Company and circumnavigating the bacon fest gathering at Jason Houser's Meat House stand, and like foragers of old, he seeks out the seasonal, the fresh, the best market sources that day. Like the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," Kacenjar knows the implications of just-picked delicious.
This was the way we ate in years past. There was a season to our foods. And when dining out in a restaurant, it was the market-driven menu that came to the table. It was before refrigerated tractor-trailers, rail cars and jets made raspberries appear at Christmas and summer a season with no end in sight.
Today we have come full circle. Our local chefs are gastro-gardeners. Mike Lata (FIG) scripts his daily menu after phone calls to Celeste Albers of Green Grocer. Frank Lee's menu at Slightly North of Broad always has depended on local farmers and fish and game providers. They even serve Sangria that changes with the seasons (right now it's peach).
Craig Deihl of Cypress is not only breaking down hogs from Gra Moore but even has a salami room to cure and age charcuterie. Jeremiah Bacon of Carolina's depends on Thackeray Farms and fisherman Mark Marhefka for the catch of the day. And then there is Sean Brock of McCrady's, who not only has his acres of green in McClellanville but sows heirloom seeds to boot. When it comes to local, we've got it good.
You can experience that on Saturdays in the Swamp Fox restaurant at the Francis Marion Hotel. Kancenjar's menu is set by the market and changes each week.
You can count on the signature pimiento cheese spread served with French bread toasted to the crispness of Melba. A cloud of cheddar and bits of ruddy pimiento are frothed into a tasty amuse accompanied by the crisp-tart pickled vegetables from Raychelle Bennett's Fresh Pickle Works.
The restaurant graciously lets you swap out a course from the regular menu if you cannot abide an ingredient.
The classic Italian bread salad panzanella was on the menu at the time of our visit. Sourdough bread from Rococo Bakery was moistened with EVO and vinegar. Slices of heirloom tomatoes from Joseph Fields and Owl's Nest Plantation were the platform for peppery arugula, Tiverton Farms basil and a scattering of sea salt. It was the kind of dish that required only assembly by the chef. Freshness spoke for itself.
The entree that evening was Magwood shrimp and Captain Hatt's scallops. Seafood so fresh the ocean reached up and grabbed your tastebuds. Deep bowls were filled with potatoes, eggplant and white corn from Fields and Kennerty farms. Farmer Earl Freeman cultivated the okra, and it slowed the broth with its culinary glue that linked the vegetables with substance and structure. Nelly's Farm basil was used to make the pesto broth that walked lightly with the ingredients of garlic and cheese.
Our server brought out a small skillet of cornbread. It was fashioned from Adluh cornmeal and glazed with lavender honey. Piping hot and with a snappy crust, it was hard to resist. But we had to.
The final course was pudding with a French accent, a chocolate pot de creme. Chucktown Chicken eggs were combined with Belgian chocolate. A true mousse (foam) was made from Maple Ridge Farms blueberries. This was a disconnect of flavors for me. Give me the mousse over lemon panna cotta or top the chocolate with orange mousse, but blueberries over chocolate pudding did not work. Either dessert was great on its own.
Our server was well-informed -- a hospitality preservationist who knew the value of information and enthusiasm.
The Farmers Market Dinner changes with the seasons. On the menu have been pork pate and local wahoo, oyster and okra gumbo and hot tamales. Beet salads with muscadine wine gastrique and mixed berry buckles and homemade ice cream have been featured, as well as Burden Creek goat cheesecake and River Run beef. The construct is the season.
For Kacenjar, a food's provenance trumps its brand. And as so many of our Charleston chefs have discovered, as you progress as a chef, you do less with more. Now that is something we can all root for. And after you experience the farmers market menu at the Swamp Fox, remember these ingredients are accessible to you.