Aside from the wine and food, it’s hard not to feel a little euphoric when strolling down Greenville’s tree-lined Main Street when fall has officially come to town.
The air is cool and the vibe is energetic, with people coming and going on the wide, shaded sidewalks. Dogs large and small are tugging their owners to the next canine meet-and-greet just ahead.
On Saturday morning last weekend, some were headed to the city’s farmers market, two long strings of white tents set up along on blocked-off sections of Main. Colorful fresh vegetables from many small local farms were eye candy for visitors, tonight’s supper for locals.
Other folks, including ourselves, were trekking farther down the street toward three large white tents, a focal point for the city’s annual Euphoria festival.
Founded in 2006 by singer and songwriter Edwin McCain, it’s a long weekend of fine food, drinks and music with a number of Charleston chefs in the mix.
Giddy about grub
Euphoria is not an imitation of Charleston’s Wine + Food Festival; it’s different by design. It’s smaller, more laid-back and at times, a more intimate experience. The music, from rock ’n’ roll to jazz to mountain strings, courses throughout, giving the festival its own rhythmic beat.
Unfortunately, we arrived the day after Thursday night’s tantalizing-sounding whole-hog roast, Swine and Dine. Still, we were in time to get a good helping of the festival over the next three days. Our first-festival impressions:
No offense, but Charleston chefs were serving up the best food at Friday night’s Taste of the South event in and around the Peace Center Amphitheatre. We especially liked the rabbit from Kevin Johnson of the The Grocery and the pork belly and pickled okra from Craig Deihl of Cypress.
We weren’t so fond of a bowl of shrimp and grits — call us snobby, but the shrimp had the flat taste and rubbery texture of imports. There is a difference, folks. And, if we never see another beef short rib, no matter how well-prepared, it won’t be too soon.
But overall, the setting, the cuisine and the music — 1980s Grammy-winning star Kim Carnes is still croaking it out — combined for an A+ night.
Saturday’s main day event was a Tasting Showcase under those big, open-sided tents. It was less crowded than the Charleston festival’s Grand Tasting Tents, which made it easy to talk with vendors at length. But the tastings were disproportionately tilted to wine, beer and spirits, with little food to keep attendees’ buzz in balance.
We also missed the food truck-driven “Traffic Jam” on Saturday evening to travel to one of several Guest Chef Dinners. Our was at Stella’s Southern Bistro in Simpsonville, hosted by Charleston ex-pat chef Jason Scholz, formerly at High Cotton.
Rabbit popped up here again, in the third of five courses. Scholz served up a delicious sampler of buttermilk fried and stuffed loin, accompanied by an African squash puree, “Scarlett Queen” turnips and grilled burgundy okra. Oh, and a bourbon barrel jus that made you want to sneak and drink the juices off the plate.
Sunday was another full day of eating that left us in a food coma and grateful for all the walking we were doing. The morning started with a pleasant Jazz Brunch under the tents. The smorgasbord of food stations offered generous portions and included everything from omelets to jambalaya to smoked salmon custard enveloped in pastry. Bloody marys and mimosas flowed fast and freely.
But the creme de la creme of the weekend was the Sunday Supper. This finale event, a communal family-style dinner, is beautifully staged inside the Wyche Pavilion beside the Reedy River. The brick-walled, open-air structure, which is part of the Peace Center, is literally a shell of its former self. One of the city’s oldest commercial buildings, it was once a Duke’s Mayonnaise factory.
Euphoria organizers wowed the crowd of 100-plus or so people at this dinner. Rustic tables were casually yet elegantly set in hues of blue, yellow and white. Among the libations was a tasty bourbon, beer and tea concoction. The service was attentive and well-choreographed.
Here again, Charleston chefs took center stage: Mike Lata of FIG and The Ordinary, Frank Lee and Forrest Parker of SNOB and the Old Village Post House, even former McCrady’s chef Michael Kramer.
Is rabbit becoming the new beef short rib? We’re not yet tired of it, but a “blanquet” of rabbit was the third course along with baby carrots, turnips and white acre peas. (Properly, it’s blanquette, referring to a ragout of meat, often veal, and white sauce.) And a potted rabbit rillette populated the first course along with FIG’s chicken liver pate, pickled shrimp remoulade in a lettuce cup, pickled grapes and pickled zucchini.
But perhaps Lata stole the show, with his second-course crudo of smoked swordfish and the last savory course of fried fish and shrimp. Each shined in the Southern culinary arts of smoking and frying.
Greenville at large
Food is just one of the many lenses with which to view Greenville. Nature is another.
While the purpose of our trip revolved around Euphoria, we made some time to visit downtown’s crown jewel, Falls Park. The Reedy River cascades through the park’s 32 acres, showing off a gorgeous waterfall that can be viewed and endlessly photographed from a suspension bridge. It’s clear this space is a powerful people magnet: we gazed down at a wedding and a family picnic happening side by side.
Indeed, flowing is the operative word for modern Greenville, a fast-expanding metropolitan area that dates to 1797. Greenville County is approaching a half-million residents today with a growth rate of nearly 2 percent a year since 2000.
The city’s downtown is a refreshing blend of historic and contemporary architecture housing hotels, banks, condos, restaurants and shops. Water seems to spout from everywhere — fountains, the sides of buildings and other hardscapes — providing a soothing sort of “white noise” at every turn.
Though we had only a small slice of Greenville in one weekend, we did manage a visit to the Greenville County Museum of Art. It boasts the world’s largest public collection of watercolors by iconic American artist Andrew Wyeth.
Also well worth seeing is its exhibition, through Jan. 19, of the 1800s potter David Drake. An Edgefield County slave, he signed his glazed stonewares “Dave” and often inscribed them with short poems.
Ed and Karen Matuszak are testaments to why CNN Money lists Greenville among the country’s top 10 fastest-growing cities. The couple, who worked as volunteer drivers for Euphoria, retired seven years ago from Kansas to the suburb of Simpsonville.
“We went all over the place looking for a place to retire,” she explains. “We were looking for a temperate climate that had fall and winter but not so much snow.”
Weather was one factor, she says, but not the only criteria.
They sought a smaller city “where we could be involved” and Greenville has proved a good fit, she says.
As chef Johnson sized up the city during Taste of the South, “It’s kind of like Asheville without the hippies.”
For the Matuszaks, “The icing on the cake was the Falls Park,” she says. “And there are so many good restaurants. That’s why we’re here.”
And that’s why we’ll be back.
Reach Teresa Taylor at 937-4668.