Catering to different tastes

Tomato pie at Salthouse

Across the country, perhaps even around the world, Charleston is known for food and weddings. But what about the food served at weddings? Can betrothed couples here count on giving their guests something more memorable than a dry chicken breast and defrosted broccoli?

To find out, I recently paid tasting visits to the city's leading wedding caterers. While there are dozens of local companies in the reception business, I concentrated on the six caterers with the best online reviews and most offline buzz: Cru Catering, Duvall Catering & Event Design, Hamby Catering & Events, Holy City Catering, Lowcountry Eats and Salthouse.

The logistics for this project were far more complicated than the stagecraft associated with the standard review. Anonymity is one thing, but outright deceit is another: I wasn't about to waltz into a caterer's office with a made-up story about my wedding plans, especially since complimenting someone's terrible new haircut is about the biggest lie I can muster. So I found an actual engaged couple to serve as my decoy.

Garrett Russell, a cook at The Grocery, and Mariya Moore, a sous chef at 492, haven't yet settled on a caterer for their fall wedding on Folly Beach. Even though Moore is pulling 15-hour days at the newly opened restaurant, the two of them generously gave up two days off to meet with caterers with a friend/wedding planner/distant relative in tow. (My role was never fully defined, so I mostly sat very quietly as Russell and Moore fielded questions about bar set-up and tent size.)

Russell and Moore are expecting about 100 guests. According to the Real Weddings Study, a statistical report annually compiled by The Knot, the average amount spent on wedding catering nationwide is $68 per person and trending upward, so caterers were asked to work with a $7,500 budget. Additionally, when caterers provided a choice of menus, they were instructed to prepare the dishes we guessed were most popular at Lowcountry receptions, including shrimp and grits, tomato pie, crab cakes and pulled pork. Assuming most couples serve cake, we didn't taste any desserts.

We also didn't push for any of the trendy presentations that are now sweeping the wedding industry. There was no serious talk of slider stations or appetizers paired with mini cocktails. That doesn't mean that these caterers aren't capable of doing all sorts of cool things. But my sole focus was food quality. From the vantage point of a tasting room, it's impossible to know what it's really like to work with any of these companies, or whether they can deliver on their promises of freshly made pasta and just-picked greens for the wedding day. Still, I can tell when the she-crab soup is too salty.

Because it was important to keep my involvement concealed, there was no way to indicate to caterers why we were so intent on scheduling visits during a six-week window. Duvall couldn't make the dates work, although event coordinator Alicia Brewer was fantastically responsive to e-mails. By contrast, Cru Catering didn't respond to multiple messages. Neither company is included in the round-up of reviews.

Having experienced our share of awful reception food, Russell, Moore and I approached this project with fairly low expectations. To our happy surprise, almost every caterer exceeded them. But we were equally surprised by the very different styles represented by the four caterers able to offer tastings. To quote a phrase often heard at weddings, “to every pot, there is a lid.” I'm certain every caterer we visited is the exact right caterer for the right couple.

Of course, deciphering and interacting with wildly different personalities is a fundamental wedding skill, which makes the caterer audition process a kind of warm-up for the big day. To that end, the caterers are sorted by character type. Also listed is all of the essential information that brides- and grooms-to-be might need, including the final verdict: Would this caterer's services enhance a wedding; have no significant bearing on its success or detract from the guest experience?

Read on for details, and if you have a wedding to book, prepare to get cracking: While all of the caterers indicated they could accommodate an October wedding, it's advised to secure a caterer one year before your event.

Contact: 571-3103; hambycatering.com

Background: Hamby's is an established player on the Charleston catering scene, dating back to 1979, when Fran & Tom Hamby helped plan a wedding reception for the daughter of two friends. For some members of Charleston society, there is no choice other than Hamby's.

Tasting fee: $200. The fee is waived if you end up hiring Hamby's.

Dishes sampled: Fontina mac-and-cheese bites; mini tomato pie; quail on hoecake with dried cherry chutney; fried chicken and waffle; green salad with strawberries, blue cheese crumbles and candied pecans; shrimp and grits; butternut squash ravioli; English pea ravioli.

Small talk: Hamby's does an outstanding job of making couples feel special. “Would you all like some bubbly?” one of two staff members asked minutes after everyone was seated. At a Hamby's tasting, the food is served in full portions, on real plates. The 90-minute tasting was polished and professional, which bodes well for the caterer's event performance. Hamby's also was highly attuned to the couple's desires and the realities of satisfying them in October. “I didn't know if you were passionate about English peas,” a staffer said, explaining why she asked the chef to come up with a more seasonally appropriate butternut squash ravioli as an alternative to pea-stuffed pasta.

Real talk: The food at Hamby's photographs beautifully. Tasked with creating butternut squash ravioli on the fly, chef John Brunski garnished it with thoughtful visual details, including curled-in Brussels sprout leaves and colorful diced beets. An accompanying collard-based pesto was smart, and while the ravioli was doused with way too much herb oil, it was clear that Brunski would work with any feedback he was offered.

There were a few weird misses on the menu. A quail with chutney was soggy, and the shrimp and grits was dominated by bacon and cheese. But the highly polite food was otherwise very pleasant. Standouts included the tomato pie, which I'd happily eat in bigger-than-mini size, and accompanying bread.

Final verdict: The tomato pie alone could improve any wedding day. Hamby's is definitely a matrimonial plus if you can swing it.

Contact: 737-4138; lowcountryeats.com

Background: Lowcountry Eats functions as a full-service caterer, meaning it prides itself on “creating experiences.” More than any other caterer on this tasting tour, Lowcountry Eats stressed its ability to manage rentals and put together a wedding look.

Tasting fee: None

Dishes sampled: Onion tart; BLTs; crab cakes; fried chicken and waffle; she-crab soup; barbecue pork sundae; beef brisket; macaroni-and-cheese; roasted root vegetables; shrimp and grits.

Small talk: Tucked into an old office building alongside Gregg Mathis Charter School, Lowcountry Eats is a homey operation, where the samples aren't necessarily served with silverware. “So just dig in! Don't be shy, use your fingers,” event coordinator Elaine Axson prompted when the first round of snacks arrived. Spoons showed up in advance of the most memorable dish, shrimp-and-grits made with local shrimp. While I'm not entirely sure why the shrimp were cut into such tiny pieces, the rendition was the best of the tour.

Real talk: I should admit this upfront: There was a small service snag about six minutes into our Lowcountry visit that may well influence my ability to fairly assess the company. When one of the owners entered the room, Axson introduced me as “mom,” which is what staffers called me for the duration of the tasting. At 38, I'm certainly old enough to be somebody's mother, but it's highly unlikely that somebody would be 30-years-old.

Still, I don't think it was just vanity that kept me from enjoying brisket that Axson admitted wasn't fully defrosted, goopy onion tarts, mac-and-cheese missing the advertised mustard (apparently guests don't like it) or crab cakes that tasted so insistently of whitefish that I had to ask how they were made. Axson was clearly a wedding pro, and my guess is she'd be a great person to have on your wedding team, but the food as presented wasn't particularly appetizing.

Final verdict: Again, depends on what you value in a caterer, but I'd worry about putting Lowcountry Eats in charge of feeding a food-savvy group.

Contact: 762-3338; holycitycatering.com

Background: Johnson & Wales grads Rhett and Hailey Tanner met in 2001 while working at Blossom. In 2009, they opened a mobile sushi bar. Sushi by Rhett morphed into a restaurant, which they later shut down in order to spend more time with their children. Holy City is now in its third year.

Tasting fee: $10 per person. The fee is waived for the bride and groom if they sign a contract with Holy City.

Dishes sampled: Crab cake; mini beef Wellington; fried green tomato with pimento cheese; shrimp and grits; grilled cheese; tomato soup; collard greens; pulled pork sandwich; macaroni and cheese.

Small talk: Rhett Tanner can cook some collards. As we heard repeatedly from caterers, the staples of Lowcountry cooking that guests expect when they book a ticket to Charleston are sometimes a challenge for Northern palates. Two different caterers asked Russell and Moore if their Midwestern relatives had ever tasted grits. Tanner's robust collards, featuring just the right amount of vinegar, are an excellent introduction to well-made Southern cuisine.

It seemed appropriate that Tanner excels at collards, because Holy City cultivates a likably modest vibe. For a lengthy stretch, Hailey Tanner talked very earnestly about the merits of disposable dinnerware. It's clear that the Tanners are sincere about keeping down costs for their customers, which is a hugely important attribute in the modern wedding industry: According to The Knot's study, the average couple spends $31,000 on the event.

Real talk: Other than the collards, nothing on Holy City's menu provoked outsized excitement. With the exception of a limp beef Wellington, though, nothing could be classified as a letdown either. The quality of the food was very nearly on par with Hamby's, but it's served without the frills and fancy touches.

Final verdict: As far as guests go, a meal prepared by Holy City might not vault a wedding into the memorable category. But the Tanners' sensitivity to expenses would likely be deeply appreciated by whomever is footing the bill.

Contact: 577-7847; salthousecatering.com

Background: Before launching Salthouse, Tanya Gurrieri developed the catering programs for Holy City Hospitality Group, the company behind 39 Rue de Jean, and Caviar & Bananas. Executive chef Todd Mazurek, also a Holy City Hospitality vet, previously worked at Fat Hen, Wild Olive and Grove Park Inn in Asheville. Salthouse's spiel stands out for its emphasis on “restaurant quality products,” as well as frequent reference to locally sourced produce and seafood.

Tasting fee: $40 per person. If you decide to work with Salthouse, the money is refunded.

Dishes sampled: Mini hot browns; barbecue pork nacho; tomato pie tartlet; beet napoleon; Southern antipasto; sweet potato salad; roasted chicken; barbecue shrimp.

Small talk: The colorful rounds of beets perched on a fork were cute, and the hot browns were tasty, but Salthouse's Southern antipasto platter was downright stunning. The company likes to convey to potential clients that Mazurek strives for a bountiful presentation, so the wooden board for three of us was laden with nine jars packed full of inventive pickles; four kinds of meats; Lusty Monk mustard; cornichons; a half dozen sturdy deviled eggs; zesty pimento cheese; and a pile of halved strawberries. The staffer said he often takes home the leftovers, but Moore asked for a box, and reminded him of it when he forgot.

If he kind of meant to forget, I wouldn't blame him. I'd like to keep those pickled green strawberries and salami in my refrigerator, too. The look of Salthouse's best dishes is intentionally rustic, but their flavor is wonderfully current.

Real talk: Not everything that came out of Salthouse's kitchen was perfect: The tomato pie doesn't hold a candle to Hamby's version, and I'm still trying to sort out the sweet potato salad. The very nice staffer overseeing the process also seemed a little unsure of himself, although Moore later told me he said it was the first tasting he'd handled solo. Otherwise, though, the showing was impressive.

Final verdict: Salthouse isn't aimed at the traditional crowd: A woman getting married in a princess dress might not appreciate an appetizer called “Drop-N-The-beet napoleon.” Instead of sparkling wine at its tastings, Salthouse pours white wine, and it's not pinot grigio either. But for couples who care about ingredients, a Salthouse meal could enrich a wedding reception.