Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema is from off – or “from away,” as he renders the local expression in his ambitious assessment of Charleston’s food scene – but today’s package again proves that residents don’t have a monopoly on accurately sizing up the city.
A conclave of Charleston restaurants was recently scrutinized by Eater National’s critic Bill Addison, but Sietsema’s scope is wider: He’s embarking on a 10-month project to rate the nation’s top 10 food cities, based on creativity, community, tradition, ingredients, shopping, variety, and service. Charleston’s up first.
“While I’ve been to Charleston several times in the past decade or so, my most recent trips there, for this project, were a revelation,” Sietsema says.
Sietsema’s tour included meals at Husk; Hominy Grill; Minero; Xiao Bao Biscuit; The Ordinary; The Obstinate Daughter; Bertha’s Kitchen; Dave’s Carry-Out and Martha Lou’s Kitchen, helping him to conclude, “Charleston enjoys a respectable mix of high- and low-end dining establishments and noteworthy watering holes.” He also gave the city high marks in the creativity, community, tradition and ingredients categories.
“The region’s shrimp, grits and Carolina gold rice will spoil you for just about any other city’s harvest,” he writes. Via e-mail, he reveals the crustaceans still haunt his dreams.
Shrimp figure into one of two video shorts accompanying the story, in addition to a helpful map and photo gallery (it’s worth clicking all the way through for the excellent picture of Edmund’s Oast Andy Henderson “surrounded by his stressed sous chefs.”) Minero’s Wesley Grubbs and Hominy Grill’s Robert Stehling demonstrate how to make shrimp and grits, which cookbook author Matt Lee describes on camera as “one of the great luxuries of living in Charleston.”
The other video is even more fun: It’s a glimpse of the FIG line cooks, parroting back orders in chorus like a motivated group of CrossFitters.
Sietsema says he was struck by Charlestonians’ clear preference for FIG over Husk.
“I thought it was interesting how all the locals I spoke with revered FIG but not Husk, the best-known of all your restaurants,” he writes. “My Uber driver high-fived me when he asked which of the two I preferred.”
In the story, Sietsema puts the question to Lee, who explains, “Anything gets too hot, Charleston thumbs its nose.” The “pockets of old thinking and doses of provincialism” are among Sietsema’s Charleston complaints, along with a paucity of food retail options; limited global cuisine and service in fancy dining rooms that doesn’t measure up to Debra Gasden’s hospitality.
“Even at expense-account retreats in Charleston, polish can be the missing ingredient in the dining room,” Sietsema writes.
Still, he says, “Several restaurants I visited – Edmund’s Oast, The Ordinary -- could pass for trend-setters in San Francisco or New York. And the tacos, among other small plates at Minero, were as good as I’ve had in Mexico City… Almost everywhere, I felt as if I could taste the pride local chefs have for Charleston’s many signature ingredients.”
Sietsema is next headed to San Francisco. He will release his final ranking next year.