Saturday, July 5, 2014

South Carolina in a Weekend! In a Post! In Your Face!

I was probably 75% done with this post that I had been working on for over a week - an epically long post chronicling my entire South Carolina weekend, but one cut and auto-save later, I sadly lost it all !  And I almost wanted to scrap the whole thing out of spite, but instead, I'll just briefly tell you the highlights of my celebratory weekend in Charleston, because honestly, some of the food just needs to be shared!

The best meal we had in Charleston was on our very first night at FIG.  We were rushing from the airport to make the last seating (10p), and of course hit every single red light, but they still let us in, and I'm so glad they did.  

I thought FIG just stood for the delectable purple fruit that tastes so good caramelized, but it actually stands for "Food is Good" which I learned from their butter.  

 One of the best dishes you could ever eat in life would be this ricotta gnocchi.  Little waterbug sized gnocchi dumplings in a fresh bolognese.  You will never use your teeth less eating a dish, as these dumplings dissolve completely on the tongue leaving behind only sheer bliss and wonderment.

The second best dish you could order would be the fish stew cocotte.  A medley of the sea's finest, including mussels, giant shrimp, bits of squid and scallops in the most delectable of fish stock in which you will want to dunk the entire loaf of complimentary bread (and the stack of crostini served with the dish), and you will, because nobody can stop what is only right in the world.

 The third best thing you could order is the sticky sorghum cake for dessert.  Who knows what sorghum is, but just know the cake is served warm, is ridiculously moist and just sinfully delicious - doused in a thick caramel that you want to smother all over your face.

The other dessert we ordered, a meyer lemon pudding with sour cherry compote, was remarkably light and refreshing, a great complement to the intense sorghum.

If you ever make it to Charleston and can only go to one spot, please make that spot FIG.  And please make reservations!

If you're blessed to visit Charleston before it gets hot, the walks around the river bend are the best (especially to enjoy the most giant of mango ices).

The homes are so huge and ostentatious here, and I love every one of them.

Everything well manicured - look just to the left of the picture below and see how even the steps have the perfect hedge of grass accents!  

We did a long walk along the river up to Market St which has all the happening things you could want in a touristy town.  There are SO many candy shops in this area, and all hawking fresh made pralines.

Which just ended up being my most favorite thing to eat for free in the world.  I must've had a dozen samples from all the different candy shops and loved every single one of them!

I sometimes wonder if I can just quit my job and do this for the rest of my life because of the quality assurance I would have to perform on every batch (for the good of the people, you know).

The suckers to the far left are bear claws, mounds of cashews or pecans globbed with caramel and chocolate.  Those are nutty and fun, as are the krispie treats that also get drenched in caramel in addition to the apples.  Basically, you can put anything in caramel, and I will eat it.

The most hipster place we ate in Charleston was Two Boroughs Larder.

The restaurant is tiny, with one long communal table and a few small two-tops.  The clientele is straight out of Williamsburg, with vintage outfits and an apartment full of cats Instagrammed on the daily.

The other half of the restaurant is dedicated to self-service, locally made alcohol and Orangina.

 While the pork belly, pistachio and rhubarb was a tasty and unique combo,

The brussels sprouts and lamb ragu stole our hearts - slightly bitter and tender greens with an amazingly savory and spicy ragu.  We scraped this dish clean with our tongues.

Most of the reviews you see will say that the beef ramen is really delicious, but it's just okay and borderline bland (even though the egg is clearly on point!).  It would benefit immensely from the gritty chili oil you find in most Asian noodle shops. 

The desserts are worth a mention also.  You can get a little jarful of creamy, chocolate ganache studded with crushed pistachios

or cookies and milk.  One cookie had marshmallows, and it makes me wonder why there just aren't more cookies with the chewy goodness of melty marshmallows. (These are the types of things that keep me up at night.)

The other most hipstery place we visited was the Butcher & Bee, located in an industrial subsection of Charleston where there is nothing around except a line of twenty-somethings stretching out into the parking lot.

The decor is interesting - cardboard honeycombs and hanging mummified bees adorn the ceiling.

Seating is all communal and grabbed after order.

While the Butcher & Bee is known for their sandwiches, I must say their french toast deserves special mention.

The toppings vary but generally include some sort of fantastic nut streusel / crumble of your dreams, a fruit (ours was pumpkin) and a generous pour of maple syrup.  The whole combination is moist and tender, not too sweet and just delicious.

The baked egg and tomato with tahini was pretty light and tasty also.

After, we went to Charleston's Annual Lowcountry Cajun Festival and witnessed my new life inspiration - the crawfish eating contest!  The contest featured six rounds of amateur crawfish eating and ended with a final round of the winners of each of the six previous rounds to crown the crawfish eating champion.  I learned techniques I never knew existed and plan to practice soon to compete one day.

The winner ended up being our favorite character from the first round (far right below).  In the final round, he ate something like 30 crawfish in 20 seconds, which is impossible and incredible, and he is now my biggest hero.

And so right after the contest, we practiced the techniques on our own boxful of mudbugs.  I love crawfish !

The next day, we ate some snacks for lunch including some remarkably good Mexican food at Carmen Y Juan's in Mount Pleasant.  Some confusion in ordering earned me naked tacos (carne asada and fish), but the meat was surprisingly tender and flavorful.

The boy had the best torta ever, chock full of ripe tomatoes and tasty meat.

And I enjoyed the longest and awesomest churro ever, about the size of my arm, freshly fried and rolled in good ol' cinnamon sugar.  Happiness. Forever. Fried. Amen.

We then made a pitstop for snack #2 at Jack's Comic Dogs which famously appeared in the comic strip Blondie (if you're into that old-timey toon).

Jack's is a kiddie wonderland with frozen treats, encased meats, and video games.

You can get hot dogs dressed to all kinds of nines here, but I just wanted a bite of the beef classic

washed down with some root beer float.

Why are hot dogs so good?

Finally, we found ourselves on our last afternoon drinking many a cocktail from The Gin Joint, a fun little bar off the tourist strip.

Their bar bites were intriguing, including beef jerky by the piece that is served in a Chinese restaurant style wrapper and tastes heavily of soy,

and local oysters infused with whiskey and jalapenos,

but the best bar bite was definitely the pad thai popcorn, made with palm sugar, peanuts, chili and lime. It's crunchy, savory, sweet and just perfection with a fizzy drink.

And while we ate so much more, hopefully that's just enough to entice you to visit Charleston - SO charming, so cute, and so Southern.

Han's Nonsensical Rating:  FIG. FIG. FIG.  (And drinks and snacks at The Gin Joint because you deserve some booze and fun bites!)

232 Meeting St
Charleston, SC
Fig on Urbanspoon

Two Boroughs Larder
186 Coming St
Charleston, SC
Two Boroughs Larder on Urbanspoon

Butcher & Bee
654 King St
Charleston, SC
Butcher & Bee on Urbanspoon

Jack's Cosmic Dogs
2805 N Hwy 17
Mt Pleasant, SC
Jack's Cosmic Dogs on Urbanspoon

Carmen Y Juan
1118 Park W Blvd
Mt Pleasant, SC
Carmen y Juan's Homestyle Mexican Food on Urbanspoon

The Gin Joint
182 East Bay St
Charleston, SC
The Gin Joint on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Doughnuts of Chicago: Firecakes, Do-Rite, Doughnut Vault, Dat's, Nightwood, Waffles Cafe

Diana and I took up Chicago by storm last month to both finish up wedding planning details and find a proper doughnut supplier for her wedding day.  And the only way to find a proper doughnut to eat a serious amount of doughnuts - good thing we've had a lifetime of training to prepare us for this arduous task!

I am just going to start with our ultimate favorite, because if you're not going to make it to the end of this post, you should just know that the best yeast doughnuts in all of Chicago comes from a little hotspot (punnnn!) called Firecakes.  No one in Chicago that we talked to over the weekend seems to have heard of this place, which is a sad, crying (no - bawling!) shame.

The shop specializes in yeast-based doughnuts dressed up to all kinds of nines - peanut butter cup, butterscotch praline, coconut cream and more.  We grabbed a pretty half dozen to sample.

The butterscotch praline, topped with butterscotch dust beckoned our bellies first.

Inside, the doughnut was filled to the brim with a caramelicious filling - surprisingly not too sweet and perfectly paired with the crunchy icing. Good start.

My boring heart always falls for the traditional glazed (call me a doughnut purist!) and this one was heaven-sent!  Absolutely light, wonderfully glazed and simply melts upon the tongue.  Utter perfection.

We also tried the lemon and bacon pineapple.

Completely solid little numbers also with plentiful filling, much to Diana's delight!

This tiny little gem called the malted milk ball was an impulsive buy.  It's about the size of a golf ball - quick to pop in the ol' mouth and swoon with immediate happiness.

Naturally, when you find your new divine doughnut favorite, the next thing you do is plan your next trip back in order to try their summer menu item: doughnut ice cream sandwiches.  Yes.  You know you want it now too.

So we dutifully went back the next afternoon.

The ice cream sandwiches are made to order using glazed doughnut buns, a rectangular slab of ice cream that fits perfectly between the buns, and a good healthy drizzle of hand-squeezed hot fudge.

Who needs summer bodies when you got treats like this?

Contrary to the travesty of cookie ice cream sandwiches everywhere, this doughnut sandwich was perfectly balanced - the ice cream beautifully distributed to ensure end-to-end sandwich-eating pleasure.  The sandwiches are only made with the honey glazed yeast doughnuts, but honestly, there's nothing better.

As part of our due diligence, however, we did try a few other spots in Chicago.

The motley assortment below comes from two of Chicago's finest: Do-Rite Donuts and The Doughnut Vault.

Do-Rite is adorable with lots of fun flavor options and giant doughnuts.

The shop specializes in old-fashioned doughnuts, which if you aren't well-versed in doughnut-speak, is this guy:

It's a cake-like type doughnut but with lots more crispy edges to give you a bit of crunch with every bite.  Most doughnut places have only one old-fashioned doughnut option, but Do-Rite offers several types - iced, cinnamon sugar, and more.  And you know what?  Every one of them is amazingly delicious.

The cinnamon sugar (above) is a dynamite combo of spice and sweetness.  The inside is surprisingly light and moist.

The chocolate iced actually tastes like rich cocoa, with the same light moistness apparent in the cinnamon sugar old-fashioned.

Valhrona, baby.

Diana can't turn down a good long john, and this Boston Creme one was the size of a hoagie.  A hoagie filled with the lightest of almond-marzipanesque creams.

My other little favorite was the pistachio meyer lemon donut - a lemon iced cake doughnut smothered with pistachio dust.

The cake doughnut was unbelievably tender and moist and addictively spiced.

Do-Rite would be my second favorite doughnuts of Chicago - it's hard to pit old-fashioned/cake against yeast, but Do-Rites are definitely the best I've ever had to date in terms of old-fashioned doughnuts.  I still don't understand how they can get the cake so tender and delicate, but I love it, and I miss it!

Doughnut Vault is the hipster child of doughnut shops in Chicago, located in a former bank vault, hence the sweet name.

They offer only a few types of doughnuts, an old-fashioned, a couple yeast flavors, and a gingerbread stack.

The chestnut glazed was a tall beauty of a doughnut, resplendent in height but had an indescribable after-taste that kept me from enjoying it fully.

The yeast doughnut itself was fine but a touch dry.

The gingerbread stack was a trio of doughnuts speckled with spice.  Quickly after the first bite into the dry doughnuts did we discover that it was Indian spices, overwhelmingly cardamon, with no hint of gingerbread at all.  A sad disappointment.

Not sad for this guy who dug all the crumbs falling off our table.

Later in the afternoon, we swung by ol' Dat's Donuts to finish off Diana and my epic journey to complete Bon Appetit's list of America's Top 10 Doughnut places.


It was going to all finish right here.

A doughnut spot a fair distance from downtown Chicago, tucked away in a dingy little building attached to a BBQ joint.

Oh, how true this is.

Diana and I controlled our appetites (for our imminent dinner in two hours) and ordered just a trio.

The glazed was fine and traditional with the crisp crackle of a good sugar glaze.

The maple iced was rich and an instant ache to the tooth, which Diana ate up gleefully (she's incredible!).

The artificially flavored strawberry was also pretty sweet.

I can't really tell why Dat's Doughnuts was put on the Top 10 list because it's just about as good as any of your mom and pop doughnut shops that are plentiful in the suburbs (yeah, Shipley's!).  Solid yeast, fine glazing - it's good but probably not worth the 30 minute drive from downtown to visit.

Our next pitstop was not a traditional doughnut shop but a popular brunch place called Nightwood. Brunch + doughnuts are probably one of my most favorite paired words ever (besides crispy duck and, oh, pork belly).

The most popular doughnut, by and large, at Nightwood is the butterscotch bacon, but it was the sunflower streusel of their seasonal doughnut that seduced my eyes.

And oh, yes - the stream of light golden meyer lemon filling.

Served fresh from the fryer, the doughnut was warm, crisp on the outside and heaven on the inside.  The blueberry glaze was slightly tart and sweet and the streusel just pure crunchy genius.

Diana and I ate a couple of other things also (we had a long few hours of hair and makeup to endure!).  I ordered the bagel, smeared with smoked trout spread and topped with fried egg and bacon.

The bagel was pretty good (I fear I am slowly becoming one of those New York bagel snobs!) and the trout ultra creamy.

And while the sandwich was plenty good on its own, truth be told, I ordered this dish mainly for the homemade tator tots which turned out to be little golf-ball sized fried chunks of hash browns.  So, so crisp and so, so fun!

Diana's brunchy heart is easily wooed by biscuits with sausage gravy, and the sausage gravy here is dark, flavorful and legit with tasty little bites of sagey sausage.

Our final stop was based on fate alone.  As we dropped off some items at Diana's friend's house, we discovered she lived atop the Waffles Cafe who recently popped on the foodie radar after they unveiled the mysterious "wonut."

It's available in all sorts of fun flavors and colors.  We learned that people are usually limited to a certain number daily, but on this special day, the sky was the limit!  Diana and I patiently waited behind two women who proceeded to select 48 different wonuts.  Whoa, nuts.

A painstaking ten minutes later, we were carside with two wonuts in hand - sprinkles and a red velvet.

They were okay.  It tastes like how a waffle would taste if it was kind of wet (syrupy) and a bit too sweet.  Diana liked it though!  They are pretty cute.

This was my first fun trip to Chicago, and I found myself super surprised at how delicious all the food was.  I'm not sure what I had expected, but I kind of fell in love - who knew such good (and different) doughnuts could be found in one city!  Now, if only the winters weren't so brutal...

Han's Nonsensical Rating: Okay, I have to say it, the doughnuts at Firecakes are hottttt stuff !!! (nyuknyuknyukkkk) and Do-Rites can only do right.  Man, I got nothing clever to say because really those doughnuts speak for themselves.  Must try if you're in Chicago!

68 W Hubbard St
Firecakes on Urbanspoon

Do-Rite Donuts
50 W Randolph St
Do-Rite Donuts on Urbanspoon

Doughnut Vault
401 1/2 N Franklin St
The Doughnut Vault on Urbanspoon

Dat's Donuts
8251 S Cottage Grove Rd
Dat Donut on Urbanspoon

2119 S Halsted St
Nightwood on Urbanspoon

Waffles Cafe
1400 S Michigan Ave
Waffles on Urbanspoon