Shrimp and Grits Showdown: And The Winner Is…

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

As it turns out, our shrimp and grits “showdown” wasn’t much of a showdown at all. Even though Nic and I vowed never to speak of what we thought about each bowl until after we wrote and posted each blog, as it turns out, we shared mostly all of the same sentiments. We hated the gravy. We hated the tomatoes. Let’s face it, the only thing our Southern tongues disagreed on was the taste of the shrimp, on occasion.

last blog 2So, we decided that since our tastes were so similar, we would write on sugar packets what we thought was the best and the second best bowl of shrimp and grits. To our surprise (but not really though) we both picked the same number one and number two choice. Which is….

Winner:

1) Hominy Grill - It was pure authenticity that ultimately won out for Hominy Grill. No frills, no extras, just pure unadulterated shrimp and grit flavor proved to be the winning formula, and Hominy Grill brought the noise.

Runner-Up:

2) Swamp Fox Restaurant at the Francis Marion Hotel- While this dish contained gravy, it was the most flavorful, rich, unctuous gravy of the lot, and it provided a deep seafood flavor that enhanced the shrimp. The grits were cooked well and stood up to the thick gravy. Plus, not having those nasty tomatoes sure didn’t hurt the movement.

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So, there y’all have it folks! The best bowl of shrimp and grits from what Nic and I have experienced during our time in Charleston as reporters for the Post and Courier during this year’s annual Spoleto Festival USA. We’ve eaten much more than just good old shrimp and grits -and have enjoyed sharing our meals with you!

-Love, Nic and B

Shrimp and Grits Showdown: Round 5 Poogan’s Porch

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Having Husk be your neighbor could be a tough thing; unless you’re Poogan’s Porch. Sean Doyle, the chef at Poogan’s Porch has cooked his Lowcounty cuisine in one of the most illustrious kitchens in America, the James Beard House. Kind of a coming out party for chefs, it’s a great honor and only the best chefs in the world are invited to cook there. With that being said, on to Round 5. Poogan's Porch1

Like Husk, the ambiance at Poogan’s Porch is gorgeous and inherently Southern. Beat up hard wood floors and rustic wooden tables populated the little dining room. Out front, on the porch and in the courtyard, tables were lined with white tablecloths and napkins, giving the restaurant a garden party atmosphere.

Nic’s picks: When the shrimp and grits came out, perfectly placed in a large, shallow bowl, I was dismayed; the return of the ubiquitous gravy. I thought in my mind, “Gravy? Again? What is it with the gravy?” It wasn’t thick, like at Southend or the Swamp Fox, but it was present, and that irked me. I tasted the grits first, without any other flavors. They were grainy and slightly cheesy, but they didn’t taste like grits. There’s a certain flavor associated with grits, an earthy corn flavor that just wasn’t present in this dish..

poogan5The grits also contained bell peppers and smoked sausage, both adding busting mouthfuls of flavor. The freshness of the bell peppers set against the smokiness of the sausage and the cheesiness of the grits was a nice balance. The shrimp were good, but they weren’t anything special. They were tender and rich, but they didn’t provide that much depth of flavor to an otherwise one-dimensional dish. Overall, the dish was so-so at best. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it wasn’t underwhelming either.

B’s business: Eating in a place as open and beautiful and Poogan’s Porch kept a permanent smile on my face prior to our meal even starting. The hardwood floors, the high ceilings and the porch area outside reminded me of a true Southern brunch, and I was more than ready to partake.

When the shrimp and grits arrived, however, it was more like a bowl of gravy with a side of grits.  The gravy tasted like the heavy gravy that accompanies pork chops; too much richness for a bowl of shrimp and grits. Not to mention, the grits themselves were so watery and thin, they slipped right through the fork.

The shrimp were tasty and tender, even with the added annoyance of biting the hardened tail shells off to enjoy their flavor. Since the shrimp were so good, it made it hard to ingest the Tasso ham this time, as it was salty and slimy beneath the grits.

Maybe I’m just getting used to the taste of onions and bell peppers in these Charleston based shrimp and grits, but they added a nice taste and hardened texture to the squelchy grits. poogan4

Expect the unexpected:

Nic’s picks: We ordered a few appetizers to start. For the first time in Charleston, I saw alligator on the menu. Because we’re in the South, the alligator was fried to a golden brown and delicious mound. It was served with a honey jalapeño dipping sauce, similar to spicy honey mustard. It didn’t last long, the alligator, and I’m sad to say I was a major player in it’s consumption.

We also ordered macaroni and cheese as a starter. It was creamy and warm, exactly what mac and cheese should be. It was studded with smoky bacon, and I never thought I would ever say this; there was too much bacon. It overpowered the taste of the cheese. It’s not macaroni and bacon, it’s macaroni and cheese, and the bacon masked the cheese flavor.

poogan3B’s business: Honestly, the best part of the meal wasn’t the shrimp and grits at all – it was the homemade biscuits and the fired alligator appetizers. The biscuits were baked semi-sweet and served with a whipped butter that melted atop the crispy exterior. Moistened by milk and not butter, the dough inside the biscuit was dense enough to satisfy yet light enough to save room for what came next.

Which was the fried alligator. As someone who generally stays away from fried foods, this is a New Orleans favorite I couldn’t resist. The alligator was superb – cooked and marinated with just enough flavor to be moist and not greasy, yet tender and not chewy. The batter used to fry the alligator could’ve been a bit more flavorful, however, these nostalgic pieces of white meat hit the soft spot of my Southern tongue just right.

 

Shrimp and Grits Showdown: Round 4 Hominy Grill

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Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Hominy Grill is a renowned purveyor of Lowcountry cuisine. Featured in countless publications and on myriad television shows, it’s a well known, and loved, destination in the Holy City. Located on the corner of Calhoun and Rutledge, Hominy Grill is in an unassuming building with a quaint mural on the side denoting the restaurant. Inside are farm style tables and rustic wooden chairs. It’s the perfect setting for an early afternoon feast. On to Round 4.

Nic’s picks: With the exception of Husk, Hominy Grill had the best ambiance of the restaurants I’ve been to thus far. It reminded me of Sunday afternoon lunches after church or being at friend’s house in Middle Georgia, and nostalgia counts for a lot. Hominy 2

We ordered a few different dishes of food, but when the shrimp and grits came out, they captivated my attention. For the first time in Charleston, I received a bowl of grits that wasn’t covered by an obscene amount of gravy. I took full advantage, tasting the grits first.

No bacon, no shrimp, no nothing, just pure, unadulterated grit flavor. They were creamy but still provided that gritty texture one would expect. The shrimp were perfectly sautéed, bright and bursting with a briny, rich flavor. They had a nice substantial bite, but were still tender and flavorful. The bacon provided a nice smoky, meaty flavor that complimented both the shrimp and grits, but it was used sparingly, much to my pleasure.

The mushrooms were a new addition for me, but I could have done without them. They didn’t detract from the dish, but they didn’t add to it either. The cheese was smooth and creamy, and thankfully it didn’t pervade the dish fully, preserving the nice, clean flavor of the grits. Overall, it was the most authentic bowl of shrimp and grits that I’ve had since I’ve been in Charleston, and I’m just thankful it didn’t have a thick gravy or mealy tomatoes.

Hominy 3B’s business: This was the first bowl of shrimp and grits that genuinely looked like, well, shrimp and grits. Presented for the first time that I’ve experienced in Charleston without gravy and tomatoes slathered atop, I could actually see the beaded white grits nestled below the shrimp, bacon and mushrooms.

Without the gravy or the cold tomatoes, the grits tasted a bit bland from what I’m used to eating in the Lowcountry. However, a more bare approach was much appreciated. It allowed for the cheese, and other accoutrements to blend into one cohesive taste of Southern flavor.

The added bacon instead of the usual Charleston-added Tasso ham was a much appreciated change of pace. The big bits of real bacon added a slightly salty flavor to the unadulterated grits and blended with the meaty mushrooms to create a rich flavor without needing a gravy to do it for them; which is how it should be.

The shrimp were also a great burst of flavor in their own right. Small, but thick, the shrimp were well-cooked and perfectly dispersed throughout the bacon to create an interesting mix of crispy and meaty.

But the most surprising thing of all was the lemon. As popular as it is to slather lemon all over seafood in New Orleans, I’m never one to partake. So, as much as I like lemon in my tea, I had an initial hesitation for lemon in my grits. But I gave it a try anyway, and was shocked by the welcomed burst of citrus and how well that paired with the once again, bare grits. Bravo to Hominy for discovering this interesting super Southern pair-up.

Expect the unexpected: Hominy 1

The greens. Perfectly braised and just a hint of bitterness, the collard greens at Hominy Grill were tender, flavorful, and just what greens should be. They went quickly at our table, and for good reason.

The squash casserole was cloyingly sweet and lacked texture, and it was a big disappointment, as were the fried grits. While the fried grits lacked flavor, the casserole had too much, and not the good kind either. If we could order again, those two things would have never made it to the table.

Using everyday objects for music on command

I took my 13-year-old daughter to a contemporary music concert this weekend, one in the Spoleto Festival’s Music in Time series, organized by Resident Conductor John Kennedy. It featured a program of recent music by the New York City-based composer Nathan Davis, who creates conceptual soundscapes inspired by natural and not-so-natural phenomena. It might seem heady for a young teenager, but I see no reason why young people should not be exposed to this kind of music — before their tastes become calcified by age and prejudice.

—Adam Parker

BY ZOE ALESSANDRA DE LUCA-PARKER
Special to The Post and Courier

The first piece by Nathan Davis in the Music in Time series concert on Sunday was “Bells.” The composer told everyone to take his cell phones out and dial a number, then an access code (there were four, labeled Astral, Cryptic, Telegraphic and Tintinnabular) of your choice. While in most concerts the music comes from the stage, Music in Time makes music come from every direction, filling the whole room with different sounds.

The second piece, “Weather Rock,” had many different parts to it. It had a violin and a cello each with one thin string hanging off. The players pulled the strings to make amazing, stuttering sound a little like the wind. The percussionists used various objects, including rocks to make a very interesting gravelly sound.

“On speaking a hundred names” was a piece for a bassoon, one of my favorite instruments. It changed from something classical to something exploratory and seemingly accidental, but all very much done on purpose. The bassoon player, Ryan Wilkins, also played the same note in many different ways. I enjoyed this piece very much because I liked the effects created by the playing and by the technology that enhanced it.

The next piece was “Crawlspace.” This piece was the most fascinating to me because the composer took a microphone and placed it on the keyboard of his laptop computer, then took a camera and showed what he was doing. Sometimes he would hit the keys, moving the microphone around to different spots on the computer. The result was robot-sounding, and very dynamic, with many sounds created at once.

The last piece was called “Skryzp Skzryn.” It was a string quartet that started very high and, as the piece proceeded, went lower and lower. I liked this piece because it showed how the instruments change sound and the instruments’ range. All four of the instruments would do things at different times.

Nathan Davis makes music from sounds that are natural or created by common things. Another composer might be inspired by these sounds and attempt to transcribe them for instruments, but Davis uses the sounds themselves, along with regular sounds from instruments, sometimes transcribed electronically.

This show was definitely one of the most interesting shows I have ever been to. This show was for everyone to enjoy.

Spoleto makes way for a Groovement

Spoleto Festival goers were treated to a Groovement on Sunday afternoon at the Farmer’s Market in Marion Square. (Click here to view the slideshow of their performance)image[5].

Charleston-based hip-hop group, Groovement, and it’s children’s counterpart, the Groovemini’s, performed a medley of hip-hop original dance numbers which included moves to songs by Wiz Khalifa and Drake.

“We’re having fun,” said Alternese Griffin, the founder and choreographer for the two groups. “We’re showing the crowd what we have to offer with hip-hop dance.”

She said the older group’s performance was inspired by letting loose and “going mental, absolute insanity.”

However, she wanted to teach the Grooveminis a more positive message, so, she choreographed a dance based on working hard and playing hard and the resulting success you can achieve as the rewards.

“We always want to educate the kids, and dancing is a good way to do that,” Griffin said.

Shrimp and Grits Showdown: Round 3 Southend Brewery

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(Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar)

Situated on the corner of Queen and East Bay, the Southend Brewery is a cavernous entity not far from Charleston Harbor and the Battery. Monstrous copper fermentation tanks dominate the backdrop upon entering the restaurant, with vaulted, workman style ceilings. Rustic and warm, this was the perfect place for Round Three. S&G Southend 2

Nic’s picks: After the disappointment that was round one, and the slightly better effort by our round two locale, my spirits were high going in to round three. It was short lived.

Again, the shrimp and grits came out expertly served in a shallow bowl, but covered with a thick, cream based gravy. While I know shrimp and grits isn’t the most health-conscious meal, the gravy makes it so much heavier than it needs to be.

The grits were so-so. They had good texture and good cheesy flavor, but they weren’t anything special, and th gravy just overpowered any subtle flavors the grits conjured up. Tasso ham makes another guest appearance, and it was flavorful and smoky, but again it overpowered any subtleness this dish could have produced. I’m all for bold, flavorful dishes, but when one of the main ingredients of the dish is not a highlight, then there are some problems.

The shrimp were plump and juicy, and they provided a good flavor and meatiness for the dish. Of the three restaurants so far, these shrimp were the best, by far. They were rich enough to cut through the gravy, if only for a fleeting second. Fresh tomatoes were strewn throughout the dish, and frankly it confused me. They provided no flavor or texture, and their presence was more of a nuisance than any kind of flavor enhancer.

Overall, the dish was lackluster and not deserving of it’s relatively steep price ($17.95). The flavors did not come together, and it was an extremely heavy dish with too many ingredients. For such a simple dish, it was made too complex, and that worked against it. This dish would have benefited from a more delicate, deft touch.

S&G SouthendB’s business: Charleston has definitely capitalized on shrimp and grits being smothered in gravy with tomatoes — cold tomatoes. Which to my dismay, left most the grits on the outside of the bowl cold.

Unappetizing as it is to chomp into cold contents for a meal that’s supposed to be savory and hot, again, I immediately shoved the tomatoes and the tough and overcooked shrimp to the outside of my bowl with the hopes that its lingering, overpowering flavor didn’t completely ruin the dish. But it was too late. I couldn’t even finish or enjoy what I was eating.

The best part of this dish was the Tasso ham, which also seems to be a Charleston shrimp and grits staple. Otherwise, for the steep price, the grits weren’t well-cooked, the cheese was almost non-existent, and the gravy was too heavy.

The highlight of my visit to Southend Brewery wasn’t even for the shrimp and grits at all; it was for the collard greens.  Every time I’ve eaten greens in Chareston, they were choppy and weren’t cooked long enough to be supple and mushy, not chewy. But these greens were cooked just right. They were surprisingly sweet, not savory, from being basked in brown sugar, which was a welcome surprise.  They had a hint of Old Bay hot sauce mixed with vinegar and real bacon bits, both of which if layered on too heavily could’ve overpowered the natural bitterness of the greens; but they didn’t. They were sprinkled with enough restraint to be enjoyed and not frowned on.

Review: Noche Andaluza

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The outstanding premier of Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía fulfilled the expectations of the Spoleto Festival USA audience. The vitality and sensuality of the dancers made the “Noche Andaluza” (“Andalusian Night”) performance a delightful introduction into the secrets of Andalusian dancing.

Colorful dresses, clean dancing and live music harmonized in a show that had its strongest moments when the whole company danced together. Even though part of the essence of flamenco dancing is its spontaneity, the synchronization and elegantl interaction between female and male dancers gave energy and rhythm to the presentation.

The guest dancer (Pastora Galván) had an evident control of her body. Her power, security and attitude seemed to say that she could do anything she wanted to. She showed, in each step, why she has her own avant-garde style.

That is precisely why one of the finest moments of the show was the one in which Galván dances on one side of the stage, while the company is on the other. Traditional and avant-garde flamenco dancing were shown together to give the viewer a taste of the infinitive possibilities of the Spanish style of dancing.

The style of the show changed, though, when the choreographer and artistic director Rubén Olmo, appeared on the stage. His thin figure and his extremely versatile dancing capacity gave him the possibility to freely and delicately jump through the stage as if he were a bird in the act called “El Vuelo” (“The Flight”). Olmo’s solo pause the energetic rhythm experienced before and makes a good transition for the ending.

The show rightly finished with a more spontaneous scene in which the musicians had the possibility to sing and dance at the center of the stage, while the company surrounded them keeping the rhythm with their claps. This act highlights the importance of music for flamenco and especially the role that this Spanish has as an art manifestation truly encrusted in Spanish culture.

Piccolo Poetry Walk

In addition to Piccolo Spoleto festival goers attending the Sundown Poetry Series, they may also take part in the Charleston Poetry Walk sponsored by the Poetry Society of South Carolina.

The walk takes festival goers on an hour-long journey through downtown Charleston to see historic places where poets were once inspired by. “We have such a rich heritage of poets from and/or influenced by their time in South Carolina,” said Mary H. Harris, coordinator of the walk. ” It is great fun to let visitors and locals know a little more about them and hear their words.”

The walk starts at 125 Meeting St. and has several times to join starting at 10 a.m. Admission is $12.

Natalia Khoma Presents Bach’s Solo Cello Suites (1-3)

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After last year’s presentation of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, Natalia Khoma brought it to Piccolo Spoleto again, this time at First Presbyterian Church.
For the concert on May 29, she played the first three suites of the six. Her interpretation was rich and colorful. Her skills allowed her to add layers, change volumes and vary tempos while performing. All these, integrated with her graceful appearance, made her even more charming.

Khoma, a native Ukrainian, is a renowned cellist and a cello professor at College of Charleston. Among her competition wins is the Budapest Pablo Casals Competition, named after the Spanish cellist who played a crucial role in popularizing the Bach cello suites.

These suites were largely unknown until Casals recorded a full version of all six in 1939. They then became a peak that seemingly every cello maestro tries to reach at some point in their career.

Unlike Casals’ deep interpretation of the Prelude of Suite No. 1, Khoma’s playing is brisk and absorbing. Her first note in Menuet—bright, quick and forte—was a potent contrast to the mournful Sarabande. Her refreshing articulation of the beginning was joined by an elastic and elegant reinvention of it in terms of melody and sound intensity. It enriched the acoustics and added layers to the suite.

The second suite in D minor, in contrast to the first one, is darker. The lines lingered in her strings, her fingers, the hall and the church. The mournful notes were like endless sadness and gloom. However, the pace in the Allemande was unexpected. In her interpretation, the lines and notes plunged forward in an incredibly fast tempo that still captured every nuance.

Yet the Courante was somehow even speedier. With greater contrast in volume and pitch in phrases, the emotion became so fierce that when the final crescendo came, you felt the agony and drama falling on the audience. During this suite, Khoma kept wiping the sweat off her head and fixing her hair between movements. Her dress strap also fell off her shoulder, which seemed to distract her. (The strap fell from time to time throughout the concert.)

After going backstage for a while, Khoma came back and played the third suite in C major. Her melodic short notes leaped over the fluid bass. While the strong resonance in the First Presbyterian Church sometimes blurred the piece’s echoes, the emotions were amplified. Khoma’s seamless playing then integrated the layers, the volumes and the richness of sound in the Gigue. With successive fortes near the end, she ended this journey with an intensified and prolonged coda.

Review: Pamela Z

Review of ‘Music In Time I’ by Pamela Z at the Memminger Auditorium.

The crackle of popped bubble-wrap and the dainty ding of two metal rods, carefully sampled live onstage at the Memminger Auditorium, have become two more looped elements added to Pamela Z’s cauldron of sound. The multilayered, droning mix contains samples of lyrics and the occasional soaring operatic vocal, elements that the abstract shapes in the projected video behind Z respond to in every instance. It is a hypnotic experience, with multimedia singer and performer Pamela Z serving as both musical alchemist and gatekeeper for the audience into her signature soundscapes.

The ensuing chaos can sometimes be overwhelming, with all of the aural stimuli building to a cacophonous, overpowering crescendo that threatens to spin out of control. But then, with a wave of her hand or the subtle press of a pedal, Pamela Z reins in her noisy creation, proving once again that every sound was indeed in its intended place.

Her technique of building abstract collages of sound—sometimes rhythmic, sometimes atonal—makes the process and the performance and integral part of her compositions (I don’t imagine a Pamela Z CD would be nearly as enthralling.) In that regard, her show is almost geeky. I found myself at certain points straining to see when she was starting to capture specific vocals and sounds, and trying to identify the pace of specific loops of songs. Her performance dares you to decode it, to dig down into the bed of music as it occurs to discover her secrets. In that regard, she is not only a performer, but a shepherd, controlling what direction we move within the soundscape and inviting a strong analysis of her process rather than relishing in the performance of the final product.

However, it was when she didn’t provide an entry point—whether it be a consistent beat, a new vocal or an overarching theme—that her work began to falter. One particular piece, in which she used a laptop camera to record a short video series of brief motions and sounds that she then controlled using waves of her hands, never seemed to come together as a composition itself, and played more like a technological demonstration than an artistic work using a compelling audio-visual tool.

The audibly shuffling feet of exiting patrons punctuating the end of each of her first five works made it abundantly clear that Pamela Z isn’t for everyone. Her approach can be hypnotic, cacophonous, atonal, and even comical at times. However, it isn’t entirely accessible. Even “Broom,” her final performance that she quasi-jokingly declared her “pop song,” had a hint of soul and verse/chorus/verse song structure, but it still leaned heavily toward her signature piecework aesthetic.

With the very nature of her work being predicated on live sampling, I can’t imagine two Pamela Z performances ever being exactly alike, even if the blueprints are generally the same. It’s with this in mind that the process itself becomes more enthralling than the end results. I have to admit, it sure was fun watching her hands pluck, pry and stretch the noises she’s created using a small, mysterious custom made theremin-esque box. It’s her most fascinating onstage piece of equipment, but it’s the ingenuity of Pamela Z itself that proves to be her most valuable instrument.