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.

last blog

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: Final Round SNOB

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Situated on East Bay Street, SNOB, or Slightly North of Broad, brings a little bit of their name into the dining room. More upscale than any of the other restaurants B and I have tried, the same genteel, southern hospitality abounded, ridding itself of any pretension. White table linens and fancy place settings couldn’t take away what was a wholly Southern, down home experience. Final round, ding ding ding! Snob1

Getting right into it, we feasted on cornbread for a good while, waiting for the rest of our party to arrive. Equal parts sweet and savory, it was as close to down home classic southern cornbread as I’ve had since I’ve been in Charleston. Soft and buttery, moist and dense, but not heavy, the cornbread was a perfect golden brown on the outside and maize on the inside. I almost ate too much cornbread and didn’t leave enough room for the real reason why I was there. Almost.

Nic’s picks: The shrimp and grits were served in a large bowl that was almost too large. Portion size was not a problem at SNOB, and of all the places we visited that gave the biggest portions. Gravy and raw tomatoes made another appearance, and it seems like in Charleston they are a recurring character rather than a cameo. Nonetheless, we are intrepid; we carry on. I dug into the grits. The gravy was a little oily, but not as heavy as others I had over the course of the last three weeks. I tried the tomatoes, just for the sake of trying them, and immediately pushed them off to the side. They offer nothing to the dish. Not one single thing is made better by the tomatoes.

The shrimp were the best of any of the places I ate at. They were plump and tender, full of flavor. They were also abundant, something that most places have skimped on. They were perfectly cooked to a nice opaque pink color, not too tough but still providing a nice bite and mouth feel.

snob2The grits were smooth, not too watery, but not too stiff. They had just enough texture and they contained a nice corn flavor, independent from the gravy and other accoutrements. Crispy Tasso ham provided a nice textural element, that crunch that softer dishes so desperately need to break up the monotony. It wasn’t too overpoweringly salty either, which was a nice touch. The smoked sausage was a nice thought, but with the ham and the gravy, it could have been left out altogether and it wouldn’t have been missed. There was a nice garlicky bite to the dish that other restaurants lacked, and it was a nice signature to make the dish their own.

Overall, it was a good plate of food, one of the better dishes we had through our eating tour of Charleston. While a little more upscale, SNOB definitely delivered on that down home, Southern food experience.

B’s business: From the moment the shrimp and grits were served, there was no hiding either one of our distresses at seeing yet another bowl filled to the brim with what else? Gravy and tomatoes.

Almost immediately, I automatically pushed the tomatoes to the side—by now I know the cold, juicy fruit doesn’t add any particular flavor to the grits.  The gravy, however, had me torn. It had the most watery consistency of all the gravy we’ve tried, making the grits a soggy mess to pick up by fork. But it also had a good Southern flavor that reminded me of crawfish boil and shrimp boil bases used to marinated seafood back home in New Orleans. A poignant spiced yet not too salty, the gravy actually added some zest to the otherwise bland Geechie Boy grits.

Now, don’t get me wrong, who doesn’t love Geechie Boy? Yellow in color with bits of actual corn added to the taste, these might be one of the best brands of grits available. But without any additional cheese added, the grits were a bit plain when consumed separately from the bowls other contents.

Which, of course, included shrimp. Easily forgettable, these shrimp weren’t anything special as compared to the other meaty contents of the bowl that included both tasso ham and sausage that added just enough briny flavor and substance to the grits. You didn’t even need to eat the shrimp, which I also chose to avoid.

Other things to look for:snob 3

The grilled chicken was some of the best grilled chicken I’ve ever had—period. Perfectly charred on the outside while still being tender and moist on the inside, the depth of flavor between the rub and the flavor of the chicken was extraordinary. The grilled summer vegetables were okay, but the goat cheese croutons (really just battered fried balls of goat cheese) were delectable and paired perfectly with the spice in the chicken. This dish was actually better than the shrimp and grits.

Stay tuned for the action-packed conclusion and our favorite shrimp and grits picks!

Shrimp and Grits Showdown: Round 4 Hominy Grill

BrianaBellLogo-3

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.

Shrimp and Grits Showdown Round 2: SWAMP FOX

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

As Georgia (Nic Bell) and New Orleans (Briana Prevost) natives, we know authentic Southern food. Naturally, coming to Charleston as Spoleto festival reporters meant finding the best food in the low country. Our mission started with one simple goal in mind: finding (and eating) the best bowl of shrimp and grits in the city. Our next stop in our bi-weekly Shrimp and Grits Showdown: Swamp Fox Restaurant & Bar.  

Swamp Fox Restaurant & Bar, located inside the historic Francis Marion hotel, is the epitome of Southern charm. White tablecloths, ornate settings and beautiful china, rich mahogany and Southern gentility abounds in the dining room. Nestled in the corner of the restaurant was a grand piano pumping out contemporary songs and setting the mood for a wonderfully relaxing brunch. On to Round Two!

Nick’s picks: First and foremost, as a restaurant in Charleston, shrimp and grits should be on your menu all day everyday, breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and nightcap. Am I right? Well, the Swamp Fox doesn’t disappoint. When B and I ordered, we each were presented with a steaming, delicious bowl of Southern gritty goodness.

Creamy, smooth grits were topped with plump, perfectly opaque shrimp. Throughout the velvetiness, red and yellow bell peppers provided a subtle sweetness and texture. Pepper jack cheese was sprinkled over the top and provided just enough depth of flavor, but it wasn’t overpowering for the delicate shrimp or grits.

Shrimp and grits in Charleston seems to come served with a signature gravy pooled over the top of the dish, and while the grits at Husk was overpowered by the smoked tomato gravy, the grits at the Swamp Fox were elevated with its lobster and Tasso ham gravy. Rich and decadent, it provided a deliciously briny seafood flavor that only heightened the flavor of the shrimp. Morsels of Tasso ham definitely didn’t hurt the dish. It may have provided too much richness for an otherwise deftly executed dish, but the flavors melded together beautifully and left me completely satisfied.

B’s business: After trying the first batch of shrimp and grits from Husk, I must admit, I was a bit skeptical when this batch came out as I scoped the contents of its bowl. Automatically, the gravy reminded me of popular New Orleans bases for remoulade or etouffee, which was exciting – until I saw the red and green bell peppers and my skepticism was amplified.

But upon first bite of the smooth, soft grits with just Swamp Fox’s Lobster and Tasso Ham Gravy, I thought, “now this is what grits should taste like!” The savory grits were cooked just so that the pepperjack cheese blended into the grits without stringing and separating from its parent ingredient. Not too salty, yet not at all bland thanks to the rich flavors from the gravy, the grits were the main delight in this dish – as they should be.

Although originally doubtful, the other contents within the grits were surprisingly agreeable to the palette. The onions were sautéed just right as to taste a hint of carmelization while the sautéed bell peppers supplemented the slightly sweet flavor in contrast to the savory taste of the thick grits they sat atop.

The shrimp, however, was not worth adding to the rest of the medley of flavors in the bowl. Tastlessly too fishy, the shrimp was also translucent and tough. By the end of my meal, each piece of seafood had been pushed to the side of my bowl, leaving me to enjoy the tasso ham as the meaty counterpoint for my grits consumption.

Expect the unexpected:

Nic’s pick: The bread pudding was all kinds of decadent, but it wasn’t nearly as heavy or dense as some that I’ve had before. Inundated with raisins, the vanilla custard was subtly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Delicious and unctuous, the bread pudding is definitely not something to be missed.

B’s business: The bread pudding was not terribly drenched in a cream based finishing sauce, this warm dessert-for-breakfast had just enough cinnamon and dryness to the dough to be considered a mushier version of French toast. It included a New Orleans favorite ingredient – raisins – dispersed perfectly throughout the pudding as to not overpower any of its simple tasting pleasures.

Shrimp and Grits Showdown: Round 1 HUSK

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

As Georgia (Nic Bell) and New Orleans (Briana Prevost) natives, we know authentic Southern food. Naturally, coming to Charleston as Spoleto festival reporters meant finding the best food in the low country. Our mission started with one simple goal in mind: finding (and eating) the best bowl of shrimp and grits in the city. Our first stop in our bi-weekly Shrimp and Grits Showdown was Husk.

Voted as GQ’s best new restaurant of 2011, Husk has been awarded many accolades, both from locals and critics alike, but it does have a reputation for being a little inconsistent. Our immediate reaction to Husk was how gorgeous it was. Situated in an old antebellum house, complete with a two tier wraparound porch, the restaurant had a rustic feeling with dark wooden floors and butcher block topped tables. Even the dishes were rustic and earthen.

Nic’s picks: When our shrimp and grits arrived, I was a little confused by the contents of the bowl. Perched atop the grits were wonderfully plump and tender shrimp, but it was all bathed in a disturbing amount of a tomato sauce. Included in the dish was peppers, onions, peas, and smoked pork.

The grits were velvet smooth and satisfying, not as gritty as most grits I’ve had, but not too watery. The smoked peppers, onions, and peas were a pleasant surprise, but the tomato was heavy handed and overpowered the subtle taste and texture of the star ingredient, the grits.

I appreciated the smoky flavor of both the pork and the tomatoes, but the overwhelming amount of tomatoes, in my opinion, ruined a perfectly good dish.

B’s business: Husk’s shrimp and grits comes in a huge bowl fitting for its contents. Comprised not only of shrimp and grits, but also a bed of peas, chives and tomatoes with tomato gravy sat atop the white corn confection.

Although a bit gritty, the grits were cooked just long enough and with just enough butter to be enjoyed by itself. The peas added an extra unexpected mini burst of flavor when combined with the subtle taste of cheese, however, the overpowering taste of the tomato and its juices took away any chance this dish had at making it an enjoyable hodgepodge of southern flavor.

Too bad too, the best part about Husk’s shrimp and grits was the shrimp. Jumbo and plump, the shrimp reigned supreme as both meaty enough to make this dish edible as a main course, yet flavorful on its own merits.

Expect the unexpected:

Nic’s picks: The cornbread. Studded with bits of bacon and topped with sea salt, this was a delicious compliment to the creaminess of the grits.

The burger. It’s not a stretch to say that this was the best burger I’ve ever eaten. Soft, supple bun, perfectly melted cheese, briny pickles, and pungent mustard for a great burger make. Also serve with potato wedges and homemade ketchup (which was delicious, and also coming from a man that HATES ketchup).

B’s business: Another unexpected treat was the cornbread. Baked with bacon and basked in butter, this cornbread had more of a savory fill than sweet but was just as moist as should be. For any sweet toothers (like myself) a slather of Husk’s Portland butter on the cornbread will fix this problem. And as the sweet butter melts into the cornbread, so will the cornbread into your mouth.