(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.