This Midwestern millennial made her first trek down to Charleston, S.C., in April. Despite its growing reputation as a “foodie town,” I expected to see menus packed with heavy, fried foods and traditional Southern fare. What I instead found was a mecca of culinary creativity—with some stealable ideas coming out of the kitchens. While traditional low-country cuisine may be the norm, there’s a plethora of talented local cooks—who all expressed a love and devotion for their city—experimenting with nontraditional preparations, ethnic influences and other chef-driven trends. Here’s some ideas I picked up along the way:
1. Flavored ice cubes
It’s hot in the South, which means ice melts quickly. But Charlestonians aren’t letting their drinks get watered down. At Sugar Bakeshop, owners Bill Bowick and David Bouffard cool their Citrus-Almond Sun Tea with ice cubes made from tea. So instead of letting the beverage dilute, drinkers just have more tea in their cup to sip. Adding an adult spin, new hotspot Edmund’s Oast lists The Red Wedding—with Elijah Craig 12 Year, Amaro Averna, an orange peel and bright red ice cubes made of hibiscus-thyme sweet tea—as the first drink on its cocktail menu. Instead of taking away from the drink, the ice adds a new level of complexity, says head bartender Jayce McConnell. The drink starts off as a liquory kick in the pants, he warned, but changes as the ice melts. And it’s clearly selling well. When a few members of our eight-top tried to order The Red Wedding, we were informed that there was only enough flavored ice left for one.
The Redding Wedding cocktail from Edmund’s Oast is a vibrant red color thanks, in part, to the flavored ice cubes.
2. Check-splitting policy
Printed on the bottom of the menu at Xiao Bao Bakery is a very clear statement on split checks for large groups. “All parties of six or more checks will be split evenly, not individually.” According to owner and mixologist Joey Ryan, it’s because dishes are meant to be ordered and shared by the table. But really, it also takes some pressure off the servers. After all, with a menu of small plates, it’s got to be tricky to remember who ordered what.
Yu Xiang—brussels sprouts and eggplant in Sichuan-style sauce—is one of the small plates designed for sharing on the Xiao Bao Biscuit menu.
3. A nondairy alternative to soy
After one almond-milk latte, I was converted—no more soy for me. Nondairy milk sales have increased 25 percent since Black Tap Coffee opened in 2012, according to co-owners Jayme Scott and Ross Jett. But they’re finding more success with almond milk than soymilk. Some 60 to 70 percent of nondairy sales here are almond milk, and they go through about a gallon a day.
So what about the folks at large companies such as Starbucks who worry about alienating a set of consumers with nut allergies? Are they missing an opportunity to please a different type of customer … a customer like me who will now always start my coffee order by asking if there’s almond milk available?
An almond-milk iced latte from Black Tap Coffee complements an almond croissant.
4. Repurposing charcuterie to increase sales
Many chefs in Charleston and beyond are making their own cured meats in-house. But why not take charcuterie off the board? Cypress, known for its charcuterie program, has increased production and acquired the space to open a sandwich shop later this year, according to Chef de Cuisine Bob Cook. They’ve already got a charcuterie program going, so why not use it in more ways than one to increase sales. If you don’t have a separate space, quick to-go sandwiches on a bar menu could possibly boost lunch sales.
While popular Charleston restaurant Husk offers an array of charcuteries, this country ham is also on the menu at The Bar at Husk next door.
5. Fat washing beyond bacon
We’ve seen bacon vodka. But did you know that you can infuse liquor with anything that has fat using a similar fat-washing process? And Xiao Bao Biscuit owner and mixologist Joey Ryan made it sounds relatively simple. Simply soak a fatty object—anything from a nut to a meat—in liquor, then lower the temperature to freezing, so the fat rises to the top. Skim the fat, strain the remaining liquid, and you’ve got a house-infused hooch.
The almond-infused Almond Roar at Xiao Bao Biscuit is made with rum, small-batch tonic syrup, orange juice and soda water.
6. Watch the xantham gum
It doesn’t seem like the gluten-free trend is anywhere near hitting maximum capacity just yet. So pastry chefs are rolling out gluten-free baked goods left and right, using science-y ingredients such as xantham gum to make their cakes rise and imitate gluten-packed treats. At Sweet Radish, which they say is the only completely gluten-free bakery in the area, owner and pastry chef Julia Ingraham doesn’t use the stuff. She says that a lot of people have digestion issues with it.
Now, I admittedly have an iron stomach, yet some recipe testing for a gluten-free cookbook proved that even I can’t handle much xantham gum. So obviously Ingraham’s stumbled onto something. She experiments with different flour combinations to recreate gluten-filled bakery items from doughnuts to quiches, using non-wheat flours such as almond, chestnut, sweet rice and quinoa. And if I hadn’t been told ahead of time, I’d have had no idea the tasty desserts were gluten-free.
The berry-streusel muffins from Sweet Radish are made with a combination of non-wheat flours.