The marquee of the American Theatre on King Street yesterday afternoon proclaimed, “We drank. We ate. We’re stuffed.” and that about sums it up. The 2014 Charleston Wine and Food Festival had all the hallmarks of a marathon eating fete; forkfuls of samples at every turn, healthy competition in the form of renowned chefs attempting to make hashbrowns smothered, covered, and chunked, Southern Charm cast cameos, and a double D breasted ice luge. But more on that last one later.
Of course it all got off to a soggy start. In a second year attempt to spoil the feasting, mother nature unleashed a deluge, but once again guests proved that it takes a hell of a lot more than a sprinkle to pull them away from their plates.
Thursday night a few lucky folks braved the rain to get a first look at King Street’s Charleston Distilling Co. for Charleston Brown Water Society’s Bourbon Hour. Less skull and bones, more nerdy book club but with whisky, the not-so-secret-anymore-society proved excellent hosts offering attendees dozens of bourbons to sample. While none of the Charleston Distilling Co. spirits were available yet, we hear they’re shooting for an April opening and it’s worth a visit if only to appreciate the beauty of the copper framed space.
Back in the rain I made my way to the fringe Billy Reid party at Blue Ion. Mr. Reid, I don’t quite understand why you threw the party, but I’m sure glad I got to go. Wine flowed in time to the sounds of Latin jazz group Garage Cuban Band and just as I was attempting to control my salsa tick (like restless leg syndrome for the hips, becoming acute within earshot of maracas), who should part the sea of the sartorially smart set but none other than Southern Charm’s Shep Rose. Entirely unfazed (and seemingly unaware of the general ill will roughly 99.9 percent of Charlestonians wishes him) the happy man-puppy posed for pictures and made his way through the crowd. Later his costar Whitney “I live at my mom’s house” Sudler Smith also appeared. Incidentally, no one really seemed to care that these two were there, so perhaps the sky isn’t falling after all Henny Penny.
Before I knew it, the clock had struck 10:30 and all plans of making it to the Opening Night Party were off, but, I got the scoop from other guests upon arrival at the Indaco After Party. The word being: returning the opening night event to Marion Square would have been fine, if not for the aforementioned precipitation making bread items moist and the ground quite muddy. That said, most attendees reported having a swell time, storm be damned.
Indaco took in the mob and I heard many hushed names dropped, “Don’t look now, but John Currence is right behind you!” giving the restaurant the feel of the Continental Hyatt House circa ’75. Decidedly unrock ‘n’ roll I grabbed my purse and bid the party-ers goodnight.
I didn’t make it downtown until 6, just in time to catch a cocktail at the Food Writers Soiree hosted by Post & Courier food reviewer Hanna Raskin. Unfortunately all I had time for was a bite of cheese before it was off to Fish Restaurant for a Perfectly Paired dinner. Fish’s chef Nico Romo and Kansas City, MO’s Colby and Megan Garrelts of Blustem restaurant partnered to deliver an excellent meal, the highlight being the most beautifully plated cut of roasted dry aged Kansas City strip I’ll likely ever see.
After licking the final bit of creamy goo from pastry chef Megan’s bourbon honey custard, it was time for the Lambs & Clams party at The Grocery. There, in addition to Craig Rogers’ delicious lamb carcass, were pints of lamb bone-flavored beer proving that the pickle trend has passed hipsters, commence bone flavoring any and everything. “You can bone that.” Hm, you’re right, the tagline needs some work.
Wakey Wakey eggs and bac-y was in fact the order of the morning on Saturday as I made my way to the Waffle House Smackdown. Nary have I seen a crowd so jacked up to drink drip coffee and listen to the specifics of short order cooking. For its sophomore appearance at the festival, the event’s reputation preceded it and audience anticipation was high. Luckily the competitors brought their A-game, if not on the stove, then at least in witty banter. Chefs Chris Shepherd (Underbelly), Kevin Gillespie (Gunshow), and Michael Hudman (Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen) faced off against reigning Master Blaster champ Mike Lata (FIG & The Ordinary). Bon Apetit’s wry Andrew Knowlton called the play-by-play and it quickly spiraled into less cooking competition more comedy hour. Gillespie was especially entertaining although his zings weren’t enough to win and Chris Shepherd took the final match. Or so we thought. Just when Shepherd was ready to claim his place as victor, the event pulled a fast one and from the back of the tent entered six year Waffle House veteran Jeff Applebaum. In a breakfast battle royale Shepherd with an assist from Gillespie went head to head with the expert. Suffice to say Applebaum kicked their haute cuisine asses with a perfect score, a testament to the technique Waffle House ingrains in its finest.
Out of the tent and into the sunshine I made my way to the beer garden. Shot size sips were available from a variety of breweries including Holy City, Sam Adams, and Goose Island. It was tempting to nestle in and commit to an AM buzz, but duty called and I wandered the Grand Tasting and Southern Season Tents, the latter of which felt like a chi chi farmers market come to life. Next door, seduced by a glass of Fullsteam IPA, I grabbed a bench and caught Southern Foodways Alliance’s Alabama discussion. Nick Pihakis of Jim n' Nicks joined Frank Stitt and Woodrow Archibald of Archibald's Bar B Que in Tuscaloosa for a conversation, emceed by John T. Edge, on what makes Alabama’s cuisine so special. One reason? In the 1920s ,Pihakis says there were nearly 500 barbecue joints in Birmingham alone. Dang.
For a reprieve from Marion Square I took my lunch off campus, dining at Farmbar. The cool breeze and the addition of a boat sail for shade, was the perfect pairing with my stoner pork burger at the provisional shipping container cafeteria. If you haven’t made it up to 1600 Meeting St. yet, it’s worth a visit.
But tick tock, by 3pm, I was back on my bike, William Aiken House bound for Pinot Envy. The event has been a festival favorite since long before I started attending and the large, eager herd proved why. Give folks a beautiful day, a stunning setting, and more than a dozen wineries to taste test and you’re going to get a crowd. Best part of the event was having the opportunity to chat with new festival director Gillian Trimboli-Zettler and new festival director of communications Cathryn Zommer whose combined passion and energy certainly appear to be up to the task of carrying on the annual event. Go get’em gals. While the wine was still flowing, I departed eager to clean up before what would become the pinnacle of the weekend, dinner at Charleston’s only Asian comfort food restaurant which heretofore I shall refer to as Xiao Wow Biscuit! Holy sweet mother of far eastern dishes, the union of Xiao Wow! and New York City’s Uncle Boon’s was a match made is spicy heaven. From start to finish, between overflowing shared plates of green and red curry, a full beeliner snapper, and the world’s most delectable muu tod pork ribs (tell me what I have to do to get those weekly?) the meal was just a delight. Add to that the special mix of dining with a table of incredibly diverse, intelligent people, and it instantly jumped to the top of my "best meals of 2014 list." Props to my tablemates for keeping the conversation buzzing between preservation, the paradox of thrift, and a childhood tonic made of milk and Coca-Cola. Figure that one out. In fact, I had such a good time with my misfit seatmates, we all headed east together to Elliotborough Mini Bar for a pre-after party drink.
This little hole in the wall doesn’t get enough credit for offering a funky alternative to typical downtown drinking establishments. My new New York City friends bought a round of beer and we all chatted as a moody, lone guitarist played in the corner (could have used a couple pauses between chords there bub, but otherwise, you do you, man).
Before I knew it, it was 11 and time to hit The Alley. And for that, let me say around of applause please for Home Team PR owner Angel Postell. she orchestrated one hell of a dance party. The bowlers paradise was packed with festival folks cheers-ing beers, playing arcade games, and yes, taking shots via a sagging double D breasted ice luge. I’m told the creative minds of Postell and High Wire Distilling’s Ann Marshall developed this frozen marvel. I won’t describe how one accessed the shot – you all have the internet, figure it out. What I will tell you, is much like the fate every woman fears, thanks to a line of eager shot takers, it was as if the luge aged before our very eyes. Sister could of used a sports bra by the end of the night.
Those not luging took to dancing and at that, with reckless glee. My personal favorite was a gentleman high kicking to Tupac, nearly taking out another dancer’s eye. Also at one point, Julian Van Winkle was spotted shimmying, bottle in hand, pouring thirsty dancers drams of his liquid gold. Tell me someone got that on tape? An air of goodwill pervaded the space. To cap it all off, Pherrell’s “Happy” closed out the night, and from the looks of the sweaty partiers gyrating with giddy grins, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate tune.