Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cru Cafe

For more than 20 years, Cru Catering in Charleston has been stirring up crowd-pleasing dishes, the kind Executive Chef and Owner John Zucker calls Eclectic Modern American Cuisine. 

Cru Catering's recipes are creatively delicious, all feature Asian, Carribbean, Italian, Southern and/or Southwestern influences and has has been voted Best Caterer in Charleston consecutively since 2001. 

With a heralded lineage, it came as no surprise to learn Zucker's restaurant, Cru Café, has been receiving accolades routinely since it opened in 2002. 
John Zucker
Zucker was the top graduate in his class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Then, he trained and created culinary delights under celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Las Vegas. From there, he became sous chef for the opening of Canoe, which was nominated “Best New Restaurant of the Year,” by the James Beard Society. 

Thus, being able to dine at the Cru Café on Pinkney Street while in Charleston this week was a high priority for me and the rest of our family.

We booked a table for the six of us for mid-day, taking the very last reservation available before the restaurant closed to rest and re-group before the New Year's Eve dinner crowd arrived.

I was surprised by the size and intimacy of the restaurant. It was housed on the first floor of a charming old Charleston single house. The main dining room, a former parlor no doubt, provided seating for just nine small groups. There were tables for two, four or a few more people. Additional seating was available closer to the kitchen - a chef's counter looking directly into the workspace, as well as a rectangular high-top table nearby with seating for eight.

Duck Confit Arugula Salad
It was at the high-top table that we sat, and I couldn't have been more delighted. From there we could see all who came and went, watch the goings on in the kitchen and in the main eating area. Additionally, Zucker himself was positioned nearby. Often he would walk over, check out what we had ordered, ask for input on our selections, etc. We liked that!

Because we were on vacation - and not planning to eat another big meal that night - we opted to sample many of the items on the lunch menu, including some of the chef's signature dishes - like the Mesclun Fried Goat Cheese Salad and the Duck Confit Arugula Salad, as well as the Four Cheese Macaroni, Coconut Fried Oyster Wrap, Shrimp BLT and Pepper Jack, etc., etc. In short, we stuffed ourselves!

By the end of the meal, we had struck up a conversation with the affable John Zucker and were in no big hurry to wrap up the dining experience. So, coffees and bread puddings were ordered all around. 

I walked away from the experience well-fed and very satisfied. I couldn't help but comment to the rest of our group, "We just had our last official meal of the year, and I do believe it was one of the best of all."

Visiting Fort Sumter

This morning, the "Spirit of the Lowcountry" took us away from the shores of Charleston and over to historic Fort Sumter, best known as the site where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

A friend, who had lived in Charleston for many years, once described Fort Sumter as a "big rock" in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Needless to say, I was eager to find out for myself how accurate her description.

On the site, I learned that Fort Sumter  was built after the War of 1812. It was named for General Thomas Sumter, a hero of the Revolutionary War, as one of a series of fortifications along our nation's southern coast. When construction began in 1827, more than 70,000 tons of granite were imported from New England to build up a sand bar at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. 

The fort is a five-sided brick structure. Its walls are five feet thick and stand 50 feet over the low-tide mark. Though it was never filled to capacity, it was built to house 650 men and 135 guns.

When I walked into Fort Sumter, I had planned to spend a lot of time walking around, checking out the fort's museum and studying seriously the artifacts. But, it was not to be. 

My two-year-old grandson, Andrew, became immediately drawn to a couple of cannons situated right inside the entrance. So much so that he refused to wander away and around. 

"OK," I told the rest of my family. "I'll stay here and keep an eye on him. When he gets bored, we'll catch up with you." 

An hour later, I was still sitting there, and Andrew and a dozen other small children from the boat were still running back and forth between the two cannons and touching all parts within reach.

They were too young to understand exactly what they were playing with or the significance of where those cannons were situated. But, nonetheless, our trip to Fort Sumter proved to be a wonderful outing - an important footnote in my family's history.

Spirit of the Lowcountry

I'm always up for a boat ride, so I jumped at the opportunity to climb onboard the Spirt of the Lowcountry early this morning to cruise on over to historic Fort Sumter. 

Tagging along with me (or perhaps it was the other way around) were my son, daughter, her husband and my two small grandchildren.

We were delighted to find the Spirit of the Lowcountry was shipshape, with a friendly crew eager to please and accommodate.

We were sitting on the open-air, upper deck with the boat pulled away from shore, but today's breezes were cool. A bit too cool. So, soon enough we sought the warmth and comfort of the shelter below.

We positioned ourselves near a big window at the front of the craft and watched attentively as we neared our destination. No one spoke much. That's what happens when busy people get away to relax.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Olde Pink House

My family and I opted to spend this beautiful vacation day taking a unplanned day trip — from Charleston, S.C. to Savannah, Georgia. 

Right after a hearty breakfast at our hotel, we headed south on Highway 71 in a rented mini-van. All of us were eager to see a second southern beauty.

We got to Savannah just before noon and decided to go ahead and stop for lunch before we did anything else.

The Olde Pink House, located at 23 Abercom in Reynolds Square, was our pick as the restaurant du jour. We didn't have a reservation, so getting in to this national landmark (on this holiday weekend) was iffy.

But, luck was on our side. We got to the Olde Pink House a bit before the crowd and were taken immediately to a prime spot in the main dining room of the stately Georgian Mansion. The service staff was quick and eager to assist us. Before we knew it, drink orders were taken and menu items were being considered. 

Comfort foods — fried chicken with mashed potatoes and white cream gravy — seemed appropriate and just too tempting to pass up, so I didn't.

While we waited for the food to come out, we did what any iPhone-toting family would do. We "googled" the Olde Pink House to educate ourselves about its history.

We learned the house was built by James Habersham, Jr. on land granted by the crown of England. He lived in the house from 1771 to 1800. And, during that time, the home was the site of "many secret meetings which helped secure the independence of the 13 original colonies from England."

In 1811, the home became the Planter's Bank, the first bank in Georgia, and housed the monies of all the colonists. The original, cast-iron vaults are still there and in use today - as wine cellars.

During lunch, our waiter told us that "ghosts of the past often walk freely among the tables" at the Olde Pink House. 

Fortunately, today, we were not among the diners who saw them!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Charleston Cooks

I was delighted to be able to spend a little time this afternoon strolling up and down some of the streets situated near Charleston's City Market and wandering in and out of shops of special interest. One such place was Charleston Cooks, located at 192 East Bay Street.

The shop is a cook's delight - whether amateur or full-fledged chef. It is jam-packed with only the best in cooking equipment and utensils, Lowcountry cookbooks, brightly colored aprons, gourmet spices and seasonings, etc., etc., etc.

While browsing around, I saw noticed on the other side of wall of glass, a professional kitchen and classroom-style rows of tables and chairs. Obviously, cooking classes were offered there, so I inquired about them.

I learned that a demonstration class was being held on New Year's Day at 2:30 p.m. I learned that the instructor would be preparing a traditional Lowcountry New Year's Day recipes. And, most importantly, I learned there were still a few tickets available for purchase. 

I turned to my daughter, Nicole, who was shopping nearby, and asked if she'd like to take a class on our last day in Charleston. 

Without hesitation, she said, "Of course!"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Noisy Oyster

My son, Matt, and I landed at the Charleston Airport just after noon, rushed through baggage claim and jumped in a cab.

The plan was to meet my daughter and her family at Hilton's Doubletree Suites on Church Street (our home for the next six days) as quickly as we could. They had flown in from Chicago just two hours earlier and would, undoubtedly, be ready and eager to connect and eat!

Our cab driver was friendly and most hospitable. Matt and I were enjoying a pleasant conversation with him when my cell phone rang. It was my daughter, Nicole, calling to let me know they were at the Noisy Oyster, a popular Charleston eatery just steps from our hotel. 

At my suggestion, the cabbie dropped us off at the restaurant, and within minutes (with luggage in tow), we were sitting at a high-top table diving into an oversized order of fresh, raw oysters! YUM!

When I visited Charleston for the first time - last year - I learned that a trip to Charleston can easily become "all about the food." I told the others they should be careful not to eat too much at any one meal, not to be tempted by the extensive menus that the restaurants here all seem to have. 

No one seemed to hear me. Before long, a tall stack of fried onion rings appeared on the table, followed by another order of oysters, then a huge platter of coconut shrimp, french fries and cole slaw, etc., etc., etc.

After a very lengthy lunch, we walked outside and through the city market and then on over to our hotel. Along the way, I heard complaints about the amount of food consumed and the discomforts the overeating had caused. 

I could only say, "I told you so!"

But, repeatedly, one or the other responded, "Mother, nobody goes to the Noisy Oyster to listen."