Sunday, January 21, 2018

Circa 1886
Located in the carriage house at the Wentworth Mansion

     There's a reason that Circa 1886 remains in my top three best restaurant experiences in Charleston, and that reason is service.  It of course goes without saying that the food at Circa 1886 is unsurpassed locally in quality, flavor, and presentation.  But it is the service, the unparallelled attention to detail by the staff, that brings me back to this restaurant over and over again.   Even when our usual waitor, Charles, is busy with other tables, he always stops by our table to say hello.  And Kaitlyn steps right in to give Charles a run for his money in the favorite waitstaff department, a win-win for anyone lucky enough to have either as their server.
     Reservations are needed, but the staff will put you on a wait list if the restaurant is already booked.  I have always received a call and a table when this happens.  We have a favorite table, and never have a problem with it being reserved for us.  The bar staff are fun and creative, especially nice for me, a non-drinker, as they create new, delicious mocktails for me each time.  My favorite contains ginger beer and lime juice and is served in a copper mug.
     Whether it be at one of their many themed dinners, Blue Jeans and Burgers, Bourbon and Bacon, or the Dickens Dinner, the menu is varied, changes often, and includes something to please everyone.  Chef Marc Collins never disappoints.  On a recent visit, our server Kaitlyn suggested the Piedmontesse Beef and the Heritage Pork Belly.  My dining partner was leaning towards the Cider Brined Chicken (excellent) and the Wedge Salad, but took Kaitlyn's advice and was happy that he did.  The pork belly, lean with a rich, smoky flavor, was served over butter beans, fried peanuts, and yazu apple butter.  The beef dish was presented with pureed foie gras, hominy, fingerling potatoes, and a vidalia onion, each flavor complementing the perfectly prepared meat.  
     My appetizer was a favorite, the Chevre and Beets, three types of chilled beets served with greens and spiced pecans.  A pour-over of goat cheese veloute blended the beet juices into a lovely cream sauce.  For fun, I ordered the Broken Arrow Antelope and I was not disappointed.  The meat was tender, prepared medium-rare as the chef suggested, with smoked blackberry barbecue sauce, an apt flavor complement to the meat.
     After coffee and a double espresso, we tried two new desserts, the Pumpkin Souffle and the Caramel Apple Cake.  The souffle was light as air and the apple cake had a delicate sponge.  As a treat, our server brought us a third dessert, the Circa 1886 Smores, which the pastry chef has tweaked,  improving the toasted marshmallow and increasing the amount of graham crumbs surrounding the chocolate cake and house-made graham cracker.
     We here in Charleston are lucky to have many fine restaurantd, which I take advantage of on a regular basis.  Whether you want barbecue (Rodney Scott's and Lewis's) or biscuits (Callie's Hot Little Biscuit) or mussels and frites (Rue de Jean), there is always somewhere wonderful to find them.  But when I want delicious, creatively-prepared, locally-sourced food, served on white tablecloths by the best waitstaff in the business, I recommend Circa 1886.

Friday, November 10, 2017

     I'm keeping track of how many books I read this year, just for fun.  I follow a few reader/writer Facebook pages that ask for a monthly accounting of that number and I am humbled by the sheer numbers of books read by dedicated readers.  As of November 1st, I have read fifty books, far below the tally of many, but right on track for me.  My yearly total for 2016 was 54 - my goal for 2017 is 60 books.  So I need to keep my eye on the prize.
     I generally prefer the classics in fiction.  I am listening to Charlotte Bronte's Villette right now on Audible, unabridged, brushing up on my conversational French. But this year, I have veered off my usual path to read modern fiction titles.  I guess you could say that modern fiction is my 2017 reading theme.  In the process, I've discovered some wonderful books, the best of which is John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.
     It's hard to talk about A Prayer for Owen Meany without getting sentimental, even a little tearie - I loved the book that much.  The prose is real, something I love about Irving.  The characters are people that you would like to know, people you wish were sitting in your living room right now.  Such is the case with Owen Meany.  Owen was a completely good person.  Not without faults, granted, although his mother and father believe he was the result of immaculate conception.  He had a temper, exhibited occasional bouts of pride, but all in all, Owen was the type of person anyone would want as their best friend.
     The story is set in the fictional New Hampshire town of Gravesend, a place familiar to anyone who has lived in New England.  I was partially raised in New Hampshire, and I recognized the feel of the town immediately: small, quiet, severe and conservative on the surface and bubbling with ebullience and rebellion underneath.  The book covers the time between the end of World War II and the Vietnam War, and the story is told in flashbacks, from the point of view of the narrator, Owen's friend John Wheelwright.
     Owen Meany is small in stature, oddly made, with a big heart, a sharp intellect, and an outspoken manner.  His opinions garner righteous indignation in fellow Gravesend residents, even though they know that Owen is 100% right.  Owen's lifelong best friend was John Wheelwright, although Owen was the cause of John's mother's death.  If these two facts seem incongruous, you are correct.  They are.  But A Prayer for Owen Meany is just that, a prayer for his safety, in thanksgiving for his innate goodness,  his love and ultimately, his forgiveness.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

     Last night I said goodbye to a close friend, Vikram Seth's book A Suitable Boy.  I began reading the 1474 page tome on June 22, 2016, slightly more than a year ago.  During that time, other books have come and gone, books that I have loved, liked, or merely tolerated.  But none became a part of me the way that Seth's A Suitable Boy did.  Every night before closing my eyes, I picked up "the book" and was transported to the India of the nineteen fifties, to Brahmpur and Calcutta, to the banks of the Ganga, onto dusty trains, into shaded gardens and crowded alleys.  The last words I saw before sleep were Lata and Maan and Pran and Savita, Mrs. Rupa Mehra and Mahesh Kapoor, Kabir and Amit and Haresh.  They peopled my waking and sleeping dreams.
     Each day, I counted my reading progress in page numbers, willing the characters to move ahead, to bring me closer to the end of the book. I had to know.  Who was a suitable boy for Lata?  But then, when the final page was in sight, I hesitated.  I had been carrying the two and a half pound book around the house with me for a year, but now I put it down.  I didn't want to read that last page.  I didn't want to find out who Lata Mehra had chosen as her husband, her "Suitable Boy." For 1400 pages the suspence had been killing me and now, right at the finish line, my horse balked.  A suitable boy was chosen.
    "No, she can't choose him!" my mind wailed.  Maybe something terrible will happen, I thought in desperation.  Maybe the wedding will be called off.  Maybe no one is suitable for Lata Mehra...but I won't spoil the book or its ending.   You'll just have to read A Suitable Boy and find out for yourself if Lata's choice was suitable!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Dining updates for Piccolo Spoleto

     Concerts, plays, art shows, performance art - Hoorah!  Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto have begun, with theater-goers and concert attendees working up an appetite for more than Charleston culture. So, while dashing between performances, plan to sample the culinary gold of the Lowcountry.  Most of the restaurants I have reviewed on my blog are still thriving and worth a visit but a few, alas, have closed or are no longer what they once were.  I've also added four new mini-reviews.

     Restaurants that have closed, and will be sadly missed:
P.I.E. Bake Shoppe
Brasserie Gigi
The Smith Street Bull Street Gourmet, but the King Street location of Bull Street Gourmet is thriving.  

New favorites to try:  
Poogan's Smokehouse - Located in the space vacated by Social, P's Smokehouse excels at Lowcountry comfort food: barbecue, cast iron skillet cornbread, and collards.  Their bar makes the best mint juleps in town.
Lewis Barbecue - Delightful atmosphere, with dining inside or out and a full bar with bar menu.  Their pulled pork and brisket is moist and flavorful, and especially good when paired with the creamy lemon slaw.
Carmella's Wine and Dessert Bar -  I have been eyeing this delightful dessert/wine/coffee bar for some time and was recently charmed down to my socks by their Italian Rum Cake.
Worth skipping dessert elsewhere and finishing your evening at Carmella's, or better still, skip dinner altogether and just eat dessert!
Twenty Six Devine - Full English tea.  Need I say more?  

Reservations required, as this lovely tea room prepares just enough to share with those who plan ahead.  

Restaurants that Charleston E. Diner can no longer recommend:
Poogan's Porch - (Hoped the quality would improve with the new chef in 2016, but sadly it did not.)
3 Matadors Taquileria - (same menu, poor quality)


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

There are only four days left until Christmas and if you're scrambling for some last minute gifts, books are the perfect choice.  Here are a few of my favorite reads from 2016, by category:
Summit: A Novel 
by Harry Farthing
A marvelous tale of adventure and murder at the top of the world, Summit is world traveler, explorer, and mountaineer Harry Farthing's first novel. Using Mt. Everest as his centerpiece, Mr. Farthing weaves a skillful plot around well-drawn characters and a fascinating setting.  Whether you are an experienced climber or just love adventure, you won't be able to put this book down.

The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Follow Cora on her journey from slavery to freedom, traveling via a real train traveling underground through nineteenth century America. The fictional United States that Mr. Whitehead describes resembles the racially divided United States of the 1800's, then veers off the tracks into a world that requires the reader to suspend belief and accept Whitehead's alternate view.  Very skillfully written and thought provoking, The Underground Railroad is harsh and hopeful at the same time; a must read.

Classic Literature:
Moby Dick
by Herman Melville
Captain Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, Stubb, Flask, Tashtego, the Pequod, and of course, Moby Dick.  What other cast of characters in 19th Century literature evokes the vibrant images, the harsh emotions, the colorful sense of place of Melville's Moby Dick?  Reading this book for the second time, I am struck by Melville's attention to detail, the brutality of whaling, the singlemindedness of New England seafarers, and the relentless power of the sea.  Truly the great American adventure novel.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life
by Pat Conroy
Our loss this year of the singular Southern writer, Pat Conroy, is mitigated by the vibrancy of his voice in this, his last collection of essays.  On every page you hear the bright tones of his speaking voice, feel the enthusiasm and excitement of his world view, and revel in his effusive language.  A feast for Conroy fans, and for readers who are fascinated by the joy and majesty of a grand story.

American Playrights - Drama:
by August Wilson
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, August Wilson's Fences is bold, raw and heartbreaking.  Wilson writes vehemently, dishing out truth while your mind screams NO! and your heart tears right down the middle.  Pick up this small and powerful volume and read it before you see the newly released movie.

Just Mercy
by Bryan Stevenson
A timely read for all, Just Mercy reveals the flaws in the Southern justice system, post segregation.  Concerned with imperfect justice, innocence convicted, and the indiscriminate imposition of the death penalty, attorney Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which began its work in Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, and expanded nationwide.  Bravo Mr. Stevenson, the savior of the common man and the wrongly accused.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Marie Arana's memoir, American Chica - Two Worlds, One Childhood, guides the reader through two cultures, Peruvian and American, in the mid-twentieth century.  Seen through the eyes of five year old Marie, life in Peru is perplexing, comforting, and exciting, all at the same time.  Raised by her American mother and Peruvian father, young Marie is wrapped in what seems to outsiders as an intrusive South American familial culture.  Her American family seems cold in comparison.  Wise and powerful life lessons all seem to originate in Peru, while harsh realities come from the homogenized life of 1950's America.  
Ms. Arana's story is compelling, her settings rich and colorful.  The clash of ethnicity, belief systems, and social mores raise this memoir from a simple coming-of-age tale to an intricate tapestry, full of experiences that were woven into her very being.  The reader is drawn into Peruvian life and a bit repelled by American life, which helps explain Marie's difficulty straddling the two worlds she was raised in.  I highly recommend American Chica.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

It's Summer Reading Time!

My regular blog followers know that I choose a reading theme each summer.  Last year, I chose pairs of books that were related in some way: Middlemarch and My Life in Middlemarch, Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and My Salinger Year, and Wiesel's Night, Dawn and Day.  One summer I chose Russian authors (Dear, cheerful Dostoevsky is my favorite.) and another summer I read the entire collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. (Ask my husband how much he enjoyed that summer, as I was so excited by Sir C. D. that I read The Adventure of the Speckled Band aloud to him!)
This year's summer theme is an unusual one for me.  I will read one, huge, glorious book, 
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, all 1474 pages of it!  I wish you had a picture of my face when the mail carrier delivered it.  (I thought perhaps the package contained two or three books, not just one.)  
The idea for this summer's big read came from Stephen King, mentioned in his book On Writing.  On Writing is an interesting, informative page-turner which includes a list of books that King enjoyed during the three years prior to his book's publication.  King also mentioned two epic novels that he thought were worth a read: M.M. Kaye's The Far Paviliions, which I had read twice and absolutely loved, and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which I had not read.  So here I go!  I'm on page 45 and I can't put the book down.  I will now happily spend my summer in India with Rupa and Lata and Savita...and a cast of characters yet to be introduced.  Check back with me in September for a final report!