The start to our trip was rewarding, but exhausting. One may ask, why go to the Carolinas in the very heart of the hot summer? The answer to the exhaustion and the question is one and the same – the beach!
We slept in that Monday morning anticipating a trip to the Sea Pines Beach Club, but the rainy and gray weather from the trip back from Charleston the night before persisted, though with a bit less rain. Undaunted, I took the opportunity to head back toward the mainland to purchase what would become the evening’s dinner. On the way, I spied a nature preserve on Pinckney Island and stopped to take a look around. It may not have been perfect beach weather, but the Carolina Low Country is a sight unto itself and this was a grand example of it with plenty of water birds and other wildlife scattered through the sawgrass.
The sky framed the low country scenery with drama, especially as storm clouds rolled up on some nearby docked shrimpers.
It may have been a Monday, but unlike urban seafood sellers that rely on product shipped from elsewhere, the roadside stand¹ that I stopped at, had shrimp freshly caught that very morning. The head-on shrimp were pristine and inexpensive at $10/pound. I picked up a couple of pounds and then hightailed it back to the house before another deluge descended upon me.
That deluge never actually arrived and by late in the afternoon, though not exactly bright and sunny, we determined that it was finally time to ride our bikes to the beach. I had never seen this particular beach so empty in August. It was almost as if we had it entirely to ourselves and with the tide out and coming in there was plenty of real estate and rolling waves in which to play. Yes, the beach is one great reason to come to the Carolinas in the middle of summer. With cooling breezes and bathwater pounding pure sand, it was relaxing and beautiful in a most elemental way. We spent a few hours there, in and out of the water, watching the few people with whom we shared this idyllic spot as well as just enjoying what turned out to be an ideal time for the shore.
That evening we cooked in, keeping it simple, sautéing the shrimp, green tomatoes and zucchini with a chile garlic sauce and washing it down with fresh peach² daiquiris. Taking advantage of some of the best products the region has to offer is an aspect of travel that I really enjoy and being able to play with them myself in the kitchen is a ton of fun.
The next morning was a bit brighter and my wife and I rode bikes to a small farmers market nearby…
…and loaded up on a little more local produce including some beautiful okra, a vegetable that defines The South like few others.
We spent a little more time on the beach that afternoon, which with a clear, blue sky was as crowded as the previous afternoon was empty. The evening though, was reserved for a trip to Savannah and the critically praised new restaurant, The Grey, which has transformed an old Greyhound bus station into an extremely well designed restaurant that preserves the essential character of the space, while providing a superb environment for dining. It is one of the best restaurant designs I have seen in some time.
It was a hot day and after arriving early and exploring a bit of Savannah, we were ready for some refreshment and sat in the bar next to the front entrance for some of the same.
The scene was lifted directly from the early 1960’s save for some top notch creative cocktails and full integration.
Versions of classics like A Modern Cocktail and House Gimlet were outstanding, while a rum based, Tiki-style house concoction, the S.S. Minnow was fun, pretty and tasty.
The cooking at The Grey from NYC’s Prune alumna, Mashama Bailey, is billed as “Port City” food, highlighting dishes that reflect the bounty of such locations. As such, it isn’t strictly a “Southern” restaurant, though its presence in the South and aspects of Chef Bailey’s upbringing dictate a lot of what it does.
A bowl of tasty toasted and chick peas spiced with curry salt and brown sugar was ravaged by all at the table as we looked to get ahead of our hunger.
We ordered liberally from the menu. Chef Bailey has a reputation of being particularly good with fish, and so we tried to emphasize that portion of the menu, but ventured away from the sea as well. We started with local Sapelo Island littleneck clams on the halfshell. Though raw clams are not a testament to the skill of the kitchen, they are reflective of the commitment of a restaurant to quality product. These were pristine and delicious with just a squeeze of lemon.
I generally enjoy raw fish dishes and the restaurant features a daily crudo preparation on its menu, but that day’s bluefin tuna, while always extremely appealing, remained unordered as I prefer to not support the fishing of that species while it remains under intense extinction pressure. Instead, I ordered pan-roasted squid with shelling beans, celery and parsley. This dish was good, but not transcendent. The flavors were clear, but lacked a discernible element to pull it over the top. Indeed, nothing that we ate was less than good, but by the same token, no dish made any of us swoon.
Clams with dumplings was a riff that reminded us of linguine with clam sauce, but the dumplings, while skillfully made, lacked the smooth mouthfeel and lusciously slippery fun of the oil, clam and parsley coated pasta. It was a take that while good and novel to me, didn’t improve upon or even equal my personal benchmark for this dish, but then linguine with clam sauce, when well made, is one of my all-time favorite dishes.
The combination of watermelon and tomatoes has been nearly ubiquitous on menus this summer and was present here as well. The Grey’s version was heavy on the melon and lighter on the tomatoes. The reason this combination has been so widely seen is because it works with the sweet acidity of the tomatoes playing nicely with the watermelon. The other ingredients are present primarily to distinguish one preparation from another.
The spicy roasted eggplant was one of the best dishes of the evening and one of the better preparations of the nightshade family member that I have had in recent memory. Texture can make or break an eggplant dish and in this case, its soft, richness helped to make this one along with with the flavor and textural accents provided by peanuts, chile de arbol, tomato and a base of chicken stock. This was complex and delicious with each bite adding different nuances of the dish. Somehow, though, I failed to photograph both this dish and the Country Captain Chicken, a main course with strong southern roots. For a long time, I, like many, refrained from ordering chicken at restaurants, but in recent years the quality of the product and the cooking of it in restaurants have changed my mind. This was a rich dish that was tasty, but didn’t leave me dreaming of it the way some other roast chickens have. I did take a photo of the head-on Georgia Shrimp that came in a spiced and salted crust. These were flavorful, but messy hand foods and the otherwise attentive staff failed to provide anything to clean our hands with.
The “Sizzling Smoky Pig” with beignet-like “hot buns”, pepper jelly and a fried egg, while good, wasn’t quite as successful. The problem is that there are simply too many outstanding pork dishes across the South. This one certainly wasn’t bad, but compared to others of its kind and to other dishes on the menu, it failed to stand out. I suspect that it is there, because it is almost an obligation to have a pork-centric dish on a southern menu.
I am thrilled to see that hearts are gaining traction on restaurant menus, as I find then to be particularly delicious cuts of meat when well prepared. When I saw beef hearts on the menu at The Grey, I had to order them. Prepared with a version of the classic Sauce Diane, the dish boasted a lot of flavor, but I found the fried onions, while adding a nice crispness, were a tad too overpowering for the dish, masking the flavor of the beef heart itself.
Vegetable sides were good with a real sense of place. The roasted okra was fresh and flavorful paired with onions, tomatoes and Berber spices.
Bailey’s smoked collard greens have garnered a lot of press and they were quite good abetted by a sweet and sour sauce served on the side.
Chef Bailey came to The Grey with a strong reputation for her fish cookery. Between us we tried three different preparations of fish in addition to the other seafood dishes that came earlier. My son was quite happy with his roasted whole black bass. He picked it apart skillfully and enthusiastically.
Salmon is not a local fish, but then The Grey doesn’t clim to be a strictly locavore restaurant. The fish was well prepared with flavorful accompaniments.
Catfish prepared in a tagine with Moroccan elements was another favorite of the evening. It was a full flavored dish that used the mild catfish as a sponge for the other elements.
Perhaps the most delicious dish of the evening was the seafood boudin. While not the prettiest presentation at The Grey, it achieved wonderful flavors and textures that made me want more after it was gone. Other than the truly well crafted cocktails and the clams, this was the only dish of the evening that made me feel this way.
Restaurant owner John O. Morisano, from Staten Island, has done a tremendous job putting The Grey together. While I wasn’t blown away by any of the dishes, they were full flavored and conceptually rich with a lot of potential. The space itself is truly special, the service was good and the bar first class. While I’m not sure that I would travel to Savannah just to dine at The Grey, I would very happily return, if in the area, to observe the continued evolution of this restaurant that has the potential to be truly great.
After a lovely post-dinner stroll through Savannah, we drove the hour trip back to Hilton Head with one more full day there for all present. Looking to make the most of a beautiful day, we got up early enough to get out and catch the sunrise on the Sea Pines beach. It was a perfect morning, with only a handful of others out to share the light.
The remainder of the day was spent relaxing culminating in dinner with my cousin and his family who live in nearby Bluffton. My kids, who have been to HHI much more than I have in recent years, wanted to revisit The Crazy Crab out near the entrance to the island at Jarvis Creek. While that is not typically the style of restaurant I prefer, I agreed and we made plans to meet my cousin at that restaurant, which happened to be about halfway between us. Not expecting much, I didn’t bother to take any photos of dinner, but as it turned out, we (ok, I) were very pleasantly surprised. The hush puppies were hot, spicy and as good as they get. Fried shrimp were locally sourced and well prepared. My broiled redfish was well seasoned and essentially perfect. This was a pretty basic, tourist restaurant meal, but I couldn’t have asked for it to have been better than it turned out to be. While not the kind of meal I generally seek out, it was exactly what it should have been and more, delivering on its promise. The Crazy Crab provided a suitable end to our family time in Hilton Head as the next day, my eldest and I would leave my wife and our youngest in Sea Pines to head out on the final and most exciting leg of our trip.
¹Roadside stands like this, selling local seafood, fruit and vegetables used to be all over the place on Hilton Head Island and elsewhere in the south, but were noticeably fewer on this visit than they have been in the past. This particular one had been grandfathered through new regulations that makes operating these stands, at least on HHI, much more difficult. It’s a shame as they typically sell good product at reasonable prices and add a lot of character to the area, especially when compared to sterile, cookie-cutter supermarkets.
²The peaches were so good, that we have been spoiled since then and the peaches available to us now simply don’t compare.