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Low Country High

Charleston’s closer than you think


Many Charlotteans enjoy the proximity of Charleston. At one dinner in Charleston, I recognized more Charlotte folk than I normally do in restaurants here. Charleston has that kind of charm and appeal that leaves you wanting more - more of their renowned hospitality and more of their legendary Low Country cuisine. If you've recently moved here to the South, you may lump all Southern food into the same pot — the fried food pot. But fried food, although common, is only one thread throughout the Southern culinary fabric. Low Country cuisine is known for the dishes from the old rice kitchen including seafood (particularly shrimp), oysters, and crab; grits; and fresh vegetables.

Last June, owner Ron Goodwin opened his latest restaurant venture, Charleston House on the Plaza, in a gutsy place: the confluence of Plaza Midwood, NoDa and Charlotte Country Club area.

"I'm usually a bit ahead of the times," Goodwin commented. "But I knew this was the right place and the right time. I'm a Geechie: born in Charleston. I wanted this place to have the same feel as the Charleston market."

It took Goodwin 30 months to transform the old Plaza building into a bit of his hometown. His interior design sets the stage for a Low Country feast. Side walls have elements of brick showing through walls painted with a Low Country palette. Above a suspension arch are second story faux windows overlooking the dining room "courtyard." Copies of renowned Charleston oval rod iron signs extend from the interior awnings announcing "Gullah Tours" or mentioning famous Charlestonians such as Philip Simmons, the city's 92-year-old celebrated ornamental ironworker, or the Brook family, friends of Goodwin and legendary African-American entrepreneurs. Fresh flowers dot the white tablecloths and the room. The concrete floor has been stained to have a forever feel.

Goodwin is not a stranger to the Charlotte restaurant scene. I first met him at his Windows on Trade about 15 years ago. Windows was a white tablecloth restaurant in downtown Charlotte when the area had only a handful of "fine dining" restaurants. After Windows, Goodwin opened Renaissance on North Tryon, and there developed his catering business.

The menu at Charleston House aptly reflects the soul and comforting favorites of Low Country cuisine. Goodwin has had the same chef, his nephew Swerlin Goodwin, for years and uses some of their family's recipes. These dishes are more rustic than those you might find in some expensive Charleston restaurants. The onions, tomatoes and peppers in the shrimp and grits entrée dish, for example, do not have a uniform appearance nor are they uniformly cooked, and the grits are yellow, not white. But the shrimp and grits dish rocks, nevertheless. Here, stone-ground yellow grits are topped with a hearty portion of sautéed shrimp and smoky andouille sausage.

Dinner entrées are judiciously priced, with prices ranging from $11.50 for "Up the Road" pork chops to $19 for an enormous bowl of lobster, crab, scallops and shrimp over grits. Now and then, a hit of salt or spritz of lemon is needed.

The food comes quickly from the kitchen and is remarkably good. The crab cakes are meaty, but the she-crab soup needs a heady dose of sherry.

What stands out about the Charleston House are their entrees. The flavorful, lightly breaded fried Edisto shrimp and equally luscious fried green tomatoes are items to return for. Even moving inland from the coast is a safe bet with "Sarah's" lush barbecue ribs and equally rewarding and densely flavorful macaroni and cheese.

Even with hearty portion sizes, it's hard to say no to Southern pecan pie. But the kitchen combines chocolate and pecan. While the crust was quite right, the sweetness of the chocolate and pecan filling would put anyone on a sugar overload. How Southern is that?

The only downside at Charleston is the service, and that totally depends on your server. Some are aware and focused while others seem to be just learning the ropes. Wine service seems to be universally off, however. Goodwin circulates at night and makes the customers feel like part of the family. Customers, too, circulate the tables, giving more handshakes than lip smacking "mwahs."

Charleston House has the feel of a community, and Goodwin has brought some of the best of his hometown to this town.

Eaters' Digest Caffé Siena Trattoria e Barra (230 North College) has hired Chef Michael Blais, formerly of Bistro 100, as their Executive Chef. Blais worked in The Ritz and Hotel de Crillon in Paris as well as with the legendary Chef Joel Robuchon's Jamin Restaurant. In 1998, he worked under Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse in New York. Other venues include NY's Montrachet Restaurant and Payard's Bistro and Patisserie, and Chicago's French Bistro Marché. Blais is originally from Le Mans, France. 704-602-2750.

Chef Tim Henderson has sold his Vidalia & Grapes. The new owner would not comment on the changes she is making to the menu and the restaurant.

The folks behind Cajun Queen, 1800 E. 7th St., have closed their Pineville location and are in the midst of a major renovation to their old house in Elizabeth. However, they will remain open during these renovations.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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