Dispatch from SC: I Do This for a Living

Last week, I told you all about one grand dinner my girlfriends and I gorged on in Hilton Head a few weeks ago. Today, I wanted to give you a guide to some other tasties we sampled on that trip, in case you’re ever headed that way and staying more than one night.

On our first night at the beach, we knew we wanted to eat on the water. As I mentioned last week, waterfront restaurants are not prevalent on Hilton Head Island. Unlike other beach towns I’ve visited, like the Outer Banks and Destin, FL, Hilton Head is wooded, thick with Spanish moss, palm trees, and shade-darkened streets. So we went to the iconic Salty Dog Café, scion of a million touristy t-shirts and source of good libations and great times. The food here is not the focus, and it’s not outstanding. But the beautiful water view is hard to resist and the Coronas, honestly, are just right. One stand-out was not even remotely gourmet, but still tasty: shrimp toast. It’s in the background of the following photo, but consisted of crunchy, chunky slabs of bread slathered in a shrimp and cheese mixture spiced up with garlic, paprika, cayenne and maybe a small hint of sherry. Slapdash, but delicious:

The crab dip in the foreground was less exciting, but those pita chips were kind of addictive

If there’s a place on the island rivaling Eat!, it may be Red Fish, the CIA chef-helmed and Wine Spectator-awarded respite from the bustling family-oriented spots choking HHI. We enjoyed two evenings there: one lovely dinner inside, and then an outdoor dessert and cocktail “laughy hour” that alienated our waitress but tickled us pink. At dinner, we were seated in the restaurants on-premise wine shop, though we chose to indulge in cocktails of several varieties. I had been craving crab cakes, and was really pleased with Red Fish’s iteration, with chipotle aioli (in this case, I believe someone may have actually made this mayonnaise by hand) and roasted corn salsa. I wasn’t feeling jasmine rice that night, but there were happy to sub in some lovely mashed potatoes for me. And my crab cakes were flawless; exactly the dinner I was craving. There were nice, beefy lumps of crabmeat in there, some good spice, and not a ton of filler. In the World of Crab Cakes, which would be a totally baller theme park, these would be featured in the little café next to the kiddie ride that parents treat themselves to after letting little Bobby and Susie ride the clamshells.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, dinner at Red Fish! Another standout of dinner was Robin’s tuna tartar, which was a recurring dish throughout our beach week. When you don’t want to go for an all-out sushi feast, tuna tartar really fits the raw fish craving so nicely. This example was creative, served in little, crispy, fried wonton dishes. The seaweed salad and very mild wasabi sauce were delectable – seaweed salad is a brand new “like” for me – but the flawlessly fresh, tender tuna sprinkled with white and black sesame seeds was the star.

Red Fish is a posh place, but still cool and modern. During our first visit, we had terrific service from our waiter, but when we returned for dessert and drinks on the patio, our waitress was mostly absent, not amused by us at all. Kind of a buzzkill. I mean, I know we were laughing loud enough to raise several generations of dead pirates buried deep at sea, but come on, you serve me three Bailey’s cocktails, and my behavior is your problem. And you’re welcome for the tip.

Please be nice to us!

One last good, solid dinner was had at the Sea Grass Grille, a French country jewel with a hilarious maître’d and some pretty yummy seafood. But we began that meal with a Low Country classic: tomato pie. Have you heard of this? I hadn’t. There’s a tomato pie recipe rolling around on Pinterest, but I have no idea if it shares a lineage with this uniquely Carolinian dish. The crust was somewhat saturated with tomato juices in some parts, but buttery and flakey in others, the filling was pure summer decadence: tomato and cheese (mozzarella, gruyere, asiago) in perfect harmony, a little soupy, a lot savory, and totally scrumptious. Seriously, why aren’t more things pie?

Next up, I made Robin and Katie eat foie gras. You know I had to do it – it was on the specials menu! I loved it, natch, they did not. Oh well, you win some over to the side of fatty goose liver swimming in a pool of balsamic reduction and rosemary, and you lose some.

So here’s the thing, my entrée was fresh fish. And I can’t remember what kind. It was local, it was firm, it was good. We had it piccata style, and the very rich, buttery potatoes au gratin and very fresh green beans, broccoli and pearl onions alongside made for an enormously satisfying plate. Sea Grass Grille is rated highly on Urbanspoon among HHI seafood restaurants, and deservedly so. But beware: the rest room is through the kitchen, so if you have more than one glass of wine, get ready to say hi to the chef.

One more laughy hour was spent at Truffles, a spot much lauded by locals, but at which I didn’t care for the appetizer, which again was tuna tartar-adjacent. That being said, the space is lovely, the cocktails are inventive and the service is friendly. My very first bite of tuna had a big, thick, gross, chewy vein in it. Ew! But frick and frack liked it, and the wonton crisps with cabbage and wasabi sauce were good, obviously. So here you go:

Overall, our food was very good in Hilton Head. The shopping, less so. We had three separate instances of late afternoon shopping thwarted by closed shops. Apparently, the shopkeepers of South Carolina do not want our money. However, the restaurateurs of South Carolina benefitted from our frustration in the form of hefty bar tabs. Do you suppose it’s some kind of racket?

I can’t leave you this week without just quickly recapping the meals Katie and I enjoyed on our ways from and to the Charlotte airport at both ends of the trip. When I first landed, she took me to the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives sweetheart BarBQ King, an honest-to-goodness drive-in specializing in pork BBQ and hush puppies. I had both, and was a happy girl, indeed. Not remarkable food, but a classic, southern nosh.

In the lap of luxury at BarBQ King

On the way back to the airport on the tail end of the trip, I introduced Katie to the Flying Biscuit Café. Yes, this is a chain. I know! But I’ve been to the original, in Atlanta, with Big Hungry Jill, and I am utterly, completely addicted to its creamy, dreamy grits. They are the grits I make at home, spiced with garlic powder and white pepper, and crammed with white cheddar. I had the eggs over sausage gravy and biscuits with tons of grits this time, and it was a gut-busting but perfect last taste of the south:

I’m in DC this week, cooking up scads of ridiculous, high end reviews for you, Big Hungries, but next week, I’m taking you to Sackets Harbor, to test out the new inhabitant of the old Barrack Restaurant. Come back and dine with me! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

PS: So I guess I should explain this post's title? We were actually in a shop, shortly before laughy hour at Truffles, and I was trying to convince Robin to buy formal shorts. I calmly laid my hand on her shoulder and said confidently, "Trust me. I do this for a living." Immediately remember that, in fact, I write and talk about commercial aircraft electronics for a living and NO ONE actually pays me to tell them what to wear, I stammered, "No I don't. No one pays me to do that. I don't know why I said that. I lied." And that became the inside joke of the week. Aren't you proud to be an insider? Yeah, I thought so.

Red Fish on Urbanspoon
The Salty Dog Cafe on Urbanspoon
Sea Grass Grille on Urbanspoon

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