When I picture “Charleston” there are certain images that come to mind…long, tree-lined driveways leading up to palatial plantations, the scoundrel Rhett Butler and the silly little dance they made me do in fourth grade P.E. at Travis Elementary School in San Marcos, Texas.
Fortunately, today’s Charleston is nothing like what I imagined…it’s far better. While the architecture and culture are deeply rooted in history, the city and the people are hip and progressive.
Speaking of hip and progressive…I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my wonderful hosts, Ed and Rebecca Marrill. I love traveling the country and visiting places I’ve never been before, but there is something very comforting when I get to stay with friends instead of a hotel room. So, thank you Ed, Rebecca and Asher for welcoming me into your beautiful home and for the super comfy Aerobed. And, congratulations on Andrew! I hope I get to meet him some day soon!
When Hominy Grill was nominated, I have to admit that I secretly hoped it would win. I mean, who wouldn’t want to eat at a place called Hominy Grill located in the Deep South. Do the math…hominy = grits = the Deep South, right? Okay, so I wasn’t a math major in college. But, c’mon…grits in the South, does it get much better? No, it doesn’t…and I don’t think grits get any better than the Shrimp and Grits at Hominy Grill – but we’ll get to that later.
As always, I did a little research before my visit. I wanted to know a bit about the restaurant and the person I was going to interview. I quickly decided after this trip, that I would never again do research ahead of time. It is way too intimidating. I had visited Hominy Grill’s Web site and went directly to their “Hominy in the News” page…this is where I found my sources of intimidation: the New York Times, Food and Wine and Gourmet…it was like the trifecta of culinary critics…all with glowing reviews about Hominy Grill and its prolific Chef and Owner, Robert Stehling. So, would he even give me the time of day? I hoped so.
Hominy Grill is nestled in a semi-residential neighborhood in downtown Charleston in between a major medical center and university. Founded in 1996 by Stehling, the restaurant occupies the first floor of a fantastic building that dates back to the 1800s – a giant “Rosie” mural greets diners in the parking lot. As I walked up I noticed a quaint courtyard, perfect for a baby shower or a Mother’s Day brunch. The dining area decor is simple and Southern…inviting, warm and tasteful, and their tin ceiling harkens back to a different era.
For some reason, I was very nervous. I so desperately wanted to have a large TV crew with me so I could justify taking time out of this man’s very busy day. However, the staff made me feel right at home, they set me up with a much-needed cup of coffee and directed me where to set up shop.
I quickly took some snapshots of the dining area. I loved all the little touches…the wainscoting that lined the walls, decorated with vintage art and black and white photos…next to tables topped with tiny floral bouquets set in mini mason jars.
I glanced at the menu again, trying to keep my tongue inside my mouth. Everything sounded so delicious, but I was convinced I was either going to try the Big Nasty Biscuit or the Shrimp and Grits…but, I would let the Chef dictate what I’d have for breakfast in South Carolina.
After a few minutes, he arrived. Whatever preconceived ideas I had about Chef Stehling quickly changed. He was incredibly personable, gracious and humble. We sat and talked a little about his background. He hails from North Carolina…in Southern terms, he’s a “Northerner.” Before opening Hominy Grill, he worked his way up from dishwasher to sous chef to head chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill. He then moved to New York where he honed his culinary skills under some of the best and brightest, bringing his talents to Charleston in 1996 with his wife, Nunally.
We then discussed different items on the menu and I mentioned the Big Nasty Biscuit. While he agreed it was good, he thought that since I had never been to Charleston, I needed to try a dish that was quintessentially Charleston…enter the Shrimp and Grits.
And, I learned a few things along the way. I learned that years ago shrimp and grits were considered “poor people’s food” because grits were easy to make, and shrimp (especially in Low Country areas like Charleston) were simply caught with a net…much easier than farming cattle. I had no idea how much went into grits or that there were different kinds of grits….so I was quickly schooled. According to Hominy’s Web site, hominy is what you get when a kernel of corn is treated with an alkaline solution, resulting in something that feels sort of like a soft, pillowy chickpea. Dried hominy is ground to make grits…and they get their grits from Old Mill of Guilford.
Now for breakfast…
As soon as they brought the dish, I could smell it from about four feet away…and, I could feel my salivary glands working over time. The dish is served with approximately five to six jumbo shrimp that are sautéed with butter, scallions, bacon, mushrooms and spices. The mixture is then poured over a plate of perfectly cooked cheese grits seasoned with splashes of Tabasco. I have had cheese grits before but add Tabasco, and I could bathe in them.
After I quickly devoured half the plate, I kept describing the dish as “amazing” and “awesome”. In fact, I couldn’t go into too much description because I really didn’t how to put into words what I was experiencing, except for that it was “amazing” and “awesome”. So I asked Chef Stehling, in his expert culinary terms, to describe it for me.
He said, “Well, sometimes I use words like gooood. Oh yeah, that’s gooood.” And, boy did he nail it…they are gooood.
A special thank you to Chef Stehling, Nunally and the staff at Hominy Grill for an exceptional breakfast experience. And, if Charleston is in your future then make Hominy Grill one of your stops while you’re there.
Hominy Grill is located at 207 Rutledge Avenue in Charleston. Visit their Web site at hominygrill.com