On the cold, blustery evening of December 14, 2010, a group of strangers, led by their ringleader, John Nolan of greenvillehistorytours.com, descended on a small restaurant in downtown Greenville, SC. Our demands were simple--feed and educate us and eventually we will leave happy. As students of the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas, my friend Mallory and I were excited to go behind the scenes in some of the most interesting restaurants in Greenville and meet the chefs who make our town delicious. Our first stop on this culinary tour was Soby's on the Side - a side street restaurant that takes sandwiches and deli food to a new level. Chef Ken is an inspiring example of how life should be about doing what you love. He was very good at expressing the philosophies of Table 301--love for good food, educating others, having fun, and teamwork. Our food adventure started with the best little hummus bites I have ever put in my mouth. The hummus was served on a crispy pita round, topped with a sliver of kalamata olive. The steak appetizers with roasted red pepper were also a delicious mouthful. His specialty drink was a vodka sweet tea. One thing I truly appreciated about each stop was that both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were offered so that no one was left out of the experience. Isn't that what hospitality is all about?
On top of the two appetizers he offered, Chef Ken made a Lowcountry Shrimp dish that was out of this world. The basic recipe is in the Soby's New South Cuisine Cookbook, which I would highly recommend for a good cookbook collection. The original recipe calls for country ham and kiwifruit, but he replaced those with bacon and split red grapes. The chardonnay cream sauce just did me in. He served the dish over cheesy, creamy grits. It was southern love in a bowl.
Reluctantly, we left the warm, down to earth environs of Chef Ken and headed just a few feet up the hill to Soby's. The namesake restaurant was a lively bustling place that even on a cold Tuesday evening was full with the chatter of patrons and clatter of plates being served. As a group, we were seated in the bar area and served a delicious fruity guava drink containing triple sec, among other ingredients. Very delicious. They also served a refreshing non-alcoholic pink limeade.
Our culinary trip began with their trademark cheddar biscuits. These were concocted on the fly on the very first night they opened when it was brought to the chef's attention that there was no bread to serve the guests. They received such good reviews that they are a staple item to this day. Who knew biscuits could be definite proof that a good chef must be both flexible and creative.
Sous Chef Joey brought us their signature crabcake over maque choux (pronounced "mock shoo") with haricot vert (snooty French words meaning "green beans").
Personally, I thought the crab cake was too mushy inside and a little bland, but I have never seen a crab cake so stuffed with fat, juicy, delicious pieces of crab, and the crust on the outside was perfect. I do give them credit for speed, however. Our original order had been given to another table, but we did not have to wait very long for the next order. Both the crab cake and the maque choux recipes are in the Soby's cookbook.
I had never before met a maque choux, but I must say that now it is one of my favorite ways to eat corn. Hhhmmmmm. I wonder how the Soby's maque choux and the Devereaux's lobster bisque would be together......I would probably die of complete and utter gastronomic happiness.
From the bright lights of the Soby's bar, we were led through the dining room proper, traipsed through the hallowed halls of the kitchen, were handed goblets of Mexican hot chocolate to deter the cold, led outside and down an clanging metal stairway, around a corner, and through a weathered, nondescript door into the old basement. A couple of turns later, and we were standing in the darkened wine cellar below Soby's.
Surrounded by the fruit of many vintner's labor, I saw very large bottles, very expensive bottles, house wines, and everything in between. The sommelier graciously explained the wines we were experiencing and their origin. After our very educational visit, we set off for The Lazy Goat.
Down Main Street, past the Peace Center, and across the river lies the Lazy Goat, known for its fusion cuisine and fresh ingredients. We gathered upstairs in the large reserved party area after our brisk, chilly walk and were offered a holiday-inspired cranberry and orange cocktail.
How wonderfully refreshing to meet a female chef who has succeeded where others of us dream of being. Chef Vicky is a shy but personable chef who is very knowledgeable about her cuisines and the fusions thereof. Our most memorable offering was the goat cheese balls. They are deep fried and then drizzled with honey for a delicious balance of sweet and tangy. The decor is a modern twist on comfort, with an expansive view of the river and city lights at night out of the upstairs windows. After a quick peek at the dining room downstairs, as well as the unusual restroom setup, we donned gloves, scarves, and hats to battle the invigorating chill back up the hill to Devereaux's.
Walking into Devereaux's, which is across the street from where we started at Soby's on the Side, we were met by a friendly hostess who led us over near the open kitchen area past the bar. We were greeted by a very knowledgeable, friendly, and proper front of the house manager named Andrew. (I have some vague misgivings that I may not be remembering his name correctly. If so, I sincerely apologize and please feel free to correct me).
After seeing the layout and being educated about the coveted chef's table, we adjourned to the even more exclusive Vintage Room. Chef Spencer is an affable, accomplished young man who is very good at what he does and, more importantly, loves it. His dessert consisted of two parts: on one side, a petite portion of bleu cheese with red onion relish, and on the other, a delicious, creamy, to-die-for chocolate creme brulee with a handmade marshmallow that was softer and creamier than any marshmallow has ever been. It was the Rolls Royce, the Rolex, the Beluga caviar of marshmallows. Laugh all you want to, but just wait until you try it. We wound up our evening with companionable chatter and contented appetites.
I would recommend this culinary tour to anyone who eats. The variety and scope of the experience is sure to change with every tour. My only disappointment was that we did not get to encounter the culture of Soby's Loft as part of this adventure, but there is always tomorrow.....
I should mention that our guide and host, John Nolan, is extremely well-versed in the history and back stories of Greenville. We learned all kinds of interesting facts on the walks between restaurants. I intend to take one of his walking history tours when the weather warms up a little. Check out his book: "A Guide to Historic Greenville South Carolina".
I cannot think of a better way to spend $39 than to spend it with friends old and new, tasting the passion that Greenville's chefs have put on the plate for our enrichment. I certainly intend to enjoy this city's culinary creativity on a regular basis. Won't you join me?