Omnivore - Dining dispatch: Charleston, S.C.

A visit to a few of Charleston's best restaurants.

My husband and I had our 2 day honeymoon in Charleston 4 years ago. We spent the whole time eating, and fell in love with the city's restaurants. Every year since, we've tried to get back there at least once, always in the heat of summer, and always with an appetite. This past Friday night we hit the town to see what the city's chefs are up to.

We only made it to three places this year, but two of them have to be two of the coolest restaurants in the country right now. We started at Fig, who's chef Mike Lata just won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast. I have to admit that I was a little surprised at the award - I've eaten at Fig's bar many times, and have always loved it but never had anything much more memorable than a deftly executed chicken liver pate. But this visit put my surprise to rest - Lata is turning out some incredible food, including what may be my favorite dish of the year so far. It takes a leap of faith to order pig's trotters, but what a payoff - Lata takes the meat from the trotters and forms them into a cake, which is lightly pan-fried. The meat is so moist and flavorful, it's like the best barbecue you've ever had, but without needing any sauce at all. Pure piggy piggyness. The accompanying salad, a jumble of field peas, lima beans, fresh corn, frissee, chives, tarragon and smoky bacon lardons, was beautifully composed and balanced, with just the right acid tang.

We stopped by the Charleston Grill for a glass of wine and a sweetbread appetizer. What impressed me the most here was the wine list and the server's enthusiastic knowledge of it. On the glass pour list we were able to chose from incredibly cool wines such as a marsanne from Victoria, Australia and a 100% pinot noir vin gris. The server even let us do half glasses so we could taste more of the list.

We ended up at McCrady's, where chef Sean Brock has transformed the historic restaurant into a temple of amazingly creative food, and is re-defining the idea of farm-to-table (check out John Kessler's story about Brock in this month's issue of Food Arts). Brock and his cooks grow much of the produce and raise much of the meat used on McCrady's menu themselves, and the freshness of the product, as well as Brock's handling of it, makes for some of the most exciting food in the country. The standout had to be Brock's creamed kimchee, which appeared under a hugely fat scallop and a hunk of pork belly sourced from the restaurant's hog farm. The kimchee had whispers of chow chow in its nature, a cultural hybrid of Southern and Asian that would never work in a less deft chef's hands (say that three times fast). It's a dish I'll be thinking about for a long time. Other highlights included handmade ramp pasta (the most outrageous color green) with crab, chanterelles and nasturtium butter, and warm asparagus with a farm egg, Benton's bacon, and bonito. Best surf and turf EVER.

(photo by Besha Rodell's crappy cell phone)