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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Opposites Attract---Dining in Charleston


                               Glorious Wentworth Mansion, home of Circa 1886 Restaurant

These two restaurants couldn’t be any more different…one is a “joint” located in a former gas station (cleverly, it’s been named “Fuel,”); the other, situated in one of the city's finest grand dame mansions, offers fine dining.  Both, however, offer superbly cooked food by chefs boasting culinary degrees.

In researching the restaurant scene prior to leaving for South Carolina, I discovered the chef/owner is a graduate of the well regarded Johnson & Wells Culinary Academy.  My interest was further peaked when I learned that Guy Fieri had showcased the unconventional Fuel on his hit show, Diners Drive-ins and Dives.   Having grown up on Mexican food, it was an “I’m already there” place when I learned that pulled pork tacos had been one of Guy’s faves.   

We lunched at Fuel on an 85 degree Saturday afternoon with high humidity.  The parking lot of the “station” was packed and as I suspected, there was a wait.  Thirty minutes later we were seated outside in the covered back patio area.  In spite of the sweltering heat, there were enough fans and shade to make it quite tolerable. 

The two melt-in-your-mouth tacos were really open face sandwiches (with four tortillas substituting for the bread.)  Lettuce and tomatoes had been replaced with a tangy coleslaw which paired wonderfully with for the killer slowly roasted pork.  Green chile aioli and a fresh salsa completed the package. For $11, this more-than- I-could-almost-eat meal was a flavor-bomb.

Fuel has a “happening” vibe.  The place was jammed full of young professional types.  There were plenty of places to lounge and mingle, along with a bocce ball court.  The only negative that I noticed was their simplistic wine list---this may not be an issue as there’s a full bar and local beers are only 2 bucks. 

Signs were posted indicating the restaurant was closed that night for a private event.  Turns out that a wedding rehearsal party had rented out the entire place.  Can’t think of a more hip place in which to say bid adieu to the single life than Fuel.

The polar opposite of Fuel has to be Circa 1886.  Located in the carriage house of the 24,000 foot beloved Wentworth Mansion (voted one of the “Top 50 Hotels in the U.S.” by Conde Nast Magazine) the restaurant wreaks of old-world charm.  Small and intimate, but with beautifully set tables placed amply away from one another, the historic venue seats only 50. 

Our dinner began with a stunning clam bisque topped with white truffle oil  The clams in this  amuse bouche were from the nearby Foley River.  My husband couldn’t pass up the “chicken fried foie gras” appetizer.  Served with a pecan waffle drizzled with maple syrup, it was a sensational Southern rendition of a French classic. His pulled pork with a peach nectar BBQ sauce and local “dilly beans” was excellent.  My dish was a local bass that reminded me of Chilean seabass.  It was served with house-made udon noodles in a miso broth that was flavored with pieces of apple-wood smoked pork belly and local wild mushrooms.  A Carolina blue crab spring-roll completed the well executed dish.    

Dinner was accompanied by one of the restaurant's long-standing favorites, rice rolls served with a fabulous whipped olive oil (apparently whipping the olive oil is a laborious process that takes a couple of weeks with multiple whippings and resting sessions.),  According to the chef, “the best way to do it is to hire 2-3 line staff.”

Circa 1886 was called “one of America’s most romantic restaurants,” by Travel & Leisure, so it’s no wonder that all the other diners were couples.  That being said, this special occasion place could easily be the perfect venue for a business dinner.  An award-winning wine list (Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100) offers 250 bottles to tempt you.  We chose a Reilsing from North Carolina to accompany our above dinner---it worked well with all of the courses.

Coming with us to Charleston on our 2013 or 2014 tour?  We’ll be staying at the Wentworth Mansion which means that daily breakfast and one dinner will be included at Circa 1886.  Oh, yes, and Fuel will be definitely be on our list of places to “fill ‘er up.”

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