QUICK TAKE: SWAMP FOX RESTAURANT, CHARLESTON
by Andrew Chalk
I went searching for some southern cooking while in Charleston for a few days and saw some good words for Swamp Fox. The name is the nickname of Francis Marion, who was an officer in the American Revolutionary War recognized for his innovative guerilla tactics. The location, in the Francis Marion hotel opposite iconic Marion Square in downtown Charleston, gives it a feel of being in the heart of the very genre it espouses. Decor fits in too. It is kind of classic elegance without intimidation. At the moment, the hotel is enrobed in scafolding, giving the ornate old building a rather beleagured appearance.
We sat down for dinner conscious that our lunch had been the pretzel menu on Southwest (and I had skipped breakfast) so the last thing we worried about was not being able to finish what we expected to be formidably-sized helpings.
Sure they were, but the Bacon Cheddar Hush Puppies with a rugged coat and layers of jalopeño maple syrup were immediately eatable. The curiously named She Crab Soup is not, in case you wondered, a crab in yoga pants. Rather, it is crab soup made with crab roe from a female crab mixed in to the lump crab meat as a flavor enhancement. Finish with sherry and you have a worthy take on a classic. This one was so rich and creamy, with just the right amount of seasoning, that I could have ordered another.
For mains, I continued my monotonous practice of choosing Shrimp and Grits which, I claim, is part of a global search for the best example of this iconic dish. The title is held by San Antonio’s Boudro’s on the Riverwalk but tonight, in a titanic moment in grit history, Swamp Fox took it away. This Shrimp and Grits mixed cubed tasso ‘ham’, lobster gravy, slices of softened bell pepper, and local Adluh Mills grits in one glorious, mouthwatering mashup of sweet and spicy flavors, chewy and cereal textures. Just masterful. Oh, and the shrimp had been added late, so they retained an al dente texture and briny flavor.
The Moll still claims I need treatment for the Shrimp ‘n Grits fixation and went with pan-seared salmon with Brussels sprouts and winter squash succotash, smoked pork belly, and cider beurre blanc. The perfectly flaky salmon was even fun to coat in the grits in my dish for the contrasting flavors.
One look at the menu told me I could come back every night and still not run out of irresistible things to try. Swamp Fox has refined its menu over years of service to a finely honed selection of crowd pleasers. They also run specials (grouper on the day we dined) and, to their credit, our waitress told us the price as well as the name of the special.
We were too full to try any of the three desserts on offer, although, from their descriptions, they were all from the super indulgent school of cooking.
The wine list is small and could do with vintages added to the names. Markups are reasonable.
It was our first night in Charleston and it was reassuring to see the legendary Southern hospitality on display in the guise of our waitress, Frankie. She really made her guests feel welcome, had ready answers to their questions, and a sense of humor (even to my weak jokes about lunch being on the flight in from Dallas).
Amazingly, four courses, great gratis sourdough bread, and a bottle of Latour Bourgogne (pinot noir), came to just $117 before t&t, so Swamp Fox is also great value.
FTC disclosure: I paid my own way and dined anonymously.