Chef Tom Pugh ate his way through Charleston, South Carolina – the heart of low country cuisine – to ensure the authenticity of his newest venture.
“We went to 16 different restaurants,” Pugh said.
Pugh is a co-owner of recently opened Carolina Lowcountry Kitchen in East Grand Rapids’ Gaslight Village. The restaurant is located in the spot previously occupied by Olga’s Kitchen. Brienne Postema and Mike Wagner also are co-owners of the restaurant.
If you haven’t been to South Carolina or northern Georgia, there’s a good chance you haven’t encountered low country cuisine, which originated in the region and, until recently, has mostly stayed put.
“Low country is southern coastal foods from the Carolinas and Georgia coastlines,” Postema explained.
While those states might bring to mind southern foods like baked beans and barbecue or Louisiana Creole items, such as jambalaya and red beans and rice, low country cuisine is very different.
Low country cuisine is focused on seafood found in Atlantic coastal estuaries and on grains grown in the same region. The flavor also is different.
“It doesn’t have the spice and hotness that the Louisiana Bayou has, and it has a sweeter flavor. More of the seafood with the salty and the sweetness,” postema said.
Pugh said authenticity is very important to him, so most of the ingredients used at Carolina Lowcountry are sourced directly from South Carolina. “We planned the menu around being very ingredient forward as opposed to chef forward,” he said.
“We source all of our grits and our grains from Geechie Boy Mill in South Carolina, which is a very popular mill. I don’t know of anyone else in Michigan using them or another product that comes straight out of South Carolina.”
Another example is the restaurant’s she-crab soup – a soup that uses roe from female crabs, hence the name she-crab – which uses roe sourced from South Carolina.
Carolina Lowcountry also cooks from scratch. Pugh noted the grits and collard greens take several hours to prepare. “Nothing is instant or pre-cooked,” he said.
The quality of seafood and other ingredients is essential to achieving the ideal low country flavors. Pugh said all of Carolina Lowcountry’s shrimp are wild caught from Mexico to ensure the best quality.
“They are not packed in iodine, so you actually taste the shrimp, which is becoming harder to find,” he said. “We also source chickens whole, and I butcher them down myself. They are all organic.”
Pugh attended Grand Rapids Community College’s culinary school and has a long history of working with seafood. He initially worked the seafood counter for a D&W grocery store and spent 10 years at Bonefish Grill in Grand Rapids.
“I’ve liked cooking seafood my whole life, even before I went to culinary school,” he said. He particularly enjoys the challenge of turning someone who says they don’t care for seafood into a fan. “I like to say I told you so.”
One item Pugh is particularly excited to show off is the restaurant’s oysters. Carolina Lowcountry has an extensive oyster menu. It offers shucked, char grilled, fried and baked oyster options.
“We have four types of oysters at all times,” he said. “The house oyster is a Blue Point. I’ve been sourcing two other East Coast oysters and one from the West Coast. It’s going to be changing again, however.”
Pugh thinks people particularly will like the fried oysters. “The buffalo oyster is the fried one, we make our own buffalo sauce and our homemade blue cheese dressing goes on top.”
The char grilled oysters are accompanied by five different sauce options. Pugh said char grilled oysters are a particularly nice option for the uninitiated oyster eater or for those who don’t care for the texture of raw oysters.
“The char grilled oysters take down the intimidation factor,” he said. “They firm up a lot when they cook like other seafood so it’s not as slimy and cold. It’s more like a muscle. It is grilled on the half shell so it still looks like it would if it was coming out to you raw, and the flavors we have in our sauces work well with the oyster; it doesn’t mask it, you can still taste the oyster.”
Carolina Lowcountry wants to be known for its oysters. “Oysters are front and center on our menu for A reason,” Pugh said.
Pugh said while southern food saw a boon with a handful of barbecue restaurants opening in Grand Rapids over the last few years, low country cuisine is just starting to gain some attention across the country, showing up on the Food Network and in some restaurants.
“We are on the front end of it, but I think it is coming. It’s not going to be the only time you’ve heard that word in the next couple of years,” he said.
Carolina Lowcountry also has created an atmosphere reminiscent of an authentic low country restaurant.
“We did try to make sure we were very detail-oriented with the interior, as well,” Postema said. “The blue was chosen on purpose, it’s Carolina blue.” The wood used for the beams, tabletops and bar are all from South Carolina, as well.
“We wanted to be in Grand Rapids but have you walk in and feel like you are in South Carolina. It’s a lot of fun at night when everything is in full swing,” Pugh said.
Carolina Lowcountry Kitchen is open for dinner only, beginning at 4 p.m. The restaurant plans to begin offering weekend brunch in late August.
Watch Chef Tom prepare shrimp & grits, then give the recipe a try yourself.
Carolina Lowcountry Kitchen Shrimp & Grits Recipe
Sauté 8 shrimp in 2 tablespoons of clarified butter
De-glaze with 1/4 cup of white wine
Add 2 tablespoons bourbon chipotle butter to make sauce
Scope 8 ounces of smoked Gouda grits into center of a bowl
Place shrimp around grits and top with sauce
Garnish with 1 crispy collard and 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
*Main photo provided by Johnny Quirin Photography