Friday, July 29, 2011

Tasting Charleston

House Salad with Strawberry Vinaigrette at Bluegrass Kitchen.

Charleston, West Virginia. I never thought I would come here. Nothing against the city, it just was never on my list of places to visit though I must say that there's a certain charm to this place. Walking downtown, the old buildings look cool and I'm tempted to put a Spro here.

Of course, there's lots of vacant shopfronts in downtown Charleston, attesting to its struggle to attract more people to city life. According to Tom hanging out at The Squire, Charleston's population of 50,000 swells to 150,000 during the day. Sounds like a lot until you realize that Baltimore's population is just under a million.

Rueben Kincaid - house cured West Virginia beef brisket with sauerkraut, swiss cheese and Sputnik dressing.

Still, finding parking in Charleston is not easy. They don't have enough. Sure, they've got great looking brick paved sidewalks and streets but the parking is precious and I circle a few times to land a spot in front of Taylor's Books where I've been seduced by the clearance book section and have loaded up on cooking tomes.

But before that, I was enjoying lunch at the Bluegrass Kitchen. One of those progressive, locally sourced kind of places with the church pews, sort of remnant furniture and tasty grub. Fresh greens for a nice salad and house cured pastrami with a spicy dressing made for a very good reuben.

Peanut Butter Brownie and Coconut ice cream from Ellen's Homemade Ice Cream.

Like most places, Charleston is national food chain Hell. Turn in any direction and you'll find the typical chain places. The big news in food here? Panera Bread recently opened at the Towne Center Mall. Brilliant. Not. And like most places, you have to seek out the different and the tasty. And I'm hoping to seek some of that out while here this weekend.

Next stop: Ellen's Homemade Ice Cream. Initially, I was thinking that I might jump in the car and charge up to Columbus to find out what the hype surrounding Jeni's Ice Cream is all about. Only to find out from google maps that it's a three-hour drive. Forget Jeni, Hello Ellen.

A nice cigar at The Squire.

Capitol Street seems to be the right place today. Across from Taylor Books is Ellen's, a quaint ice cream joint that makes everything in-house. She's got a standard selection of ice creams, as well as light fare and a coffee menu. I'm here strictly for the ice cream and order coconut with the day's special PB Brownie.

The Peanut Butter Brownie is just right. Creamy peanut butter and frozen bits of brownie. Very nice. The coconut has shaved pieces mixed in and is light and creamy. Not quite the coconut at Les Halles but pretty good. For some reason, I ordered the large ice cream, ate it all and felt a bit ill afterwards. In reality, I probably should have ordered a milkshake. Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

The Planters brand Royal peanut roaster at The Peanut Shoppe.

While Taylor's and Ellen's offer coffee and espresso drinks and the venerable Capital Roasting is just around the corner, I decide against buying coffee. It's not that I'm some sort of coffee snob (okay, well, maybe) but I'm just scared of drinking bad coffee and the tell tale signs tell me to avoid.

Next stop is The Squire, the local tobacconist who's been here since 1993 and boasts the largest humidor in Charleston and perhaps West Virginia. They've got a nice selection and offer a number of cigars that I like and others that I have not seen before. I chose an Alec Bradley SCR lancero that's got some spice and good flavor but the roll is off, the center is soft and goes out continuously during the last half.

Earlier I had spotted The Peanut Shoppe as I was walking by paying my meter. By the way, if you do visit Charleston, be sure to pay your meter on time. The meter maid patrols every 15 minutes and is only too eager to write you a ticket. Someone's gotta pay for the deficit and they want it to be you.

What had caught my eye about The Peanut Shoppe was the 25 pound Planters brand peanut drum roaster in the store. It looks like and probably is an old Royal roaster and they still use it to roast their nuts. Average roast time: 30 minutes though when the crop gets old, say around August/September, the moisture has decreased and the roast time is quicker. All kinds of salted nuts, candies, popcorn and more from this decidedly old school peanut shop. Even the bags have that Old School look.

From there, it's a swing through the Towne Center Mall that looks straight out of the 1980s and reminds me of the old Hunt Valley Mall. There's a Taco Bell and I think about grabbing a crunchy ground mystery beef taco. That or the soft serve ice cream with crispy chocolate shell at the Dairy Queen.

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