Finding Oysters (and other good stuff) at the Beach on Hilton Head Island

Winter on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is low key. Its wide-open beaches and fewer people. It means oysters are in season and we can still get fresh shrimp.  Last year, J and I experimented with poached oysters dotted with caviar and wisps of pickled cucumber.  It was decadent and delicious.  This year, to save J’s hands and manage to eat before midnight AND be able to enjoy more oysters with family, we stuck to roasting them on the grill to dip in cocktail sauce, a gingery cilantro sauce, and melted butter. Sauces that also shared nicely with a large bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp.

And then there was that blind baguette taste-off, which completed the night’s vibrant meal.  (Some of the family had pre-determined favorites, but it was a tie – really – because each chewy baguette had its own strength – from a hint of butter in one to a perfectly browned crust in the other. See the culpable bakeries below.) 

Sharing table space with the shrimp and oysters were bottles (carted down I-95 in the car with Russ & Daughters‘ smoked salmon, pickled lox, and a chocolate babka for good measure), of sparkling smoky na Punta extra brut and an exceptionally dry Argyle Extended Tirage Brut sipped from unassuming (maybe mismatched and unbreakable?) house wine glasses.  We could bring them down to the beach for a sunset in soft shades of pink, behind the oyster shell-decorated “tree” that shows up every year at Christmas.  Or during a pitch-black night, to see the moon, like J, with his camera, tripod, and headlamp.

Besides the beach at sunset, get to these places on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, SC, to make the most out of Winter  –  

  • Bluffton Oyster Company, for bushels of local oysters.  Be sure to call and place an order ahead of time during the holidays.
  • Benny Hudson Seafood, another favorite for shrimp and fish like grouper and black drum.
  • The butcher at Scotts Market, for your meat needs.  I’ve had a sirloin roast and bavette (one of my favorite cuts).
  • Hilton Head Social Bakery, for the perfectly crusty and chewy baguette.
  • Twisted European Bakery, for the perfectly golden and slightly buttery baguette.
  • New York City Pizza, where the take-out veggie pizza is piled high with mushrooms, green peppers and onions, and they’re open late-ish if you hit traffic and arrive on the island after dark.
  • Fish Camp on Broad Creek, to sit at the heated outside bar twinkling in strings of soft white lights, eating ahi tuna nachos and calamari with crunchy/spicy fried pickles, a Westover One-Claw and a glass of malbec, listening to the guy in the corner playing guitar.
Fish Camp on Broad Creek…Summer view from the outdoor bar

If you’re not sucked in by Foxy Loxy’s Boombox Brunch…

If you find yourself in Savannah, Georgia, and not sucked in by Foxy Loxy Café’s Boombox Brunch, head to the Historic District and check out —

  • Chocolat by Adam Turoni– even if just to see for yourself a chocolate shop with an Astroturf floor.  
  • On the way, stop by ShopSCAD for 3-D printed nylon earrings (among other things).
  • And at a SCAD (The Savannah College of Art and Design) alum’s Satchel, for very soft leather.
  • Speaking of SCAD…there’s an actual red double-decker London bus inside Art’s Café, across the street from ShopSCAD.
  • Be astounded at the lengths the wealthy went through to showcase, well, that wealth, at the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters.
  • Next time…I want to try the sandwiches and sweet stuff at Back in the Day Bakery and maybe make it through the wait for brunch at The Collins Quarter.  Does anyone know the best days and times to avoid a line?

Finding More than the perfect latté in Savannah

Here‘s how I felt about Savannah, Georgia, in the Summer – miserably sweaty.  The same Savannah in Winter – happily comfortable.  J and I spent a cool December day with family walking a city backdropped by sharp blue sky and bright sun.  Savannah’s ubiquitous squares were richly green, the massive branches of ancient trees gracefully arching above us.  Delicate lamp posts were punctuated by rich red garlands in the days before Christmas.  Blocks past the far end of the green carpet that is Forsyth Park, we made our way to Foxy Loxy Café.  Searching for great latté (of course) got me there.  

The Boombox Brunch – in the outdoor courtyard – and the cheesy grits in the Foxy Haystack – kept me.  Get the Horchata latté, too, which was the right amount of sweet and cinnamon.  To top it off, I discovered a new favorite sinus clearing hot sauce! While the DJ pulled out vinyl records, the garden tables and picnic benches were gradually filling up, to the classic sound of The Cars‘ Who’s Gonna Drive You Home.

Skiing to Eat at the Matterhorn

My mind holds childhood memories of skiing in Switzerland as long winding treks down the mountain – mogul hills in some spots and narrow passages in others. There were brief stops along the way for family to catch up.  Some nervous contemplation at the crest of a steep hill.  A few spectacular falls.  But the overarching theme is day-long journeys broken up by leisurely stops at tidy sloped roof chalets for plates of French fries and late afternoon hot chocolates – before ending up sore, windblown, and spent, the afternoon sun sinking, at the bottom of the mountain.  

And so it was with J – who I convinced (pretty easily) to go and relive my selective Swiss skiing memories – on a Christmas week in Zermatt (in the Pennine Alps of Switzerland).  With a few necessary advance reservations (and help from a high school friend), we ate well and stayed well in car-free Zermatt, an easy train ride up from Geneva.  Sharp air and clear skies brought the glorious Matterhorn to maximum view – everywhere – in the village and on the slopes. And took our breath away, spectacularly, on our first jet-lagged day, when we opened the window shutters in our room and came face-to-face with that peak. We stayed in a chalet apartment of the Hotel Zurbriggen (run by champion 1980s Swiss Alpine skier Pirmin Zurbriggen and his family), a convenient five-minute walk from the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ski lift, and apres ski-ed in the heated outdoor pool facing that spectacular mountain peak.  

The first day of skiing, we stopped for lunch at the Restaurant Findlerhoff, reservations in hand, down a narrow path in the tiny mountainside village of Findeln.  We stumbled in ski boots into the cozy dark wood chalet and hung our helmets from rods overhead.  Fellow skiers sat sweater-to-sweater, hair askew from hats removed, the outline of ski goggles pressed into cold pink cheeks.  A few dogs were on the patio and beers were being drunk (by the people, not the dogs) while sitting in the bright winter sun.

Restaurant Alphitta

On the next, J and I gazed out over endless white slopes and blue sky at The Igloo, having just skied our way over the ridge into Cervinia, Italy – spending Euros and not Swiss francs. Sharing a Weissbier on the patio, blankets draped over our knees and backs against the chalet wall, giddy from having skied across a border for lunch.  A mid-ski stop at Restaurant Alphitta near Riffelalp had us on the wide terrace soaking up sun with a basket of baguette, quiche, and frisée salad, the Matterhorn in full view over our shoulders.  

Then we got lost.  Not skiing, but hiking.  On Christmas Day.  Trying to mix it up.  We were hiking our way up to a leisurely lunch at elegant Chez Vrony.  But it was snowing, and we made a wrong turn on the trail, eventually finding our way to Findelbach, a stop along the Gornergrat rail line, and caught the train back into Zermatt to take the Sunnegga-Rothorn funicular up to Sunnegga.  From Sunnega, it was a short snowy hike downhill to the warmth of Chez Vrony.  Outside, the day’s palate was soft greys and whites in the clouds and lightly falling snow. 

Inside, Chez Vrony was warm colors and light wood, stemmed wine glasses and etched carafes, sausage and rösti potatoes, and delicate desserts on the side of a mountain.  Forgoing all the unplanned modes of transportation that got us to Vrony, we stuck to our original plan, and hiked back through Findeln down the mountain following (successfully this time) a trail through the pine trees and back into Zermatt. A glass of champagne at the outdoor Veuve Clicquot ice bar and a steaming chocolate crêpe to-go from Stefanie’s crêperie across the way would end our day – sore, windblown, and spent but reveling in snowy winter joy.

Finding Unexpected Warmth in a Cellar

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Yeah, there we were, hanging outside the basement steps leading down to The Dabney Cellar, a few minutes before opening time.  Looking up at the sky, checking the time on our phones.  (As if we were waiting for a secret code…or something.)  We’d just walked over from Maydan, after a fruitless line standing experience (we’ll try again), ready to take our chances at The Dabney.  The small subterranean The Dabney Cellar is the English basement outpost below The Dabney and faces 9thstreet with its own entrance.  J had put in our names upstairs at The Dabney for a table and we took the recommendation to spend an hour and a half in the Cellar around the corner from The Dabney’s Blagden Alley entrance.  (For customers, there’s no way into The Dabney directly from the Cellar.)

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The Dabney was surprisingly unpretentious for being one of Washington DC’s best restaurants; the tables a happy distance apart and the kitchen low and open at the back, the food (smallish plates) consistently vibrant and green.  The Dabney was excellent, but the Cellar was a find.  Comfortably dark, warmly lit and nicely cozy.  Fitted with an L-shaped bar and high tops, tables on an upper deck.  J and I sat at the bar, checking out the wine list for interesting tastes, talking to the welcoming bartenders about the wines, snacking on melon salad and crostini, a cover of Steve Winwood’s Valerie in the background.  Comfortable, friendly, and low key.

A Little Bit of Italy in Virginia

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We went south to head north; to stop by a few wineries on a rainy Sunday, on our way back to the Washington, DC, area.  J and I had been hiking in Shenandoah National Park and “camping” in a tiny house trailer at getaway.  After a morning stop for cappuccino at the Mudhouse in Crozet, we turned left at the winery sign – hanging off a piece of construction equipment at the side of the road – and pulled in to Gabriele Rausse (just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia).  Gabriele Rausse is the namesake winery of Gabriele Rausse who moved from Italy to Virginia in the late 1970s to help start Barboursville Vineyards.

The modern glass and wood framed tasting room was tucked into the trees at the end of a short gravel lane – windows facing out on at least two sides of the small open space.  At mid-day, a couple was sitting in the back booth and several were standing at the tasting bar.  The Beatles were playing; a wilted hardcover book about Italy’s big Barolo wines on the shelf.  The winery’s lumberingly sweet yellow lab mix greeted everyone and then plopped down to rest against the window.

Gabriele Rausse’s son was pouring the wine, family was around, and fresh pasta was being rolled through a pasta maker.  We tasted whites to reds accompanied by small bites of speck with arugula, soft and crunchy sourdough baguettes with pungent olive oil for dipping, fresh linguine with pesto, and a bite of warm baklava at the end.

Hiking to Eat…At a Tiny House Trailer in the Woods

I don’t do it often enough, but it’s not hard to get out of the city in the Washington, DC, area.  Farmland, horse country, the Blue Ridge Mountains, are only an hour or so away.  Take Stanardsville, Virginia, just outside Shenandoah National Park.  It took me and J about the two hours advertised by getaway, to drive there late Friday afternoon for some Saturday hiking.  Getaway is a revamped campground (once, Heavenly Acres Campground) dotted with carefully placed tiny house trailers – all wood-sided and painted black.  Ours came with a New York license plate.  Each trailer is named for a grandparent of staff or guests (says the web site) the name engraved onto a metal plate by the front door.  Discreet black and white signs lead you into the wooded grounds.  Our tiny house trailer, Carroll, was light and spare and punctuated by a glossy red under-counter refrigerator and a black-and-red checked blanket.

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Two people and a small dog take up the entire floor space.  And don’t plan on cooking meals with a lot of ingredients or steps – there’s a two-burner electric cook top and counter space is a scarcity. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well.

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J and I started our day waking up to a forest staring back at us through the picture window wall that was the back of our trailer.  We ended it in Adirondack chairs in front of our own fire pit – eating sautéed shishito peppers and re-heated smoked sirloin tip with the other night’s potato salad on the side.  Later we (truthfully, just I) gorged on s’mores complete with marshmallows toasted over the fire pit on twigs stripped clean and to sharp points by J.  Sitting by our flickering fire, the night otherwise dark, you could hear people laughing a few camp sites away.  When walking the dog, we passed cars tucked into alcoves next to their own tiny house trailers and saw the occasional dog and person.  But our campsite, encircled by trees, was definitely our own.