A small town South Carolina festival delivers big-time
Some places you visit are like eating oysters: They go down easily and are enjoyable, but for the most part they’re rather predictable. Then, once in a while, you pop open an oyster shell to discover not only a deliciously plump, tasty mollusk, but also a delightfully unexpected treasure in the form of a beautiful pearl. Well, let’s just say that Greenville, South Carolina, is that pearl. When invited to attend Euphoria: A Higher State of Food, Wine and Music in mid-September, I was somewhat skeptical that this small town event could deliver on its promises. But it did. I met hordes of congenial, passionate, engaging, salt-of-the-earth folks, enjoyed some terrific live music, sipped a bunch of top-notch wines and, yes, tasted some truly amazing food. Then again, being the hometown of acclaimed chef, cookbook author and Food Network star Tyler Florence, the city’s fascination with food should have come as no real surprise.
Located in the heart of South Carolina’s Upcountry, Greenville is nestled near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As trite as it may sound, Main Street is the heart of downtown and has undergone a renaissance within the past 10 years or so. According to Kym Petrie, the effervescent executive vice president of the Downtown Greenville Development Initiative, that renaissance is still in full swing. Kym instantly fell in love with the city, relocated here with her husband and family and never looked back. Listening to her wax poetic about her adopted home, it’s easy to understand why. Brimming with local shops, art galleries, museums, performing art venues and a good number of restaurants, the epicenter of the community may be quaint, but it also displays a certain cosmopolitan feel. One of Greenville’s bragging rights is that it is home to one of only two in the world Michelin retail shops (the other is in France), which sells virtually every item imaginable stamped, engraved or etched with the oversized, inflated white Michelin Man mascot. The true beauty of this classic Southern city, however, lies in Falls Park on the Reedy, a 32- acre oasis majestically situated amid downtown. Complete with strolling paths, terraced gardens and the Liberty Bridge, a 355-foot suspended walkway that overlooks the thrusting Reedy River Falls, the park offers a serene and picturesque escape.
But what about Euphoria, you ask? The brainchild of co-founders Carl Sobocinski, a local restaurateur, and Edwin McCain, a platinum-selling singer-songwriter, Euphoria is a three-day celebration of food, wine and music with a mission: It was originally meant to benefit victims of the 2004 tsunami; after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, monies raised that year were given to the American Red Cross to aid storm victims. Today the event benefits various nonprofits throughout Greenville.
Euphoria is much more intimate than other wine- and culinary-related events, including our own NOWFE, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm and hospitality. My experience began with a media welcome held in the Michelin store with tasty tidbits from Soby’s and a wine tasting of three impeccably well-crafted Calicaro pinot noirs made by local attorney turned winemaker Dave Ball. Partnering with Chris Nelson to create handcrafted, boutique wines, Bell’s wines, named for California and Carolina, were met with great enthusiasm from locals and visitors alike. Fruit from his Poinsett hails from Anderson Valley, and the wine is made in a Burgundian style with concentrated red fruit, nice acidity and a touch of earthiness. The fruit for his Paris Mountain is sourced from the Santa Lucia Highlands and is an intense fruit bomb packed with black fruit flavors and lush texture. From the Somona Cost, comes Liberty Bridge, a wellstructured wine that offers both red and black fruit flavors and is more austere in style; it has good aging potential. All three retail for $45 per bottle, and only 100 cases were produced. Although currently available only in South Carolina, they are sold online at calicaro.com.
The first day of festivities led me to Peace Center Amphitheatre, ideally situated along the Reedy River. The casual Taste of the South soiree featured culinary creations from about 20 of Greenville’s finest restaurants (the pork belly soft tacos with fresh pico de gallo and guacamole from High Cotton Maverick Bar & Grill were incredible, as was the delicate corn soup over pimento cheese salad, a savory blend of house-made pimento cheese, diced potatoes and grilled corn from Devereaux’s). The only downside came from the lack of wine available (there was but one mediocre brand featured), but that was quickly overshadowed by the energetic and brilliant performances by New Orleans’ own Anders Osborne and Greenville icon Edwin McCain. The overall experience was one that filled both my belly and my soul.
The next day began with a series of cooking demos by local and nationally acclaimed chefs, including Guy Savoy, Frank Stitt and Virginia Willis, which ran simultaneously to a few basic yet interesting wine seminars hosted by three master sommeliers from across the country. The Tasting Showcase, a sampling of roughly 200 wines, ran throughout the day as well and featured an array of offerings, some common, everyday brands and some more unique, which provided a good mix. Determined to indulge in as many events and wines as humanly possible (an inborn quality possessed by most New Orleanians), I darted back and forth from the tented culinary stage to the Westin Hotel, taking in sips of refreshing whites first, then red wines between seminars. What I found quite ingenious about the cooking demos was the pairing of a musician with each chef, a really cool way to fill dead space while chefs chopped, diced and sautéed. As luck would have it, McCain was partnered with the talented Tim Graham, executive chef of Tru in Chicago, which made for a terrific opening duet. Other demos featured the jovial bother duo of Kent and Kevin Rathbun, both of whom have worked in various kitchens around New Orleans and give credit to our chefs for helping to shape their culinary careers, and New Orleans native David Guas, who now resides in Washington, D.C. and appears regularly on the Today show. A graduate of Jesuit High School, Guas is an acclaimed pastry chef who owns a restaurant consulting business and will soon launch an upscale bakery in D.C. He has penned a dessert book titled Dam Good Sweet that will make its debut next month and will showcase 60-plus home-style sweets of New Orleans. (You can meet Guas and pick up an autographed copy of his book at his signing party on December 7 at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum located in Riverwalk.) As usual, the connections to home never cease to amaze me!
That night wine dinners were held at the top restaurants around town and featured a guest chef (or, in my case, two). I was lucky and thrilled to be placed at one of the best eateries in town, American Grocery Restaurant, and was even luckier to be seated between two charming gentlemen, our wine host for the evening, Jack Larkin, and the GM of Larkin’s on the River, Bruce Wise, so we enjoyed a night filled with great food and never-ending foodie chat. Chef Joe Clarke of the host restaurant created the first divine course: a Duo of South Carolina Charcuterie (succulent pork belly perfectly crisped on top with a caperdill aioli and rabbit liver paté with carrot aspic). Next, chef Graham delivered one of the stand-out dishes of the night, Hawaiian blue prawns over creamy grits with grilled jalapeño Creole jus. The best wine pairing came with our third course, when ZD Chardonnay was matched with chef Tyler Brown’s (Capital Grille in Nashville) smoked Sunburst Trout with arugula, sunchoke salad, bacon and pickled red onion. Then came a perfectly cooked grilled squab with foie gras, faro, local greens and figs by Clarke. My favorite course was chef Graham’s exquisite short ribs topped with barbecued unagi (eel), a scallion pistou, miso emulsion and kombubeef jus. The dish worked magnificently on every level, and the bold, brambly Mauritson Zinfandel was a terrific complement. The meal ended with a delightful and not-too-sweet tres leches pumpkin cake with Jack Daniels chantilly and pumpkin seed brittle with candied pepitas created by chef Brown.
On day three, just when I thought I couldn’t eat one more bite of rich food, it was time for the New Orleans–style jazz brunch. A spread of food created by more than 20 local restaurants ran the length of the tent, displaying classic New Orleans cuisine with a Carolina twist. Red beans and rice and New Orleans–style paella (aka jambalaya) were reminiscent of ours–wellseasoned and tasty–but flavors and textures were distinctly different. Classic options included an omelet station, creamy white cheese grits, crab cakes, a beef carving station, grilled fish and my fav, hash browns mixed with crisp, decadent cubes of duck. I joined two lovely ladies who, like most of the locals, were quite interested in our city’s recovery, so we chatted at length while enjoying good food, great music and newfound friendship. One of the ladies picked up the square-shaped, fried dough covered with powdered sugar that rested on her plate and took a taste of it. “Mmm,” she remarked while licking a sprinkling of powdered sugar from her lips. “That’s one of those famous New Orleans doughnuts, isn’t it?” she asked. And without hesitation I proudly answered, “Yes, it’s a beignet.” It’s rather amazing that something as simple as a sugar-dusted, fried dough square can lead to the realization of just how lucky I am to call New Orleans home.