Taste of Charleston in Chicago

By Alex Stedman

The East Coast seafood, fresh vegetables and fluffy rice of Lowcountry cuisine can cause mouthwatering reactions, but Chicago hasn’t had a restaurant featuring this distinctive genre, until now.

Mark Steuer, executive chef The Bedford, is opening the highly-anticipated Carriage House restaurant Sept. 18 at 1700 W. Division St in Wicker Park. Though Chicago has its fair share of Southern cuisine from restaurants such as Big Jones, Heaven on Seven and Table 52, Carriage House is possibly Chicago’s first full Lowcountry restaurant.

John Taylor, author of “Hoppin’ John’s Low Country Cooking,” explained that Lowcountry cooking is defined by its origins in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia—seafood and rice are prominent element in many dishes—and the cuisine has experienced varying levels of popularity.

“When I moved home [to Charleston, SC] in 1986 to open my bookstore, you couldn’t find stone-ground whole grain—real grits—in town,” Taylor said, but added that Lowcountry restaurants have slowly started popping up in cities like New York and Los Angeles.

With his knowledge of Lowcountry cooking from his upbringing in Charleston, Steuer said he had been thinking about bringing the cuisine to Chicago for the past six years.

“I really just want to showcase what I grew up eating,” Steuer said. “Shrimps, clams, lots of fish, flounder—light, flakey fish.”

Steuer said he plans to modernize much of the menu, but there will be traditional components to many dishes. For instance, he’s using California Gold rice, a Lowcountry staple, in his Italian Anarcini instead of the usual risotto.

To ensure his ingredients are fresh and authentic, Steuer said seafood is being delivered directly from Charleston, and the kitchen will be baking bread in-house with Southern flour and wheat.

Carriage House will also feature traditional Southern cocktails and punches, as well as a thoroughly researched wine list that pairs with the flavors of his cooking.

“Everything we ate [during my research], all I wanted was a crisp white wine,” he said. “I think we’ve done a good job of picking out wine, instead of just picking out wine for a wine list.”

Steuer said the look and feel of the restaurant were also important to him. To make the space feel like the carriage houses used to shelter horse-drawn carriages, he has incorporated wrought iron lanterns, slow-moving fans and ivy on the large porch into the aesthetic design.

With all the work that has gone into the project, Steuer said he hopes it can live up to expectations and change people’s mindset regarding Southern cuisine, which he thinks faces several misconceptions, namely that it is always heavy, fried and oversalted.

Paul Fehribach, the executive chef and co-owner of Big Jones in Andersonville, described his menu as featuring Southern heirloom cooking. Although the restaurant is now well-established, he said competing with stereotypes was sometimes difficult.

“I never thought it would be such an incredible challenge just having people accept what we’re doing with Southern food,” Fehribach said.

The local market for Southern food has improved in the last decade, according to Fehribach, but many Chicago restaurants have perpetuated negative stereotypes than to dispel them. Southern cooking involves a certain set of techniques and fresh ingredients, he said.

Taylor said he believes the misconceptions of Southern food, particularly Lowcountry cuisine, date all the way back to the post-Civil War-era when the Confederate South lost its slave labor and plantation style of agriculture. The resulting poverty led to heavily salted, overcooked and overseasoned food as people tried to add flavor in the least expensive way possible.

“This was not the cooking of the area that had been established before the war, but merely the cooking of the poor,” he said.

Steuer said he believes that the Chicago community is “ready for more” in terms of Southern cuisine.

“I think it’s been clear for people to embrace the flavors of the South, so I think we can show them a new way of thinking about it,” he said. “We’re not going to mess with any of the flavors. We’re just going to clean it up.”