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High Times in the Lowcountry

| Sunday, Feb. 12, 2006

Bob Carter and Bob Waggoner share the same first name and culinary passion. And their establishments -- respectively, the Peninsula Grill and the Charleston Grill -- sit across the street from each other in South Carolina's timeless, charming city of Charleston. Both chefs cultivate the heady fare of "Lowcountry" cooking, yet each presents distinctive innovations and sophisticated variations on this regional Southern cuisine.

Charleston sits on a narrow peninsula on a tidal plain of the Atlantic Ocean -- hence the Lowcountry designation. Its culinary traditions, rooted in a plantation culture, use: local ingredients (especially seafood, rice, corn, greens and game); rustic preparations (casseroles, stews, off-cut meats, deep-fried and grilled items); and the high flavors introduced by African and Caribbean slaves.

The two chefs channel the spirit of Lowcountry fare, yet elevate it to elegant new heights, while reflecting their individual sensibilities.

Bob Carter, a Tallahassee native and true "Southern boy," landed in Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales University. He supported his culinary education by cooking for prominent Charleston families. His popularity among this elite group inspired Rent-a-Chef, a one-person catering company.

Graduating from Johnson &Wales in 1989, Carter hauled off to apprentice in Dallas. He then cooked throughout the South -- in Key West, Fla., and Tennessee -- while still harboring a desire to return to Charleston. When his friend, Hank Holliday, purchased Charleston's Planter's Inn, Carter convinced him that the historic property needed a fine dining restaurant--and that he was the chef for the job.

The two men shared a vision that generated the 1997-opened, award-winning, Mobile Four-Star Peninsula Grill. Described as "unabashedly swank," it's a perfect setting for Carter's exuberant flavors, bravado style and ebullient personality. The atmosphere captures a successful meld of old Charleston's warmth and the cosmopolitan excitement of New York City. Indeed, the place positively percolates with style and conviviality.

Carter says Peninsula is about real food, real drinks and excellent service. Presentations are blockbuster but not fussy. This chef is serious about quality ingredients and refined techniques. But he stretches the boundaries of tradition and mixes in some playfulness as well.

Among his signatures are Lowcountry oyster stew with wild mushroom grits; benne-crusted rack of lamb (benne seeds being sesame seeds that arrived via slave ships); and Bourbon-grilled jumbo shrimp, with Lowcountry hoppin' John, creamed corn and lobster-basil hushpuppies. He makes a banana panna cotta -- "the most upscale banana pudding you'll ever eat" -- and a seven-layer coconut-cream cake yielding slices that each weigh a full pound. "Takeaway" bags, for a next-morning jolt, are at the ready.

Bob Waggoner hails from California, but years spent living and working in France shape his culinary profile. A protege of an array of Michelin-starred chefs -- including Pierre Gagnaire and Gerard Boyer, he was the first American chef to own his own restaurant in France and one of only a few to be knighted by the French government. Throughout his career, he's garnered numerous awards and stars and diamonds, along with media credentials and celebrity chef status.

At the Charleston Grill, he fuses superlative local ingredients with classic French techniques, then filters all through a contemporary vision. His Burgundy, France, experiences predispose him to design dishes around fine wine. The menu identifies many local producers by name. Local crab, shrimp, oysters, quail and pork find new interpretations. A typical -- and luscious -- transformation is his rendition of collard greens. Instead of the standard boil and vinegar-drown the vegetable, he braises perfect collards (from Wadmalaw Island) in local ale (Palmetto Amber) and sauces the dish with shredded pig's feet slow-braised in cabernet sauvignon.

Other stunning dishes: Maine lobster tempura, over lemon grits and fried green mini-tomatoes, in yellow tomato tarragon butter; yellowfin-tuna carpaccio, in a passion fruit, key lime and mint vinaigrette; and grilled halibut, over spinach, heirloom tomatoes and orzo, with grilled eggplant and fresh squid stuffed with a shrimp mousse, lime caper and thyme salsa.

Charleston Grill also claims a magical pastry chef. Austria-born and Germany-trained Vinzenz Aschbacher puts art on the plate in such sensations as a trio of Austrian desserts -- winter apple parfait, caramelized pumpkin-seed parfait and apple strudel -- and an incomparable chocolate quintet -- white chocolate mousse, Valrhona ganache, pistachio mousse, semisweet sorbet and chocolate hazelnut truffle.

Both kitchens deliver fabulous flavors and tempting textures. Both boast wine programs remarkable for cellar size and thoughtful selection, as well as stellar sommeliers -- Dennis Perry at Peninsula, Rick Rubel at Charleston. Add impeccable service and inspired decor. Is it any wonder that diners jam the restaurants, even midweek• Be sure to make a reservation, and for Friday and Saturday nights do so several weeks in advance.

The Peninsula Grill and the Charleston Grill are open for dinner only, seven days a week. Reservations can be made online at www.peninsulagrill.com and www.charlestongrill.com. Hanks, just around the corner and under Peninsula's ownership and kitchen leadership, offers a seafood-focused menu at lunch and dinner.

Other choices for excellent eating in Charleston include Magnolias, Blossom and Cypress (dinner only), www.magnolias-blossom-cypress.com. Locals recommend The Wreck, Fleet Landing, 39 Rue St. John, Fig and, for soul food, Jestine's Kitchen. Nearby, the Woodlands Inn in Summerville offers wonderful accommodations and cuisine. For those who love golf, tennis, beach and luxury, The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island is just 30 miles away, Hilton Head Island about 100 miles.

Ann and Peter Haigh are co-hosts of "On the Menu," which is broadcast from 9-10 a.m. Sundays on The Edge, 1550 AM.

If you go

Getting there: Charleston is a popular destination year round, so plan your visit. To drive from Pittsburgh, www.mapquest.com estimates 10{ 1/2} hours. USAirways connecting in Charlotte is a more comfortable way to get there. If your journey is just to Charleston a taxi or airport shuttle service will be most convenient; parking in the city is limited and expensive. To tour the pleasant environs, rent a car when you are ready to leave the city. Budget has a city location. Hertz is in West Ashley Town Center five miles west, and there are others at the airport.

History: The city center lies between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. From the earliest days of colonial South Carolina, this has been where the rich and influential live. A model of historic preservation, Charleston lets you experience several centuries of architecture and culture -- in the context of a vibrant modern city.

Tours: Specially programmed walking tours and carriage rides provide a running commentary for those who feel they need one. To explore at your own pace, gently stroll through the streets of Charleston Village and The French Quarter, perusing the placards placed by the Charleston Preservation Society.

The Battery: Don't miss a walk along the Battery to admire the elegant family mansions in a rich mix of architectural styles. Note the characteristic side porches, frequently on two stories, designed to capture breezes in the hot and clammy summer. Several homes and other buildings are open to visitors. The City's web site www.ci.charleston.sc.us is a good place to start your planning. The visitor center is at 375 Meeting St. The AAA Guide to South Carolina has 20 pages on Charleston, including maps and information for self-organized walking tours.

Accommodations: The Charleston Place Hotel ( www.charlestonplace.com ) and Planter's Inn ( www.plantersinn.com ), located in the heart of the city, offer the best lodging. Rooms, lobbies and courtyards are suitably luxurious. Marriott and Hilton hotel brands are represented by a Renaissance Hotel (www.marriott.com) and Doubletree Suites ( www.hilton.com ), also in the city center. The antique-filled Mills House is another possibility. Bed-and-breakfast establishments can be found at www.charlestonbb.com . While staying on the outskirts of the city at the Marriott Courtyard, Residence Inn, Radisson or Holiday Inn is more economical, it removes the convenience of being able to spontaneously experience Charleston "on the doorstep." Also, taxi service to and from the city can involve a 20- to 30-minute wait.

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