“How do you speak Gullah?” my friend Sal asked Bill Green, chef and owner of Gullah Grub.
We expected a recitation in the musical Geechee language that is unique to the Lowcountry Sea Islands and coastal plain of the Carolinas and Georgia. Instead, Bill answered, “With love.”
That’s what his restaurant is about: love for the area’s unique African-American cultural traditions — including but not limited to food — and love of imparting those traditions to people he hosts.
Seasonal, fresh, local: these are not adjectives conjured up by a menu writer. They are Bill’s watchwords, meaning oysters served only in “R” months so the beds can grow and replenish the rest of the year; Carolina rice, of course; fruits and vegetables from the garden; and plenty of mid-Atlantic seafood.
Gullah Grub gumbo is kaleidoscopically spiced, but not as smoky or as peppery as is typical of Gulf Coast versions. I am especially smitten with chicken gumbo, which is thick with dark meat and vegetables and well complemented by squirts of hot sauce from the bottle supplied on the table. Shrimp gumbo isn’t as stout, but the firm, sweet shrimp are a joy to bite. I only wish there were more.
Fish chowder is a specialty. It is a tomato-based stew loaded with soft shreds of sweet ocean meat in a thicket of vegetables. The hearty cornbread that precedes every meal would be terrific crumbled on top, but by the time my chowder arrived, only cornbread crumbs remained.
While they are listed on the menu as “BBQ ribs,” the already-separated bones presented here bear little resemblance to the chewy, glazed racks of barbecued ribs that once were a signature of the Deep South and cities of Midwest, and are now common nearly everywhere. The ineffably tender meat on these big bats nearly falls apart when touched with a utensil: moist, luscious, profligate pork.
My table of four got the last two servings of peach cobbler, and as soon as each of us had eaten a forkful, we were fighting for what was left. This is sumptuous cobbler, a swirl of fruit and pastry that is mostly soft and syrupy but sports a few crisp edges. Spray-on whipped cream is available, but it’s superfluous. Heavy cream or good vanilla ice cream, on the other hand, would provide righteous balance.
I’ve never had a piece of sweet potato pie that tasted so much like … sweet potatoes. In an elusive way, it even has a tuberous mouth feel reminiscent of sweet potatoes. Not that it isn’t a creamy-sweet, vividly spiced, and fully satisfying pastry; but this recipe honors its main ingredient in a profound way.
Walking away from Gullah Grub, I was glowing with the joy of Roadfood at its finest: exemplary regional food, cooked and served by a man who embodies the cultural traditions he celebrates.
Thanks to David Rees-Potter for taking me here (and for allowing me to have the very last bite of peach cobbler).