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High Cuisine in the Lowcountry

Louis Osteen keeps fine dining honest in South Carolina

Owen Dugan
Posted: July 30, 2003

Butterflied shrimp and biscuits kick of Osteen's Lowcountry menu
Barbecue Shrimp and Biscuits
Black Grouper Medallions With Morels and Fava Beans, and Wadmalaw Sweets and Rice
Buttermilk Tart With Fresh Raspberries
Wine Suggestions
Southern Comforts
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More than 150 wine-friendly recipes, including recommended wine matches.

Louis Osteen has a sweet tooth. In New York with his wife, Marlene, to cook this menu, he wants a doughnut for breakfast. "Or something sugary," Marlene suggests. Sweetness is central to Osteen's cooking, but at lunch and dinner this leading proponent of the Lowcountry cuisine of coastal South Carolina often leavens the sugar with some earthiness or spice.

Lowcountry food is based on the produce available where the sea runs into the land -- rice, sweet onions, fish, crabs and oysters. This cooking finds its identity in the mixture of cultures resulting from Charleston's position as the leading port in this part of the South before the Civil War. It began as a colonial cuisine, re-creating the comfort of home through local materials, and adapting as necessary.

Today, Osteen carries the baton at his and his wife's restaurant, Louis's at Pawleys, up the coast from Charleston. But while Lowcountry traditionalists might stick more strictly to the old recipes, Osteen continues to play with variations.

From his first kitchen job, peeling potatoes and cleaning up after French chef François Delcros in Atlanta, he brings a slight French accent -- duck fat in the red-eye gravy is just one example from Louis Osteen's Charleston Cuisine (Algonquin Books) -- while his openness to new ingredients is apparent again and again. The character of his cooking is not unlike that of the man: refined, yet direct and thoroughly unpretentious.

His first dish of the day tweaks a sacrosanct Southern food: barbecue. There is nothing shocking about the barbecue shrimp or the biscuits served with them, except that these are the fluffiest and most buttery biscuits you will ever eat. "They're called 'lighter than air' biscuits," says Osteen. "You have to butter the tops right out of the oven or they'll float away."

The barbecue sauce, however, throws a couple of curves. First, it's tomato-based in a region that favors vinegar. More important, though, are Osteen's two additions: guava paste and beer. When asked why he added them, he says, "They're both good things." He calls it a hybrid sauce -- the guava makes it sweeter than true barbecue, while the copious black pepper gives it the necessary kick. With the shrimp and Worcestershire, it picks up a smoky, gumbolike flavor.

As the wine buyer for the restaurant, Marlene Osteen mostly buys what she likes. As we begin to taste the shrimp with a flight of wines, Marlene speaks of Southerners' fondness for sweet tea, mint juleps, Coca-Cola and Southern Comfort: "People in the South talk dry, but drink sweet." The tasting validates this preference. Two dry white wines turn thin and tart with the barbecue, while an off-dry white from Alsace producer Paul Blanck stands up to the sauce. The Pinot Auxerrois Vieilles Vignes 2000 has ripe pear, honey and vanilla flavors that harmonize with the guava and pepper. The rich sauce brings out acidity hidden in the wine, giving it better balance and making it more refreshing. "It has a synergy effect," Marlene says, "and gives the barbecue sauce depth."

The next dish has what chef Osteen calls typical Lowcountry flavors: black grouper, readily available in the South, with morels and fava beans and an herbed-butter pan sauce is served with rice, baked with sweet onions. The bold Chardonnays we thought would match with the grouper didn't fare so well on the table. The meaty fish flavors receded under the bright favas and the earthy mushrooms, and the vegetables and sauce made the wines taste unpleasantly oaky. Marlene keeps a number of Pinot Noirs, both American and from Burgundy, on her wine list. Her prediction that a fruity Pinot Noir would be a better match was right. The Argyle Willamette Valley 2000 is light enough not to overwhelm the fish with tannins, but its bright mix of cherry, earthy, herbal and spice notes dovetail beautifully with the morels and fava beans.

Dessert is a variation on a recipe Louis got from one Miss Mary Cleveland of Highlands, N.C., who made a buttermilk pie he describes as "too sweet for everyone but me." He couldn't bear to alter the filling, so he added raspberries -- their acid cuts the sweetness a bit. It bakes almost like a soufflé, puffing high above the crust. Taking it out of the oven while it is still wobbly in the center is essential to the texture of the custard.

The hope for dessert was that a Madeira would best pair with the tart, honoring Charleston's central role in importing this preeminent wine of early American history. In fact, a Broadbent Malmsey Madeira 10-Year-Old NV is the best accompaniment, since it has a core sweetness that stands up to the custard, agreeable nutty and caramel flavors and a bracing acidity to refresh the palate for another bite.

As Marlene says, "It has that citrusy acid. That's really good with Louis' desserts. They're so sweet." And so good.

Barbecue Shrimp and Biscuits

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 4 tablespoons guava paste (see note below)
  • 4 ounces beer (light or dark)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound fresh large shrimp, shelled, cleaned and butterflied, but with the tails left on
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Biscuits (recipe follows)
  • Note: Guava paste is available at Latin grocery markets. You may substitute guava preserves, but you must use twice as much to achieve the same flavor.

For this course, begin the barbecue sauce first; once done, it can sit for some time covered or over very low heat. Next make the biscuits, and while they bake, grill the shrimp. By the time the shrimp are done, the biscuits should be coming out of the oven.

To make the sauce:

Combine butter, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, guava paste, beer, salt and pepper in a nonreactive saucepan. Simmer over medium heat, whisking continuously, until the butter has melted and the ingredients come together. Continue to simmer for about 10 minutes or until thickened. Set aside.

To make the shrimp:

Prepare a hot grill. Butterfly the shrimp by making a lengthwise slit down the backs. Salt and pepper the shrimp. Grill for 2 minutes on each side, or until pink, turning only once. (Alternatively, sauté in 2 tablespoons butter over medium high heat for the same amount of time.) Remove to a bowl and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.


  • 1 1/2 cups self-rising soft wheat flour, such as White Lily
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
  • 5/8 cup buttermilk
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place flour and chilled butter in a medium mixing bowl. Work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, fork or your fingertips until the butter pieces are a little larger than an English pea, but not larger than a lima bean. If you are using your fingers, work quickly so that the heat from your hands doesn't melt the butter.

Add the buttermilk and, using light pressure, fold the mixture a few times with a spatula until it just holds together. Do not overmix. In order to make light biscuits, it is important to work the dough as little as possible.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead it quickly and gently 6 to 10 times or until it just begins to be homogenized. There should be large pieces of butter throughout. Sprinkle a little flour under the dough so that it won't stick to the board and lightly dust the top of the dough so that it won't stick to the rolling pin. Roll the dough out to about 1/2-inch thickness.

Cut the dough into 2-inch rounds, place on an ungreased baking sheet, and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. The biscuits should be crispy and golden-brown on the top and bottom, but not dry in the middle. Remove from the oven and brush tops with melted butter. Makes 15 biscuits.

Toss the shrimp in the sauce and bring to heat. Serve immediately, with the biscuits alongside. Serves 4.

Black Grouper Medallions With Morels and Fava Beans

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 3/4 pounds grouper fillet, sliced crosswise into 12 1/2-inch-thick pieces, sprinkled with salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups fava beans, blanched and peeled
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh morels, stemmed and brushed to remove any sand
  • 3 tablespoons minced shallot
  • 1 small sprig fresh thyme or small pinch dried
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1/3 cup white vermouth or dry white wine
  • 1 cup fish stock, light chicken stock or bottled clam juice
  • 6 tablespoons very finely chopped chervil or Italian parsley
  • Salt and pepper

In a small nonreactive skillet or sauté pan, melt 4 tablespoons butter with the vegetable oil. When foam starts to subside, add the grouper pieces until the capacity of the skillet is reached. Keep heat at medium-high so the fish will brown nicely -- about 2 minutes on the first side. Turn fish over for just a few seconds to finish cooking. The fish medallions should be about medium-rare at this stage. Quickly remove the thinnest slice of fish and replace it with a slice of uncooked. Work as fast as you can until the fish is all cooked. Put slices on a slightly warmed platter and cover loosely with foil.

Add the shallot, thyme, 2 tablespoons butter and bay leaf to the same skillet and sauté gently for about 30 seconds. Add the morels and toss, then add the favas. Toss for about 1 minute. Carefully drain the fat from the skillet, leaving the vegetables and herbs in.

Over medium heat, add the vermouth and cook until almost totally evaporated. Add the chicken or fish stock and simmer briskly to reduce. Watch the bubbles closely; when they increase in size, carefully add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the chopped chervil, the fish slices and any collected juices. Gently and almost continuously shake the skillet -- the butter will emulsify with the liquid and become slightly thickened and silky. Remove from heat and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Wadmalaw Sweets Baked With Rice

  • 2 pounds Wadmalaw Sweets onions (or Vidalias), thinly sliced
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup long-grain rice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1 large pinch thyme leaves
  • 3 tablespoons butter

In a heavy, ovenproof saucepan, bring the stock to a boil and cover. Simmer gently, covered, for 5 minutes. Add onions, rice, butter, bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper. Return to a simmer, cover and bake at 350 degrees F for 15 to 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a warmed serving bowl.

Buttermilk Tart With Fresh Raspberries

  • Pie dough (use your favorite recipe or premade version)
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 16-ounce jar apricot preserves
  • 2 tablespoons Bourbon
  • 2 pints fresh raspberries, gently rinsed and drained

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Roll out the dough and place in a 12-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Line the dough with foil, then weight the foil with beans or rice. Bake the shell for 25 to 30 minutes, until dry and set. The crust must be prebaked. While the crust is baking, make the filling.

To make the filling:

Combine the sugar and flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and mix well. Place the eggs in a medium bowl and whisk in the buttermilk, vanilla and vinegar. Whisk gently in order not to create any foam.

Stir the egg mixture into the sugar mixture, again mixing gently so that it will not incorporate any air. Pour the filling into the crust and bake for about 20 minutes or until the filling is delicately set and still wobbly in the middle. You may test it with a toothpick, which should come out dry. The tart will continue to set as it cools.

Place the tart on a rack and let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove the sides of the pan and let the tart cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until completely set, at least 1 1/2 hours.

While the tart is refrigerating, make the glaze.

To make the glaze:

Heat the preserves and Bourbon in a heavy-bottomed nonreactive saucepan over low heat until the preserves melt, stirring occasionally. Strain the glaze, discard any bits of fruit, and reserve.

Slide the tart onto a serving plate. Beginning at the outside edge of the tart, place the raspberries in concentric circles until the top is completely covered. Gently brush the raspberries and the sides of the crust with the glaze. If necessary, warm the glaze slightly so it will brush easily.

Serve the tart immediately or keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 hours. It is better at room temperature, so remove it from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving. Serves 8 to 10.

Wine Suggestions

Marlene Osteen, wife of Louis and manager of the wine program at their restaurant, Louis's at Pawleys Island, joined me and Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews in tasting a wide range of wines with these dishes. We chose the following as the best complements. Other wines may be suitable, but try those listed here if you can. Should the wines selected for the menu be unavailable, choose an alternative with similar characteristics. Here are some suggestions:

Barbecue Shrimp and Biscuits
First choice: Paul Blanck Pinot Auxerrois Alsace Vieilles Vignes 2000 (90, $17)
Alternates: Champalou Vouvray La Cuvée des Fondraux 2001 (89, $17), Caymus Conundrum California 2000 (88, $22)

Black Grouper Medallions With Morels and Fava Beans, and Wadmalaw Sweets and Rice
First choice: Argyle Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2000 (88, $18)
Alternates: Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon 2001 (87, $12), Denis Mortet Bourgogne Cuvée de Noble Souche 2000 (87, $29)

Buttermilk Tart With Fresh Raspberries
First choice: Broadbent Malmsey Madeira 10-Year-Old NV (87, $28)
Alternates: Mendelson Muscat Canelli Mendocino County 2000 (91, $35/375ml), Antonio Barbadillo Moscatel Jerez Laura NV (90, $22)

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