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The Charleston Wine + Food Festival is synonymous with decadence, but the Festival board outdid even themselves with last night’s Ultimate Critics dinner on Fort Sumter. The first formal dinner ever to be hosted in all of Fort Sumter history, this soiree was truly a ground-breaking event that featured six of the area’s finest chefs, as selected by the critics.

Despite the threatening thunderstorms earlier in the day, the evening kicked off with gorgeous, sunny weather. Guests, like their chefs, servers, flatware, and every morsel  food and drink, were shuttled to and from the fort via a Spirit Line Cruise ship, The Spirit of the Lowcountry.

Ladies and gentlemen in pre-civil war attire welcomed diners at the Fort Sumter Museum and escorted them on deck, where each guest received a warm welcome, an antelope sausage hors d'oeuvre from Circa 1886 Chef Marc Collins, and a Beauregard sweet tea bourbon cocktail.

The Spirit of the Lowcountry left port carrying some of the most excited foodies Charleston has seen, and the gourmands happily chattered about the evening’s festivities and next year’s festival, but always with one eye out for seconds of Chef Marc Collins’ salmon jerky or onion custard tarts with black truffles.

The evening’s host, Mickey Bakst of the Charleston Grill, introduced Charleston Wine + Food Festival executive director Angel Postell, who issued a heartfelt official welcome as the ship docked.

Fort Sumter had been transformed into an oasis of fine dining in the middle of the stunning blue of the Charleston Harbor. Each partygoer gave a gasp of delight as they were ushered through the dining area on the fort lawn and up to the top of the embankment, where servers darted through the crowd with glasses of sparkling wine and trays of Chef Mike Lata’s creation, pickled brown shrimp with vermillion snapper roe and heirloom peppers.

“Can you believe this?” gasped a fellow diner, peering over the edge of the fort. “I swear this is a dream!” The evening was nothing if not a welcome vacation from the daily grind, a luxurious adventure for the senses. The cocktail hour flew by, and everyone made their way to beautifully set tables showcasing cornbread, Sally Lunn bread, and beaten biscuits.

The lawn was abuzz with anticipation as guests studied the menu and the first of McCrady’s sommelier Clint Sloan’s selections was poured out. The menu was crafted with the location and historic significance of the fete in mind, and each dish was a contemporary take on pre-civil war Lowcountry cuisine.

Chef Jacques Larson kicked off the first of four courses with an exquisite dish of Carolina rabbit with barley, Mepkin Abbey Mushrooms, balsamic and black truffles. Every plate was perfectly picked clean, and foodies gathered outside the fort to view an incredible sunset as the second wine pairing was poured. Then it was back to the tables for Chef Sean Brock’s flounder head to tail with summer vegetables, hardtack, and salt pork.

“What’s hardtack? Does anyone know?” a diner asked, digging in. Not everyone could identify the ingredients of hardtack, but there wasn’t a crumb left as the meal transitioned into the third course.

Chef Ken Vedrinski served up an absolutely incredible array of flavors with his lightly cured and smoked grilled deckle of Kobe beef with warm lobster, peanut potato salad, and Barolo vinaigrette, and it was followed up with a delicious sorghum trifle with fig preserves, and chocolate from Chef Emily Cookson.

The chefs received a standing ovation for what can only be described as a perfect, magical evening of the finest in Lowcountry cuisine, and guests reluctantly made their way back to The Spirit of the Lowcountry... with a Mary Boykin Chestnut Madiera cocktail in hand, of course.

The evening gracefully drew to a close, and each satisfied partygoer received a parting gift of jerky and Jimbo’s boiled peanuts as they stepped ashore.

Now in its seventh year, the Charleston Wine + Food Festival works to enhance Charleston’s culinary reputation as well as supporting local charitable endeavors. The Ultimate Critics Dinner benefited the Charleston Wine + Food Festival Trust and the Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s signature charities.

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