Charleston’s hottest restaurants were missing their star chefs Thursday night, because they were all at the Aquarium. It was the site of the Salute to Chefs, the official kickoff to the Wine + Food Festival.

Chefs like Michelle Weaver, Sean Brock, and Jeremiah Bacon flexed their culinary muscles with inventive small plates like Tom-yum-goong with grilled pineapple, tomato, and basil salad (Charleston Grill) and corned beef tongue with pickled walnuts (Macintosh). Our favorite taste of the night was from High Cotton’s Joe Palma, a teensy little bite of fresh vermillion snapper ceviche with sea beans, tomato, coconut, milk, and sweet and sour beets. Cypress’ Craig Deihl brought his signature charcuterie, serving up country pate with (again) pickled walnuts, dried fruit, and bread — and if you asked nicely, he’d carve you up a few extra bits from behind the table.

The McCrady’s/Husk table was set up under the stairs, winning the award for coolest-looking chefs, tattoos, plugs, and all. McCrady’s ember-cooked slab of pork was a bit difficult to bite into, but Husk’s chilled English pea soup with sweet blue crab, meyer lemon yogurt, and Benton’s bacon crumble with preserved egg yolk was complex and refreshing. Over at the Hank’s table, Frank McMahon stayed busy slicing up big slabs of wild salmon, serving it with cucumber, potato, evoo, goat cheese, lemon, and herbs. Our favorite dessert was from Charleston Grill’s Emily Cookson, a deconstructed pineapple upside down cake with bay leaf and black pepper caramel, pear custard, and brown sugar shortbread.

There was more to eat, and plenty of wine, but the bottlenecks that tend to happen at crowded Aquarium events kept us from sampling everything. Good thing we’ve got three more days of W+F events to keep our bellies full.

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