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Saturday, 26 March 2016 15:40

Jazz for the mouth in New Orleans

        After a stunningly good meal at Cochon in New Orleans on Monday, we would have settled for just plain "good" meals on our remaining two days. But the Crescent City -- or Big Easy, if you prefer -- is full of surprises, and we weren't close to done with mouth music in a city that takes as much pride in its food as it does in its jazz.
        Speaking of jazz, because we had reservations in the French Quarter for Preservation Hall that evening, we caught an early (5:30) reservation on Magazine Street at Coquette, a bistro in an area of shops and restaurants in the city's Garden District. With our friends Rob and Marcy, we were able to order small plates to share and a few we each coveted and kept pretty much to ourselves. The fried chicken were plump thighs crisply breaded and sliced on the bias so that each resembled the ubiquitous chicken "tenders" you might find at a pub restaurant. The crisp coating included a dash of paprika that spiced them up, but ever so discreetly. Marcy and Rob ordered a plate of sliced cobia, a delicate white fish cured in coffee.  But the star for me was a bowl that included flakes of crabmeat set atop a corn pudding and sprinkled with fresh green onion slices and mushrooms. The crabmeat was fresh and perfectly briny, the corn pudding lush, almost like corn grits without the grit, the tastes intense and delicate all at once. A "coquette" is a woman who flirts to win attention and admiration.  This Coquette earned both from our four diners.
Crab dish at CoquetteCrab set atop a corn pudding at Coquette in New Orleans.
        Late on Wednesday morning, we drove an hour outside of town to visit the Whitney Plantation, a former sugar cane plantation that has been developed into a living museum by a wealthy New Orleans attorney who believed it could serve as testimony for the stories of the slaves who lived there. Most of those stories are heart rending and all are interesting, an honest portrayal of an ugly period of our nation's history that we should never forget. We were slated to go to a jazz club in the French Quarter that evening, and we decided to have a late lunch/early dinner, again on Magazine Street, at one of the hottest restaurants in town, Alon Shaya's eponymous Shaya. Call it Israeli food with a twist, with influences from throughout the Mediterranean, including Turkey and Greece. Indeed, the bottle of Greek Assyrtiko white wine was the right choice as accompaniment to the assertive dishes we ordered.  The pita breads were made in an oven within eyeshot of our table, and they were beautiful balloons of light yet chewy dough and excellent vessels for the small dishes of "salatim," cold dishes served as a single course. All were intensely flavored and colored, most of all the lutenitsa, which the menu described as a “Bulgarian puree of roasted red pepper, eggplant, garlic and tomato.”  The paddlefish caviar purée, called ikra, was pale in color compared with the lutenitsa, but not in taste, assertive in a salty and briny way. Taboulleh, not typically one of my favorite dishes, is all about the parsley, and this bunch tasted as if it had just been plucked from the garden.  The lamb kebabs were fat cigars of ground, seasoned lamb set amidst that same lutenitsa from the appetizers, but which had the added snap of sesame seeds. Halloumi is a firm Cypriot cheese that shows up on many Mediterranean appetizer menus and is typically fried. The halloumi at Shaya was set atop caramelized celery root puree. The greens that shared the plate added color if not competing tastes. Frankly, the puree was the star of the dish. The three falafels on the "Falafel Plate" were set on a bed of crisp cabbage slivers and were a bright green color inside, tasting of a combination of mint, parsley and cilantro, raising the tasty fried balls to a new level of color and taste.
        Shaya's balance of favors were just right in every dish, and we left the restaurant late in the afternoon understanding why everyone we had met earlier in the week had urged us to go there. It certainly is not indigenous New Orleans or Cajun cuisine, but when we look back on our dining experiences in the Big Easy, we won’t forget Shaya.
Whitney Plantation Sugar CauldronsThe production of sugar at Whitney Plantation, one hour west of New Orleans, was a round-the-clock-operation tended by some of the plantation's 300 slaves. The dozens of sugar cauldrons at Whitney Plantation form the largest collection in the state of Louisiana.

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Tuesday, 22 March 2016 11:38

New Orleans restaurants save the week

        After the culinary disasters of recent days, all is forgotten, if not forgiven, after two days of splendid eating in New Orleans. Our first stop on Sunday night was Domenica, recommended by a nephew who lives in the city and a great way to ease into the The Big Easy's restaurant scene. The invention of Alon Shaya, who has been celebrated for his flavorful Israeli dishes at his eponymous Shaya Restaurant, Domenica is a pizza and pasta palace located just off the lobby of one of the city's famous hotels, The Roosevelt, whose bar serves the city's original sazerac drink. My white clam pizza was properly briny, with Calabrese peppers adding a complimentary but not overwhelming amount of spice. While the edge of the crust was crispy and properly chewy, the bottom was doughy, partly because of slight undercooking but also because of the liquid from the clam sauce. Still, the tastes were nicely balanced. Oohs and ahhs came from my dinner partners and their pasta dishes -- one a dark twirl of squid ink spaghetti, the other a rabbit ragu over linguini. An extra highlight was an unusual beer I ordered, a black lager from a brewery in Gulfport, MS. It was toasty and smooth.

In praise of the pig
        We are staying at the Terrell House on Magazine Street, in the heart of the city's Garden District. It is a large and comfortable old house with balconies, a brick floored garden with a fountain (from whence I write this) and located a short Uber ride from many of the city's top attractions (and restaurants). Last night we ate at one of the hottest in town, Cochon, in the Warehouse District. The eatery's logo is a pig, and our table fell in line, ordering braised pork cheeks with onions (fork tender, porky in taste, an intense but properly sparing sauce), pork and kale soup (intense broth, both the meat bits and kale stars of the dish), and smoked spare ribs in a sweet honey-like glaze, cooked to the proper point, which is to say just before the meat falls off the bone, leaving your teeth to do the slightest of pulling. My wife's rabbit with dumplings, a kind of mellow stew, was served so hot she had to wait a few minutes to dig in, but once she did it was hard to distract her. Our friend's oyster and bacon sandwich, stuffed with fried oysters and a sauce he had trouble describing, except to say it was "delicious," was a bit too unwieldy to eat as a sandwich. Knife and fork to the rescue, the dish losing no punch because of it. But as terrific as all those dishes were, the star for me were the oysters, a half dozen meaty beauties served raw on a bed of rock salt, sprinkled with a chili sauce that knew who the boss of the dish was. It was one of those dishes you don't quickly forget.

Hard to get a bad meal
        New Orleans, like San Francisco and Charleston, is a city in which you almost have to work harder to get a bad meal than to find a good one. We were in a rush to catch an Uber ride to meet a walking tour hostess in the French Quarter and only had 15 minutes for a sandwich. We chose Boulangerie on Magazine Street and all of us ordered the Didon sandwich, a mix of arugula, avocado, smoked turkey and an aioli on the freshest of thick cut six grain bread, perfectly toasted. It was the best fuel we could have asked for to make it through a two-hour walk around one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the U.S.

        This will be a fairly short article, given that I don't want to depress myself any more than two dinners depressed me the last two days. Sometimes you have no choice but to rely on the comments of others when it comes to choosing a restaurant on the road. I learned these last two days just how unreliable that can be.

Damned Trip Advisor
        According to Trip Advisor, Dreamland BBQ in Montgomery, AL, is the second best restaurant in the city. But on a rainy Friday night, Dreamland was a nightmare, it's "sampler plate" showing the full range of its kitchen's ineptitude. The ribs were dry and barely seasoned, with neither smoke nor spice in evidence and no barbecue sauces on the table to help them along (although the platter included a heavily vinegared tomato sauce). The chopped/shredded pork and bits of barbecued chicken were plated almost on top of each other which turned out to be less than a faux pas since, aside from color, they were indistinguishable. Both were bland, tasting neither of pig nor fowl. The cole slaw was good in a deli-counter kind of way, but the only star on the platter was the smoked sausage, as good as I've had and worth the $2 upcharge. Overall, the best thing that could be said of the Ultimate Barbecue Sampler was its price, just $14.95 for a lot of food, almost all of it unmemorable.
DreamlandBBQ.jpg
The Dreamland BBQ "Ultimate" sampler looked good but left something to be desired in the taste category -- except for the wonderful smoked sausage.

Go Fish, Just Not At Boudreaux's
        I've been trying to be a good boy at the dinner table lately, especially at southern seafood restaurants where it is hard to turn down fried anything. I have been opting more and more for whatever a restaurant says is the catch of the day, and the last three pieces of grouper I have ordered were sterling. So at Boudreaux's, Daphne, AL's top restaurant according to Trip Advisor, I had great expectations for what our waitress said was the catch of the day, yellow tail snapper. I would describe it generously as the catch of the week, although what week I cannot be sure. It was as tough as an overcooked steak, the skin both curled and fused against the flesh. It took a surgeon's approach to separate the tough skin from the rest of that sad piece of fish; I left half of it for the trash compactor to struggle with. At $30 -- my wife ordered it as well -- it was the most expensive entree of our week, and the most disappointing of our year.

The Swamp Dries Up
        The fish was so bad it almost made us forget the technical knockout in the appetizer round. Okay, the fried green tomatoes were good, crisply fried and with a nice shrimp remoulade on top. But the Swamp Cakes, which were described as loaded with all manner of seafood, including the bayou's ubiquitous craw dads, was a disaster. When shellfish is pulverized beyond recognition and then mixed with bread crumbs -- a lot of breadcrumbs -- the entire cake takes on the taste of, you guessed it, breadcrumbs. Shellfish is supposed to have a little bit of moisture associated with it (think good crab cakes you have had). The Swamp Cakes tasted like a badly made dry hush puppy on steroids.
        Word to Trip Advisor reviewers. You don't need to give a good review to an overpriced restaurant in order to validate your choice to eat there. When the waitress asked how the meal was, I responded, "It had its moments." She asked if there was anything they could do to make it better. My mind was racing with ideas but instead I muttered, "That's okay. We're good." I couldn't wait to get out of there.

Greek Rides To The Rescue
        Friday, by the way, was not a total loss as we stopped in Macon, GA, a place I always wanted to visit if for no other reason than it once was the home of a minor league hockey team with the coolest name ever, the Macon Whoopee. Macon's downtown area has a nice selection of restaurants that were busy during lunchtime. We chose the Greek Corner Deli for our own lunch. My wife is Greek American and we have made a habit of stopping at Greek restaurants wherever we find one. This was very casual Greek but there was nothing casual about the kitchen's output. My wife loved her chicken souvlaki while my lamb souvlaki was wonderfully marinated and grilled, although the pieces of meat -- which were intended more for the inside of the restaurant's terrfic pita bread -- were oddly shaped, less than a kabob and more like small meatballs and large bullets. But that tasty melange was the best thing I ate in two days.

Thursday, 17 March 2016 22:27

Restaurant reviews from the road

        I am on the road this week with my wife but without my golf clubs, traveling to New Orleans from Pawleys Island, SC, for a week of good eating and music. I may stumble upon a golf community or two, but so as not to go completely dark here at Golf Community Reviews in the coming days, I will post some short restaurant reviews from our trip.

Antonio's, Andrews, SC
        Our first stop today was in Andrews, SC, a town that has seen better days (given the empty storefronts downtown). But Antonio's restaurant, which extols subs, pizza and "menu items" on its Main Street facing window, was anything but quiet at lunchtime. All tables were filled, almost all of them by healthy looking men in their 30s, some bearing the uniforms of construction workers. They were eagerly digging into fried popcorn shrimp, sandwiches (including the popcorn shrimp po'boy) and burgers and fries. Although the menu indicated the restaurant served a half dozen salad combinations, lettuce was in short supply on the dining room tables. My wife ordered a chicken Parmesan sub and I ordered one of the day's blackboard specials, a quarter pound cheeseburger. Although the tomato sauce on her sandwich was a bit commercial -- I know that taste from a can of my youth -- the sandwich was crispy, the chicken just on the moist side of dry and the melted provolone bland but perfect for the combination. Nice sandwich.
        My hamburger was about as good as it gets for a simple burger buttressed with a perfect medley of lettuce, tomato, pickles and secret sauce, which in this case was mayonnaise on the bottom half of the standard hamburger bun and ketchup on the top half. The meat was crispy on the outside, and that crunch against the mushier additives was a perfect contrast. I added French fries, well cooked if previously frozen, for just a dollar, making the cost/value equation as good as it gets...$4.25 for the entire plate. Take that, Wendy!

Aubri Lane's, Milledgeville, GA
        After a seven-hour drive, we arrived in Milledgeville, GA, a bit out of our way on the New Orleans route. But encouraged by our former English Major son to visit the home of author Flannery O'Connor, which we will do in the morning, and having heard that Milledgeville was an interesting college town, and having never failed to find a good restaurant in a college town, we decided to give it a try. Trip Advisor's top-rated restaurant in town is Aubri Lane's whose name apparently conflates the two first names of the owners' children.
        Located in the downtown area, three blocks from the campus of Georgia College, Aubri Lane's is a sleek two-level restaurant at the high end of eateries in the neighborhood, which is to say entrees in the $18 to $32 range (steaks). Service was a bit choppy as it took my beer 10 minutes longer to be poured out of a bottle than it did for my wife's iced tea to be delivered; and the bread basket arrived just as we finished our salads (although no faulting the rolls which were warm and pleasantly doughy).
        My house salad was excellent; I ordered blue cheese dressing but had to look closely to see if the salad was dressed. It was...exquisitely, with an intensity that was unexpected, given that there was no evidence of blue cheese or, for that matter, anything white. My wife's caprese salad, on the other hand, was a huge disappointment, though attractively layered with alternating tomato and mozzarella slices. When ingredients are not cooked or otherwise fussed with by a chef, they had better be fresh and able to stand out on their own. Neither the mushy tasteless tomato nor the equally bland mozzarella stood out as anything but over-refrigerated and poorly chosen in the first place.
        Dinner entrees were much better, my wife's rack of lamb perfectly cooked at medium rare and my short rib atop a bed of cheesey grits intensely flavored from a long braise in a dark wine sauce. I'm not a carrot fan but the thin slices had soaked up all the sauce and didn't taste like carrots, a good thing for this diner. The meat was fork tender yet had that slightly stringy short rib consistency.
        All in all, I give Aubri Lane's a rating of "Good." The entrees turned out to be fine choices, but the appetizer list, especially the salads, should be approached with a bit more caution. If I am ever in Milledgeville again, and I eat at Aubri Lane's, I will certainly order the crispy pork belly to go with my salad and make a meal of it.

Saturday, 12 March 2016 13:55

Politically Correct Golf Communities

        Our free monthly newsletter, Home On The Course, is ready to launch, and I don’t know if we have ever produced a more packed issue. The main features include a look at how a $75,000 golf membership in Florida is actually a $10,000 membership; a new feature in which we rank an area popular with golfer retirees (we start with the area south of Myrtle Beach); and a recap of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel’s choices for the Top 50 golf courses in the state for 2016.
        In our sidebar section, we join the mainstream media’s obsession with the political season -- but with a helpful twist; we identify those golf-rich areas in which conservatives, progressives and independents might feel most comfortable. We even name a few golf communities that could be politically correct, depending on your politics.
        A subscription to the newsletter is complimentary and costs only your name and email address (which we will never share with anybody). We think that is a vote worth casting.  Sign up here.
Wild Dunes par 3 from teeThe SC Golf Rating Panel held its 2016 annual outing at Wild Dunes, whose links course (above) was renovated by Tom Fazio Design last year. At the annual banquet, the Panel revealed its choices for Top 50 golf courses in the state. Read all about it in our free monthly newsletter, Home On The Course.

        The South Carolina Golf Course Rating Panel members have, once again, anointed Pete Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawah Island the best golf course in the state. The 2016 list of the top 50 golf courses in South Carolina was announced at the Panel's annual meeting and outing at Wild Dunes Resort on the Isle of Palms this past weekend. In even numbered years, the panel judges all golf courses in the state; in the odd-numbered years, panel members choose the top public courses in the state.
        Finishing in order in the top 5 behind the Ocean Course, which is open to the public, were: Habour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, which moved up three spots from its 2014 ranking; Tom Fazio's Sage Valley Golf Club in Graniteville; Jack Nicklaus' May River layout in Bluffton; and Greenville Country Club's Chanticleer Course by Robert Trent Jones.
        The second five included, in order: Yeaman's Hall in Hanrahan, The Dunes Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, Secession Golf Club near Beaufort, Long Cove on Hilton Head and Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island. Caledonia and its sister club True Blue Plantation also earned a special award for the "best value in public golf clubs." Director of Golf Bob Seganti, in accepting the award, referenced the two clubs' annual package membership of $1,895. True Blue which, like Caledonia, was designed by the late Mike Strantz, was ranked by the panel as 42nd best golf course in South Carolina.
WildDunesLinks18thAfter the green at the 18th hole at Wild Dunes' Links course fell onto the beach on Isle of Palms -- for the second time -- the Fazio Design group shortened the par 5 to a par 3, bringing the green 100 yards in from the beach.
        Also earning special awards at this year's banquet were Orangeburg Country Club and its classic Ellis Maples design for "best private club value"; The Legends Golf resort in Myrtle Beach for "best public golf group value"; and the McConnell Golf Group for "best private golf group value." As reported here over the last six years, McConnell has stitched together a high-profile group of private golf clubs in the Carolinas, giving members of any of its clubs access to the others. Recently, the company acquired its third Donald Ross designed course, Holston Hills, near Knoxville, TN.
        Panel members attending the annual meeting played the Wild Dunes Links and Harbor Courses over two days and, at the annual banquet, listened as Brian Bowers, an executive with the Fazio organization, provided a detailed summary of the work done last summer to improve the Links course. I had played the course five years ago, and although the layout was imaginative and fun to play, the greens were too small for a course that is played often in windy conditions, the grasses around the greens were inconsistent and the green on the 18th hole, a par 5 at the time, was close to collapsing onto the adjacent beach and was buttressed by huge and ugly white sandbags. Among the changes Fazio Design made were to reshape and re-contour the greens and to pull the 18th green away from the ocean, turning it into a par 3 for now. Wild Dunes officials, including our host for the weekend, Director of Golf Jeff Minton, are counting on a sandbar just offshore being pushed toward the beach in the coming few years, providing hope that the par 5 might be restored. Every panel member I spoke with was impressed with the Links course layout except for the firm greens which, Fazio Design Group's Mr. Bowers indicated, should soften in the coming few years.
        The 2016 golf course rankings are available at SCGolfPanel.org.
GreenvilleCC sweeping fairway 2Greenville Country Club's Chanticleer course was rated 5th best in the state by the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel.

Monday, 29 February 2016 13:00

Is It Logical to Rent Before Buying?

        I responded to a query today at TopRetirements.com about renting a home in an area before buying one there. Here was my response:
        “On the surface, renting before committing to a purchase makes sense. You get to kick the tires in your new neighborhood and area before making a large investment. However, at a time of rapidly appreciating prices, a one-year rental — even a six-month rental — could cost you a significant amount of money.
        In many of the golf communities I have researched, prices in the last few years have increased between 5% and 10% annually. If you were to have a $300,000 home in mind, whether in a golf community or not, and choose to rent, then your $300K home (or those like it) could be priced at $330,000 just a year later. You might have to settle for a lesser house. And of course you would have ‘wasted’ one year’s worth of rent when you could have been building equity in your home (and, eventually, pocketing that potential $30,000 in price appreciation).
        There are arguments on both sides, but the course I would choose is to visit the area for a week, go everywhere you can, and ask a whole bunch of tough questions of everyone you meet. You should be able to build a clear impression of what life will be like in your new home.”
        I might add the obvious, that the opportunity cost of renting rather than buying a home more expensive than $300,000 is appreciably greater. If you have a particular geographic area or a specific golf community in mind, contact us and we will be pleased to share the latest price trends with you.

        One common mistake some couples make, thanks largely to the Internet, is to look at listings of homes for sale in golf communities. When they find a home whose size, number of rooms and site location impress them, they tend to move on to that golf community’s web site.
        To be blunt, that approach is bass ackward.
        First, any golf community of some size will include homes of all descriptions, which is to say most people will find a home they like in most communities. Or if they want a home exactly to their specs, lots tend to be comparatively inexpensive; they can build the home of their dreams.
        The pivotal question is whether the community will suit them. Since you won’t know the answer until you visit, I suggest to couples I work with that they not even bother looking at houses, online or in person, until they have personally kicked the tires in the community. That includes a tour of the clubhouse, a round of golf on the community’s course, a meeting with the club’s general manager or some other community official, a drive through the entire community, a tour of the area just outside the community and some tough questions about life in the community, including the club’s financials and those of the homeowners association. (Oh yes, if possible, have a meal in the clubhouse to test the kitchen’s ability, especially if the club has a mandatory quarterly dining minimum.) All that should take one full day at least.
        Only after you are satisfied that the community is right for you, then, and only then, should you look at homes. In short, when you visit a golf community, allocate at least two days; the first to check out the community itself, and the second to look at homes or lots if the community makes it past your scrutiny.
Callawassie House and GreenDon't Even Think About It: When you are looking for a golf community home, make sure you love the community before you even bother looking at homes, in person or on the Internet. [Photo taken at Callawassie Island community, near Beaufort, SC]

Saturday, 20 February 2016 20:53

Gone Golfin

        You don't see this very often on a golf course: A player who putts for eagle on a par four AND catches a five-pound bass during the round. Jake Bailey, a Palm City, FL, real estate manager for a local brokerage, may not be ready for the PGA Tour, despite making birdie on the aforementioned par 4, but the boy can fish. Carrying his fishing pole atop the golf cart, he made his first cast beside the 3rd hole at Harbour Ridge Golf and Yacht Club in Palm City, and pulled out three bass within two minutes or so. He would go on to catch a dozen more during the round, sitting out some shots on a few of the holes.
       Jake, whose business card reads "Coach," is a former college baseball player (College of Charleston) who manages a local high school baseball team and is also responsible for training and guiding a staff of 200 real estate agents for a local branch of Keller Williams. If I ever take up fishing in a serious way, I know who to call.
JakeBaileyBass
Jake Bailey, with one of a dozen bass he caught during a casual round of golf at Harbour Ridge in Palm City, FL.

Saturday, 13 February 2016 16:31

Potential Golfer in Chief

        There are two politicians running for the highest office in the land whom we can be sure will play golf as President. One is evident: Donald J. Trump, who owns some of the most lavish country clubs around the world. The other is a quieter, more modest sort –- who isn’t, compared to Trump? –- who loves the game, tinkers constantly with grips and equipment and advice, and has pledged to continue to play if he becomes President –- even in the face of the drubbing the current President has taken whenever he steals out for a round at Congressional or on vacation.
        John Kasich is the candidate, and it was clear from an appearance on the Golf Channel last year that he has a regular-guy passion for the game. And when you watch the lesson he takes from Charlie Rymer at the end of the interview, you understand that he is also a quick learner, a trait we all should look for when we vet our potential Commander in Chief.  (In just a couple of swings, Kasich went from a hard left pull to a straight ball.)
        President is a complicated job, and no series of motions are more complicated in sports than the golf swing. John Kasich seems to know what he is doing with a golf club in his hands.
        Video interview of John Kasich on Golf Channel [click here].
Kasich in PawleysRepublican Presidential candidate John Kasich addresses a few hundred residents in Pawleys Island last week.


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