Heart Woodfire Kitchen shows passion
'Be still my heart" was all I could think of after a recent dinner at
Heart Woodfire Kitchen. Tucked in on Highland Avenue on James Island, the restaurant is easy to miss driving down Folly Road. When I first noticed its sign, I thought it was a day care center.
I can assure you there is nothing "nursery" about Heart Woodfire Kitchen, save for its cooking method, and that is primal. Wood and smoke join forces to crank out bold flavors, tease hunks of meat into tender submission and crisp flatbreads into ancient hearth trenchers for meats, vegetables, cheeses and herbs.
The space is spare. You enter into a cream-colored, L-shaped bar area that quickly fills with patrons; you pass a small cash wrap where carry-out orders can be placed and enter the rectangular dining room.
The green lentil-colored walls are hung with the wooden window art of Beth Curry and Traci Colyer of Charleston Views. These wooden historical windows frame the grasses and flowers of the Lowcountry, bringing the outside inside. Simple watercolor sketches of radishes, carrots and garlic complete the naturalist's motif. Hoosier cabinets are repurposed as bussing stations storing cutlery, napkins and glassware. They are a good fit to the rustic vibe.
The menu changes almost daily, but on each visit you can expect grilled "spiedie," which is marinated and grilled cubes/chunks of meat, Italian in origin but made popular in Binghamton and other parts of New York. We tried the house-made pork sausage ($5) with mustard barbecue sauce and were not disappointed. The wheat berry salad with Microplaned fennel, radishes and radicchio were a lesson in balanced seasoning and the artistry of acid in a vinaigrette.
Soups ($4 cup) include a seasonal vegetable chowder topped with yogurt, freshly grated lemon peel and herbs. The pork chili verde ($4) percolates with the stratified intensity of layered cooking, accomplished seasonings and quality pork. It is gilded with cheddar and sour cream.
The flatbreads are substantial, and when partnered with a side salad ($5) make for a complete meal. Chef Glenn Christiansen and his staff tinker just enough with flavor profiles. An example: The addition of pecan pesto to the chicken, spinach and Fontina cheese flatbread toppings unites the buttery and toasty flavors in the ingredients with the unexpected crunch of the nuts.
Sandwiches ($7-$12) are served on freshly baked rolls that are the right size. Choose a side from their interesting venue of creamed, roasted, crisped or buttered combinations. And if the kale with lemon-anchovy vinaigrette with chiles remains as an option, go for it. Tender kale leaves dappled with a dressing that takes its flavors from a classic Caesar salad playbook will convert you to the brassica league.
Your spit options vary, but chicken is a regular on the spin cycle. Choose a leg and thigh ($8), breast ($12) or half a chicken ($18) served with a salad and a side. Expect ham, pork shoulder and beef to make an appearance.
Entrees are balanced with baked pasta in a tomato cream sauce ($6, $11), a wood-fired vegetable stew with Moroccan influences ($12), American Wagyu flank steak ($22) with chimichurri sauce, and a local fish of the day. The fish was striped bass at the time of our visit, and it was grilled perfectly. The only misfire was a portion of the fish was oversalted. It was topped with a charred spring onion sauce that hummed along with the sweetness of the fish. The tender vegetables that accompanied this dish were fruit-sweet, which says a lot about the freshness of the vegetables.
What Heart manages to do well is cook with wood. The Mugnaini/Valoriani Ovens help in that process. Before you even enter the restaurant, the pleasure center of your brain is engaged as the smoke entices.
Desserts ($2-$4) are house-made. Chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, a chocolate torte and pecan semi-freddo keep to basics. The homemade Kahlua might be a worthy ending, as well.
Successful execution defined our experience at Heart Woodfire Kitchen. From attentive, well-informed service to a taut list of wines, one could answer the saying of Blaise Pascal displayed on the restaurant's wall: "The heart has reasons that reason does not know." Well, it all comes down to passion, and Christiansen and his staff wear that heart on their sleeves and in their cooking.