Victor Social Club
Cuisine: Luxe seafood small plates
Representative Dish: Oysters Rockefeller
Address: 39-F John St.
Hours: 4:30-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4:30 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Costs: Plates, $14-$175; cocktails, $10-$15
Vegetarian Options: No
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Representative Dish: Spaghetti with meatballs
Address: 39-G John St.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Costs: Appetizers, $8-$12; entrees, $16-$32; dessert, $8
That familiar weakness for convenience apparently informed the latest expansion from Holy City Hospitality, the restaurant group responsible for 39 Rue de Jean, Coast and Virginia's on King. Rather than just open one new restaurant, the company went for three, filling in the half-block bound by John, King and Hutson streets in one quick mid-winter swoop. The brick-lined lane is now occupied by Michael's on the Alley, Victor Social Club and Vincent Chicco's.
Michael's on the Alley
Representative Dish: Rib-eye with lobster mac-and-cheese
Address: 39-E John St.
Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Costs: Appetizers, $8-$15; Non-steak entrees, $25-$35; Steak entrees, $27-$85; Sides, $8-$22; Dessert, $9
Each of the venues has a different theme: Michael's is a steakhouse, Victor's is a cocktail bar and Vincent's specializes in red-sauce Italian. The contrivance evokes Disney more reliably than a mouse-ear beanie, albeit with a grown-up bent: Picture a year's worth of high school formals in succession. Like those dances, the restaurants should probably be approached with a mix of excitement and trepidation. There's fun to be had here, but a memorable experience is by no means guaranteed.
Victor Social Club
Of the triumvirate, the high-ceilinged Victor Social Club is the stunner. The marble-floored room is anchored by a graceful white back bar that echoes the classy maritime feel of the woven-back stools and black leather chesterfield sofas. A John Carroll Doyle painting of Ernest Hemingway clashing with a blue marlin hangs behind the bar, and smaller paintings in the same vintage style surround the seating area. (In case you didn't catch the patriarchal whiff, the menu notes, "Mr. Doyle feels very fortunate to have his Billfish paintings hanging in Mike Bennett's beautiful Victor Social Club.")
But if the paintings honor Hemingway, the drinks list is an insult to the author. Before he was an ambulance driver and a wild game hunter, Hemingway was a reporter, coached to get the facts right and their spelling righter. Surely he wouldn't have approved of Victor Social Club applying a "Death in the Afternoon" label to its pineapple vodka martini. (Hemingway claimed to have invented the true "Death in the Afternoon" cocktail, a mix of absinthe and Champagne.) Nor would his one-time wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, likely have been impressed by the "Kettle One" in the sparkling wine drink bearing her name. (It's Ketel One, for the record.)
Sadly, the service is as sloppy as the editing. When asked about the origin of oysters priced at $3 apiece, a bartender said they were "from wherever." A cocktail billed as "Pyrat XO Reserve, fresh juices" was seemingly assembled with a rum eyedropper and a very large pineapple. And a standard martini, served warmish, was overwhelmed by vermouth.
There is a short food menu at Victor Social Club, but it's more of an excuse to flash your billfold than a reason to come hungry. Beyond the $135-per-ounce caviar and foie gras torchon, there's a decent shrimp cocktail served with a smoky cocktail sauce and clams casino, thickly coated in garlicky breadcrumbs wet with chorizo grease.
Yet the space really is gorgeous. In the room's throwback spirit, it's hard not to think about which higher-functioning bar ought to colonize it.
Like Victor's, Vincent's isn't half as sophisticated as its aims. I'm fervently hoping the pastry chef is in on the joke of the deconstructed basil cake. On menus, "deconstructed" typically refers to the rearrangement of elements that are traditionally combined: When Wylie Dufresne a decade ago deconstructed a BLT, he plated fried mayonnaise with chopped-up lettuce and tomato molasses.
So when I ordered the cake on my server's hearty recommendation, I was thinking candied basil leaves and meringues. Instead, I received a tea-green sponge cake, chopped up into cubes and partially submerged in a pool of sticky sweet berry sauce.
The kitchen doesn't have a monopoly on literal thinking: Although the menu lists butter-poached artichokes as an appetizer, the dish now features only artichoke hearts and stems because, as my server explained, guests were eating the artichoke leaves whole. Since a server on another visit started his spiel by saying, "If you're not in the mood for Italian ...," which hardly seems like the kind of mood that would propel one toward a restaurant serving lasagna, veal piccata and chicken parmesan, I'm nominating Vincent Chicco's customers as the city's most confused.
(Vincent Chicco's is apparently taking full advantage of their confusion: The after-dinner drinks list includes the Rare Wine Co.'s Charleston Madeira priced at $33 a pour. FIG, which is by no stretch a charitable organization, sells the same glass for $14.)
Vincent Chicco's squeaky-clean decor, from its red-leather booths to its white-tiled floor, is more reminiscent of national Italian chain restaurants than the hangouts frequented by the restaurant's namesake gangster. Its dishes, though, are mostly clumsier than their chain counterparts: The veal marsala is swamped in a slovenly sauce that draws too much concentrated sweetness from sun-dried tomatoes, and the carbonara's charms are oppressed by bacon and orange-hued cheese. If the noodle industry ever follows the vodka world's lead, Vincent's carbonara provides a pretty good approximation of bacon cheeseburger-flavored pasta.
While the bruschetta looks equally amateurish, with its focaccia planks arranged in a perfect five-point star, there's nothing silly about its flavors. It's just plain tasty: Tangy goat cheese is the ideal canvas for bright cherry tomatoes. A bucatini with meatballs is unobjectionable, and the relatively sturdy tiramisu (constructed) doesn't skimp on the coffee notes. It doesn't add up to the best Italian-American meal on the peninsula, but it's doggedly OK.
Michael's on the Alley
Although Holy City Hospitality plays down the interconnectedness of the three new outlets, they don't function completely independently: All of the drinks come from Victor's bar, and guests at Vincent's and Michael's are offered both restaurants' dessert menus. And while staffers don't hopscotch between venues, the company hired them en masse. The most talented servers obviously ended up at Michael's, the most successful of the triad.
Since broad-brush theming can feel rather cold and calculating, especially when three almost-instant restaurants are involved, it takes exceptional service to humanize the enterprise. Michael's self-assured and knowledgeable servers do a terrific job of engaging with guests and sizing up their needs. While I spend a fair number of nights a week alone at restaurant tables with a magazine, Michael's was the first local restaurant to ever offer me a reading light.
The downside of dining alone is potentially missing out on the tableside Caesar salad preparation, also handled ably by servers (who are so eager to accommodate that when I asked after the item, my server conspired with another server to add extra lettuce to a salad he was mixing for a table of two, the standard minimum for the $11 per person service.) The salad was intensely lemony with a strong whack of pepper-borne heat.
The menu at Michael's is highly traditional: The appetizers include a crab cake and a steak tartare, and there's lamb and lobster for folks who aren't eating steak. Red meat, though, is clearly the main attraction.
Prime rib is identified as Michael's signature entree, but as every pharmacist knows, signatures get messy. My serving of prime rib was too aggressively trimmed, and its pink flesh tasted tight and dry. I ended up spending more time with an accompanying cone of crisp-skinned French fries, despite an unfortunate spritz of truffle oil that's somehow still in vogue.
A filet, though, was excellent. The beef had real personality and the kitchen didn't dare muzzle it. The steak was seasoned with admirable restraint, and precisely cooked to the requested rare with a charred exterior.
Over the course of my five visits to the three restaurants, Michael's always seemed the emptiest. The generically clubby room could use more people: It doesn't look very lived-in yet. But since there are always people who could use a steak and good service, that issue ought to be resolved shortly.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
Tiramisu from Vincent Chicco’s in Charleston.×
Prime Rib from Michael’s on the Alley in Charleston.×
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