Should Henry or Arthur Middleton sit down at a table at Middleton Place Restaurant, they would experience a taste of home. Okra, rice, field peas and pork are on the plantation menu.
This restaurant was birthed by a Junior League project in 1928. In 1949, the league’s tea room overlooking the Ashley River was moved to the current restaurant, which was built in 1933 as a guesthouse. W. Bancel La Farge designed it to complement the architecture of the 18th-century plantation main house.
Today, oil lanterns light your way to its charming garden entry. The smell of history perfumes the air, and there is a sense of sacred ground as gravel crunches under step and winter’s evening mists shroud the landscape.
There is a Williamsburg tavern feel to the place, and, yes, it even smells of the passage of time. The pub features a small bar area, fireplace and limited seating. The garden room provides space for private functions, and the tranquil main dining room overlooks the Rice Mill pond and azalea hillside gardens.
In the 1980s, the legendary Edna Lewis was hired as a consultant for the restaurant. Lewis had embraced a mission of preserving the heritage and the traditions of the Southern table, a table that had little in common save the point on a compass.
Today, her recipes still can be found on the menu, and the tradition of “simplicity” that she so honored can be seen in the cooking.
The influences of West Africa, England, France, Spain and the American South have filtered down over the years to create a foodway at Middleton Place that tastes very much of home cooking. Lewis would be very pleased.
Former executive chef Micah Garrison was a fine culinary custodian. He now has a new position at Middleton as director of food services. His former banquet chef, Brandon Buck, was promoted to executive chef late last summer. Cheryl Ackland joins Buck’s team as sous chef.
Buck is a South Carolina native who is self-taught in the kitchen. He has schooled himself well under the capable toques of Donald Barickman, Craig Deihl, Voysey’s at Cassique and on Garrison’s line before his current promotion.
The menu honors local, seasonal and regional with many of the ingredients farmed on the plantation grounds.
The She-Crab Soup ($7) honors its creator, William Deas. It tastes not of flour as so many do, but rather a rich cream of lump-crab soup, biting your tongue with a tease of cayenne, going down nutty with its hit of cream sherry and brightened by bits of orange roe. Expect to find a seasonal soup as well as a variety of substantial salads ($7-$8) topped, tossed or dressed with local eggs, Middleton Place honey, South Carolina pecans and house-made dressings. Southern favorites such as deviled eggs ($7), buttermilk biscuits and sweet jams salute the patrimony of the Southern table.
Buck’s take on pork and beans ($8) was a flavorful tryst of braised pork belly served in a miniature cast-iron skillet surrounded by tender, well-seasoned beans and a mess of greens.
Wild mushroom ravioli ($8) was equally well-executed; plump with mushrooms and served with a bison ragout and Lil’Moo cheese. The four ravioli made for a substantial first course.
Entrees are balanced. North Carolina flounder ($24), Chester White pork chops ($29), prime hanger steak ($25) and two well-conceived vegetarian dishes ($16, $18) as well as daily specials spoke to the season and local ingredients. The shrimp and grits ($25) with Ashe County cheddar cheese and tender Anson Mills grits were topped with a toasty tasso gravy and tender, sweet shrimp.
The kitchen easily substituted a potato croquette with my order of Ashley Farms duck breast ($26) and its creamed spinach side was an example of balanced seasoning and quality ingredients.
The menu tackles classic Southern dishes and ingredients with a “dash of innovation.” Lewis would approve.
The wine list is limited but adequate. It is not only fairly priced, but also honestly poured.
Classic desserts ($5-$8) are well-prepared from Huguenot Torte to seasonal bread pudding. Our South Carolina pecan pie hit the spot, being neither cloying with its sweetness nor soggy with its crust.
Our server was well-informed and attentive; schooled on the property and its history.
Under the cover of winter’s darkness, the restaurant at Middleton Place was a bright night of dining. When you are looking for a restaurant for a multigenerational family experience or have a desire to showcase the Lowcountry in a unique setting for visiting guests, think Middleton Place, and let chef Brandon Buck and his staff serve the honest flavors of Southern heritage one plate at a time.