The first thing I noticed upon being seated at Anson was the two flickering candles on my table. There are a few restaurants around town that still strive to set the mood with open flames, but I hadn’t anticipated a restaurant that endured a two-year closure as a result of a raging grease fire would be among them. That seemed brave.
But in so many other ways, the resuscitated Anson seems overly timid. Although the restaurant reopened on Thanksgiving, it’s been intentionally low-key about its return, refraining from issuing press releases or mounting a “come on back!” ad campaign. Instead, the restaurant has been slowly stretching back to wakefulness: Anson had been up and running for about two months when one of my guests asked for a cocktail list and received a Xeroxed copy of a handwritten draft, fetched from the general manager’s office.
While that’s a tremendously hospitable gesture, it’s also a pretty good indicator that the 24-year-old restaurant isn’t keeping pace with its peers, who’ve adjusted to the expectations of a rabidly impatient dining public by delivering high quality out of the gate. Nor does Anson seem cognizant of contemporary restaurant economics. Nowadays, diners tend to prioritize deliciousness over elegant flourishes. While the prices at Anson aren’t outlandish, it’s hard to justify paying $38 for a forgettable strip steak when $9 buys a magnificent chilaquiles plate down the street at Minero.
Still, there are hopeful signs that Anson will eventually bring its food and drink into line with the fees it commands: A scallop dish served on my third and final visit sported the prettiest presentation I’d encountered at Anson, and fried quail, a new addition to the menu, eclipsed appetizers offered previously. For now, though, it might be best to give Anson some time.
History is on Anson’s side. The restaurant was a colossus in the development of the city’s modern dining scene, having nurtured the careers of Mike Lata (FIG, The Ordinary) and Kevin Johnson (The Grocery). Johnson in 2009 was succeeded by Jeremy Holst, who remains Anson’s executive chef.
Holst gained a brand-new kitchen from the rebuild, which also resulted in a touched-up dining room. I never ate at the original Anson, which burned a few months after I moved to Charleston, but the first floor now features mirrored columns, tables draped in white linens and spotless wooden floorboards. Everything is much the same upstairs. Either way, it looks like the kind of place a visitor might have in mind after a carriage tour.
The menu is designed to strum the same Southern chords, with a preponderance of items classified as either fried or crispy. It’s not entirely clear how the designations are determined, but golf ball-sized spheres of rice with slivers of sausage are listed as crispy boudin fritters. Dressed with passably tangy comeback sauce and a few stray celery leaves, the dense fritters are the sort of snack you could mindlessly eat for a while if faced with a bottomless bowl.
On the fried side, tough green tomatoes with a gritty cornmeal crust are considerably less enticing, despite a smear of bacon jam, as is a pile of thickly breaded hush puppy-like balls of batter containing a slice of okra, stacked atop a slick of sweet tomato gravy and dotted with pepper jelly.
Sweetness is a perpetual problem at Anson. Nowhere is it more pronounced than in the case of the crispy flounder, the iconic dish that Anson inherited from its sister restaurant, Garibaldi’s. Dan Kim, a chef with Thai and Chinese ancestry and French training, invented the preparation in the 1980s. It involves diamond-scoring a flounder on both sides; deep-frying it and slathering it with an apricot jam-based sauce.
It’s hard to know whether tastes have changed or Holst has checked out after crisping thousands of fish, but the flounder now served at Anson is indistinguishable from sweet-and-sour anything available at a Chinese take-out joint. The soft, mild fish is obscured by sugary goop, which could probably be dragged into the present with the right peppers and herbs.
But I’m going to guess that the flounder recipe is sacred, and the kitchen couldn’t get away with much more than sourcing firmer flounder and scaling back its sauce application by a quarter-cup or so. Yet loyalty to nostalgic guests can’t explain the sugared-up potlikker surrounding an oversalted grouper that’s no longer on the menu, or the achingly sweet peperonata capping whipped grits that come with a deep-fried pork chop. After one meal, I went home for a chaser of olive oil Triscuits, Parmesan, smoked almonds and Scotch.
Dishes without advertised fruity components were generally better bets, including a rich she-crab soup. Salads are also reliable: A crescent of arugula leaves and dots of goat cheese add up to a shipshape starter, while a tumble of bibb, blue cheese, bacon and cherry tomatoes is a perfectly legitimate horizontal take on a classic wedge, enhanced by the same fried okra bits that are elsewhere undermined by tomato sauce.
The menu is very much in flux, and employees seem bewildered by the constant changes. “They’re kind of fighting it out,” one server said, referring to the restaurant’s owners and chef. From his description of the backstage dynamic, it wasn’t clear which party wants what, but the braised short ribs and oysters with pickled plums on the opening menu had already been axed by the time I started visiting the restaurant. To the servers’ credit, they still come across as friendly and eager to help.
And to the kitchen’s credit, Anson has the makings of a nice place to go for dessert. It’s hard to improve upon a sculpted almond tuile cupping ice cream, split strawberries and chocolate sauce, but a caramel-drizzled pecan tart — closer in consistency to a granola bar than the standard Thanksgiving slice — makes sweetness seem like a good idea again. Perhaps when the drinks menu is done, there will even be something wonderful with which to pair it. Stay tuned.