Despite the hubbub happening out front — 2016, after all, was the year in which Charleston gained two piano bars, a restaurant with the entire text of "The Art of War" stenciled on its ceiling and a looker of a street-front oyster counter — local chefs have lately been keeping things simple. Many of the year’s most impressive dishes involved little more than two or three ingredients and an astute application of heat.
Those nine items are listed here, in roughly the order you might consume them should you want to eat them all (pizza counts as a cheese course, right?) Write-ups were filched directly from the responsible restaurants' reviews, which is what qualified these dishes for inclusion. In other words, extraordinary foods sampled outside of the formal review process weren’t eligible.
So this list shouldn’t be mistaken for a list of the very best dishes in town. But they stood out in a year that never lacked for deliciousness.
Fresh mozzarella, Congress ($11)
Over on the Italian side, there are olives and gnocchi. But most critically, there is homemade mozzarella. It’s hatched with a shallow cross, filled with a nutty pesto and served with grill-marked planks of bread. At so many other restaurants, the elastic cheese would be saddled with cream and sold as burrata. Here, though, it’s left to its own unassuming; slightly sour and entirely revelatory devices. It’s an approach that works in every language. (3/29)
Falafel, The Watch ($11)
Sunlight flatters (Chef Chad) Anderson’s beautiful plates, such as the falafel, which bears no resemblance to the typical misshapen balls tucked into pita bread. Imagine instead a deconstructed tic-tac-toe grid, with ramrod planks of feta and linear pickled red onions arranged with cucumber rounds and smooth orbs of falafel. Crescents of watermelon radish and pert microgreens hint at the saturated color to come when you crack open the falafel: It’s aglow with verdant herbs. (3/15)
Calf’s head soup, McCrady’s Tavern ($10)
Among the standouts is the calf’s head soup, attributed to an 1885 cookbook. A server described it as a “sleeper,” presumably because the dish’s name suggests a snout floating in broth. Instead, it’s a bowlful of melty beef essence and Madeira cream, trimmed with a preserved egg yolk and rich offal cake. This sleeper has dreamed about it. (11/9)
Grilled squash, Butcher & Bee ($5.50)
You’d do well to schedule a visit to the new Butcher & Bee while the sit-down restaurant is still serving its marvelous grilled squash, a local foods master class in a bowl.
There’s nothing overly complicated here, seemingly nothing you couldn’t pull off on a warm June night, with wine bottle open and windows cracked. Thick wedges of squash are grilled and tossed with a spot-on basil pesto, then scattered with enough shattered almonds to remind you of the restaurant’s dual citizenship in the Lowcountry and the Levant.
Of course, a few pesky details could trip up the replication process. How exactly does the Bee kitchen, led jointly by chefs Chelsey Conrad and William Mote, achieve a pesto that penetrates every square millimeter of the squash without sloughing excess oil? What’s the secret to the gorgeous grill marks that allude to fire without presenting as ashy blackened scars? These kind of puzzles might well demand a second round. (7/19)
Tavern burger, Little Jack’s Tavern ($7)
The burger you want is the slider-sized $7 tavern burger. If you’re hungry, get two. Or three. This burger is so dreamy that it reappears on the dessert list, alongside rice pudding and chocolate cake, for the benefit of customers already looking back wistfully on the first course. The burger is half chuck, half brisket, and nearly all beef juice and crust by the time the well-proportioned patty hits the sesame seed bun. Cloaked by a protective slice of melty American cheese, the burger’s in close cahoots with sweet sunchoke relish and tangy sauce that plagiarizes brilliantly from the Big Mac. (7/5)
Escovitch, Caribbean Delight ($15)
Caribbean Delight fries its escovitch fish whole, and red snapper didn’t evolve to fit in a square box. So the dish arrives with a toothy snout poking out one corner of the box, and a stubby tail encrusted mid-flap extruding from the opposite end. It’s a slightly ignominious position for such a glorious fish.
Really, it’s a fish deserving of a silver platter. Scattered with a chromatic collection of cooked-down onion loops, pickled bits of red, yellow and green bell peppers and slivered carrots, the fish is flaky and tender. It’s fried wearing not much more than salt: The flavor blast comes courtesy of a vigorous dressing bristling with apple cider vinegar. All the deliciousness comes at a bargain price, too: For a fish that could feed two people, accompanied by glistening plantains and a pair of sides portioned out so generously that they pose another challenge to the box’s dimensions, Caribbean Delight charges $15. (4/26)
Roast chicken, Henrietta’s ($60)
Advertised as “for two,” the $60 bird could easily feed three, and possibly a fourth, if that person just wanted to snack on the glistening skin and accompanying puffy Parker rolls, dredged through those incomparable Keegan-Filion juices. (8/30)
Brisket, Lewis Barbecue ($21/pound)
Brisket at the three-month-old Lewis Barbecue comes from a gleaming stainless steel-fronted holding case that’s just a bit bigger than a hotel minibar. There are four such cases behind the restaurant’s meat-cutting station, the public front of a massive operation that includes a dedicated sausage cooker and four smokers, each spacious enough to accommodate more than half a ton of brisket. None of that clockwork is visible to customers: The brisket arrives as if by magic or barbecue-loving stork.
First, the counterman opens the cabinet to find nothing within. “It’ll be fresh,” he promises. And lo! The next time he swings back the door, there’s the awaited jiggly brisket, roughly the shape of West Virginia and black as just-mined coal. From a polite distance, it’s hard to make out the gullies of fat running over and around the meat, but it gives off a magnetic glint that could stupefy the clearest-eyed carnivore. Best to practice your lines beforehand: Sliced, not chopped. A little from the fatty side, please, plus a little from the lean end.
In most barbecue joints, lean brisket is quietly ignored, because the cut only has two settings: Perfectly cooked or painfully dry. But when a brisket falls into the former category, as Lewis’ version did on each of the three times I tried it, its lean portion is a canvas for the contrasts between crusty bark and tender meat, expansively rich beef juice and structuring smoke. (9/13)
Pizza, Luke’s Craft Pizza ($14)
Luke’s most basic pizza – tomato base, basil on top – is stock photo pretty. Its crust, punctuated by fully browned bubbles and milder heat scars, has just the right amount of stretch: In a delicious instance of difference-splitting, the edges register aurally as crispy and tactilely as chewy. (10/26)