Calculating conservatively, critics Hanna Raskin and Deidre Schipani sampled upward of 600 menu items at Charleston restaurants this year. According to their reviews, these are the dishes that stood out, presented in alphabetical order.
A quick bit of housekeeping: Dishes that are no longer available because the restaurant shut down or the responsible chef moved on, aren’t eulogized here. And since this survey was restricted to formal reviews, exceptional dishes that surfaced at special events and established restaurants not up for revisit in 2015 are similarly absent. In other words, this list shouldn’t be considered inclusive of the very best dishes in town. Rather, it’s a snapshot of what impressed in yet another delicious year.
Finn’s beef on weck and grilled chicken parmesan are welcome handhelds to the lunch trade.
Beef on a weck, made famous in Buffalo, N.Y., is thinly sliced roast beef stacked on a kummelweck. The latter is a roll topped with caraway and coarse salt. It is accompanied by pungent horseradish and au jus. Take the top off the sandwich, spoon some of the beef essence on the roll, add horseradish to taste (it will clear your sinuses) and partake in a sandwich epiphany. (Schipani, June 24)
Tallow biscuits, sourdough pretzel rolls, flatbreads and cornbread baked fresh daily and matched with companion toppings: pretzels with ham and mustard, beef with horseradish cream, and cornbread with burnt honey mustard miso butter — genius profiles of matched flavors. (Schipani, May 28)
The Mills House burger was recently featured by Erin Perkins on Eater Charleston’s HeatMap as a “burger not to be missed.” Ditto that: A messy mouthful of sweet tomato jam, smoky bacon, tangy beef, slippery pimento cheese and local lettuce, on a tender brioche that defies containment. (Schipani, April 30)
Chicken’s also served by the wing, which is great: Leathery brown and crisp at the edges, the confit wings teem with smoke. They’re ideal for swiping through vinegary sauces, which is where the action is. There’s a well-executed hot sauce, sweetish tomato-based sauce, mustard sauce and a buttermilk-based blue cheese, which works brilliantly with the chicken. (Raskin, July 29)
Built on a bed of lovingly steamed white rice that coheres without clumping, The O.G. is essentially a vehicle for immaculate slices of fresh raw fish. But what a supporting cast! The fish is overlaid with little crooks of puffed rice; vinegary pickle slivers; a dollop of sweet, sunset orange fish roe; crinkly dried seaweed and brittle white sesame seeds. Assuming you’re not put off by a flume of slick, Sriracha-tinged mayonnaise, the discreetly hearty coastal dish is exquisite. When I first tried it, I blogged that it was a dish I’d happily eat every week. In retrospect, that sounds like an understatement. (Raskin, June 4)
The sauce is especially well-suited to the falafel, which is of the exceptionally good variety that’s kind of above condiments. The rounded balls, flecked with sesame seeds and properly cooked through, are great with a smear of tahini or Ali Baba’s cool garlic yogurt sauce. But they probably couldn’t be ruined by ketchup or curry mayonnaise. Beautifully crisped, the falafel is built in refreshingly human proportions: If you cupped one hand, and rolled a bit of batter into it with the other, you’d come up with an orb just this size. Cutting into the falafel reveals a chickpea canvas so green that you may wish to rethink your St. Patrick’s Day menu. Ali Baba doesn’t stint on parsley. The result is a snack that tastes fresher than some vegetables that haven’t had a run-in with hot oil. (Raskin, Jan. 15)
Of all the dishes I ordered at Barony Tavern, the salad was the stunner. Consisting mostly of nutty farro with as much elastic bounce as a Wham-O Super Ball, the dish vaulted checkoff construction into the realm of brilliance. The familiar Hellenic saltiness of feta parried the debonair sweetness of red grapes, roasted until their skins wrinkled and popped. Pretty leaves of red radicchio and emerald green chimed in with bitterness, while a red wine vinaigrette soaked up by the grains supplied the needed acid. (Raskin, May 21)
Not only does the gyro riff get my vote for prettiest dog on the menu, it balances flavors and textures with Philippe Petit precision. A shake of Greektown herbs; garlic and an underlying smear of minimalist tzatziki sauce is probably where a literal-minded kitchen would stop. But under chef Emily Hahn’s creative direction, Parlor Deluxe takes the tribute further, garnishing the hot dog with nubbins of salty South Carolina feta cheese, translucent commas of fennel, radish discs and fried chickpeas. (Raskin, Nov. 4)
You might order the spectacularly good lamb chops, charmingly served with a silver dish of bright green mint jelly. The double-handled rib chops, speckled with char, are suggestively gamy and resoundingly rich. Obviously a good steward of Grill 225’s fortunes, executive chef Demetre Castanas has created the kind of meat dish people remember when they’re that close to swearing off animal flesh forever. (Raskin, March 26)
If your dietary codes permit poultry, the stuffed quail is fantastic. The quail’s unadvertised lobe of foie gras is intrusively rich, like a distant relative who shows up at your birthday party with pictures of his beach house, and the underlying pool of cream-rich potato puree doesn’t add anything essential. Yet the heart of the dish is flawless: A perfectly cooked bird, disgorging onions and parsnips like a broken Christmas cracker, with muted notes of sour cherries lending delicious gravity. (Raskin, Feb. 26)
Patrick Collins’ menu (is) a crash course in the fundamentals that so many young chefs fail to master before exercising their prerogative to serve shumai with feta dipping sauce. Take, for instance, the vichyssoise. It’s a soup that beginning culinary students make and remake again. Collins doesn’t depart from that sense of discipline. The vichyssoise is a smooth exposition of potatoes, leeks, coldness and cream. Nothing else is really needed on a hot summer night. (Raskin, Aug. 26)
A recent wahoo with tomatillo salsa, summer squash and blue potatoes did not disappoint. Fanned over the vegetables, the white flesh was in contrast to the mosaic of vegetables and salsa. The dish delighted every table that ordered it. (Schipani, Sept. 16)