Cainhoy Cookin' Depot Wando restaurant has kitchen talent, but lacks in concept

Biscuits N' Shrimp

To demonstrate their allegiance to a Southern way of doing things, Nathaniel Chamblin and John Stauss named their new restaurant Cainhoy Cookin' Depot. In an era when restaurants don't get away with three-word names unless one of them is represented by an ampersand, the label is radically transparent. It says where to find the restaurant (in Wando) and how it's decorated (with railroad memorabilia.) Most importantly, it barks, "No highfalutin G's are getting in here!"

Unfortunately, a consonant isn't all that's missing from the Depot. The antiseptic strip-mall restaurant doesn't even try on the service and ambiance fronts. The strategy has apparently produced colossal cost savings - I can't think of too many other First World restaurants with wine lists dominated by bottles sporting single-digit prices - but the willful lapses are lamentable because the cookin' is accomplished.

Many staple dishes at the Depot, including its fried chicken, are at least the equal of what's being served in downtown Charleston's most popular shrimp-and-grits havens. Still, it takes a minute for the caliber to register: The human brain's wired to downgrade food that's served in a fast food-like setting (Cornell University researchers proved that when they remade half of a Hardee's with soft lighting, white tablecloths, candlesticks and a soft jazz soundtrack: Eaters seated in the fine-dining section gave higher ratings to their burgers.)

Patrons are forever trying to make up for the Depot's deficiencies: On a Saturday night, I watched a party try mightily to beckon one of the counter-service clerks to its table, and a succession of customers place takeout orders, intent on whisking the food away to more comfortable surroundings. Black lattice patio chairs are tolerable when you're drinking daiquiris near the beach. Not so much when you're indoors, trying to enjoy a roasted chicken and green salad.

The imbalance between the quality of the Depot's food and its dining room is confounding, since Chamblin and Stauss have extensive restaurant experience. Stauss' aunt helped create Henry's, the peninsular institution, and Chamblin has served as a restaurant consultant for nearly 20 years. Yet the Depot is the rare restaurant with kitchen talent and a half-baked concept.

Clearly, the Depot is supposed to be casual. That's why there are TVs on the walls and wasabi ranch wings on the menu. The menu also includes burgers, fried seafood baskets, chicken sandwiches and a weekday blue-plate special, beginning with meatloaf on Mondays and ending with collard greens-enhanced carbonara on Fridays. But there are a number of dishes that suggest something more sophisticated is afoot, such as blue crab with " 'cue hollandaise" and barbecue shrimp served atop a boat-like charred baguette.

If these dishes provoke questions, though, nobody's trained to answer them. When we asked the young man circulating the room, collecting used plates, how the restaurant prepared its barbecue, he looked at us blankly. (He returned later to report there is a smoker in the kitchen. "I've seen it a million times," he said with forehead-slapping disbelief.) More worrisome was his explanation of two different pimiento cheeses on the Depot's Southern field plate. One scoop of cheese was notably darker than the other.

Sure, the young man said, they were probably made by two different cooks on two different shifts using two different recipes. When we pointed out that the restaurant likely doesn't allow its cooks to ad lib so obviously, the staffer shifted course: The cheeses were made according to the same recipe, but one of the cheeses was significantly older than the other. The kitchen was probably just trying to get rid of it.

It's a testament to the quality of the blue cheese-laced pimiento that the phony rationale didn't deter us from eating it. (It turns out a heavy dose of Old Bay is responsible for the color.) Everything on the plate, a handsomely arranged collection of picnic classics, was excellent. Framing the oval platter was a pair of pickled peppers, four taut deviled eggs with squiggles of mustardy filling, two slabs of salty ham and a ramekin of apple butter for slathering on a decent cathead biscuit with a buttery droop. The greens part was played by a wedge of iceberg lettuce, restrainedly dressed with cool blue cheese dressing, and a tangle of pickled green beans.

Other dishes were just as impressive. Perfectly cooked shrimp, tubby and sweet, curled up in a tomato gravy with a peppery Cajun panache. Probably because nobody would want to surrender the spicy sauce to a dishwasher, the shrimp are served with what's really a cheese grits biscuit sandwich, although the plating's so artful that the notion seems reasonable.

Purists who've vowed never to order barbecue in a restaurant with a full menu will be surprised by the tender smokiness of the finely pulled pork, and the hand-cut french fries - slender and wrinkly - are terrific.

Not everything's perfect: Mac-and-cheese was a soup of industrial-tasting orange cheese and overcooked noodles, while a pan-fried pork chop was dragged down by a beery sauce that was seemingly swatted by everything in the pantry. The clashing flavors were hard to isolate, but the prominent notes of bitter and funk weren't relieved by the bundle of Brussels sprout shavings scattered over the chop. A slice of coconut cake was so dense and one-dimensional that the baker could have saved time by serving a stick of butter.

The kitchen has a knack for going overboard: The pan gravy puddled atop the fried chicken wasn't necessary, and neither were the accompanying doughnut sticks, a glossy riff on the syruped waffle that usually partners with chicken. But beyond that noise, the fried chicken has a crunchy, peppery crust that rides almost stiffly above its flesh. The meat is juicy and rich.

If I lived near the Cainhoy Cookin' Depot, I could easily fall into the habit of ordering its fried chicken to go. But the area's residents deserve a full-fledged restaurant. The fare at the Depot only gets them one-third of the way there.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.