Robert Carter is a chef with cred. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Johnson & Wales University with an honorary doctorate from said institution. He served as executive chef at The Inn at Blackberry Farm (Tennessee) and with Hank Holliday opened Peninsula Grill, which went on to garner “best restaurant” accolades in a variety of publications.
In 2011, Carter followed the trajectory demonstrated by many chefs: to own and operate a chef-driven, micro-restaurant; a place they call their own.
Readers, I present to you Carter’s Kitchen. It is here that Carter performs a number of roles: chef/owner, teacher/mentor, entrepreneur/ philanthropist. His executive chef is Christian Watson, a Johnson & Wales alumni who worked with Carter at Peninsula Grill.
Carter’s Kitchen is in the Inn at I’On and was formerly Jacob’s Kitchen.
The space has received a modified renovation and the warm ochre walls and the patina of Carter’s copper collection saturate the room with comfort. The open side porch is enclosed and can be reserved for private parties (seating for 20) and large group dining. The dining room proper, with its beadboard divides and rustic fabric panels, provides dining privacy. The veranda is the perfect spot for cocktails and people watching on the Square at I’On.
Grab a seat at the bar, peruse that tavern menu and enjoy a Palmetto Punch made with Sea Island Spiced Rum. There is much to like about the menu. The “Tavern Menu” offers crispy okra chips ($4.50) that just got a shoutout in Oprah’s magazine, as well as warm cashews ($4.50) or cheese and truffle dusted popcorn ($5.50).
There are containers of attractively presented jars of pimiento cheese ($4.50), butter bean dip ($5.50) and quintessential pickled shrimp ($6.50). All strike the right notes for lingering at the bar. More robust appetites can fancy a cheese board ($12.50), crab tostados ($14.50) or crispy chicken gizzards ($12.50); the latter resonates with some guests, but not this eater.
There is also a daily “Blue Plate” special ranging from prime rib on Saturdays to the meatball madness during our visit.
The dinner menu is nicely balanced and will change according to the season. “Small Plates” lend themselves to combining for an entree or satisfying smaller appetites. Fettuccine ($9.50), blue crab ravioli ($12), grilled quail ($11) and seared scallops ($12) are a few options.
We started with the CK version of Caesar salad made with baby kale ($9). Bright green, tender crenulated leaves of kale were the perfect harbors for the acidic dressing to pool. Shards of Parmesan cheese tempered the flavors, and toasted nuggets of bread added crunch and umami.
The house-made boudin ($11.50) intrigued as this pork-and-rice white soft sausage is not often seen far from its Acadian roots in New Orleans. We have chef Donald Link (NOLA) to thank for bringing some “love” to this local specialty. Carter’s version is seared and browned so you eat the casing. When eating the traditional version, you pull the forcemeat into your mouth and discard the casing. The filling had little liver flavor and the seasoning was mild; however, the flavors were awakened by the crispy bits of fried onion and Creole mustard stripes. At $11.50, this was a pricey small plate.
You will find stuffed pasta that changes with the season. Winter featured a tortellacci filled with squash and brown butter ($10.50), and spring entertained blue crab ravioli ($12) with succotash.
Experience and expertise have served Carter well, and his menu is not the normal mash-up of cuisines and ingredients that can be found around town. Country ham and mushrooms are added to risotto; quinoa and tomato marry well with pork tenderloin ($19.50), and a mustard and parsley compound butter find a flavor friend in a salmon filet ($22).
We ordered the fried flounder and shrimp ($21) served with a delicious Wickles tartar sauce. The frying was spot on, the fish was fresh, and the cheese grits bloomed with tender cooking and flush seasoning with cheese. My quibble is that they were a taut mound that needed to be looser in texture.
Nicely priced lamb chops ($18 for two; $8 per additional chop) were medium rare as ordered but could have developed a better char. They were accompanied by a mushroom potpie that was very tasty but short on mushrooms and long on peas and carrots. The chops were sauced with Doc Crombie’s Bootleg BBQ Sauce, whose tang cut the gamey flavor of the lamb, but the tart finish requires tempering.
There is no coconut cake for dessert (not even a cupcake or bar), but peanut brittle cake, warm chocolate pudding and a meringue-topped shortbread crusted lemon tart surely will satisfy. The pudding ($8), rich with quality chocolate flavor, had bits of the “mother” and thickened bits throughout. Here is a job for the tamis!
Our young server was well-informed about the menu: ingredients, preparations, techniques; she had been well-schooled. But where did she go, we asked, and what took so long from ordering a beverage to the pacing of the remainder of the meal?
But around and through all these delays, Carter makes the rounds. You do not need to be an “FOB” — friend of Bob’s, but you are welcome; you do not need to be a Peninsula Grill regular, but he is delighted you “came on over” and if you just walked in from Latitude Lane or Joggling Street, he is very glad to see you.
I, for one, am planning to return, for this iconic chef is also an Iron Chef, and he can remedy this restaurant that bears his name.