It won’t be long before a Lowcountry diner can string her own strand of pearls as oyster farms and branded oyster varieties make this popular bivalve easily available in our restaurants and raw bars. Ace Blades, Capers Blades, Charleston Salts, Fat Lady’s and Otter Island Oysters join a universe of more than 400 niche brands, making these mollusks nearly mainstream for residents of our coasts. Mother Nature always is a wild card but the highly skilled aqua farming industry manages to deliver on the “merrior” of oysters, refining their texture, flavor and salinity with the regularity of the tides.
The Charleston area continues to see the growth of both seafood-centric eateries along with oyster specific bars shucking and steaming the shellfish. Joining 167 Raw, Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar, Brasserie GiGi, Coast Bar and Grill, Hank’s, Leon’s Oyster Shop and Pearlz Oyster Bar are Cove Oyster Bar & Grille and the work in progress, The Darling.
Cove Oyster Bar & Grille seeded itself in the location of the former Wreckfish in North Charleston. The same decor of the now-shuttered Guy Harvey’s Island Grill in Mount Pleasant has washed upon the shores of Northwoods Boulevard and has found a home again.
The restaurant’s footprint has remained the same. A tasteful shifting of the previous decor mix aligns itself with a maritime presence. The sea-life screened tabletops, now wrapped in sturdy cloth, and the blue nautical fabric covering the booths offer pleasant and generous seating. The flow has been rejiggered and Cove casts a welcoming note.
A weathered coastal patina of wear-and-tear along with crab traps, fish nets, rods and reels continue the seafaring refrain. Mobiles of the sea — suspended billfish, sharks, dolphins and hammerheads — float above the heads of the diners. New to the walls is a print collection of octopus, jellyfish and sea creatures.
The menu skews to seafood and the raw bar serves up a well-navigated collection of oysters: Blue Points from Connecticut; Louisiana Gulf Coast; Deep Cove and PEI from Canada; Plymouth Rock; Eastham; and Scorton Creek from Massachusetts were varieties available at the times of our visits.
The fresh catch sheet also is market-driven and recently featured grouper, halibut, mahi, snapper and swordfish. The kitchen wisely prepares them simply grilled or dusted in a similar seasoning blend made famous in the 1980s by the late chef Paul Prudhomme and his blackened redfish recipe.
The menu includes a modest assortment of sandwiches: crab, mushroom, whiting or burger; a fried platter combination; simply grilled steak; and a chicken dish.
Oysters can be had raw, char-grilled, fried or Rockefeller.
The char-grilled oysters are keepers. Reminiscent of Gilhooley’s (Texas) classic preparation of butter, lemon and Parmesan cheese-basted oysters grilled over an oak and pecan wood barbecue pit, the Cove’s version lacked the smoky infusion of pit grilling but their flavor and texture resonated with the buttery-cheesy corona licked by a char-grill.
The house-special Cove Shrimp, offered as an appetizer, plated 14 lightly battered and fried shrimp with a side of “secret sauce” and is substantial enough for an entree. The sauce, a love child of remoulade and Buffalo, is best ordered on the side.
When Cove launched its first menu, the offerings reflected some Cajun-Creole influences. Those flavor profiles have since been set adrift but you will still find “Cajun street corn,” remoulade sauce and an odd combination called Romano Bruschetta in which chicken is crusted with Parmesan cheese and tossed in Cajun Alfredo pasta sauce. Oh, and you can add shrimp to that.
Chef Lisa Sheldon, a Johnson and Wales graduate (Rhode Island), now helms the kitchen. A recent chicken piccata and pasta special may very well reflect her time at Andriaccio’s Italian Restaurant in Chautauqua, N.Y. She comes to Cove from Tabbuli, another Charleston Hospitality Group restaurant where Mediterranean flavors thrive.
Sheldon has wisely paired down the menu allowing the catch of the day and her specials to anchor the menu choices. Ubiquitous French fries and sweet potatoes are default sides but the kitchen also prepares grilled vegetables, broccolini, basmati rice, red rice and a nice salt-crusted baked potato.
Sheldon allows the seafood to speak on its own merits and it is in simplicity where you will find satisfaction.
An attentive and friendly team provided both welcome and informed menu guidance during recent visits.
If there is a caveat to these experiences, it is that Cove Oyster Bar & Grille was not very busy at the times of our visits.
Building a restaurant concept on the vagaries of the sea, the weather, and the seasons brings more than the normal share of risk, but like finding a pearl in an oyster, the folks at Cove Oyster Bar & Grille can certainly culture a jewel of their own.