On Amazon, the going rate for a used copy of the latest printing of “Charleston Receipts”’ is $2.95. For about twice that, eaters at Eleve, the restaurant portion of the new Grand Bohemian Hotel, can sample an item plucked from its pages.
The Grand Bohemian operates six locations in five states, but the chain doesn’t want diners thinking about Orlando when they ride the elevator up four floors to Eleve. In an anxious attempt to ingratiate itself to its host city, and visitors who come to Charleston in search of “authentic” experiences, the restaurant has tucked tributes to the iconic cookbook into its menu like coins hidden away for children who might not otherwise dust every trinket and tchotchke when housecleaning.
On an early iteration of the menu, only the grated cheese on a green salad was without provenance: The croutons were attributed to Mrs. John McGowan, while the French dressing was listed as a Mrs. T. Ladson Webb Jr. original.
Eleve didn’t attempt to replicate any entrees from the 65-year-old Junior League collection. Marshmallow salad and broiled squirrel presumably wouldn’t jive with a mostly continental menu that otherwise pays little heed to the hotel’s location. (The fish choices, for instance, are trout, salmon and Chilean seabass.) But side dishes heralded by wives’ names include Mrs. F.J. Martschink’s sweet potato mash, Mrs. Henry P. Staats’ creamed spinach and Mrs. Adrian R. Marron’s steak sauce.
OK, the steak sauce threw me. As much as I appreciate an extra shot of funk and tang, even if I am more likely to use it as a French fry dip than red meat dressing, I couldn’t fathom how a blend of vinegar and spices could cost $5. Neither, it seemed, could my server.
When I asked if there was something more to the sauce than my menu revealed, the server demurred. She wasn’t certain exactly what was in it, but she knew Eleve was the only restaurant in the world allowed to make the sauce (not true) and that it was made to order (probably true.) Still, her pitch was so wobbly that she blinked when I went for it.
“Wait, you want it? I’m pretty sure we have other steak sauces that aren’t $5 as well,” she stammered, no doubt envisioning having to ask a manager to remove the line from my check.
For the record, the sauce is a suave take on butter, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup, assembled so that none of the elements jump out in front of the rest. Like much of what emerges from Eleve’s kitchen, though, it’s not as special as the restaurant thinks it is. There’s ample evidence of disciplined cooking here, but things like grilling aptitude have a way of getting lost behind unpersuasive storylines and service that doesn’t live up to its price tag. Ingredient sourcing is another trouble spot: It often seems like the messenger is better than his material.
In this case, the messenger is executive chef Ryley McGillis, who appears to have acclimated to precise execution and daunting numbers of covers as sous chef of Jasmine Porch at The Sanctuary. Eleve is very much a hotel restaurant, albeit one with fairly interesting artwork and intentionally mismatched chairs at its wooden tables. The dining room is big and boxy, with full bars on either side. I couldn’t figure out the point of two bars until I went unnoticed for 10 minutes at one bar, and so switched to the other.
What Eleve doesn’t have is carpets or cushions or curtains, which of course means the noise can rattle your brain on a busy weekend. Even on less crowded nights, the restaurant still clocked northward of 90 on the decibel meter, making it one of the loudest restaurants in Charleston. For diners whose hearing is fading, or who care about what the people with them are saying, the acoustics may qualify as a deal breaker.
The sound situation is slightly better in an adjunct shotgun dining room, which might provide the best perch from which to survey Eleve’s menu. You’ll notice a few humble-sounding outliers amidst the scallops and carpaccio, including a trio of French bread pizzas that will taste eerily familiar to anyone reared on Stouffer’s. Ignore the pizzas. But don’t be dissuaded by the outward modesty of a soup made from little moss-colored lentilles du Puy. The lentils are perfectly cooked and the vegetables correctly salted, bringing elegance to a vegetable soup that might be served on a cold hunting afternoon.
Fried rainbow smelt are equally good. The natural fish fingers, spanked with garlic and red pepper, arrive stacked like a cord of firewood. This is bar snacking at its best, with the oily fish benefiting from a lilt of lemon. A ramekin of turmeric-toned mayonnaise gives the plate a bit of visual pizzazz, a quality largely missing from dishes that didn’t come from the salad station.
One exception is the bison steak, surrounded by a stoplight of roasted green Brussels sprouts, cooked-down red berries and an orange heap of marinated butternut squash puree, apparently made the way Mrs. R.D. Moseley liked it. (An identical color scheme rules a plate of three sliced tomatoes and burrata that refuses to ooze.) I haven’t been able to locate Moseley’s recipe in the first edition of “Charleston Receipts,” but it’s possible I don’t really want to find it.
I love how the reliance on “Charleston Receipts” gives Eleve license to make its own unfashionable food, such as the really wonderful minted and mashed peas that come with the trout, but the revived puree is baby-foodish at best. On the other hand, the peppery char on the bison is authoritative.
Charred meat and crisped skin is a constant at Eleve: It nearly saved a butter-bathed trout with a slumping flavor that suggested it should have been cooked sooner, and boosted a set of lamb chops that lacked the minerality of great lamb. The rib-eye acquires a little more depth through three weeks of aging, but it’s the finish that distinguishes it. Steak and salmon are strong suits here.
Still, there’s a dull sameness to it all. And no steak sauce, even one sold with a real person’s name attached, can fix that.