The most important thing to know about Harold’s Cabin is two of its co-owners, John Schumacher and Bill Murray, have spent the better part of their careers in tiny self-contained worlds. For more than a decade, Schumacher worked with the RiverDogs, dreaming up food schemes for their ballpark, and Murray ... well, Murray’s been the deadpan face of living in a bubble at least since playing the part of an isolated Hollywood star in “Lost in Translation.”
So it’s fitting that Schumacher and Murray’s new Westside restaurant feels very much like a realm immune to outside influences: There’s even a sprawling kitchen garden on the patio so chef Justin Pfau doesn’t have to fuss with buying beets and carrots that aren’t whimsically tinted or shaped.
Inside, there are wingback chairs upholstered in lemon-lime hunter’s plaid, unvarnished planking, a potbelly stove and a wall sketch of a cuddly jackalope with hind legs on the ground and antlers stretching toward the second-floor roofline. The building’s passing resemblance to a deep-woods lodge — noted by former owner Harold Jacobs, who in 1929 came up with the Harold’s Cabin name for his exhaustive mercantile — has been magnified by a million. It’s a degree of aesthetic control rarely encountered beyond weddings and stage sets.
In the tradition of the latter, Harold’s owners have even scripted the dialogue: Guests who sit at the restaurant’s compact bar are invited to claim a capsule from a tabletop gumball machine, each of which contains a message with a conversation starter.
All of the quirkiness is orchestrated a few notches past a point that feels sustainable, but the engine of the operation is roaring. Within the overly clever frame, Pfau is creating excellent dishes that don’t lean too hard on cutesiness. And even better, they don’t taste precisely like anything else that’s being served in Charleston right now.
Take, for instance, Pfau’s forage board, which appears designed to serve as the chef’s mission statement. It’s essentially a meatless charcuterie plate, with fried and marinated vegetables providing the flavor bump that usually comes from smoked beef and pork fat. But it would be a shame to stress only what’s missing from the handsome palette, contoured in ways more pleasing to a woodworker than the poor guy charged with cleaning it. The components change on a regular basis, but they almost always add up to a considered tangle of greenery and spice.
On one occasion, the board was bookended by craggy hush puppies, bronzed in oil and split in two. Between them, the kitchen had artfully scattered blistered shishito peppers, bending toward a dollop of coarse romesco sauce; a tempura-treated branch of spring onions and miniature cairns of roasted turnip wedges. You really are supposed to let your fingers do the hiking here, poking around stray radish slivers and wisps of dill to discover whether cucumbers are better complemented by this dot of pureed corn or that dash of pureed peas. It’s a colorful journey.
Dynamism is Pfau’s strong suit. Even the freshest ingredients lose their verve when forced into rigid arrangements, such as the cheesy squash casserole in a ceramic baking dish, or the pile of shredded beets and pickled green tomatoes plated alongside a clump of herbed ricotta. The combination pays homage to the Cabin’s deli roots— you taste borscht! you taste cream cheese! — but it’s not clear exactly how you’re supposed to experience the dish without something on which to spread the stuff.
A more successful tribute to Jacobs’ legacy is the thick potato pancake, hearty and greaseless, paired with rosettes of pink lox. (A note on the menu indicates a portion of latke proceeds are donated to “local Jewish foundations.” According to a Charleston Jewish Federation staffer, that means Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim and the Kosher Food Pantry.)
Creme fraiche and thin applesauce helped still the inherent salt of the cured fish. A rumpled salad featuring grilled tail-on shrimp and diced-up strawberries could have used a similar accomplice: After my first visit, I scrawled half a dozen synonyms for “too salty” in my notebook. On later visits, though, I had to ask for a salt shaker, so salting proclivities may well vary with the kitchen crew.
Sometimes, the seasoning is impeccable: A dreamy bouillabaisse interpretation that emerged just after the start of shrimp season made brilliant use of tomatoes, saffron and espelette pepper. While the meaty South Carolina mussels that crowned the bowl aren’t a permanent fixture, the Mediterranean stew is built to absorb whatever area fishermen are hauling in. Ask for extra crusty bread.
And stick to seafood and vegetables, if you can. That’s not a tall order at Harold’s Cabin, since only two of 17 items on the daily menu involve red meat or poultry. But the bison burger is thin and chewy (and topped with a sad-looking leaf of iceberg lettuce so off-message that I’m guessing it’s ironic.) The turkey patty, forged from rolling white meat around confit and poaching, doesn’t seem like it’s worth the assembly effort.
But oh, that garden biscuit. It’s sandwiched around scrambled eggs folded over mushrooms and peppers, yet pastry chef Bobbi Lee McLaughlin’s buttery biscuit is the undisputed star. Harold’s Cabin has an impressive set of mismatched vintage china, and it’s fair to say any of the plates’ original owners would have been enormously proud of such flaky biscuits, gently browned on top.
If communing with produce is the critical skill at Harold’s, baking doesn’t fall too far behind: McLaughlin’s delicious attempts to close the gap between sweet and savory are the source of the restaurant’s most magnificent moments. Having twice basked in the grilled carrot cake, it will likely take me a while to stop wondering which other cakes might be transformed by a quick stay on a very hot surface. Crisped at its edges and pudding-like at its core, each subtly sugared slice is a vote for inviting vegetables to dessert.
This is surely the time to mention Harold’s very good coffee program, including exceptionally rich and wonderful cabinets, the blended coffee ice cream, coffee syrup and coffee drink rarely seen outside Rhode Island. Alternately, you can ask for a cup made with an Aeropress, Chemex or French press, assuming the house brew doesn’t suit. Whichever method you like, it’s bound to flatter the terrific beignets, stuffed with cheesecake and sauced with basil.
Just last Wednesday, more than 10 weeks after starting to entertain invited guests, Harold’s Cabin phased in dinner service. It will be interesting to see whether the expanded schedule gives the restaurant a stronger sense of permanence and a less contrived feel. In the meantime, though, there are forage boards and carrot cake (or, as the menu terms snacks and dessert, a “kickshaw” and a “nectar and regale.”) Places, everyone.