Cliches are like the weather: Everybody talks about them, but nobody does anything about them. The expression about coal and Newcastle, for instance, is in desperate need of an overhaul: Coal hasn't been commercially mined in Newcastle for half a century.
No, what's really redundant these days is bringing fried chicken to a food-obsessed Southern city. Charleston is already home to Martha Lou's Kitchen (producer of one of "the best fried chickens in the South," according to Southern Living); Jestine's Kitchen (source of the "best fried chicken in America," says Fox News); Husk (named to Food & Wine's "Best Fried Chicken in the U.S." list) and countless meemaws with cast-iron skillets. So what were restaurateurs Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink thinking this spring when they opened Leon's Oyster Shop, a refurbished garage on way Upper King, with a menu dominated by raw oysters, fried fish and fried chicken?
The answer is in the powerfully good chicken. Chef Ari Kolender has wisely sidestepped the most familiar fried chicken categories: The chicken isn't safeguarded by knolls of crunch, teeming with chin-wetting grease or trumped up with other animals' fats. Instead, the settled-upon brining and breading process culminates in a shatteringly crisp chicken with clinging skin. The juicy dark meat doesn't taste fried so much as shellacked. There is no chicken exactly like this in Charleston.
Oblong slabs of swordfish and plump oysters are treated in similar fashion, emerging clean-edged and greaseless from the fryer. A thin coat of minimally seasoned batter functions like a life preserver instead of an anchor, keeping the seafood's oceanic flavor afloat.
Although the fry basket is served with tartar sauce and a fantastic cocktail sauce that's closer to straight horseradish than it appears, this dish wasn't built for garnishing. The preparation is so clinically spare that one suspects Kolender went looking for his copy of an Edna Lewis cookbook and settled for something by Walter Gropius when he couldn't find it.
That kind of streamlining, whether applied to chicken or fish, is emblematic of Leon's appealing knack for tidying up the dirty South. In its soundtrack, decor, canned beer selection and dessert list, which consists exclusively of vanilla soft-serve ice cream in a three-buck cup or cone (no charge for sprinkles), the restaurant respectfully alludes to the region's grittiest juke joints, seafood houses and barbecue pits. But it all feels safe, not seedy; if your definition of comfort has more to do with hushpuppies than a hushed room, Leon's is quite possibly the most comfortable restaurant on King Street.
It's a looker, too. The low-ceilinged interior is intentionally ragtag, from its weathered metal chairs to its exposed roof beams. But it's the smaller touches that make the energetic space. Without coming close to the too-cluttered line, Reitz and Mink have created a flea market dreamscape, complete with spinning oyster tray stands affixed to the bar.
The details are clever (check out the 1953 calendar girls in the women's bathroom) and functional: Fixtures that had a previous life as a conveyor belt provide really gorgeous light. And even if patrons don't consciously notice the vintage oyster cans shelved near David Boatwright's Ernie K-Doe portrait or the crank wooden wall phone alongside the front door, the elements add up to a whole lot of fun.
If this all sounds Disneyfied, it's not. The food makes clear that Leon's isn't peddling shtick.
A server referred to the chargrilled oysters as a "house favorite," but I'm guessing he'll soon have to redistrict his description. The dish is already making something of a municipal splash: According to sous chef Geoff Rhyne's Instagram account, a table of four recently polished off 78 of the dressed oysters. Such restraint! The oysters, brushed with butter and lemon juice, then strewn with parsley and a shell-filling heap of Parmesan, are a flavor windfall, with the cheese's earthy funk bumping up against the oysters' maritime brine. They smell rich and taste warm, which is the universal signal to order a cold beer.
Oysters also are served on the half-shell, just as whatever fish ends up in the fry basket is also sold as a non-fried "fresh catch" at dinnertime. (Starting this week, there's also a "fine poultry" special, meaning a chicken that's prepared in an unfried fashion.)
When I ordered the fish, it was a head-on branzino, soaked with miso butter and flanked by mushrooms and rough-chopped root vegetables. The bony branzino was unevenly cooked, although the skin was nicely crisped.
Still, fish isn't the only choice for diners who want to eat lightly: "Poultry & Oyster Shop" probably looks better lettered on the front of the building than "Avocado & Yogurt Dressing Shop," but the menu's lineup of imaginative salads is extensive. As Reitz pointed out before Leon's opened, most people have a weekly quota for fried chicken; the emphasis on fresher, greener dishes is a hand extended toward potential regulars (also known as folks who live around here.)
The vegetable plates owe much of their success to flavor profiles plucked from elsewhere on the globe. There's a natty Siam salad, a Napa cabbage affair involving crisp fried shallots, crunchy peanuts and plush wedges of avocado, all buried beneath a torrent of cilantro.
And Mexico supplied the inspiration for grilled corn, basted in butter and mayonnaise, then coated in shallots. Perhaps if the corn was cooked longer or the shallots weren't laid on so thickly, it would have worked.
Some of the best vegetable riffs reference the Middle East, including a ruthlessly bitter radicchio swollen from heat. Cloaked in sour yogurt and sweetened by golden raisins, the salad is deliciously finished with brittle hazelnuts and cooling mint. Yogurt also shows up in the dynamic carrot slaw that accompanies every fried fish basket.
But the salad that has my heart is the insanely magnificent, and utterly seasonal, heirloom tomato salad. The mismatched tomatoes and enoki mushrooms share the bowl with sweetening peaches and red onions; the whole mess is dressed in a biting vinegar and grounded by a nutty tofu cream. The salad tastes luxuriant and complete. It's a serving of the South, refined without any pretense.