Every meal at Poogan’s Porch begins with a biscuit. This isn’t news to fans of the 39-year-old upscale Southern restaurant. But if you’re not familiar with the opening routine, your first hint of baked good bounty is a server solemnly responding to your meal order as though a code’s been cracked: “I’ll bring you your biscuit now.”
All of Poogan’s supple biscuits are made according to the same recipe, helpfully printed on cardstock for inquisitive guests. Still, their nature varies depending on who mixed them and when they emerged from the oven. I’ve had Poogan’s shortening biscuits with tops as smooth as a varnished bowling lane, and biscuits with tops as rutted as a country road. Sometimes they’re golden; other times, they’re nearly the same color as the accompanying butter.
The one constant is sweetness. Poogan’s makes its biscuits with a generous spoonful of sugar and baking powder, so the end result is kind of cakey.
Southern cuisine purists will protest white sugar doesn’t belong in a biscuit. According to the revival style of cooking that’s fashionable now, if a biscuit needs sweetening, that’s what a side dish of sorghum syrup is for.
Poogan’s biscuit philosophy doesn’t perfectly reflect techniques that prevailed in the 1880s, the decade during which the Queen Street estate housing the restaurant was built. Yet its biscuits are a charming throwback to the post-Bicentennial era, when the region was burnishing a national reputation for its easy way with sugar and spice.
The solid plates at Poogan’s are generally up to date, featuring appearances by latter-day lettuces and sophisticated pickles. Still, the restaurant knowingly retains enough of the 1980s, a period not yet celebrated in most dining histories, to be interesting. Even the signed testimonials in the entryway come from Steve Guttenberg and Chuck Woolery.
Autographed menus are fun, as are the framed typewritten letters from Gourmet editorial assistants, requesting recipes for Poogan’s scallops Savannah, peanut butter pie and biscuits. But beyond the wall dressing, Poogan’s offers up plenty to entertain eyes weary of looking at unfinished walls and metallic surfaces.
There are a few modern touches, such as bare tabletops set with Chilewich placemats. Mostly, though, the dining rooms spread over two floors are appointed to emphasize weathered elegance: Think fireplaces and window swags. My favorite of the bunch is the street-facing room upstairs, with French doors leading to the porch. It’s furnished with ceiling fans and botanical-patterned wallpaper that pair perfectly with a tall glass of iced tea (Poogan’s by-the-glass wine list is largely oaky and off-dry, while cocktails tend to teeter off-balance.)
Visitors are understandably attracted by the chance to dine in a fancy old Charleston mansion, and it’s impossible for even the best-behaved tourists to escape some of the Poogan’s policies developed to deal with the worst of them. On one of my visits, a man and woman sitting side-by-side wanted to share a salad, pasta and bottle of Chardonnay. Their server took the order, but warned that the entree-splitting scheme would cost them $5. While I wasn’t subject to any such house rules, the majority of my servers seemed to value speed over grace.
Really, those servers are saints, as I realized when I heard a diner ask his server, “What is Lowcountry?” They deserve more Charlestonians at their tables. And if altruism isn’t your thing, I can promise you a very nice meal.
If “Charleston dishes” was a Family Feud category, the board would look something like the Poogan’s dinner menu, which includes fried green tomatoes and shrimp-and-grits. The entree section, divided into traditional and contemporary presentations, strays slightly from the expected, but the appetizer choices are relentlessly conventional.
In many cases, the starters are dull in name only. Poogan’s is responsible for an excellent she-crab soup that’s briny and rich, while the crab toast would surely be the hit of any ladies luncheon. Threaded with tarragon, the cool lump crab salad is scooped amid toasted baguette slices. Mac-and-cheese, designated a stand-alone appetizer, is only distantly related to the crusted cheddar noodle bake that turns up at potlucks and on steam tables. Chef Daniel Doyle takes a more continental approach, using a smoked gouda roux on the soft-cooked noodles, colorfully garnished with slivers of scallions and itty-bitty bacon shavings.
The standard salad lineup of beet, bibb and fried oyster is supplemented during summer months by salads starring in-season fruit. Judging from the example I tried, it might be better to stick with the first string: The spinach leaves were rigid from refrigeration and the thick fruit vinaigrette was so sweet that the peach wedges’ flavor was totally lost. The only other appetizer that flopped was a quartet of fried pimento cheese balls, cold and gummy on the inside.
Among the entrees, fried chicken was another bust. At dinnertime, guests get a leg, but my lunch order consisted of two bland breasts encased in a flabby sweet crust. It tasted like a poor imitation of fast food chicken, even after I applied the provided honeyed pepper sauce and white gravy. Far better was the chicken pirloo, which here means a terrifically roasted, crispy-skinned chicken quarter, seated in a risotto-like medley of rice and mushrooms that tastes of white wine and butter.
Butter reliably adds a glistening sheen to Poogan’s handsome plates, which are arranged with a shade more cleverness than the just-OK desserts, most of which follow the “one block standing up, one block lying down” formulation. In a shrimp-and-grits update, deeply pink shrimp frame fried planks of grits, while an excellent roasted duck breast is prettily sliced, then fanned over gnocchi and wilted greens.
Also lovely to look at is the blackened catfish, thickly coated in the manner popularized 30 years ago by Paul Prudhomme. The spicy fish is fleshy and clean, and holds its own in a bowlful of okra-flecked red rice distinguished by tomato sweetness and sausage smoke. The flavors aren’t especially old, nor are they brand-new, but they’re awfully good.