The people had spoken with their appetites, and they were hungry. In early May, Spero was forced to close its doors and regroup for dinner service after hungry hoards wiped the pantry clean. After a brief skirmish in the weeds, chef-owners R.J. Moody and Rob Laudicina worked their culinary alchemy and opened their doors for dinner that evening at 5 p.m.
I hope they can catch their breath.
Spero takes its name from the state of South Carolina’s motto: Dum Spiro Spero (While I breathe, I hope). Juvenal has ownership of this Latin proverb, but it was William Henry Drayton and Arthur Middleton who designed our state seal and imported this aphorism.
I hope that the team at Spero does not run out of culinary moxie because the audacity of pleasure is noticeable in the diminutive space they call an “eatery.”
It comes by its urban edge honestly, anchoring Diggity Doughnuts and Local Pub 616 in a strip of buildings that was once home to Ike’s Fried Chicken and HELLO, my name is BBQ.
With seven tables and seven seats at the bar, plan your eating strategy wisely.
While there is nary a mention of bistronomy, these two chefs demonstrate what their brethren in France embraced around 2000: the serving of quality food, frequently unconventional and experimental, in an informal setting. Spero is home to technically trained chefs who season with originality and serve with life force.
The team at Spero is hands-on. It began with the creation of the dining room and parsing pallets into the herringbone pattern of paneling and continued with the minimalist addition of folk art, dream-catchers and the primitive painting of a bird nesting over the words that fledged the restaurant’s name.
Much like the experience at R. Kitchen, the sight lines into the kitchen at Spero are open to those seated at the bar. In one of those seats you are privy to the culinary postures where the elusive balance of salt, bitter, sour and sweet play out in the elastic process of seasoning a dish. Here you will see classic techniques form the presentations of a dish: whipped cream shaped into quenelles and topping pudding; cooked yolks and whites bolstering asparagus with the moniker Polonaise; and a thin veil of vinaigrette “cooking” translucent slices of flounder.
Humor underpins their efforts here and its contagion is present in the staff, the servers and the chefs.
With a license to sell beer and wine, the “dranks” menu features cocchi (think vermouth or Lillet); the latest darling of the apertivo set, Cappelletti Spritz, which marries the bitter and herbal notes similar to Campari rounded with a gentle citrus sweetness; and the classic Black Velvet, created to mourn the death of the Prince Consort, Albert. With tongue-in-a-chic-cheek, Miller High Life, the “Champagne of Bottle Beer,” is served in a Champagne bucket.
The wine list is spare and tailored to their menu: a Jacques Pelvas Blanc de Blanc pairs well with the small plates and the red blend Comoloco Monestrell works with the assertive flavors of their braised short rib and chicken in the style of paprikash.
No edible strings of corn silk here but a gutsy flight of breads and spreads that could dull your appetite, so share. Tallow biscuits, sourdough pretzel rolls, flatbreads and cornbread baked fresh daily and matched with companion toppings: pretzels with ham and mustard, beef with horseradish cream, and cornbread with burnt honey mustard miso butter — genius profiles of matched flavors.
By the time you read this, the oysters topped with a relish of yellow mustard and pickles will be out of season. But this odd combination, the love child of chow-chow and piccalilli, works well with the St. Jude Farms ACE Basin salty oysters. Darlington clay peas, pecans and sweet potatoes from GrowFood Carolina, roasted purple scallions, finfish from local waters all cavort on the menu at Spero with the spirit of place.
Homemade sausage is the mortar to a six-minute Scotch egg served on a rough of fragrant herbs. Charred sugar snap peas tilt both bitter and sweet and are calmed in ricotta punched up with horseradish.
Rice middlins (a planter’s term) or rice grits are cooked all’onda, the gentle sway of risotto’s soupy rhythm, and pool under a tender clod of beef rib. And although Moody and Laudicina call their food “Modern American,” they shop and cook in the pantry of the world: miso, ancho, sriracha, kimchi, queso, paprikash, mirepoix, Hungary, Korea, France, Italy and a side of Central and Eastern European Jewish cooking with schmaltz, half-sours and chopped chicken liver “pate.” All provide bold adventures for your palate.
Small plates can easily craft your menu but sandwiches, entrees and fresh pasta will put your hunger on the ropes as you whittle your choices to manageable consumption.
Finish on a sweet note — warm sorghum sugar cookies and Mason jars of milk or a bowl of comfort pudding crowned with those ovals of haute cuisine, quenelles of cream.
The passions of the owners are displayed at the pass — tasting, tossing, adjusting, and calibrating every dish that comes from their creative assimilation of cultures, cuisines, ingredients and techniques.
Spero’s popularity is fueled by its authenticity. Experience their zeal and let’s all hope Spes, the goddess of hope keeps a watchful eye on their future and our eating pleasure.