So we used our forks like backhoes, vainly trying to extract some of the advertised duck confit from the mound of jet-black rice.
Oh, sorry. Were you not ready for that sentence yet? In the fashion of Stereo 8, the sprawling new James Island restaurant, I thought I might try serving up sentences as soon as they’re finished, rather than present them in any logical order. Do you find it exciting?
Obviously, I didn’t. Stereo 8 is by no means the only modern restaurant that claims to have lost all control over timing, but pressing shuffle on a customer’s order is maddening when so many of the dishes have strong identities as starting points. Call me rigid, but I don’t want to nibble on guacamole after filling up on fried rice. Nor does a delicate snapper crudo make any palate sense after fried pork belly, rubbed and sauced with chiles.
Maybe what’s got me grumpy is Stereo 8’s explanation for the scheme, obediently parroted by every server. Dishes arrive haphazardly, they explain, because the restaurant is so committed to immediacy that the kitchen equipment doesn’t include a heat lamp.
OK, I appreciate cream soups that aren’t crusted over, and plates cool enough for servers to handle without having to first wrap their hands in towels. But appetizers and entrees don’t arrive at the right moment because whole meals are shoved beneath warming devices: At most restaurants, steak comes after salad because the kitchen takes a predictable amount of time to prepare each item, and the servers fire their orders accordingly. The system doesn’t always work perfectly — sometimes there’s a new guy on the line, sometimes a server gets stopped by a needy table on his way to firing the third course — but it’s a proven way of keeping chaos in check, since instability doesn’t add much to a meal.
Of course, it’s not just the weird approach to dish delivery that suggests Stereo 8, which went looking for a new executive chef within weeks of opening, is in a little over its head. It’s a fun space, especially toward the back of the stylishly spare building, where a wooden-topped bar carves a gentle S-curve. And whimsical tacos are a proven favorite on James Island, home to White Duck Taco Shop and Big Belly Kitchen. But Stereo 8’s menu features a few too many clunkers, and the vitalizing idea behind the enterprise feels more gimmicky than genuine.
Actually, there are two ideas at work at Stereo 8. The first, as the restaurant’s name suggests, has to do with music. Cooking and music are pretty intimately related, so no cerebral stretching required here: Restaurants elsewhere have made hay of the connection, even dropping printed playlists with the check. Yet Stereo 8 misses all kinds of opportunities to play with the concept, starting with turning up the background soundtrack so diners can hear it. Over the course of my visits to the restaurant, I only once caught a few notes, even though the dining room was fairly quiet. If you want to hear A Tribe Called Quest, you’ll have to retire to the powder room.
The other idea is apparent to anyone in possession of a Stereo 8 menu: The restaurant serves Mexican food and Asian food. Not Mexican-and-Asian food, like tofu chilaquiles or carne asada bibimbap. Just ramen alongside tortilla soup, and shiitake steamed buns as well as chips and salsa. Maybe I never found the right combination, but nothing that landed on our table made a compelling case for why the two cuisines should share custody of the kitchen.
Indeed, the best dish at Stereo 8 doesn’t belong to either tradition, which suggests it made the menu by virtue of its flavor, which isn’t a bad qualifying characteristic. The lamb kefta consists of two cold pita triangles, each smeared with garlicky tahini and capped with a tender meatball sporting all of the iconic Moroccan spices and curlicues of pickled red onion, which perk up the ground lamb’s savory richness. The plate is dotted with pinpricks of harissa, hinting at how the small plate could have been even better.
On my first visit, the raw bar showed glimmers of promise by way of a spicy Thai ceviche, featuring tiny bits of shrimp and snapper showered with lime juice and zapped with sambal-style chili paste. Encircled by plantain chips and seated in a whip of avocado that was probably extraneous, the seafood had a winning tropical freshness. But on a later visit, a plain ceviche, supposedly seasoned with yuzu juice and pink peppercorns, tasted mealy and flat.
Tuna crudo was equally disappointing. The fish was weirdly bland, as though someone had frozen it with extreme prejudice. Each slice of tuna was wrapped around a skinny sliver of peach, which was terrific when freed from the fish’s clutch.
Beyond the peach, Stereo 8’s grasp of fruits and vegetables seems shaky. Even the watermelon radishes and tomatoes on the same crudo plate were watery. Kale is baked into crumbly bits that come saturated with sesame oil, while sauteed wood ear mushrooms are muddled with fish sauce and vinegar. Guacamole, which merits its own single-item category on the menu, is described as being accompanied by “tortilla chips made by hand, one by one.” Trouble was, they tasted as though they’d been handmade a few days earlier.
Tacos are a bright spot on the menu, especially when the kitchen grills the underlying flour tortilla. The bulgogi was overcooked, and the chicken adobo version was marred by an unexpected bone, but the various jumbles of avocado, cabbage and meat generally work. Black beans and rice are a worthy side item.
In keeping with the culinary theme, the cocktail list involves lots of yuzu and simple syrups. All of the house creations read sweet. But Stereo 8 has assembled one of the most affordable wine lists in town: There is no danger of making an ordering mistake when a glass costs $6.
Asian stylings also carry over to the dessert menu, which includes a mango-decorated mound of very firm rice pudding that had evidently spent a long spell in the cooler. Honestly, it could have used some time under a heat lamp.