It’s clear from The Darling Oyster Bar’s menu that the new restaurant paid careful attention to the featured players at its counterparts farther up King Street: Seafood towers, fish toast, baked oysters and fried chicken are already performing nightly at The Ordinary and Leon’s Oyster Shop. But what’s not immediately apparent from the list is the kitchen’s debt to Quebec.
Parroting back my order one night, a server wrapped up his synopsis with “and the poutine.” What poutine? I was sure that I wouldn’t forget asking for fries with gravy and cheese curds, and equally sure that I shouldn’t turn it down if it was in the offing.
In retrospect, I probably should have guessed I was venturing into deliciously over-the-top territory when I chose the “served over house fries” option for my clam chowder. In any case, I won’t blank on the dish again.
The chowder, righteously crowded with diced potatoes and meaty clams, infiltrates every cranny of a wigwam constructed from svelte skin-on fries. Little bullets of chevre complete the poutine picture. Most strikingly, though, it’s assembled tableside, with a server cheekily pouring the hot, ham-salty soup from a silver sauceboat.
If The Darling ever prints T-shirts, that guy and his tureen should be on them. There’s no better symbol of the restaurant’s cheery willingness to upend pretension and counter extravagance with everyday pleasures than fries-n-chowder. No wonder the starter doesn’t go by its French name in the dining room.
To misquote Yogi Berra, the only thing now keeping The Darling out of downtowners’ regular rotations is its popularity. During peak hours, most tables are taken by people who had the foresight to call ahead after noticing the restaurant is looking good. That’s true whether you’re standing outside, where a logoed plate glass window is all that separates The Darling’s sleek u-shaped raw bar from King Street, or scanning online, where menu prices are posted.
By current dining-out standards, The Darling is shockingly affordable. On my second visit, three of us had three drinks, three appetizers, three entrees and one dessert. The after-tax, before-tip bill was $141.19, or $47 a person. At most restaurants, that’s called Restaurant Week, and it’s such a big deal that billboards go up to advertise it. It’s nice when the fun of a restaurant doesn’t screech to a halt when the bill arrives.
Still, for locals who monitor restaurant happenings, what’s most impressive about the restaurant is its rebirth. The Darling is owned by Ben Russell-Schlesinger and Robert Young, who in 2014 opened Union Provisions at the same address. The restaurateurs boasted they’d deliver something Charleston had never experienced, which turned out to mean West Coast-inspired small plates. But Union Provisions never acquired a reputation for serving stellar steam buns. It was first known for being too loud, and then, when customers stopped coming, for being empty. It closed in under a year.
The turnaround is miraculous. The partners smartly retained restaurant fix-it man Nathan Thurston, who’s stationed himself in the kitchen, officially helmed by protege and fellow Stars alum, Joe DiMaio. But it’s the lead-up work that appears to have made the biggest difference. At some point, Thurston must have delivered the cheffy version of Crash Davis’ lecture to Nuke LaLoosh: “You’re gonna have to learn your cliches. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them.” Like it or not, you’re gonna serve fried fish and hush puppies, stock the bar with two-buck Miller High Life ponies and save your San Francisco ideas for a rainy day. And to the partners’ tremendous credit, they listened.
Although I imagine the sabbatical as all pep talks and trust falls, it’s evident that the team made solid progress while the 115-year-old venue was dark. Other than installing the raw bar, designer Smith Hanes didn’t radically remake the dining space, which is still somewhat awkwardly split between a more contemplative corridor and lavishly windowed main room. But his maritime touches, in the form of seafoam banquettes and nautical art, hit the mark. Pointedly, Hanes converted a massive wine case at the room’s stern into a grid of shadow box-like displays featuring seashells and leather-bound books.
Mood set. (And if the light fixtures and finishes didn’t do the trick, order an excellent daiquiri, drawn nearer to a northern seaman’s specifications by a smoky Scotch rinse.) So what to get from the raw bar menu? Perhaps counterintuitively, the items requiring the most chef involvement are best: Oysters and clams are tidily shucked, but on two occasions were served a shade warmer than desirable, and here they tend to lack the smack of the sea. Still, the sauces accompanying them, including a ginger-inflected Champagne vinegar mignonette, are superlative. Another standout is the tuna poke, in which cubes of red flesh, glossy with soy sauce, jostle with tart white grapes.
Poke is Hawaiian, but in context, it has a decidedly tiki tilt: Nearly everything on the menu is of the same mid-century vintage as the motorboat that inspired Hanes’ design. It’s easy to imagine a home cook being the envy of her bridge club after serving up The Darling’s shrimp salad, a cream cheese concoction prickled with chili paste and pickled red onions. The rich dairy underpinnings of the jaunty spread also characterize the snapper toast, a smear of fish-forward potato salad on sourdough, scattered with country ham.
Fish, shrimp and oysters get equal billing on the menu, which is supplemented by a daily fresh catch. (Note that neither “daily” nor “fresh” denotes local: On two of my three visits, the featured fish was Massachusetts scallops.) Still, you get the feeling that shrimp’s the breakout star. Curled-up crustaceans are the only tightly wound element of a lively dish anchored by a pair of fleecy rice cakes that honor the Anson Mills brand. Bits of green onion zing along with the mustardy Creole sauce. If you don’t want your vegetables all mixed up, consider a basket of cleanly fried shrimp with a serving of braised beans, the essence of springtime green.
Of the entrees, oyster spaghetti is bound to get the most attention. But both times I tried it, the already-soft noodles turned mushier in their butter-based sauce. Lobster pot pie also registered as indistinct and dense, although its contents included sizeable pieces of lobster meat. The category’s winner is shrimp-and-grits, bedecked with roasted Brussels sprout leaves, red pepper slivers and, optionally, a fried egg that the kitchen’s apt to cook a little too long if not instructed otherwise. That’s all commentary, though: The coarse cheese grits and gravy ramped up with chili powder are all the shrimp really need.
Because The Darling is a buzzy place, eaters whose diets don’t include seafood are likely to end up here with seafood-loving friends. For them, there’s fried chicken, roasted chicken and a ridiculously good $9 burger. Fancy? No. Fun? You bet.