Fra diavolo, which shares a name with the 18th-century guerilla leader who fought to keep the French out of Naples, is a perfect fit for The Obstinate Daughter, the new Sullivan's Island restaurant named for an 18th-century British caricature of revolutionary Charleston. With the dish, chef Jacques Larson has painted a family tree of political resistance.
But Larson doesn't exactly stick to the fra diavolo script. Instead of padding the seafood bowl with skeins of linguine, or embroidering its edges with gaping, black-shelled mussels, he stops with the ringlets of squid and marble-sized calico scallops. When it appeared on our table, I swear I thought I was looking at sauced pasta (blame the many Spaghetti-O's I ate in my college days.)
Of course, pasta is what everyone expected when the Wild Olive team last year announced it was giving its head chef a second kitchen in which to fool with the rustic Italian flavors he's been simplifying and polishing for the past five years on Johns Island. And when press releases dropped the phrase "wood-burning oven," it was understood that pizza would play an important role in the restaurant, too.
There are pizzas and pastas at The Obstinate Daughter: They take up most of the right side of the menu. But what makes The Obstinate Daughter such an unqualifiedly great restaurant - as in, not a great beach restaurant, nor a great restaurant for parties of more than two, although it's those things, too - are the artful dishes that run down the menu's left side.
Here is where you'll find the spunky fra diavolo sauce, compellingly duking it out with the sweet and tender scallops (there's a plank of toasted garlic bread for the aftermath.) The sauce brims with more red pepper heat than a nervous chef would consider prudent, but The Obstinate Daughter doesn't doubt its customers.
That confidence extends to the front of the house. It's terrifically refreshing that the capable servers here don't greet their tables by asking whether everyone's familiar with small plates. Instead, they trust guests to figure out portion sizes based on pricing and adjust their shared orders accordingly. Which doesn't mean the servers don't cheerfully provide guidance when needed. All of my servers spoke about dishes with the surety of someone who had sampled them.
A server steered me to the lamb scottadito, a gaggle of four gorgeously crusted, garlicky chops, slanted against a cooling salad of blade-thin cucumber slices, plump golden raisins and snippets of red onion. The plate sports a crescent of feather-white yogurt inset with an oil-drenched mint pesto, but it feels prudish to cover up the meat's deep, rosemary-assisted flavor.
The lamb is one of a few four-legged interlopers on the menu, along with a housemade sausage and veal sweetbreads. Seafood generally rules here: Even without a view of the water, The Obstinate Daughter's guests can divine a pretty good idea of where they're situated from dishes such as an exuberantly grilled octopus arm, thick as a plantain. The collard flower kimchi is hard to catch without the menu's prompt, but the blast of vinegar livens up the octopus and an accompanying pile of fleshy white beans.
Less ambitious dishes are just as satisfying: The Obstinate Daughter's peel-and-eat shrimp are fresh and firm, and likely a better bet than the raw oysters. The restaurant's bivalve selection included local Caper's Blades up until nearly the last possible date, but the dozen I ordered were clumsily shucked. Still, points awarded for the inspired scuppernong mignonette.
The raw bar was one of the elements excitedly touted before the restaurant's opening, along with draft cocktails, wood-fired pizza and gelato. Weirdly, none of those items were especially memorable. I'd guess the underwhelming items are mostly attributable to equipment that takes time to master: Ovens are especially fickle, which would account for a slightly sweet puffed-up pizza crust that was chewy on one visit and chewier the next. And an on-tap cocktail of Hat Trick gin and cucumber was shakily balanced. As for the gelato, it was texturally correct, but a restaurant spinning-off a ground-floor gelato shop (Beardcat opened late last month) ought to be able to conjure flavors more sophisticated than strawberry, chocolate and vanilla.
Still, that's about as off-course as things get at The Obstinate Daughter. Of all the dishes I tried, there was only one I wouldn't order again, although the visual spectacle of the asparagus crudo is probably worth nine bucks once. Rather than plate up stalks, the kitchen (or, more specifically, a patient and disciplined prep cook) slices skinny asparagus into pea-sized tokens, which are mixed with pine nuts and bits of red chile peppers, then pressed into a flattish raw cake strewn with parmesan. It's so lemony that it stings, but it's awfully nice to look at.
Chiles make frequent appearances at The Obstinate Daughter, including in a sauce cloaking the excellent bucatini topped with (count 'em!) nine jalapeno rings. Despite its insurgent name, the restaurant's willingness to belly up against the too-spicy line is really its only aggressive trait.
The lively second-floor dining room, designed by Reggie Gibson, is supremely warm and inviting. With its weathered gray plank walls and ceiling and assorted nautical touches, including knotted rope curtain tie-backs, and overhead ropes stretched above the wooden tables and sea green booths, the restaurant has an inverted ship's hull feel.
Not surprisingly, The Obstinate Daughter is the sort of fun restaurant where people like to come and stay awhile. Reservations book up quickly, and when diners arrive, they find plenty of reasons to elongate their meals. Reasons such as the outstanding fava and peas, an intoxicatingly fresh mound of minted greenness surrounded by sharp ricotta cheese. Or the earthy kale salad, punctuated with melty, meaty mushrooms and capped with panes of nutty parmesan and a slack egg. The smart Italian wine list was made for this.
And then there are the desserts from pastry chef Caroline Sherman. The chocolate occupying the two-bite fried pies was perhaps a shade too bitter, but the crusts were faultless. Same goes for the toasty shortcake topping a bowlful of macerated strawberries. Might as well call the babysitter: Like "Fra Diavolo" and "The Obstinate Daughter," you'll no doubt want to finish what you started.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.