There are years in which restaurant reviewing can feel more like a chore than an opportunity. No critic takes pleasure in writing bad reviews, so in those seasons when owners and chefs are collectively running low on inspiration and ambition, every outing is a prelude to a potentially painful process.
2019 was not one of those years. The Charleston area this year was blessed with a tremendous set of new restaurants, a pattern established back in March when Vandy Vanderwarker and Will Love opened Maison on upper King Street.
But the extent of the phenomenon became abundantly clear to me at some point in late July. Since it was summertime, I’d carefully arranged my schedule so I could take a Saturday night off. And then Saturday night rolled around and I realized I’d rather pay a visit to KinFolk, the restaurant I was in the midst of reviewing, than do just about anything else.
KinFolk’s fried chicken is one of nine dishes on this list of excerpts from 2019 reviews. What’s perhaps most striking about this year’s list is the amount of seafood on it. The only exceptions, in addition to the chicken, are a pork chop and pimento cheese. In other words, it’s very reflective of Charleston’s place on the coast and in Southern culture.
Moreover, it’s reflective of the exciting ways that local chefs are still finding to interpret both. Stay tuned for 2020.
Shrimp-and-grits, MOMO, $18 (Jan. 9)
MOMO’s shrimp-and-grits are as much a celebration of barbecue as South Carolina seafood. Perfectly cooked shrimp and yellow grits come draped with pulled pork, its juices commingling with saucy skillet-roasted tomatoes and its smoke echoed by unseen gouda stirred into the grits. The dish’s flavor runs deep and long and away from the coast. Between the grits’ resolute corn character and the dollop of cooling crema atop the spiced tomato gravy, there’s a faint and lovely shout out to Latin cookery.
Overall, it’s a smidge too rich to qualify as a light take on the classic, but it’s a million times fresher than the majority of shrimp-and-grits to which visitors are subjected. The recipe may not have been ripped from the pages of Charleston Receipts, but it’s as vibrant as the microgreens perched atop the dish.
Seafood chowder, The Royal Tern, $13 (Feb. 19)
Chef David Pell, late of Coast Bar & Grill, has smartly listed his clam chowder as seafood chowder, because he knows there are bound to be days when storms stir up harvesting grounds or the delivery truck gets a flat, and suddenly there isn’t a clam in the cooler.
Whatever you call it, the warming chowder is milky and rich and athrob with potato flavor. Mottled with carrots and celery, the soup stars plump clams and similarly sized smoky pork bits. It’s probably semi-blasphemous to serve New England-style chowder in the South, but I wouldn’t be shocked if a Bostonian asked for a second helping.
Conch stew, Korner Kitchen, $5 (Apr. 23)
At first, Daniel Middleton submerged chopped conch in tomato sauce, a method favored by Italian home cooks (although just as their stone-ground cornmeal is known as polenta, rather than grits, their whelks go by the name of scungilli.) It was fine. It just didn’t taste like victory.
Then he switched to brown gravy, and the dish snapped into focus. The soothing flavor of thickened chicken broth, familiar from smothered chicken platters on Sunday dinner tables and egg foo young orders set upon lazy Susans, grounded the faint funk of the whelk. Yet a preparation designed to showcase the primeval chew of sea snail doesn’t belong in the passive column. Middleton punched up the gravy with components of blackening and jerk, giving the stew an unmistakably Caribbean demeanor.
Really, that’s nearly all you need to know about Korner Kitchen, which this summer will mark its third year in business. The conch stew is a to-drive-for dish.
Shellfish, Maison, $14/$15 (May 7)
Color is central to Maison’s most memorable dishes, with the lily-pad green of the puree reappearing in the maws of snail shells. In this case, the hue is wrought by the parsley in the compound butter, which flatters the escargot beautifully. Another shellfish starter that literally shines is a bourride, featuring opened mussels lapped by a saffron-stained white wine broth, thickened with a potato-strengthened aioli.
Grilled oyster, Wild Common, $11 (May 21)
Wild Common is basically an unmarked Zero Restaurant + Bar, offering an exceptionally impressive four-course menu of chef Vinson Petrillo-approved dishes for just $65 per person.
That may not sound like an unbeatable bargain. But a prix-fixe meal across town at Petrillo’s home base of Zero, which justly turns up on lists of the city’s best restaurants, costs more than twice as much.
In other words, sometimes there’s no reason to shirk from what amounts to a Black Friday-level discount on a single grilled oyster, awash in an evocative slurry of smoke and vinegar. Imagine finding delicate matching ivory discs of raw diver scallops and hearts of palm, a study in smoothness tantalizingly interrupted by clustered tapioca puffs, on the clearance rack.
Fried chicken quarter and watermelon salad, KinFolk, $12 (Aug. 13)
The fried chicken at KinFolk is juicy and fat, featuring meat flavorful enough to stay in the ring with its crunchy outer crust, a marvel of seasoning and structure. Chicken ordered mild, medium or fire is tinged pepper red, and served per tradition atop a slice of white bread with a telltale cayenne splotch…
But why chase a one-dimensional thrill when there’s nuance on the table? Both of the Nierstedts, who grew up on James Island, have impressive professional backgrounds, including stints as private chefs and a turn at The Fat Duck.
Although I wasn’t familiar with the brothers’ resumes when I first visited KinFolk, I pulled up their LinkedIn pages as soon as I tasted their magical watermelon salad. It’s clear that this kitchen isn’t skipping any steps, from buying fresh ingredients to making sure something as humble as coleslaw looks its best in a silver ramekin.
Double-cut pork chop, Butcher & The Boar, $39 (Oct. 22)
The hefty double-cut chop tastes purely of meat and smoke wound together. There’s nothing wacky on the plate to distract from the quality of the pork or its preparation. The pureed sweet potato, dotted with confetti-sized bits of Fresno pepper, and streak of peanuts presented in accompaniment are among the oldest and best of domestic pork’s friends.
Caviar service, Delaney Oyster House, $40 (Nov. 5)
An ounce of Belgian golden ossetra costs $100. But eggs from Tennessee sturgeon command less than half of that and arrive with the same set of fixings: glass jars of cultured cream and chives are nestled into an ice-filled tin and its cloth-lined mate holds a bundle of golden blini.
Call them blini if you must, but I have a hard time believing these magnificent cakes would make a Tsarist nostalgic. They taste instead like Boy Scout merit badge material, with all of the lift and buttermilk tang that a breakfast cook envisions when buying a griddle. Their cornmeal aroma is equally beguiling, instantly bringing fireside warmth to a restaurant that shuns brown liquor and room-temperature red wine on the grounds that it serves seafood and vegetables almost exclusively.
Southern grilled cheese, Circa 1886, $39 (Nov. 19)
Circa 1886 chef Marc Collins may well have devised the authoritative Cinderella treatment for pimento cheese (which, like the fairy tale heroine, is just as lovely without the gussying up, but deserving of an opulent night out in a mansion with a trellis leading to its front door).
What Collins is calling a 'Southern Grilled Cheese' is rigidly rectangular in the manner of a proper French omelet or trimmed katsu sando, depending if you take your food analogies from West or East. The latter might be more appropriate in this case, since the bundle takes its shape from two slices of buttery grilled brioche with pimento cheese spread between them. Whipped with cream before melting, the assertively orange cheese is rich and sharp in equal measure.
That sandwich is then wrapped tightly in a slice of dry-cured Surryano ham that looks about big enough to double as a doll’s blanket. And right in the center of it, where the frill pick would typically go, sits an absurdly ample mound of paddlefish caviar, so the salt of Southern streams mingles with the fat of peanut-fed Virginia pigs.
It’s rare at any price to find such a complete spectrum of flavor and texture, with a scattering of cured egg yolk besides. … It’s really a joy.