Grace & Grit has possibly the best elevator pitch in the tri-county area: Fresh, local fish served the way customers want it, which in most cases means a cooked slab with sauce, as opposed to the now-voguish ribbons of raw flesh spritzed with citrus and decked with jalapeno slivers.
That’s an unbeatable idea for a restaurant. Indeed, if our proverbial elevator docked around the 12th floor, passengers would almost certainly trip over one another in their race to make reservations. But this elevator is destined to rise as high as chef-owner Frank Kline’s ambitions, leaving plenty of time for the initial proposal to be embellished in unpersuasive ways:
Cornbread service? We’ll have two varieties! Grits? How do 15 different flavors grab you? Seafood is always better with smoked pork and cream, amirite?
There is no shortage of things to commend at Grace & Grit, poised to emerge as the preeminent reasonably priced seafood restaurant on either side of the Cooper. For now, though, there isn’t a shortage of anything else either. On two of my three visits to the new Mount Pleasant restaurant, diners at my table looking to clean their plates were defeated by potent amounts of butter, oil and salt.
Of course, by that math, the odds of confronting Grace & Grit’s problems with excess are at least in the neighborhood of even. The restaurant is consistently inconsistent, which works out fine if you’re there for an on-night. Presumably with practice, Grace & Grit will have more of those too.
A glance around the sprawling dining room makes clear that Grace & Grit is capable of perfection. Situated on the ground floor of the new Wingo Way building, the restaurant is fetching from its planked wooden floor to slatted ceiling, which brings to mind the inverted hull of an unfinished boat. Picking up the theme, the captain stools at the bustling bar are stormy ocean blue, and tables are set with woven rope-backed chairs. While waiting to claim one which walk-in guests are bound to do, even on weeknights — your party might make a Sisyphean game of trying to find a single off-brand detail.
With so many local restaurateurs frantically trying to please every prospective customer, Grace & Grit’s steady focus is admirable. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but by keeping its emphasis squarely on fresh seafood, Grace & Grit has successfully created a fine template for general audience restaurants. Decibel meters don’t measure mood, but I’d peg the average conversational tenor somewhere between cheerful and jolly.
That happiness is helped along by the customizable entrée menu. “This is the menu I was telling you about!” a woman trilled when her friend joined her at the bar.
Dishes such as crab cakes and shrimp-and-grits are served exactly as described, but customers who choose their meals from the “chef’s creation” section get to call the shots. They’re prompted to select shrimp, scallops, chicken or one of the evening’s available fish, and then to decide if they want it roasted, blackened, seared, glazed or fried; each method is paired with a predetermined sauce and sides. Essentially, it’s fine dining for the Chipotle generation.
And it’s right about here where the piling-on becomes troublesome. To be fair, the flaw is foreshadowed by imbalanced cocktails; fried chicken livers drowned in demi-glace; and the kitchen’s double vision of complimentary cornbread: A sweetgrass-style basket is furnished with strangely elastic, sugary squares on one side, and savory oblongs that taste of baking soda on the other. There is plenty of sea-salted butter to mask them both, of course.
Still, by the time of the main course, there’s no escaping the overall too-muchness. I’m sure of this, because I tried.
Upon learning the restaurant was out of a whole snapper listed on its regular menu, I asked if a diner could theoretically get the sheepshead or wreckfish prepared simply, without the strawberry jam or tarragon cream. Our server looked stricken, but allowed that maybe arrangements could be made after back-of-house consultation. At that point, I let it go.
Generally, the servers at Grace & Grit seem inclined to satisfy. But they’re also inclined to try hooking customers with tired-out lines, and to pay no attention to what’s already on the table when they have more food to put there. Courses tend to arrive slowly, and then all at once.
It’s a pace which surely contributes to the aura of heaviness surrounding preparations such as the blackened fish, which shares its plate with country ham-flecked beans; a half cup of creamed corn and enough tart blueberry jam to see a family through breakfast.
Fish coated in jerk seasoning was done in by a mound of wettish coconut grits, a merger which would probably be better received by a dairyman than a corn grower. Like all of the grits riffs I tried, including smoked gouda and peaches-and-cream, it tasted more or less like pudding. In fact, it’s advisable to think of the extensive grits list as an ice cream counter, and order brie or sweet potato grits for dessert; missing out on the touted scoop of chocolate ice cream encircled by edible brown sugar glass is no big loss.
Interestingly, despite the restaurant’s name, it’s possible to polish off an entire meal without seeing a single grit. But it’s nigh impossible to avoid exceptional seafood, the source of my optimism about Grace & Grit’s future.
No set of fixings is so baroque that it completely obscures the quality of a sweet and flaky barrelfish: Seated atop a cream-enhanced embankment of beans, corn and boiled peanuts, the fish possessed a singular magnificence that’s usually available only to people with boats and tackle boxes. On another plate, the vivid flavor of shrimp gleamed through a thick Dijon crust.
Assorted fish scraps perform just as winningly in a standout tomato-based stew that gets its heft from cooked-down okra. Seasoned with just as much fennel as its takes to flatter the stew’s coastal allegiance, the dish is rich and warming. It would properly be termed a muddle, which is an unfortunately apt descriptor for the restaurant right now. But a muddle this good means the situation is destined to change.