The biggest fruit native to the continental U.S. is the pawpaw, sometimes called the poor man’s banana. It’s not setting any records for name recognition or domestic sales, but a healthy specimen measures about as big around as a cantaloupe. And it thrives in an impressive number of places: More than half of the states in the Lower 48 can claim a wild pawpaw patch.
One of the areas where pawpaws don’t grow is coastal South Carolina, but that didn’t stop J. Keith Jones (Stars, Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar) from planting a restaurant bearing the fruit’s name on East Bay Street. A horticulturist might appreciate that decision as a worthy pawpaw homage. After all, the tropical custard apple has “willed itself to grow where it probably shouldn’t,” in the words of Andrew Moore, author of "Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit."
The average diner, though, is likely to be perplexed. Online reviewers have speculated that perhaps Pawpaw is married to Mawmaw. Because the only in-restaurant reference to the fruit is a set of abstracted light fixtures — meaning there’s no pawpaw jelly to smear on the buttermilk biscuits or pawpaw ice cream alongside the red velvet cake — it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw in the face of fried chicken, pimento cheese and hushpuppies bolted with bacon.
And that’s the crux of the problem with Pawpaw, which late last year opened where Wet Willie’s shot bar once stood. Its sense of place is so blurred that you’re likely to lose the thread while waiting approximately 30 minutes for your next course. The restaurant’s brick walls, chocolate brown-leather chairs and planked wooden floors are handsome enough in an every-restaurant kind of way, but the whole enterprise feels like the kind of venue you’d create to conjure Charleston if Charleston was very far away.
Jones is a local, as is his son, Jared K., who’s serving as general manager. But executive chef Jared Rogers is an import from San Francisco, recruited partly for his award-winning pasta savvy. Bon Appetit last summer chased down his bucatini with shrimp recipe on behalf of a reader who proclaimed the dish “to die for.”
So it’s especially strange that noodles are the weakest cog in the Pawpaw machine. The whole pasta section seems awkwardly shoehorned into a menu that’s otherwise arranged according to the standard appetizer, salad and meaty entrée format, but its way onto the page is greased by references to country ham, cast-iron pans and other qualifying Southernisms.
The pork in the featureless Bolognese, for instance, is listed as andouille, even though a Cajun butcher would sooner surrender his cleaver than present a sausage with so little smoke and spice. The sauce tastes uncannily like sloppy Joe filling. That isn’t necessarily regrettable, but it’s not fair to drag Louisiana into it. Similarly, the pasta would lose a slander suit brought by Italy: The dusty ridged elbows taste as though they came straight from a box, despite the menu’s promise of homemade penne.
Redemption doesn’t come in the form of gummy unsalted gnocchi, drowned in a greasy sauce tainted by truffle oil, or rigid sweet potato-stuffed ravioli with a distinct candy bar aroma. Rather, the best use of noodles is the mac-and-cheese. While ridiculously overpriced at $10.95, unless you prefer paying a few extra dollars to see the word “mornay” instead of “cheese sauce” on a menu, the sharp cheeses, green peas and bronzed shells add up to a satisfying side dish. (The topping of crumbled biscuit is gilding the White Lily.)
Many of the fundamentals are clearly in place at Pawpaw, especially in the vicinity of the grill. Beneath its thick cloak of orange cheddar, secured by two strips of bacon, the burger is nicely seasoned and crusted. A long-handled pork chop, painted with apple butter, is reasonably tender.
Yet all too often the kitchen is its own worst enemy, undermining respectable efforts with easily fixed mistakes. Surely it’s better to send out an otherwise pleasant salad of butter lettuce, carrots and radishes without the tomatoes, than to find room for tomatoes that are mealy and tasteless. And why go to the trouble of searing grouper so precisely when it’s destined to be seated in clashing smears of sweet potato puree and rich crab sauce?
Still, the clearest example of self-sabotage might well be the squash soup. The silky, full-flavored bisque is dressed up with circles of pumpkin seed oil dots that parallel the bowl’s perimeter, interrupted at intervals by salty green pumpkin seeds. Smack in the center is a knot of lump crabmeat, which works visually and texturally, but falls flat temperature-wise. There’s no call for very cold seafood in warm cream-based soup.
Wine ordered by the glass also is served quite cold, although it’s well within the acceptable temperature range. That’s likely because all of the reds and whites available in single servings are kept on tap; the restaurant’s much-promoted foray into North Carolina wine is largely off-limits to drinkers who aren’t buying by the bottle. Wine is still the way to go, though: Pawpaw’s cocktails are distractingly sweet.
Pawpaw has a particular fondness for the adjective “fluffy,” which is rarely sighted outside of pancake houses. But at Pawpaw, it’s used to describe the hush puppies, which don’t quite live up to their billing. Like the over-battered fried chicken, they’re mostly stiff exterior. “Fluffy” also is applied to beignets, one of seven entries on a vexed dessert menu that’s meant to be regional.
My server congratulated me when I bypassed the bread pudding and apple crisp, ordering a chocolate-peanut butter milkshake spiked with Six & Twenty’s cream-flavored rum. Although Pawpaw’s servers aren’t always conversant in the menu, this one confidently assured me it was the tastiest sweet in the house.
Not long after she delivered the shake, she returned with an apology. The bartender had somehow bungled the milkshake’s proportions, so it had spilled over the rim of its slender glass even without the usual amount of peanut butter.
Basically, I’d been served a chocolate milkshake with whipped cream. If I wanted to experience something distinctively Southern, I realized, I’d have to step outside.