In keeping with the tenets of responsible food criticism, restaurants never know when I’m coming. But in keeping with downtown Charleston’s still-small size, they usually know when I’ve been there: Employees are too sharp for me to slip by undetected, especially since there’s a good chance they’ve waited on me elsewhere or stared idly at a Xeroxed decade-old picture of me while scraping plates in the dish pit.
So I wasn’t the least bit surprised to receive a winking e-mail from a Cannon Green publicist one week after my first visit leading up to this review. She “wanted to check in ... knowing that it might be ‘review time’ soon.”
Then she rattled off a list of reasons that implied the restaurant might not measure up to the standards applied to others in its class. Namely, she revealed that Cannon Green was on the brink of unveiling a new name, new concept, new menu and newly designed dining room. All of that would happen “early this fall,” she said.
As much as I might like to think her message was sparked by concern over the sloppy pork ribs or soggy raviolo I’d been served the other night, that clearly wasn’t why she’d reached out, as PR types like to put it. Just that morning, Cannon Green had been reviewed by City Paper, which had also timed its reappraisal of the three-year-old Cannonborough-Elliottborough restaurant for about two months into new chef Michael Perez’s tenure. Let’s just say it wasn’t the kind of review that would send a restaurant scrambling to find a frame.
Regardless of whether I agreed with the City Paper critic’s conclusions (spoiler: I did), I found the restaurant’s damage control distressing.
Essentially, the publicist was saying the restaurant’s in need of a radical fix. But that acknowledgement wasn’t contained in the peppy release sent when owner Easton Porter Group announced it had landed the talented Perez, late of Lucca and Indaco, as Amalia Scatena’s successor. Nor is it reflected in the prices that Cannon Green dares to charge for portions that could charitably be described as sensible. Even in never-cheap Charleston, $31 for a tangle of butter-soaked tagliatelle with a few nubs of lobster meat comes dangerously close to culinary malpractice.
Recognizing faults is an admirable quality in a restaurant. For example, when Cannon Green was constructed, it didn’t have a complete kitchen adjacent to its dining room. Instead, it was designed in such a way that cooking is confined to a catering facility on the opposite side of a courtyard; prepared food is then carted across the patio for finishing. Correcting that situation is on the restaurant’s to-do list.
In the meantime, though, why subject unsuspecting customers to an inferior experience at full price? Switch to a summertime menu of chicken salad sandwiches, apply an “under construction” discount or take a few weeks off to set things right. While there’s plenty of restaurant food in the Charleston area that rates as disappointing, the people responsible for it are trying their best. It’s miserably cynical to charge exorbitantly for problem-riddled meals and hope to not get caught.
In Cannon Green’s defense, it’s never exactly felt like a full-fledged restaurant, which is the primary driver of the forthcoming redo. In an “official statement” issued after I finished my review visits, Dean Andrews of Eastern Porter Group said, “When we opened, Cannonborough-Elliotborough was in the early stages of redevelopment and new investments. We’re thrilled to see that the neighborhood is more bustling and want to cater to the expanding downtown restaurant scene.”
Up to now, private events have been Cannon Green’s primary business, which is presumably why the dining room looks flimsy, as though it was hastily arranged as part of a Restaurant Wars challenge on "Top Chef." Aesthetically, there’s nothing wrong with the lightweight wooden tables and metal chairs with green padded seats, but you’re typically not asked to pay $34 for beef medallions in a room outfitted with indoor/outdoor furniture.
But the décor is on its way out, so no need to linger on its appearance. And it’s equally pointless to comment on the food, since Cannon Green has so much as said it’s not up to snuff. For the most part, I don’t think that can be pinned on Perez, since he’s dealing with kitchen conditions that his colleagues toiling below decks on boats would probably consider challenging.
Still, I wish he would exercise slightly more discretion when sending out plates. The composition of the charcuterie plate, for instance, is befuddling: Three of the four featured varieties are cooked sausages, so the visual impression is of sliced hot dogs on a cutting board, one of which is oozing greasy cheddar cheese strands.
Presentation aside, the uncased head cheese on the plate is one of the best things to emerge from the Cannon Green kitchen, especially when swiped through the tongue-numbing mustard with which it’s served. Another winner is an expertly handled octopus with fried potatoes and spring onions, a Latin-leaning collection that takes char as its unifying theme.
Yet the majority of dishes take wrong turns, such as the ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms, led astray by a flaccid coating of fry and lukewarm serving temperature that couldn’t have been intentional. Perhaps the new concept will involve shortening the time it takes for dishes to reach the table.
Unfortunately, my guess is it’s safer to look forward to a reformatted menu. Even if you ignore the soon-to-be-retired food, interior design, ambiance and restaurant name (which doesn’t seem all that bad, as contemporary restaurant names go), you’re still stuck with significant service troubles at Cannon Green. And there isn’t an easy cosmetic fix for faltering front-of-house leadership.
Former food-and-beverage workers will likely want to avert their eyes from the Cannon Green floor, since it’s painful to watch servers repeatedly make the wrong decision, such as launching into a menu spiel for a large group when a party of two has just requested its check again. Of course, service instincts are often dubious these days, since staff-strapped restaurants are prone to hire anyone willing to work. But it doesn’t seem like Cannon Green has tried to counterbalance that situation with proper training.
For example, on my second visit, I asked for a Beefeater martini, up. After some time, the server returned to my table to confirm my order was for “just gin shaken, with no vermouth, right?” I explained what I had in mind in fact entailed vermouth and no shaking at all.
So far, so excusable. I don’t expect every server to be well-versed in cocktails. But my forgiving attitude faded when the server mansplained that “up” doesn’t mean what I thought it did. (It does.)
Cannon Green is an interesting case, because it’s a restaurant developed by people from off (Easton Porter is based in Virginia) mostly for people from off (short-term rentals are legal in Cannonborough-Elliotborough). But that setup isn’t license for the restaurant to snub local expectations of excellence.