The stars in the sky are inscrutable, as thousands of bad poems confirm. And the stars we use down here on earth to rate restaurants aren’t much clearer.
There is a common misconception that a five-star system is roughly equivalent to a letter-grade scale, so three stars amounts to a middling C. At least, I imagine that’s what readers who call to object to three-star reviews of their favorite restaurants believe.
A better way to think about stars is to use a baseball analogy. One star is the restaurant version of hitting a single; two stars are a double and so forth. While just getting on base is an achievement, notching a triple is such a feat that a decent player can go a whole career without recording one. In other words, three stars for a restaurant is a big deal.
But here’s where the comparison doesn’t quite line up: In baseball, a triple is where the excitement’s at. The late Buck O’Neil loved a triple because it was the only play that got everyone on the field moving. That’s not a bad description of the situation at a restaurant that receives a two-star review. Usually those restaurants are places where all of the parties involved are fired up about something, but they’re rushing headlong in different directions.
Two-star restaurants aren’t consistent or polished, but they always offer a spark of promise, which is what makes them captivating. To return to the ballpark for a moment, there’s no guarantee that a guy on second will make it home, but in plenty of situations, he scores.
Because two-star restaurants stick with a critic, I decided to check back in with three restaurants that received the rating in the past year or so. Millers All Day, The Establishment and Sorghum & Salt were classic examples of ambition outpacing execution when I wrote about them. Here’s how they’re doing now:
Millers All Day
First, the bad news: The biscuits at Millers All Day haven’t gotten any better.
If any menu item seemed like a gimme at the lower King Street restaurant opened in March 2018 by Greg Johnsman and Nathan Thurston, it was the biscuit. Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill knows grain, and Thurston no doubt sold his share of brunch-suitable baked goods during his tenure at Stars and Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Yet whoever’s currently in charge of the dough at Millers apparently hasn’t gotten tired of spending time with biscuits, since the end product has the dense character that results from excessive handling.
Beyond the biscuits, though, there’s really no cause for complaint at Millers. (Pipe down, pie fans: I hear and sustain your objection to the thick, leathery crust.) The breakthrough for Millers, I suspect, was the restaurant’s acceptance and embrace of its two-star status. Now instead of trying to wow with cocktails and foist cereal on diners who hours ago moved past breakfast, Millers is focused on providing quick, affordable lunches, which is exactly what the neighborhood needs.
Gone is the bizarre 7 p.m. closing time. Gone is the all-day menu that treated salad like an unwelcome interloper. Instead, customers who visit Millers between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. are prompted to pick two or three items from a compact menu of three soups, three salads and four sandwiches. Unless your order runs afoul of the one-sandwich-per-plate rule, a small meal costs $10 and a large is $13. Brilliant.
At that price, there’s no pickle or gratuitous parsley garnish. But the kitchen doesn’t stint on salad, and the soup’s served in a bowl. Still, what seals the set-up’s deal status is the food quality. The gumbo’s smoky; the roasted vegetables slid into a slippery farro story are robust and the hoppin’ John is crammed with creamy Sea Island red peas. Millers may not go all day anymore, but pair that with a grilled cheese sandwich, and you most surely will.
Millers All Day, 120 King St. 843-501-7342, millersallday.com. 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday.
There are strict rules about doling out stars. I can like a restaurant fine, and even write about it, but a starred review requires at least three anonymous and unannounced visits. In other words, I can’t officially adjust The Establishment’s star count based on the one visit I paid the restaurant in February, during which the general manager greeted me by name and then sent me an e-mail while I was still at the bar.
That said, if The Establishment’s crew wants to go around saying I consider it a three-star restaurant, they don’t have to worry about a slander suit from me. The kitchen at the glitzy Broad Street restaurant has made enormous strides since I last visited, months after its May 2018 opening. Or as general manager Brad Mogan, one of the city’s front-of-house greats, put it in his flash e-mail thanking me for coming back, “I know we are headed in the right direction.”
When I first reviewed The Establishment, I praised the attentive service and good-looking dining rooms, outfitted with sufficient brick and dark leather to stay classy despite a wall of high-def TV screens backing the bar. (A piano player also helps keep the restaurant on the right side of the line between glamour and gaudy.) Those things are still in place. Now, though, you’re missing out if you don’t eat.
The Establishment’s maturing style shows in its control of texture, demonstrated by an earthy beet-and-hazelnut salad that gets a glimmer of winter sunshine from satsumas. It shows in the restraint exercised in the assembly of a scallop dish, which sports just enough acid to flatter the cool, fresh shellfish slices.
Impressively, the restaurant’s pulled off its evolution without spurning the luxuriousness it was designed to celebrate. Right out of the gate, The Establishment served peekytoe crab spaghetti that endures in my mind as a butter puddle. Pasta remains on the menu, except it’s become an excellent homemade pappardelle with lobster and crayfish sauce. It’s exactly the kind of dish that The Establishment’s wine list has always deserved.
The Establishment, 28 Broad St., 843-789-4028, establishmentchs.com. 5-10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
Sorghum & Salt
Another reviewing rule: There is no sending back a dish. It’s a critic’s job to scrutinize failures, not fuss about them.
So I have to confess that at Sorghum & Salt, our plate of smoked butternut squash was apologetically whisked away.
It’s my fault. For the first time in my career, I couldn’t muster a semi-believable “it’s good” when a server asked how we were enjoying the dish. Those may well have been the words that came out of my mouth, but my expression repeated all of the questions my friend and I had been asking each other: “Can blue cheese go bad?” “Is this apple butter rancid?” “In what foul devil’s liquid were these walnuts pickled?”
(I later called chef Tres Jackson for details, but he said he couldn’t remember much about the dish, since he tries to change the menu every week.)
As when I last visited the restaurant after its opening in 2017, Jackson still has a penchant for needlessly piling on flavors. But what’s changed is the component ingredients now wouldn’t impress even if presented in isolation.
Fresh pasta, once a highlight of the restaurant’s repertoire, is devastated by a cabbage soubise that envelops bits of clam sausage, so the noodles behave like a bowlful of shellfish slime. Tofu gnocchi, sunk in a murky vegetarian Bolognese, are dismayingly tough.
What hasn’t changed is the room, which feels like it’s stuck in 2015. People who don’t dine out on a regular basis probably wouldn’t notice, much as I can never pick up when a band’s swapped bass players between albums, but Sorghum & Salt is holding on to habits that the industry-at-large has agreed were bad ideas, including pouring wine in stemless glasses and posting the definition of “locavore” on the wall.
And despite all that’s been revealed about alcohol abuse and its consequences in restaurant kitchens, Sorghum & Salt’s menu urges guests to buy the staff “a pair of 40s.”
None of this seems to bother diners who post reviews on Yelp, where Sorghum & Salt is consistently exalted for its creativity, innovation and mad scientist streak. But in the restaurant’s retro spirit, I’ll stick with my original conclusion: “Bizarre doesn’t automatically equal excellence.”
Sorghum & Salt, 186 Coming St., 843-872-6393, sorghumandsalt.com. 5-10 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.