At the last restaurant opened by Neighborhood Dining Group, customers were urged by their servers and a thousand social media posts to order the caviar.
The McCrady’s Tavern caviar service consisted of a painstakingly assembled sundae of egg yolk, crème fraiche and paddlefish roe, capped with a pasture of microscopic chives and presented with a mother-of-pearl demitasse spoon. The object of the scooping was a saucer’s worth of eerily identical homemade tater tots, a salty reminder that even fun was something the kitchen had thought about for a good long while.
After a spectacular start in 2016, McCrady’s Tavern ran low on creative fuel, and this year skidded to a stop as a quasi-steakhouse, serving its final meal in July. Five weeks later, the company opened Delaney Oyster House in Marriott property Hotel Bella Grace (which technically means it occupies a Charleston single across a tiled patio from the guest rooms, first unveiled last year.)
Delaney Oyster House serves caviar too. The menu lists three varieties from three different continents, with prices going up as salinity goes down. 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.
Pancakes make the point. Despite lavishing tremendous care on its composed plates, Delaney isn’t fond of fuss or ceremony. It’s in no way a rap on this excellent restaurant to say it seems in some ways like the platonic ideal of a snack bar with comfortable seating and an accomplished beverage program, an idea which Delaney implicitly endorses with its humdinger of an ice cream cone.
Katy Keefe is no longer in charge of Neighborhood Dining Group’s pastry department, having moved on to an administrative role with the company, but I wouldn't be surprised if the talented Wisconsin native had a say in the development of Delaney’s drumstick. The signature dessert is a play on hummingbird cake, with banana-pineapple ice cream packed into a crisp gaufrette cone, just thick enough to provide structural support, and coated with chopped pecans.
Fruit and nuts are highly traditional in the hummingbird realm. The wedge of white chocolate at the base of the cone is not, but it’s a lovely touch, as is wrapping the cone in paper so guests can stroll across Marion Square with one in hand. At Delaney, everything is a bit of a lark, which makes it especially jarring when the Emanuel AME bells toll loudly at 9 p.m.
To be sure, there are few sites in downtown Charleston that don’t have a direct link to the city’s history of deadly racism. It is not standard practice in the course of a review to probe what atrocities a restaurant’s building might have witnessed. But it’s relevant here because the stately white church functions as part of Delaney’s soundscape and visual design.
Guests who bypass the stripped-down style of Delaney’s casual interior dining rooms, lightly furnished with unvarnished wooden tables and curtains in natural hues, are seated outside in wicker easy chairs. That means those who face north are looking right at Emanuel’s familiar arched windows for the entirety of their meals.
The view from the second-floor piazza is so pristine that it’s where news photographers set up in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 massacre. (At that point, 115 Calhoun St. was still a private residence.) For Charleston residents coping with the very recent event, the closeness could prove challenging.
According to a Neighborhood Dining Group representative, "Mother Emanuel has shown us all the importance of a strong community that unites together, and we are honored to be their neighbor."
Whether the proximity is overly unsettling is a decision each individual diner has to make; there is no correct answer when raw emotions are involved. But in the context of this assessment, the location has to be considered separately from executive chef Shamil Velazquez’s cooking, which is often exceptional.
Cooking is perhaps not quite the word for it, since a significant portion of the menu is served raw or nearly so. Delaney offers a rotating selection of oysters, which can be faulted only for highlighting the flaws in other half-shells around town. At Delaney, the oysters are refreshingly cold, without a speck of shell to pollute their cleanly shucked meat. Even better, the varieties are clearly labeled with tags affixed to bamboo picks.
Other simple shellfish options include peel-and-eat shrimp, slathered with the restaurant’s version of Old Bay seasoning, and a mound of fantastically sweet blue crab claws, flecked with Aleppo pepper and served with a bracing dip founded on garlic and sour orange juice.
Save for the caviar, the remainder of the menu is split into “cold” and “not cold” sections, a format pioneered locally by Mike Lata at The Ordinary. Delaney’s weakest dishes sit at the hot end of the spectrum.
While a peppery blue crab rice is terrific, mostly because there’s just so much darn crab in it, a dish billed as fish beignets is a puzzle. It’s entertaining to watch bonito flakes dance atop the triangular puffs, but the pastries are so thoroughly saturated with sorghum syrup that a Greek bakery could slip them into its display case without anyone blinking. A perfect sear job on the scallops is sabotaged irredeemably by the saltiest of country ham sauces.
Velazquez no doubt spent plenty of time with sorghum and country ham while working at Husk Greenville, but it’s more interesting to see what he does with ingredients common in Puerto Rico, where he grew up. Even something as overexposed as Caesar salad is made fresh by Velazquez’s fluency in citrus and garlic. His standout dish is a vinegar-bright escabeche, with tender octopus tentacles curling over and around sliced green olives and sizable fragments of fried pork skin, stained pitch black by squid ink.
Also on the not-to-miss list is a caviar puff which perfectly encapsulates Delaney’s sophisticated grasp of deliciousness and willfully casual mood. The puff is a potato shell crammed with sour cream, then topped with chives and a thimbleful of caviar. It’s essentially a potato skin for the upper crust, except that it’s so small you could down it in one bite. You might even classify it as a snack.