Diners who can’t fully enjoy their roast chicken if a fellow in the next booth over is wearing a ballcap, who reflexively flinch when a hostess greets them with a hearty “hey, guys!” will be tickled to know that every table at Revival, the restaurant that recently replaced Drawing Room at The Vendue, is dressed in white linen.
Revival’s look is far from fusty. Housed in the East Bay Street-facing section of the hotel’s ground floor, approximately where a Starbucks once stood, the restaurant’s decor relies on sunlight, oat-colored parquet flooring and a server uniform of suspenders and blue jeans to stump for the menu’s upbeat agrarianism. But the menu also references restaurants of yore, at prices starting around $30 an entree, so the rusticity is kept in check by the ultimate symbol of fine dining.
About those white tablecloths, though: They’re wrinkled. And by wrinkled, I don’t mean slightly creased in a way that would offend your great-aunt Harriet. On two of my three visits, it appeared the tablecloth had never been ironed or steamed. (On my third visit, the tablecloth had fold lines, but I’ll let Harriet worry about that).
That’s the thing with white tablecloths. They’re associated with elegance because they require so much care: Linens have to be regularly laundered and pressed, and a server has to be ready with a crumber so they don’t become canvases for visual diaries of courses gone by. Buying white tablecloths is just the beginning.
Unfortunately, Revival as a whole seems to lack the follow-through required to transform a decent restaurant idea into the kind of place at which people want to dine again and again. Of course, what looks like “lack of follow-through” to the public might well be described by those behind the scenes as “a shortage of talented staff.” Whatever the case, chef Forrest Parker’s vision of celebrating heirloom ingredients through modern interpretations of classic Lowcountry dishes hasn’t yet been realized.
Considering the copious amounts of sweat, hope and money invested in every restaurant project, it’s always a shame when a restaurant falls short of its ambitions. But Revival’s rough start is doubly disappointing.
Parker, a former South Carolina Chef Ambassador, is beloved in Charleston culinary circles for his guileless interest in the deep and recent pasts: The former Old Village Post House chef is equally inclined to read up on Far Eastern spice routes and drop by Nathalie Dupree’s kitchen to cook. Drawing Room, Revival’s predecessor, was similarly admired by folks who pay attention to such things: It nightly offered a polite retort to the tired claim that hotel restaurants can’t soar.
The ghost of Drawing Room lingers at Vendue, most visibly in the form of signage along Vendue Range and a horseshoe-shaped bar that functioned as the retired restaurant’s convivial core. Guests are still invited to congregate there, although it appears the invitation is going ignored, at least during rooftop season; Revival’s bar is a boxy three-stool model with dimensions only a home bartender paying San Francisco rent could consider spacious. I’m still not sure whether guests are meant to sit there.
Still, there are signals that Revival is in favor of fun, such as the crudité collection served instead of bread at the start of a meal. It’s essentially a chromatic vegetable terrarium, with purple cauliflower florets; red cherry tomatoes; green zucchini strips and orange carrot slices planted pell-mell in a whip of garlicky Green Goddess dressing. Dehydrated olives, pulverized to look like dirt, complete the picture. (The restaurant would like you to know that the ersatz dirt, just like its inspiration, is gluten-free).
If you catch all of the produce at its prime, the dipping set is both good and interesting. A few of Revival’s other experiments are heavily weighted toward the latter, including a perplexing tropical fruit semifreddo that combines the sour tang of unripe mangoes with the overtly bitter jolt of unripe avocados. Hot sauce is billed as the flavoring agent for a bordering-on-burnt disc of rösti potatoes, but that’s not the convenience item it immediately brings to mind: The grated potatoes somehow taste of the dehydrated carrots and onions in soup concentrate, which could be a neat trick in another context.
And then there’s the blandly creamy mac-and-cheese, served with a steak knife to cut through the taco shell of fried cheese that encases it. The dish is a confident bet that South Carolina is not too many years away from legalizing weed.
Other dishes miss the mark in more pedestrian ways, including a number of preparations that should have been signatures of a restaurant promoting Charleston cuisine. The setting for a perloo, featuring grouper, shrimp and a rubbery knuckle of lobster is Pegao de Arroz, more familiar to eaters schooled in European cooking as socarrat, or the crunchy rice scraped from the bottom of the pan before scorching. But Revival’s timing is a bit off, reducing treasured Carolina Gold grains to brittle nubs.
On one of my visits, a server at another table apologized multiple times for a food-related mishap that apparently occurred before I arrived. (Servers at Revival aren’t always around, but they’re very pleasant when they are: After taking my friend’s order for an off-menu Moscow Mule, our 21-year-old server sincerely thanked us for teaching her about drinks).
Did those guests also encounter too-sweet shrimp-and-grits? Bone-dry Oysters Rockefeller? I never was able to figure it out, largely because the complaining party didn’t want to dwell on it: “We had such a nice time, the food doesn’t matter,” a woman at the table assured the repentant server.
That’s an attitude easier to maintain if you order simply: Perhaps a grilled steak with a side of vinegar-touched spinach, or a baby lettuce salad made memorably novel by pickled cabbage-palm tops. Within the overcooked flounder lurks a lively version of deviled crab, which takes well to a tomato-rich sauce Américaine surrounding the fish.
Finally, the one dish at Revival that’s a shoo-in for must-try status is the she-crab soup: The steam curling away from the bisque is hot breath on the necks of other contenders for the title of Charleston’s best restaurant she-crab. Saw-toothed with sizable knobs of sweet meat, it’s an interpretation that deserves its crown of dry sherry and delicate purple flower petals.
And so I saved the best for last. Revival does much the same, delivering its guest checks in branded wooden boxes with smart little opening mechanisms. Like the white tablecloths, the elaborate presenters confirm how much pre-planning went into the restaurant — and how much potential remains to be achieved.