The symbol of Sermet’s Southernterranean is a penguin, a bird that hails from considerably farther south than the regions recognized by the James Island restaurant’s portmanteau of a name (the ingredients come from the South; the dishes come from the Mediterranean, except in cases where it’s the other way around.) In keeping with owner Sermet Aslan’s proudly eccentric streak, the penguin is orange. Why not?
But what’s most striking about the penguin, pictured atop the menu, on the backside of servers’ black T-shirts and to the right of the front door, is he comes across as one cool gent. His features aren’t drawn in, but he’s long, lean and unruffled. You may have seen his cousins on nature documentaries, casually withstanding frigid temperatures.
Which means the penguin is actually the perfect emblem of a restaurant that serves shrimp polenta and coconut-lemongrass bucatini. There is no other young restaurant in the Charleston area, and very few older ones, that feels as calm as the four-month-old Sermet’s South.
Presumably that serenity comes straight from the top. Aslan, an accomplished artist whose work hangs on the walls, 23 years ago opened Sermet’s Grill on Skylark Drive. He’s since opened restaurants downtown and on Daniel Island, and is well past worrying that his livelihood will crumble if a shaker’s low on salt. Accordingly, Sermet South’s servers seem like they’re actually enjoying themselves.
Yet the restaurant owes its existence to the back-of-house staff. There were more loyal cooks in Aslan’s Daniel Island kitchen than he could promote, so he launched the new venue in the former Heart Woodfire Kitchen to give up-and-comers Brett Crowley and Daniel Israel a chance to play with their most novel ideas.
Unfortunately, when multiple bright ideas are applied to the very same plate, the result is a bit of a murky mess. There are likely effective flavor couplings among the various flurries of smoked pork, cream, herbs and fruit that crown nearly every meat, pasta and fish, but it’s frequently hard to tease them out. Rather than matchmaking, it’s as though the kitchen has resorted to organizing massive group dates.
And the impulse to keep piling on doesn’t end at the pass. On the first of my three visits, a server confided that her favorite dish was the spinach gnocchi plus shrimp, an off-menu hack that sounded just insider-y enough to trust. Whether the wine-soaked shrimp enhanced the dumplings is immaterial, since they weren’t supposed to be there in the first place, but I’m still astounded there was room for them in the teeming bowl.
The moss-green gnocchi were fat and soft, and generally too feeble to stave off the salt attacks coming at them from every direction. In addition to the tomato cream sauce ladled over the dish, slips of white anchovies and whole black olives were harbored in each cranny. Gorgonzola cheese shrapnel was splayed clear across the bowl, including a few pellets roughly the size of pinballs. Altogether, the dish was so dense that it could almost have been sliced and served like a loosely packed potato pie.
An intentional shrimp dish follows much the same formula, although it goes sugary where the gnocchi goes salty. In homage to Frogmore stew, Sermet’s has concocted a brawny raviolo filled with kielbasa sausage and mashed potato. It’s seated in a deep helping of shimmering sweet corn cream sauce.
So far, so good. But the Lowcountry Boil onion’s part is played by heavily caramelized leeks, chopped and distributed throughout the dish, along with many kernels of grilled corn. Even though the sauced pasta is contained within its shallow bowl, it registers as massive: Sermet’s South may well operate the most selective Clean Plate Club in town.
Seafood occupies a good portion of Sermet’s South’s menu, accounting for more than half of the entrees. In addition to three takes on shrimp, there’s seared flounder, baked salmon and scallops served aboard she-crab risotto. For a time, that last dish was one of just two to be branded on the menu with an orange penguin, the icon used to denote specialties.
Penguins are connoisseurs of pork tenderloin, apparently: That house favorite was gorgeously grilled. And in this instance, the saucing didn’t feel quite as arbitrary as, say, the tart apricot and dried poblano pepper glaze painted on a short rib that could have been cooked for another hour or two. Against the smoke embedded in the juicy tenderloin, an earthy mushroom cream sauce was a comprehensible choice.
Things get busier on the other side of the plate, shared by a heap of oily vegetable medley and a splat of rich pureed potatoes and parsnips. Perhaps you ought to make like the gnocchi-supporting server and adjust orders to your tastes (as of yet, there is no “substitutions politely declined” caveat on the menu.) The pork tenderloin and sweet potato fries, dusted with cumin and accompanied by relatively kicky ketchup, would make a lovely meal in Sermet’s South’s friendly dining room.
Upholstered leather chairs and sturdy butcher block tables affirm that Sermet’s South has higher ambitions than the average outlying crab dip-and-chicken breast joint. Still, it’s definitely a neighborhood restaurant, with flowered curtains and a children’s menu. To that end, there’s also a comfortable bar between the main seating area and outdoor patio, featuring a fun selection of cocktails: Roderick Groetzinger, late of The Rarebit, smartly mixes his Negronis with Hat Trick gin, Madeira and fig water.
Start there, knowing appetizers are a strong suit. The kitchen is apparently perplexed by the simplicity of hand-pulled mozzarella, which was dry and tense when I tried it. Yet it knows its way around lemon-curry cream sauce, the silky setting for steamed mussels. The charred Caesar salad could probably do without the olives and radishes, but the section of the plate where pickled egg, white anchovy and citrus tarragon dressing meet is spot-on.
Sauteed calamari rings, set adrift in a fennel-tinted broth with a sizzle of citrus, are pretty delicious too. Of course, there’s more in the bowl, including tomatoes, spinach, capers, pepper and herbs: “Southernterranean” isn’t the only unwieldy mouthful at the latest Sermet’s. But even when ingredient lineups are technically imbalanced, the restaurant’s dishes taste unmistakably of the place that produced them. In the context of neighborhood restaurants, that’s not a bad thing at all.