It’s up to other outlets to choose a word of the year. But if it fell to the Food section to make the selection, the honors would go to “fatigue.”
When seated dinners and guest chef appearances failed to stir excitement or generate ticket sales, industry insiders chalked it up to “event fatigue.” When multicourse meals didn’t soar, there were mutterings about “tasting menu fatigue.” Other unexpected developments were explained away as evidence of “food truck fatigue” or “Asian flavor fatigue.”
Perhaps the response had more to do with the national news than anything happening in restaurants, but it seemed like diners in 2017 were just plumb tuckered out.
That might help explain why undemanding dishes had a banner year. The Charleston food-and-beverage scene didn’t want for ambition, but its most successful expressions were among the least elaborate. For example, only one dish on this list of 2017 standouts requires a knife. In two cases, diners aren’t even required to chew.
As is tradition, these dishes represent highlights from a year of restaurant reviewing. In other words, this is not a list of best new restaurants, or the best dishes served in 2017. Instead, it’s a brief reminder of tastes worth trying. Which is easy to do, I promise.
Goulette (July 26)
98 Cannon St./843-805-6699
Every entree comes with french fries: The only main dish listed that isn’t followed by the phrase “pommes frites” is fish-and-chips. How many magnificent french fries does a diner need?
All of these fries, with mayonnaise, thanks. The fries are bathed twice in scorching-hot rendered duck fat, producing the model creamy-crispy contrast that Americans fruitlessly seek in their microwaves and fast-food bags a few million times a day. Rich and enthusiastically salted with flakes big enough to be visible, the fries pair nicely with whatever lively wine you’re inclined to pick from the approachable list.
Cinco Tex Mex (Aug. 9)
1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. B7, Mount Pleasant/843-606-6788/cincotexmex.com
The chips themselves are staggeringly good. You’d have to be some kind of animal to serve them in an undefined mound.
Cinco buys its tortillas from a guy who nixtamalizes South Carolina corn and offers daily deliveries. Those habits translate to sturdy chips so fresh and full-flavored that it’s worth restating: You may leave guacamole on your plate. When water and cornmeal outshine a rich and fatty avocado, something very special is about.
And honestly, if you want to stop reading right now, you’ve already gotten the gist of the next 600 words: Go to Cinco and eat as many chips as you can manage.
Bar Normandy (Feb. 8)
19 Broad St./843-789-4509
Perhaps it takes a restaurant with comic leanings and great bread to make a star of cauliflower soup, but it’s hard to imagine Lira’s slinky take on the current it-brassica wouldn’t wow anywhere. Rich and satiny, with a grounding whack of black pepper and dose of garlic, the soup gets its creaminess from potatoes and ricotta cheese. It’s simultaneously more elaborate and more humble than 99 out of 100 “cream of” soups (and it’s highly unlikely that 100th soup is selling for a mere $6.) (Note: With a limited, daily-changing menu, availability of this soup is a hit-or-miss proposition.)
Rappahannock Oyster Bar (June 14)
701 East Bay St. #110/843-576-4693/rroysters.com
At Rappahannock, chef Kevin Kelly serves an alluring white gazpacho that’s actually closer in color to pistachio ice cream. White gazpacho, or ajoblanco, is an ancient Spanish soup style consisting of pulverized almonds, olive oil and garlic. Whether adding grapes and cucumbers to the mix undermines its claim to white gazpacho status is immaterial, since the resulting slinky soup exemplifies green in a way that the juice of 1,000 kale leaves could only hope to match.
But this gossamer gazpacho doesn’t have any designs on the health food category. It’s decorated with broad pieces of chilled blue crab meat and dashed with savory Manzanilla that’s good company for the soup’s fundamental nuttiness. Crab and sherry, cloaked in vegetables instead of cream. The soup might well be the she-crab of its generation.
Wood & Grain (Sept. 6)
778 South Shelmore Blvd. #102/843-971-6070/owensdininggroup.com/woodandgrainmtp
There is nothing utilitarian, for example, about the roasted octopus, which elegantly demonstrates chef-owner Patrick Owens’ command of flavor and appreciation for the potential of simple ingredients.
At my table, the task of ordering the appetizer fell to a recently retired man who had never before tasted octopus. Yet after his first taste of Wood & Grain’s interpretation of the sea creature, he gleefully tasted it and tasted it and tasted it again. My respect for his culinary courage was only slightly diminished upon discovering the octopus was perfectly cooked, so the tender limb — firmly curled like the end of an elf’s shoe — was crusted with the smoky, toasty residue of intense heat.
Still, it was the underlying salad that made me wish I hadn’t been so generous with the octopus assignment. Octopus is admittedly homely, so it seems only right to cast ingredients that aren’t known for their good looks in supporting roles. Here, that comes in the form of ripe butterbeans and a smattering of tangy romesco sauce, all held together by a brisk olive oil. It’s a fantastic dish.
The Shellmore (Oct. 4)
357 North Shelmore Blvd./843-654-9278/theshellmore.com
In another chef’s hands, a Frogmore stew sized for one would spawn press releases and trend pieces. Milley, thankfully, is more interested in shellfish than shtick, so there’s no warning upon ordering that the “lil clam bake” will arrive in a deep tureen with an ornate cloche. It looks like the kind of a dish that would be set before a patrician in an 18th-century political cartoon.
Oh, but those clams. If this is how the landed class ate, it’s no wonder its members fought off democracy. Brimming with oceanic salt, the meaty littlenecks are perhaps the most magical thing to ever exist in such close proximity to parsley.