The first time I was seated for dinner at Sorghum & Salt, which materialized in the former Two Boroughs Larder so quickly that its creation seemed effortless as pressing "start" on a photocopier, the people at an adjacent table were already a few courses into their meal. They’d enjoyed it, although they weren’t entirely certain why.
Finally, one of the women came up with the explanation that perplexed arts patrons have long applied to monochrome paintings and atonal free jazz. If the food’s this strange, she concluded, it has to be good.
Chef Tres Jackson’s restaurant encourages that line of thinking. On both of my visits, I heard the same server passionately promote a foamy slab of beet pudding as “the weirdest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
As superlatives go, that’s a risky one to whip out in a dining room. First, oddity is relative. In this era of hard-charging culinary exploration, even the most aggressive financial adviser wouldn’t recommend banking on the novelty of a root vegetable, regardless of how it’s prepared. Second, despite the customer’s claim, bizarre doesn’t automatically equal excellence on a small plate, especially when you’re paying upward of $15 for it.
The shame of Jackson’s emphasis on shock value is evident from a thick wedge of moist olive oil cake, grilled to a toasty crisp finish. It’s a terrific dessert, externally sweetened by macerated strawberries and rosettes of whipped cream. So far, so sensible. But “weird” is the nicest epithet for the inexplicable scattering of aromatic thyme leaves that should have been saved for a tomato sauce or meat marinade.
Obviously, Jackson can cook. Before relocating here from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where his boldest ideas apparently weren’t always well-received, he ran his own restaurant for 14 years. Jackson’s experience shows in his mastery of items that challenge younger chefs, such as pasta and pastry.
But almost every dish he puts out is photobombed by one ingredient that doesn’t belong, and that’s not just tradition talking. All too often, captivating components listed on the menu don’t add up to anything you’d hurry to eat again.
Still, you might be drawn back to Sorghum & Salt by the setting, which isn’t half as trendy as the restaurant’s name implies. Jackson has made a few minor changes to the familiar venue, including directing patrons to enter through what Two Boroughs’ fans would consider the wrong door. And there are one or two new wall hangings in each section of the bisected dining room, including a “Love me some Jesus” print in the southernmost portion and a lit marquee sign reading “restaurant” that runs the length of the five-stool bar.
Otherwise, the rustic aesthetic is mostly intact: There is no downtown Charleston restaurant where the springtime dress code more reliably runs from fleece jackets to Eileen Fisher scarves. Yet customers are swift to shed those accessories, if only because Sorghum & Salt feels warm in the right way. There are glowing votive candles on the shelves, earnest servers on the floor and, frequently, $0 worth of “extra love” on the check, which means Jackson wanted to send out a taste of something that made him particularly proud.
On one night, that was a strap of muscular cured steelhead trout, still surging with oceanic energy and buffed with shiny chili oil. Curled up with cucumber bits in a bed of pureed avocado, the fish recalled and improved upon popular sushi bar concoctions.
More commonly, seafood and its seasoning work at cross-purposes, perhaps because the latter overwhelmingly outnumbers the former.
Neatly sliced pieces of raw scallop would have needed nothing more than a shake of salt to coax out their innate scallopness. Instead, the crudo was besieged by strong olive oil, tart blood orange segments, nutty sesame seeds and, for some unfathomable reason, tufts of potent dill. The poor scallop was reduced to sopping up every other player’s flavors.
In similar fashion, maniacally bright yuzu and pungent dried fish flakes stomped all over the natural sweetness of a too-cold turnip custard.
That comes as a disappointment if you’re at Sorghum & Salt to eat. But if your main interest is food photography, it’s hard to muster a complaint here. With the exception of one homely sliced pork steak, every dish is Instagram-ready (and with the right filter to accentuate the high-quality Keegan-Filion cut’s fatty edges and rosy flesh, a clear indicator of proper cooking, even that picture would probably rake in the likes.)
Plating isn’t always supremely original: A slate plank underlies a breakfast-leaning collage of sugary roasted beets, blackberries, lavender yogurt and granola. Flavor-wise, the assemblage needs more bitter radishes or a cup of coffee to cut through what cloys. On the looks front, it’s perfect as is, thanks to contrasting shades of purple, echoing shapes and varying heights achieved from one end of the board to the other.
Another pretty dish involves roasted mushrooms and frilly flowers, abstractly planted in a smear of avocado and what the menu refers to as “olive dirt.” Judging from this vignette, olives are not a substrate in which mushrooms would thrive: The intense powder is as filthy as the most ill-considered martini. It took half a little loaf of brown sugar bread to reset my taste buds.
While the spongy bread is a good thing to have on your table, you can comfortably bypass the accompanying pork butter, which is so faintly animalistic that the flavor seems unintentional, as though an 18th-century detached kitchen was situated too close to the barn.
By far, my favorite thing at Sorghum & Salt is noodles. Like nearly everything else, they’re ambushed by more flavors than they can fend off: The broad tagliatelle, soaked with chili oil and coated with bread crumbs, register foremost on the palate as unwrapped wontons because they share a plate with salty shrimp sausage and greased greens. Tubes of garganelli are saddled with enough cream and dill to please a Soviet army.
Taste carefully, though, and you can tell that the pasta’s fantastic. In the end, the only thing really weird about Sorghum & Salt is its determination to cover up the good stuff.