It’s silly to fret over people not understanding precisely what a food critic’s work entails, since it’s hardly a job that most folks hold down for a summer in college or learn about from an uncle who’s spent a lifetime in the biz. But if a genie gave me chance to correct just three fallacies, I’d start with the common misconception that critics are run ragged during Restaurant Week.
Designed primarily for eaters who don’t dine out frequently, Restaurant Week provides a useful excuse to check out a restaurant that has opened since the last edition of the prix-fixe promotion. But from a reviewer’s perspective, it’s also the time of year during which menus across town converge, as chefs fixate on the same high-margin items; service gets snippy and crowd-pleasers trump creativity. In other words, it amounts to a food critic’s sabbath.
This fall, though, my quiet period was interrupted by an urgent dispatch from a reader who was just back from a Restaurant Week dinner that he described as “one of the very best meals during the six years we have been in Charleston.” Even if this guy only eats out once a year, that’s still high praise: Before Restaurant Week was through, I booked it to The Barbadoes Room at The Mills House to see if I could decipher the source of his excitement.
Fortunately for my rest routine, it didn’t take much work to uncover the root of the recommendation. While the city’s attention is focused on another pink hotel, with the Hotel Bennett inching closer to opening, The Mills House’s signature restaurant is nightly outpacing adequacy by a country mile.
Over the course of three visits, I was impressed again and again by the loveliness that executive chef Justin Hunt is smuggling on to plates. His elegant cooking is perfectly matched to the 50-year-old building’s re-created grandeur, based on the hotel that preceded it: Carrot-top pesto and grilled peach salsa belong in the company of soaring ceilings and arched passageways.
The Mills House’s most striking architectural details are concentrated in the courtyard adjoining the dining room, where guests are encouraged to sit with their drinks. Regardless of the actual temperature, the patio’s vibe is permanently set to sultry: The central pineapple-capped fountain, with water spilling languidly over two tiers, and trellis-backed wrought iron furniture have likely sparked their share of daiquiri orders.
Indoors, blandly generic redecorating schemes have obscured some of the gaslit charm that the hotel was supposed to conjure. If a diner wearing a striped polo shirt and a palmetto rose tucked into his back pocket doesn’t establish the space as a tourist zone, the laminate wood tabletops and geometric-patterned carpet should do the trick.
Another indicator of The Barbadoes Room’s hotel setting, equally impossible to overlook, is the forcibly efficient service. All of the bartenders and servers who waited on me seemed contemptuous of the fourth wall that typically exists between servers and diners — or at least of the formality from which it’s constructed. Making sure I didn’t harbor any illusions about the nature of dining room proceedings, servers asked if my table was “interested in bread service,” (most civilians would just say “bread”) and proudly informed me that “I just fired your sausage.” Talk about TMI.
Servers are also generally anxious to reset tables for the following day, so if you dine at 8 p.m., expect the room to look primed for breakfast before dessert menus arrive. Yet the service staff’s pragmatic approach hit its apex when a man clearing entree plates asked if I still needed the napkin spread across my lap. I didn’t, so he used it to wipe down the table.
Until The Barbadoes Room trains its friendly servers to adopt the grace generally associated with restaurants that offer tasting menus and $48 steaks, I’d hesitate to rank it among downtown’s standout dining experiences. The wine list also has some growing up to do. But based on the food alone, I wouldn’t pause before grouping it with better-known restaurants where the kitchen is skilled at putting out controlled versions of trendy dishes, such as Edmund’s Oast and The Macintosh.
From the looks of The Barbadoes Room’s menu, that squares with how the restaurant sees itself. It runs just 15 items long and, admirably, none of them are the comfort foods that have lately crept into the cheffy canon, such as crab cakes or mac-and-cheese.
Instead, a meal might begin with an order of taut agnolotti, each clenching the same amount of citrus-scented ricotta, a smooth-and-creamy counterfoil to the whole grain mustard that dominates the pasta’s sauce. Or maybe the gravy rightly belongs to the duck confit that crowns the dish, since its salty, autumnal quality comes from duck bones and livers. The meat skews dryish, but its flavor provides a nice frame for green beans that colorize the dish.
Following the mustard isn’t a bad strategy at The Barbadoes Room, since it leads to an accomplished charcuterie board that’s worth ordering solely for the pickles. The pickled cucumber and okra are well beyond snuff, but it’s the sheer slices of cold-pickled green tomatoes that are orchestral in their appeal, with vinegar and spices harmonizing in the most energetic way. Mustard also has a starring role on an open-faced sausage sandwich, featuring a trisected homemade sausage with a crackly casing.
Puzzlingly, the sausage is served atop flavorless French bread, a la microwave pizza. It could stand to lose the bread base, as well as the scant griddled peppers and onions that pad it. The sausage is distinguished by the savory spices that go into it, not the presentation pieces surrounding it. In fact, I’d wager my serving was dolloped with about twice as much mustard as Hunt intended. Like the front-of-house crew, the cooks are prone to sloppiness, with plate rims frequently not wiped clean before serving.
A few dishes I tried didn’t quite hit the mark. The smoke used to cook a chicken didn’t fully penetrate its flesh, and a riff on pork-and-beans beneath the bird couldn’t lift it past lackluster. Vegetarians also deserve better than a half-hearted bowl of lumpy grits, scattered with roasted orange carrots and yellow beets.
Still, the successes far outnumber the disappointments. The Barbadoes Room is especially adept with seafood, as evidenced by exquisitely seared scallops, paired with rye-dusted farro, pocked with peas, to balance out the dopey sweetness that scallops usually exhibit. And if the char on a loin of “sword,” as my server casually referred to it, wasn’t sufficient reason to order the fish, it’s served in a corn veloute that’s sunshiny enough to worry three out of four dermatologists.
And to think I wouldn’t have found the fish without Restaurant Week. Looks like I might be busy when it rolls back around in January.