If you haven’t taken a shine to the newfangled restaurant naming convention that features a pair of nouns on either side of an ampersand, you’ll have a hard time finding someone to fight over it: Everybody & Everyone seems bored by the phrasing, even when the ampersand is rendered as a plus sign.
But the problem with this-and-that often goes beyond predictability. It insists that the restaurant has two loves, or at least two things it does equally well. In the case of the best restaurants, that’s implausible.
Wood & Grain easily qualifies as one of the best restaurants in Mount Pleasant, and when the kitchen’s clicking, it has a fair shot at claiming the title outright. Grain, though, doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it.
In addition to being the kind of pun that would get a good laugh at a lumberjacks’ jamboree, grain here means pizza. More specifically, it means pizza with a crust that ranges from so cracker-like that I could hear the guys next to me at the bar eating it, to a puffy consistency that cries out for utensils. The appealingly sour crust’s heft is a crapshoot, but customers can call their toppings from a roster of eight assortments, including a congenial meeting of pesto and eggplant, and an earthy duck ham-pepper combo. There’s also a nightly special, typically featuring a seasonal vegetable and salty white cheese, such as feta or chevre.
Margherita is the most familiar choice, although Wood & Grain takes a few liberties with tradition, slathering the pie with tomato sauce that leans sweet, and then piling on enough shredded mozzarella to conceal any crust leading up to its semi-charred rim. All told, it’s more South Bronx than Southern Italy, which is honestly just fine if you view pizza mainly as a chaperone for beer or tomorrow’s lunch-in-waiting. In the realm of grain, this is prime get-er-done material.
And with that out of the way, we can turn to the wood, and the dazzling things it does for the rest of the dishes on the seafood-dominant menu. 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, with a rusticity and minerality that’s essentially an advertisement for the wine list.
Cocktails, too, are quite good at Wood & Grain. That’s not a given in Mount Pleasant’s wildcat wood-fired pizza scene, which has gained at least five practitioners since the start of the year. When I dined at one of Wood & Grain’s competitors, my server had to consult the bartender three times before determining nobody in house knew how to make a Negroni. Wood & Grain serves an impeccable Negroni, as well as an unabashedly classic Manhattan that’s a worthy prelude to buttered-up oysters that emerge from the oven with their dimensions and flavor tightened.
Clearly, this is all cause for celebration, and on busy nights, there’s no question that you’ve stepped into a party. On weekends, the compact strip mall space reverberates with the happiness of diners who now have a terrific restaurant close to home. Or, to put it another way: If you’re sensitive to background noise, Wood & Grain is not the ideal setting for a conversation.
Nor is the seating designed to accommodate bodies of varying shapes and functionalities. Save for one two-top snug against the front window, the tables are high-tops set with wooden stools. While many diners are likely to feel comfortable at Wood & Grain, in no small part because the servers are warm and welcoming, the room’s configuration might be a deal breaker for some.
There’s method in the casual furnishings and exposed surfaces, though: Amy Trowman’s interior design eloquently coveys the difference between Wood & Grain and Langdon’s, Owens’ 14-year-old fine dining workhorse, situated just two doors away. That same unfussy exuberance is expressed in the dishes: Among them, a sprawling kale salad which serves as canvas for wood-roasted mushrooms that conjure damp pine-needle strewn forest paths.
Salad isn’t always the safest harbor at Wood & Grain. On two visits, I was served severely overdressed greens, which is doubly sad when the ingredients being obscured are so fresh. But the salads featuring more fruits than vegetables are knockouts: My summer eating may have peaked with a bowlful of crisp watermelon cubes and sweet peach wedges, obliquely salted with feta and the tiniest bits of prosciutto. Dabbed with grainy mostarda, the salad is helped by Fresno peppers to sidestep the mawkishness that could arise from so much seasonal sugar.
Corn roasted in the signature oven and scraped from the cob is nearly as satisfying. Wood & Grain’s suave interpretation of elotes, presented alongside a vinegary dollop of shredded cabbage, is pecked with a New World bonanza of chiles and cherry tomatoes.
Perhaps the most impressive dish on the current menu is ceviche, which on a recent evening starred tender scamp grouper. To the kitchen’s credit, peppery heat has a speaking part in the production, but doesn’t overwhelm the citrus zing or headlining raw fish. Obviously, the appetizer involves neither wood nor grain. But it’s absolutely terrific: No buts, ifs or ands about it.