The secret to any great sandwich is the bread, right? Without that foundation, your sandwich is doomed to disappoint, no matter how awesome the fillings are. Butcher & Bee, a new restaurant opening soon on Upper King Street, promises to set the standard for great sammies in Charleston. Owner Michael Shem-Tov is banking on it. He's been thinking about this concept for a long time, and he's built Butcher & Bee much like he'll be making sandwiches, one ingredient at a time, making sure that each component is perfect and balanced with all the others.
As inspectors were giving the place a final once-over last week, I got a little taste of what they'll have to offer. Full disclosure: I've known Shem-Tov for a long time, since he was a Spreadhead undergrad at College of Charleston, working on his business plan to open a Mellow Mushroom location on King Street (which he did with his best friend Johnny Hudgins). And I've been hearing about his ideas for Butcher & Bee for a while now. The name and logo (a bee and two cleavers) speak to the origin of the ingredients (fresh meat, fresh veggies). Shem-Tov is nothing if not a thoughtful, strategic business man. On Friday, he invited a handful of people to check out the menu to give feedback and start working out any kinks in the kitchen.
But before we dig into the sandwiches, we ought to talk a bit about the space itself. It's located in the former Charleston Garden Center, just north of Barsa near Charleston Photography Center. A weird spot, but one that works well with Shem-Tov's concept. Butcher & Bee is like an Easter egg for locals, requiring a bit of a hunt to be found. The place will be a lunch and late-night joint, open from 11-3, both a.m. and p.m. He says they'll stay open later for lunch if needed to make sure the F&B crowd can duck in on their way to work. There's parking out front and counter service inside, two elements that should ensure quick turnaround for downtown workers looking for a fast but good lunch.
Here's a bit of interesting backstory. After the Bagel Shop on George Street opened, Shem-Tov set up a meeting with Sinan Aktar to talk about perhaps utilizing Aktar's kitchen where they do the bagel making. It goes back to that bread thing. To have a good sandwich, he needed the bread component to be the best it could be, and he though maybe the Frenchman making the bagels (who also works at the Sanctuary) could bake his bread too. It hasn't quite worked out that way, but what did work out is that Aktar invested in Butcher & Bee and also convinced Shem-Tov to move into the big space next door to the kitchen. So, there's Butcher & Bee today, in a unique building with high ceilings and walls, parking out front, and big, sunny windows. Architect David Thompson worked with Shem-Tov in transforming the spacious room into a relaxed spot. And the kitchen was already there. It just needed a couple of ranges, and they were good to go.
So now, the sandwiches. We got to try three. The first was a porchetta on brioche — Chef Stuart Tracy's favorite. Tracy, the former Chef de Cuisine at Palmetto Café in Charleston Place, is making the brioche himself and has been satisfied with the results. The sandwich was a pleasing balance of pork, bread, and bright condiments, like pickled mustard seeds. He also sent out a pot of jus for dipping.
The menu will likely always have some sort of grilled cheese option. The one we got to taste was sharp pimento cheese on a crunchy, seeded bread (also made by Tracy). Not necessarily a mind-blowing concept for a sandwich, but it was made extra special with a sprinkling of pecans and slices of pickled okra. Very satisfying — comfort food. My personal favorite was the gyro. Shem-Tov has spent a lot of time in Israel and became obsessed with making a pita that was unlike those dry, thin grocery store versions you find in the U.S. B&B's pita, which Tracy says he's been working on for a while, is fluffy and light, a perfect delivery system for the thin slices of savory lamb and crunchy lettuce.
Speaking of lettuce, this is a good time to point out that they are working with local farmers and fishermen (like Mark Marhefka) to make sure each ingredient is topnotch. They also have Elizabeth Beak working on a small garden out back and hope to expand that with time. And when it comes to sides, don't expect French fries or a bag of chips. Instead, Tracy will be working with fresh veggies like carrots, Brussels sprouts, and butter beans. They'll come in both individual and for-the-table portions. They'll also be canning and pickling vegetables, which will be stored in chicken-wire cabinets above the counter.
Shem-Tov says the menu will be in the $8-$13 range. They won't have a liquor license, but you can bring your own (which also means you can drink whatever you brought past 2 a.m.). The opening date depends on how fast they can navigate the red tape of inspections, but you can expect them to quietly open in the next week or two. Follow Butcher & Bee on Facebook and Twitter for updates.