Could going out on East Bay Street become fun again? With the advent of Craftsmen Kitchen and Tap House (in the old Johnson’s Pub spot) and The Green Door, tucked into the old storage-room-cum-late-night-pool-hall next to Big John’s, that may be where we’re headed (and don’t forget The Griffon, holding down the fort).
Chef Cory Burke and his wife Becky, owners of the Roti Rolls food truck, pulled out all the stops last Friday night with a four-hour, six-course, pop-up preview dinner in their new digs, proving that colorful paint and plywood can work wonders in a once-dingy cinderblock cellar. From the pennies used to line the bathroom floor to the window shutters (topped with glass) for tables, the décor took advantage of scrap materials from The Sustainable Warehouse to enliven an otherwise dark spot.
But the real treats emerged from the kitchen. Attendees were welcomed with a sweet-and-sour cocktail of Bombay Gin, St. Germain, and lavender bitters, accompanied by spiced chickpeas crisped like popcorn.
The first course set the tone — a whole fillet of porgy, served raw over a chilled noodle and chili salad with watermelon radish kimchi.
The Burkes don’t hide their fixation with spice, and they’ve been known to scare off a few unprepared walk-up diners to Roti Rolls — mac ‘n cheese does not often cause eyes to water. For their pop-up dinner, at least, the heat was always present but never overwhelming. It’s all about balance, and the cool crudo fish paired with a sparkling rose wine left everyone excited for the courses still ahead.
A curried pumpkin and sweet potato soup came out next, garnished with cilantro-ginger yogurt and featuring an unexpected little bacon biscuit resting atop the thick, savory purée. At the end of the night, several people agreed that the soup may have stolen the show.
“Don’t open it yet,” warned a serious Burke as he handed out the third course, a Mason jar of goat cheese, pickled beets, and arugula. Their concept, a novel idea they hope will catch on for lunches, is to serve seasonal salads in the jars with housemade dressing of choice on the bottom. Take it to-go and shake and eat (with a plastic spork) when ready. Bring the jar back and they’ll refill it at a discount.
For healthy fast food that’s easy (and not messy) to eat on the go, the mason jar concept dominated our conversation for a few minutes, until the fish heads came out. Rows of spiky little teeth and two eyeballs stared out from the next dish. At least we had a Riesling to wash it down as we immediately plucked the eyes from their sockets, clinked forks, and slurped them down.
That fourth course, a fish head curry served with peppers and roti bread, was certainly the most adventurous. Although the porgy’s cheek meat was sweet and delicious, the eyeball eating won us over. Remember, we’re at Big John’s. Around the corner there are bras hanging from the ceiling, the band is getting ready to start, and we’re drinking wine and eating eyeballs. For the fifth course, the kitchen dished out generous plates of MiBeK Farms beef tongue over cheese grits, topped with kimchi and a quail egg. The tongue was shredded and seasoned to help those spooked by the fish eyes ease into their latest eating experiment, but unfortunately the meat’s sweetness was overwhelmed by salt. Oh well — the grits and quail egg were perfect, and a COAST HopArt showed up just in time.
Closing the evening were Chinese donuts (big donut holes, really) smeared with a strawberry Sriracha glaze — even the dessert had kick. They were big and hearty and perfect, and I grabbed an extra, despite a very full belly. Capping the night were generous snifters of Grand Marnier, a nod to the bar next door where a rock band was now blaring into a way-too-heavy rendition of “Tiny Dancer.”
With the first night jitters behind them, Cory and Becky grabbed drinks and greeted the diners as they headed out onto East Bay. They’ll still be out in the Roti Rolls truck, Cory explained, but the Green Door will occupy most of their day-to-day time and business.
It’s pretty refreshing to see a start-up build itself organically. There was no flood of capital invested in the Green Door — they hauled out trash and tore out linoleum and old wood with their own hands, turning a very unexpected space into an accessible, attractive restaurant that brings intelligently-sourced "whole hog" eating to the everyman. Cheek, tongue, hoof — these parts are street food around the world, yet we’ve had to pony up big bucks to enjoy them in Charleston, until now.
Best of all, if you’ve got a hankering for eyeballs at 3 a.m., now you can find them. The Green Door plans to stay open until after the bars close on Thursdays to Saturdays. And, of course, there are plenty of "normal" items to choose from as well, sending late-night drinkers home with a full belly.
“This place is going to save lives,” remarked farmer Meg Moore, whose Dirthugger Farms provides some of the Green Door’s produce.
It’s saving more than that — I can’t wait to go out again on East Bay Street.