"Why is the Art of War painted on the ceiling?" my wife asked me.
"I have no idea," I said.
It wasn't the words "Art of War" we were talking about but rather the entire text of Sun Tzu's classic 5th century BC military treatise. It covers the sloping ceiling high above the dining room at 5Church, inscribed in white letters against the black surface. It was just one of many things I found puzzling about this stylish, ambitious enterprise.
The name, for instance. Lots of Charleston restaurants are christened with some variant of their street address, but 5Church is not located at 5 Church Street. It's at 32B Market, in the old brick building that once housed the Mad River bar. Before that, it was an actual church, complete with stained glass windows, but that has nothing to do with the name, either. It actually comes from the first location of the nascent regional chain, which opened in 2012 at the corner of 5th and Church Streets in downtown Charlotte.
5Church made quite a splash in the Queen City. Charlotte Magazine named it Best New Restaurant and Best Restaurant Overall in 2013, and Executive Chef Jamie Lynch took the magazine's honors for the city's best chef three years in a row. The Charleston outpost opened back in November and named Adam Hodgson as executive chef in January, and a third 5Church is about to launch down in Atlanta.
Art of War aside, 5Church's cuisine isn't Chinese but "New American," which basically means familiar appetizers and entrees with a few international or cheffy touches. There's a selection of steaks — hanger, bistro steak, filet, N.Y. strip, and a porterhouse for two — and you can mix and match your choice of potatoes (fries, crushed, mashed) and sauce (bearnaise, shallot jus, gorgonzola, and J-1, the "chef's specialty").
The crab cakes are adorned with champagne mandarin coulis, which sounds almost as luxurious as the $32 price, but what arrives is rather workmanlike — big orbs of lump crab with minimal filler and a hint of heat, their subtlety overshadowed by the surrounding pool of fruity yellow sauce. An accompanying green salad of supremed oranges, cherry tomatoes, and arugula seems an afterthought.
The agnolotti ($28) have a pleasantly firm texture, but whatever flavor might be found in the aged white cheddar they contain is drowned out by the saltiness of the translucent sauce and diced bits of ham with which they're tossed.
Perhaps the most enjoyable dish on the menu is the lamb burger ($14). It has a big punchy bite laced through with cumin, and red onion marmalade and gorgonzola fondue meld into a pleasingly gooey, creamy coating on top. The trio of crispy beet sliders ($6) are inventive, too, offering a thick slice of red beet breaded and fried then placed between round rolls with boursin, shaved red onion, arugula, and avocado.
As you eat them, you can admire the makeover that the old Mad River space has received. The big stained glass windows still dominate the front and back walls, but now giant shelves filled with gleaming wine and liquor bottles rise over the bar behind gossamer white feathered light fixtures. Brown leather banquettes line the walls, and tall community tables crafted from reclaimed wood fill the center of the room.
The decor echoes the brown, tan, and white vibe of the original Charlotte location, and many of the menu items do, too — steaks, crab cakes, agnolotti, the signature lamb burger. One of the few dishes in Charleston that ventures into locally themed territory is the snapper ($28), and the results are less than stellar.
A pile of "Charleston gold pirloo" rises above a pool of orangish red sauce, and it's overlaid with crisp green beans and, finally, a thick filet of snapper, seared crisp and brown on one side. But those elements don't come together; the pirloo is unpleasantly pasty and shot through with salt, enlivened (in my portion, at least) only by a single lone shrimp. The wad of microgreens deposited on top arrive slightly wilted from the heat of the fish, adding little from a visual standpoint and less from a flavor one.
Four decades ago, Calvin Trillin griped about the undistinguished selection of dishes found at the genre of restaurants he termed Maison de la Casa House, Continental Cuisine. These days we just call it New American, and Trilllin's duck a la orange and beef Stronganoff have been replaced by roasted duck breast ($28), wasabi-crusted salmon ($21), and herb-brined chicken ($22), but the basic principle applies. You can travel from Bangor to San Diego and find a variation of such a menu at the leading bistro in each medium-sized city you pass along the way.
Any New American restaurant worth its salt must have a charcuterie plate, and 5Church does ($14) along with the requisite tuna tartare ($13.50), steamed mussels ($13), and crispy pork belly ($9), the last one Szechuan-ed up with a little Chinese peppercorn. There's a trio of local beers on tap and a small slate of specialty cocktails that lean toward the sweet and fruity.
There's nothing really terrible about any of this. Had I been on a business trip in some far away town like Charlotte, I probably would have been pleased with the fare. But I wasn't in some far away town. I was in Charleston.
The setting at 5Church is beautiful and intriguing, and the menu and servers have all the right vocabulary — fresh, local, housemade — but the elements that characterize the best of Charleston dining are missing — intensely flavorful sauces, delicate combinations of fresh herbs and pristine vegetables, the unexpected bursts of flavors that surprise and delight.
As we exited the restaurant, I lingered on the sidewalk to observe a family of tourists scanning the menu posted on the wall outside. "Hmm," the mother said. "Lamb burger . . . sea scallops . . . Let's see what else is up the street."
They ambled on up Market Street toward Meeting, and we headed the other way, around the corner to East Bay.
A look inside 5Church on Market Street