Carolina's experienced a lot of change in 2010. At the beginning of the year, Florida restaurateur Joseph Meloy purchased the operation from the Crew Carolina group. In the fall, former executive chef Jeremiah Bacon was recruited away by Oak Steakhouse, and his longtime sous Jill Mathias was promoted to become Carolina's new executive chef.
Mathias has inherited quite a culinary legacy. Starting in 1953, the low pink building at 10 Exchange St. was home to Perdita's, once the jewel of Charleston fine dining, with a handwritten French menu that highlighted fresh local seafood. In the 1980s, the location transformed into Carolina's, and "Mama Rose" Durden ran the show for close to two decades, bringing an Asian flair to Lowcountry seafood. The restaurant was purchased by Crew Carolina in 2004, and a few years later Bacon arrived back home from New York to take over as executive chef. While keeping the elegant old touches and a continuity with some of the classic dishes, Bacon established a strong farm-to-plate sensibility and reinvigorated Carolina's reputation by championing ultra-fresh, line-caught fish.
The good news for Carolina's loyalists is that, from the decor to the menu, little has changed under the new leadership, at least so far. The drink menu, for example, still offers two of downtown's better signature cocktails: the raspberry-tinged Perdita's Punch and the bourbon-based Exchange Street cocktail. The shrimp and crabmeat wontons ($13), a longtime fixture on the appetizer menu, are still around, too. The two big knots of wontons are fried golden brown and very crispy. The paste of shrimp and crabmeat tucked away inside is deliciously creamy, and the layer of yellow Key lime ginger aioli and the sweet red pepper coulis that decorate the plate round out a solid appetizer.
Pork belly with braised cabbage and a gastrique appeared regularly on Bacon's menus, though the stewed cannellini beans over which they're now served seem a new addition. The "crispy pork belly" ($11) seems a bit of a misnomer, since the meat is not crispy at all. It's a rich but mildly flavored slab, and along with the mild white beans and the soft-braised cabbage, the flavors are a little too muted and understated. A single, tiny pickled red onion offered a lone bit of bright color and a wonderfully bright flavor, too, that left me wanting many more.
Perhaps the best of the appetizers is the Capers Island clams with chorizo and a fortified wine sauce ($14). The round, brown-striped clams are as tender and briny as they are beautiful, and the slightly spicy chorizo is a spot-on complement. The sprinkling of sautéed red onion strips, raw green onion, and tiny red tomatoes (from local hydroponic grower Kurios Farms) provide a sharp, sweet punctuation. The shells are immersed in a rich, butterscotch yellow broth that is sweet from the fortified wine and rich from the clams. It's simply a magnificent dish and a beautiful combination of local produce and shellfish.
Mathias maintains Carolina's minimalist presentation style, which one might describe as "small pile of food way over on the side of a big white plate." Bacon established a menu where the same basic entrées — two or three local fish, a housemade pasta, roasted free-range chicken, a rib-eye or hanger steak, and the requisite shrimp and grits — are rotated with a varying set of accompanying vegetables and sauces. Mathias has kept this pattern, and from the layout of the menu on the page to the combination of proteins and locally sourced vegetables, it's all reassuringly familiar. The execution, unfortunately, is somewhat inconsistent, and there often seems to be an element that doesn't quite fit.
Wide strips of housemade pappardelle pasta ($27) are tossed with pork confit and sofrito and topped with a mound of arugula. The tender pasta and silky pork couldn't be better, though the heavy garlic blast of the sofrito seems a little too much for an otherwise delicate dish.
A long slab of striped bass ($30) is served skin-side up atop layers of potatoes, braised local greens, golden beets, and cipollini onion with drizzles of beurre blanc around the edges. The potatoes, puréed with olive oil, are wonderfully smooth and creamy, and the greens and roasted vegetables are a fine accompaniment. Against that flavorful foundation, the sea bass, which was cooked properly through but lacked any sort of brown searing, seemed a little plain and mild.
The braised short rib ($28) gets a presentation similar to the striped bass, with a white puréed foundation (onion rice soubise in this case) followed by greens (arugula) and roasted vegetables (parsnips) and finally the protein on top. The big fist-sized short rib is meltingly tender, and the wedges of yellow Kurios Farms tomatoes have a sparkling-fresh flavor that blends perfectly with the rich saltiness of the beef. The onion rice soubise is an unusual play, but I'm not sure it quite comes off, since the onions impart a mellow sweet flavor to the smooth rice but leave a slightly stringy texture that distracts from the rest of the dish.
The small dessert selection is hit or miss. The chocolate peanut butter mousse ($10) is a big hit: a puck of pillowy chocolate mousse atop a crust that's really a circle of peanut butter laced with little crispies. The polenta cake, on the other hand, sounds intriguing, but the sweet cornbread-like cake is dry, dense, and unpleasantly gritty, and the fine candied figs and the small scoop of mascarpone on top can't rescue it.
The three different dining areas within Carolina's have long reflected the tension between old and new. The Perdita's Room is a luxurious dining space with big wood columns, white tablecloths, and booths lined with burgundy velvet. The main dining area in the front of the restaurant, with its big arched windows and white tablecloths, is a more contemporary environment, while the big bar area, with its stone tile floor, wood-slatted ceiling, and bare tables, is loud and boisterous.
A frequent knock against Carolina's over the years has been that the service is not up to the level of the food, and that, unfortunately, seems unchanged, too. At most high-end downtown restaurants, the tables in the bar are offered to solo diners or to parties without a reservation or who are just looking for a quick bite. On one of our visits, we made reservations well in advance, arrived dressed for a date-night type evening, and were seated without comment in the back of the loud, boisterous bar. Service began with the waiter rushing up and plowing right into the middle of our ongoing conversation without so much as an apology, and that pretty much set the tone for the evening. Being seated next to the big convenience store-style reach-in wine coolers didn't help matters much, since a musty stale odor wafted over our table each time a server retrieved a bottle of wine.
On a follow-up visit, the experience was a little better, but still far more casual than one would expect at a restaurant with entrée prices ranging up over $30.
With the recent changes both in front-house management and kitchen leadership, Carolina's seems to be at a fork in the road, and I'm not exactly sure which way I would recommend they turn. From a business perspective, perhaps it makes sense to change as little as possible to ensure that loyal regulars come back week after week. On a culinary front, however, what has distinguished Carolina's in recent years was that even within that reassuringly traditional setting there were always new and exciting things popping up.
My hope is that, now that she is firmly in place with almost six months of running the show, Chef Mathias will begin to insert her own culinary style a bit more and step outside the pattern defined by her predecessor. The current menu certainly has flashes of inspiration but also seems firmly rooted in long-established patterns. The faded glory of the old Perdita's Room has its charms, but there needs to be steady movement forward to keep what has long been a hidden gem from becoming run of the mill.