The seared halibut at the Charleston Grill is a perfect example of how the separate components of a dish can come together to create something magical. A solid slab of white fish is perched in a sea-like foam amid three big clams that look vaguely like boulders on a rocky seashore. The first impression, as one samples the foamy sauce and a few of the yellow cubes of saffron potatoes that lie beneath, is that the individual parts are a bit mild, maybe even bland. But, as one proceeds through the dish, it transforms. The foam settles into a buttery lemon fennel broth that is every bit as lush as the menu promises. The fish and potatoes absorb that richness, too, and each bite becomes more flavorful than the one before. It's an entrée that works itself to its own crescendo.
That effect is a microcosm of the overall dining experience at the Charleston Grill, where a carefully orchestrated set of elements come together one by one to create a remarkable evening.
The restaurant has been at the heart of Lowcountry cuisine for two decades. In October 1989, Louis Osteen took over the restaurant space at Charleston Place (then an Omni Hotel) and created Louis' Charleston Grill, which helped advance the notion that the traditional cuisine of the Lowcountry was worthy of a high-end restaurant setting. Osteen moved on in 1997, and the hotel recruited Bob Waggoner from Nashville, who overhauled the space but kept the Charleston Grill part of the name. Waggoner brought with him Michelle Weaver as his sous chef, and in January of this year, she stepped up and succeeded her mentor as executive chef.
The restaurant's four-sectioned menu format was instituted while Waggoner was still at the helm, but, as Waggoner has made clear, the idea was all Weaver's, and she has kept the selections evolving with the changing seasons. Each section offers three appetizers, three entrées, and an additional side dish that are united by a theme: Pure (simple, clean flavors), Lush (lavish French-style dishes), Cosmopolitan (exotic and internationally-inspired), and Southern (upscale dishes created from classic Southern ingredients).
Though many of the items on the Southern and Cosmopolitan sections are tempting, I'm always drawn back to the Lush panel, whose dishes follow the "French tradition of extravagance" and seem best suited for the lushness of Charleston Grill as a whole.
At some restaurants, the appetizers are the most creative aspect of the menu and overshadow the entrées that follow, but at Charleston Grill they truly are just a prelude. The Iberian Ham ($17) from the Lush menu offers a small pile of rich, thinly-sliced Spanish ham along with a "tapenade salad" of olives, capers, and marinated garlic. The ham itself is remarkably earthy and very rich, and the sharp, tangy salad is fine, too, but the butter-soaked crostini don't quite seem up to the other elements.
I had a similar reaction to the Bibb Lettuces and Corn Beignets salad ($12), an entry from the Southern menu. Apart from fitting into the Southern theme as a sort of uptown cornbread, the corn beignets seem a bit of an afterthought, but it doesn't really matter since it's a terrific salad. The buttermilk lime dressing and the edible flowers, which add a citrusy, perfumed contrast to the smooth Bibb lettuce and creamy goat cheese, really make this dish work.
The appetizers did seem to start things off on a muted note, but that may have as much to do with the timing and design as the dishes themselves, for the whole mood of the evening steadily rises as the night goes on. The hostesses and waitstaff, under the guidance of general manager and front-house legend Mickey Bakst, are welcoming and accommodating. They address diners by name (their last name, that is, with a respectful Mr. or Mrs.) which seems like a bit of artifice at first, but after a while feels not only natural but a throwback to an older day of hospitality. The furnishings, which include low square four-top tables and banquette two-tops along the wall where you sit beside your dinner companion, seem a little stuffy and uncomfortable at first — the tables a bit low, the feet on the supporting pedestal crowding your shoes.
But, right at eight o'clock, the lights go down. The Quentin Baxter trio take up their instruments and begin a selection of soft jazz, and the night turns magical. The green garden with its palmetto trees and white pinpoint light glows on the other side of the big glass window, adding an exotic counterpoint to the classic dark brown wood and Colonial-esque furniture of the dining room. Somehow the live music — which in almost any other dinner setting is too loud and distracting — is precisely the right volume, letting you listen attentively if you wish or just push it into the soft background while you have quiet conversation.
And the food goes from good to great, too.
The seared halibut and its splendid lemon broth is one of the exemplary Lush entrée selections. The beef tenderloin ($48) presents two thick filets stacked one atop the other, and the beef, as one would only expect, is tender and flavorful, but — like so much else on Charleston Grill's menu — it illustrates that the full effect of all the details on the plate, especially the little touches, are what make a dish extraordinary. The tenderloin is enhanced by a deep red bourguignon sauce that's infused with the flavor of smoky bacon, an essential note that adds to the richness of the steak. The Charleston Grill Baked Potatoes that come alongside cap the dish perfectly. Don't let the modest name or small size fool you: the golfball-sized German Butterball heirloom potatoes are sublimely rich, and they're stuffed with a peppercorn crème fraiche and truffled butter. The dish has all the elements of a classic steak-and-baked potato meal, but one that's flawlessly executed with the best ingredients.
The elevating experience continues right up to the desserts, which may not get as much attention as Weaver's entrées but are every bit as noteworthy. They're the work of Emily Cookson, who got her start as an assistant pastry chef at the Charleston Grill and, after stints at the Woodlands Resort and Inn and Circa 1886, returned to the Grill last year as executive pastry chef. Cookson likes to open the dessert course with its own amuse bouche, which she uses to experiment with new ideas that might make it onto the menu in the future. The coin-sized bite of panna cotta on my last visit set a perfect stage for the main players.
The Chocolate Trio ($10) aligns a cube of devil's food cake with three dark-chocolate-enrobed caramels and an oval of chocolate mousse on a long white plate bedecked in chocolate swirls. Each item in the trio is delicious, but the little caramel candies stand out for a simple reason: each tiny cube is topped with a few flakes of white sea salt, the flavor of which blends perfectly with the creamy caramel and dark chocolate.
The Miniature Cinnamon Rolls ($10) are more whimsical and even tastier. Three tiny cinnamon rolls, each about two inches in diameter, are served in a warm, salted butterscotch sauce that's dotted with roasted pecans and little apple cubes. This rich bowlful alone would be a delightful dessert, but Cookson takes it a step further by including a small dish of apple-cider granita, whose icy, slightly-spicy flavor is the perfect accompaniment for the little sweet rolls.
With Quentin Baxter's trio purring softly in the background and a cup of bold coffee poured from a silver French press, the banquette seat now seems as cozy as an easy chair, and you can't help but linger and just enjoy the night.
You pay a pretty penny for a meal at the Charleston Grill, but you get a lot in return. Charleston is a much different dining town than it was when the Grill first opened its doors, thanks in large part to the pioneers who have led its kitchen. They've helped the city learn to value its own local culinary heritage, then led the way in expanding our horizons and taking on influences from the four corners of the world. Now well on its way into a new phase under the guidance of Michelle Weaver, the Charleston Grill remains one of the city's essential dining experiences.