It's been roughly two years since Anson Restaurant suffered a kitchen fire, but if the crowds present on my visits were any indicator, its fan base has been merely biding time. Anson is back.
Reinvented in an elegant fashion, Anson's sophistication extends to returning chef Jeremy Holst's menu. Take, for example, the roasted Carolina cup oysters ($15). On the palate, the first layer to hit the taste buds is that of the rich, tomato-y butter and country ham. The next wave brings the sweet, briny freshness of the oyster itself — the inimitable highlight. That taste is followed by the powerful, almost bitter bite of celery leaves. The five bivalves are at once simple and ornate. If you're looking for the experience of a Bloody Mary in amuse-bouche form, this has got that going on.
A little less high-falutin', the four perfectly cooked, cornmeal fried green tomatoes ($12) arrive topped with a decadent layer of creamy pimento cheese and some toothsome, sweet, smoky bacon jam. The dish is Southern, sentimental, and surprisingly superb. If you don't think you like fried green tomatoes, this is the version to try.
Anson's fried South Carolina quail ($16) is another intriguing dish. Plated on a bed of spicy Charleston Gold red rice with sausage notes, the accompanying cabbage is rich and buttery, but still retains some crunch. Not what I was expecting — in a good way — the fried quail itself is reminiscent of Korean fried chicken. Super crunchy with a saucy kick, there's pretty much no ladylike way to get down with this bird. Surrender to the moment unless you're wearing white. In that case, consider ferreting it into the bathroom where you can sort it all out privately.
Meanwhile, the she-crab soup ($10) arrives in the costume of a Southern belle. Although sweet and delicate, she's also quite impolite. You know those mashed potato recipes that are half butter, half potato? This is the soup equivalent. The alfredo sauce of bisques, the she-crab soup is lush, sumptuous, and decadent as all get-out. If a crab were to aspire to meet its end as a dish, this would not be a bad way to go.
The refurbished Anson's is nothing if not fancy. For better or worse, the straight-backed Shaker wood chairs of the pre-fire establishment have survived and are now painted gold. Apparently, much like the Terminator, you can't keep an uncomfortable chair down. Meanwhile, the money spared on seating has been heavily invested in florid chandeliers and striking murals. The overall effect is ornate, if not palatial. And loud. Almost unnervingly so. Whether seated upstairs or down, the wood floors and high ceilings amplify the sound to a jarring effect. Maybe a whole bunch of cushions for those abusive Shaker chairs could help absorb the racket?
But rising above the noise level, the service is consistently above-par. Friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive, the staff are unobtrusively available whenever occasion might arise. And per their recommendation, I also tried the shrimp and grits ($12). The house-ground grits are topped with an elegant sauce of smoked tomatoes and Anson bacon. The light, sweet tomatoes are a perfect foil to the robust bacon, and both bring their own delicate smoky notes. The dainty shrimp are tender and delectable, but almost unnecessary. One of the best versions of shrimp and grits I've had, there's no pretension here, just fully developed, well-balanced flavor.
In contrast, the signature fried flounder ($36) is way too sweet for my tastes. Reminiscent of General Tso's, a little poking around revealed what may not be a coincidence. Originally created in the '80s by Thai-Chinese chef Dan Kim of sister restaurant Garibalidis, the thin, flat fish is crisp fried, diamond filleted, and coated with an apricot shallot sauce. The whole fish sans head is served. While the meat comes gently off the bone, I'd personally get the sweet apricot sauce on the side next time.
The slow-baked grouper ($36) is wholly Southern in its execution, however. Topped with grilled okra, the fish seems to have been slow-cooked in oil, rendering it richer and more unctuous than the usual preparation. Unfortunately, it was also quite salty. As was the accompanying Charleston Gold rice Hoppin' John and the collards. Although otherwise technically well-prepared, the overall salinity kept the dish from shining as brightly as the others.
Upon my first encounter with the Ashley Farms chicken ($22), one thought crossed my mind: "Are you sure that's a chicken?" Although the diminutive breast/wing is not much larger than that of the quail, the flavor is bigger and more succulent than its larger relatives. Roasted and served on a smear of light, creamy sweet potatoes, my only wish was for more, more, more.
In contrast, the accompanying ration of Brussels sprouts are downright indulgent. Still, something is off about them: Sweet, smoky, and even a little bitter, they pretty much taste like sprouts covered in barbecue sauce.
Rounding out the entrees was the hand-cut pasta ($26). It's worth every dollar, as well as your full respect. The pappardelle is topped with a generous portion of braised short ribs. There's a refined heartiness here, most notably uplifted by the brilliant use of tarragon. It's simple and robust, yet polished and urbane.
It took a while for Anson's to recover from the Christmas Eve fire that brought things to a two-year standstill, but the space has been revitalized in triumphant, although occasionally deafening, form. More importantly, with a menu filled with familiar staples and innovative new ideas, it's a comeback worthy of your attention.