Ben Berryhill's Red Drum matures into a great restaurant 

South by Southwest

Perfect dish: the quail with venison sausage comes out of the big wood-fired oven with a smoky char and is served with a baby skillet of cheddar grits with chiles and sweet pepper hash

Katie Gandy

Perfect dish: the quail with venison sausage comes out of the big wood-fired oven with a smoky char and is served with a baby skillet of cheddar grits with chiles and sweet pepper hash

When Ben Berryhill, a native Texan, and his wife Marianna moved to Charleston to open a restaurant six years ago, they had a lot of options. Berryhill was fresh off a 12-year run at Houston's highly regarded Café Annie under the tutelage of Chef Robert Del Grande, an acclaimed pioneer of high-end Southwestern cuisine. The couple could have created their own version of Café Annie here in Charleston and had a wide-open field in the Southwestern category. Or Berryhill could have done as so many other aspiring chefs moving here from other places have done and plunge headfirst into the local style, mastering she-crab soup and shrimp and grits and recreating himself as a Lowcountry chef.

Berryhill took a more unusual approach and blended the two, taking the flavors and styles of his native Texas and applying them to the traditional ingredients and recipes of Lowcountry South Carolina. The result is what Berryhill has dubbed "South by Southwest," a delightfully distinctive blend of classic Southern hog-and-hominy flavors with the chiles and wood-smoke flavors of the Southwest and, more than anything, the fresh local seafood that is representative of contemporary Charleston dining.

Nothing could be a better embodiment of this blend than the barbecue shrimp appetizer ($9). Three wood-grilled shrimp are rubbed with barbecue spices and have a perfect smoky sear, and they're stunningly fresh and flavorful. The real draw, though, is the corn pudding that comes alongside in a little cornhusk boat. It's exceptionally creamy with an intense, sweet flavor, and both it and the shrimp are complemented nicely by the bright green chile sauce that is drizzled over the top.

The braised pork belly ($12) is first rate, too. The small slab of ultra smoky pork is rich and tender with some unusual notes of cinnamon to it, and it's paired with a small cast-iron skillet of tangy braised collards that are dotted with onion, tomato, and (in a Southwestern touch) crumbles of white cheese. The slice of bacon-cheese cornbread that's balanced against the little skillet seems a bit dry at first bite, but then the bacon flavor starts to come through and you realize that this is a marvelously composed appetizer that blends three traditional Southern flavors into a single delightful plate.

The entrées display similarly adept blends of the two regions. You really can't go wrong with anything that comes off of Berryhill's big wood-fired grill. He calls it "the heart and soul of the kitchen," and it's an exact replica of the one he used at Café Annie (made by the same Dallas craftsman). From the salmon with corn pudding and red pepper coulis ($27) to a big cheeseburger with hand-cut fries ($14), the grill's flames mark Red Drum's food with its distinctive flavor signature. And when the local products of Lowcountry fields and waters meet that grill, the results are remarkable.

One of the best and most unique is the grilled quail and venison sausage ($27). The quail, deboned so they're easy to slice, are kissed with a char from the wood grill and topped with a sweet, tangy red pepper and chile hash. Alongside is another one of those little cast iron skillets, this one filled with cheese grits that are hotter than blue blazes and will sear your tongue if you're not careful, but they are more than worth the risk. In fact, grits cheese might be a more apt name, since they are loaded down with gooey cheddar. The Texas Hill Country venison sausage is dense, smoky, and savory enough on its own, but if you slice it into small bits and eat it with a forkful of grits cheese, it's over-the-top delicious.

Berryhill was one of the first local chefs to jump on board the sustainable local seafood wagon, meeting local fishermen at the dock and buying only the best and freshest catch. Whether it's the local snapper with lime beurre blanc and creamy potatoes or Breach Inlet clams with red chile broth, the seafood dishes at Red Drum are always a reliable bet.

Even the dishes that don't make it onto the grill are impressive. The double-cut pork chop ($28) is oven-roasted, and it comes out perfectly moist and tender. The big mound of fried onions piled on top of the pork is an excessive distraction, but the warm cubes of sweet pears and the deliciously salty and buttery Swiss chard that encircle the pork are nice complements, and what the menu describes as a "rustic pan sauce" — actually a rich, thin brown reduction — is superb.

And don't skip dessert. Lauren Mitterer earned a sterling reputation as a pastry chef during her time at the Red Drum, and while she has since struck out on her own and opened WildFlour Pastry, she still delivers the desserts for Red Drum each day. The pecan cake with hot buttered rum sauce ($8) is now a local favorite, but perhaps even better are the Sugar and Spice donuts ($8). Five crispy, hot donuts are rolled in tons of cinnamon and sugar then speared together on a wooden skewer. There's a small rocks glass alongside filled with whipped cream and dulce de leche for dunking the donuts in. It's really cruel that there are an odd number of donuts, for you and your dining partner will fight over the last one.

In many ways, Red Drum is two restaurants in one. The main dining room with its white tablecloths and high-backed red leather chairs has a more formal fine-dining feel, but the bar area and the big open patio out front are more casual and tend toward the loud and boisterous on busy nights. In fact, the business was originally named Red Drum Gastropub, and though the gastropub title has been downplayed in recent years (the menus and website now simply say Ben Berryhill's Red Drum) that heritage of serving top quality brews alongside good food remains.

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The bar shakes up splendid Texas-style margaritas with hand-squeezed lime and cointreau, and there's more than two dozen good beers (and Pabst Blue Ribbon) on tap. The happy hour munchie specials — chips and pasilla salsa ($12), chicken and shrimp tacos ($6), and bean-and-cheese nachos ($6) — make Red Drum a great place to drop in for a few drinks with friends, too.

It's easy to enumerate the things that make the difference between a good restaurant and a bad one: the quality of the food, the comfort of the surroundings, the level of service, and even basic nuts-and-bolts things like the kind of flatware it uses. But it's harder to quantify what separates great restaurants from the merely good ones.

For me, to emerge from the pack, a restaurant has to be distinctive, ambitious, and eminently reliable, that it not only makes big promises but also delivers on them each and every time. You need to sit down at the table, pick up the menu, and have that excruciating surfeit of choice — that "everything looks so good I can't decide what to pick" experience. And then, no matter what you choose, the entrées prove to be even better on the plate than they looked on the menu.

Red Drum has consistently done just that for over six years now. Berryhill's unique South by Southwest style, plus the close attention to quality and detail, means that a meal at Red Drum is not like a meal you would find anywhere else.

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