Chef Brett McKee isn't afraid to brand himself. Images of his unforgettable likeness abound, and his larger-than-life chef personality is always aligned with his restaurants, which he's had plenty of since coming to Charleston from New York in 1989: Hugo's, Brett's, Brett's at the Wickliffe House, Oak Steakhouse in 2005, and most recently O-Ku on King Street. He launched his Roadside Kitchen concept in 2009 with 17 North in Mt. Pleasant, and recently left Oak and O-Ku to open additional Roadside Kitchens in Charlotte (15 North), and now Brett's Roadside Kitchen on Folly Road, James Island.
His Facebook page bio begins this way: "Born and raised in Brooklyn and Long Island, New York, Chef McKee's upbringing inspired the eclectic creativity that has formed his legendary culinary career." McKee has set a high standard for himself, to say the least. You'd be hard pressed to find another chef in the country who'd call him or herself a legend.
No matter how you feel about McKee, you have to acknowledge that he has a knack for marketing. You also have to admit that he's been successful so far in his own right, genuinely likes to please his patrons, and finds time to give back to the community.
But, ultimately, only one thing is going to determine whether or not Brett's Roadside Kitchen on James Island succeeds, and that's whether James Islanders and passersby find the solid food and good experience to be worth the prices.
The concept behind Roadside Kitchen is McKee cooking comforting, American standards influenced partly by his own multiethnic upbringing in New York and by soliciting feedback from his patrons through social media and otherwise. What are their culinary memories? What did their grandmother cook for them? It's a cool idea, but right now the menu at Brett's feels a little more like his own creation with a few nods to the nearby Jewish community in Old Windermere.
There are starters like deviled eggs, beef carpaccio, and potato latke with smoked salmon, and traditional salads like an iceberg wedge, caesar, and caprese. There are Italian-American pastas like penne alla vodka, gnocchi, and eggplant parmesan, and seafood dishes like the standard sesame-encrusted tuna, crab cakes, and lobster mac and cheese. Meat options include a smoked pork chop, buttermilk fried chicken, and beef tenderloin. It's basically "gourmetified" American bistro food.
On average, the prices are in line with or slightly below the prices at places like FIG, Trattoria Lucca, High Cotton, SNOB, and Wild Olive. Brett's carpaccio beef tenderloin with micro arugula sprouts, shaved parmesan, and truffles is $12, while High Cotton's American Wagyu beef carpaccio with truffle oil, grated egg, pea shoots, and fresh horseradish is $11. Brett's traditional caesar salad is $8, while High Cotton's is $7. Brett's shrimp and grits with local shrimp is $22, while SNOB's Wild American shrimp and grits is also $22. Brett's 8 oz Certified Black Angus Beef tenderloin with whipped potatoes, asparagus, and demi-glace is $28, while FIG's Strube Ranch Wagyu bistro steak with Japanese turnips, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and bordelaise sauce is $29. You get the point. The prices are high, and for patrons it comes down to whether or not the food and experience justify them over a trip downtown.
Decor-wise, sitting in the dining room at Brett's Roadside Kitchen is a good experience. The outside patio has a tiki feel to it, with metal tables fitted with red Jim Beam logo umbrellas, an outside bar, a spot set aside for a couple of games of cornhole, and a firepit where kids can make complimentary s'mores. Inside, by contrast, the decor is understated. The dark wood furniture is tasteful, the walls and wainscoting are neutral in color, the floors are handsomely finished, and the fixtures functional and a little rustic. Laid-back music pipes through at just the right volume.
In terms of the food itself, I could appreciate the beet salad ($7). It was well done, even though the red and golden beets were a little thin for me (I wanted more beet). The raspberry vinaigrette (if you like a sweeter, fruity vinaigrette) was fine, perfectly seasoned, and drizzled over in just the right amount to complement the super-fresh mixed greens. The spinach salad ($9) is tossed with warm bacon vinaigrette with crispy pancetta and fried goat cheese. It's a good version of that common spinach salad. The classic caprese salad ($10) is made with vine-ripened tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, and the ubiquitous truffle oil. Again, it was a solid version of that dish. A recent dinner special salad of local watermelon and heirloom tomatoes stood out. The marriage of perfectly ripe tomatoes and watermelon with just a little shaved red onion and fresh basil was extraordinary.
The classic smoked pork chop ($25) comes either single or double-cut and is well-presented, draped on the plate so that the bone rests at a gentle angle on the mac and cheese gratin dish, and set alongside Southern braised collard greens. The chop itself was good, maybe brined for extra flavor, and cooked just until done and still tender. The collards and mac and cheese were standard, about what you'd expect at just about any other spot serving the same. It was a solid pork chop dish, but for the price? The 8 oz. Certified Angus Beef tenderloin ($28) was really good and cooked to my order, if a little under-salted. The whipped potatoes and grilled asparagus were both perfectly done. The coriander-encrusted cedar plank salmon ($20) was way too salty, but the salmon was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the accompanying Meyer lemon risotto with vegetables was excellent.
Overall, the sides ($5) were pretty good. I'm a Brussels sprouts fan, so I was excited to try Brett's caramelized fresh Brussels sprouts with pancetta bacon. If you're learning to love your Brussels, McKee makes it easy for you here. They're swimming in a sugary-sweet and spiced glaze that all but hides the sprouts' endearing bitterness. The standard parmesan and truffled pomme frites were a knockout version. And the same mac and cheese and local collard greens that come with the pork were decent, as are the whipped potatoes that also come with the beef tenderloin: smooth, rich, and well seasoned.
The highlight at Brett's for me was the grilled calamari ($9) appetizer. I like seeing calamari grilled on a menu, both because fried calamari is so overdone, and because calamari takes so well to the complexity grilling gives it. This was one of the best calamari dishes I've ever had, hands down. It was an extremely generous portion that could have been shared. The calamari themselves were fresh, grilled just until tender, and seasoned to take into account the flavors of the underlying broth and salty shards of parmesan. I'll go back for this dish, and wish others had been as original.
Brett's has the potential to occupy a new, more upscale niche on the James Island restaurant landscape. It's the kind of place you could relax with a few beers on the patio or take a date to dinner. The service still has a few kinks, but the underlying emphasis on great customer service is there. The cooking, if a little cliché, pretty much accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. It will be interesting to see whether or not James Island diners find it worth it at the current prices.