Back in graduate school I took a job at a Tex-Mex chain restaurant. On my first day I learned the proper way to deliver fajitas to diners' tables. The server (me) would put a battered wooden tray in the pass window, and the grill man would take a flat, super-heated cast-iron skillet and scoop in strips of grilled beef along with a few tongs of sautéed onions and green peppers that had been warming in a bin on the back of the grill. The cook placed the skillet on the wooden holder, and I slipped a little insulated cover over its handle and lifted the assembly from the window.
Then I headed out through the swinging kitchen door and, just as I was rounding the corner to the dining room, applied the coup de gras: half a lemon, squeezed around the outside of the skillet. The juice hit the blazing hot iron and sent a blast of steam rolling clear up to the ceiling with a sizzling hiss that could be heard back in the restrooms. The skillet was still steaming and popping when I put it down on the customer's table. Kids oohed, grandmothers murmured, "Oh my," husbands elbowed their wives and guffawed, "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
That, my friends, is how you sell the sizzle.
This memory was brought back to me at Burwell's Stone Fire Grill when my wife paused midway through eating her Wagyu ribeye deckle, put down her fork, and said, "It's like I'm eating fajitas." She didn't mean it in a charitable way.
Burwell's bills itself as "The Next Generation of the Great Steakhouse," and the concept sounds appealing: leaner cuts, sustainable standards, local seafood, and fresh, seasonal sides. It's an impressive room, too, totally overhauled from its former days as Gilligan's Seafood. The colors are all warm browns and tans, and there's a clean elegance to the white china and sturdy flatware gleaming beneath bright mini-spotlights. The style is decidedly casual, with servers in jeans and button-downs with blue-and-white striped aprons, the shiny wooden table-tops bearing sleek metallic placemats instead of white tablecloths.
In place of a fussy leatherbound wine-list, you get an iPad that lets you swipe and tap your way through the cocktail, beer, and wine selection, complete with color pictures. There's an innovative pricing scheme on the printed menu, too, that adopts the fine dining convention of omitting dollar signs but retains the old 99-cent sales psychology in the form of a single decimal point. By total coincidence, I imagine, each price ends with a .9, from the exotic mushroom marsala "accessory" (2.9) to the 8 oz. Wagyu NY Strip Medallion (51.9).
There are amuse bouches. One night it was pâté served over a triangle of flatbread with a dab of grainy mustard and port wine sauce. Another evening brought broccolini bisque with a dab of truffled pimento cheese. Both had highs (the smooth and tasty pâté, the warm, creamy bisque) and lows (the flatbread inexplicably cold, the bisque with a too-strong hit of spice coming at the end). If a chef is going to hazard an amuse, he or she better hit it out of the park each time. These managed to bunt their way to first. That, as it turned out, was an appropriate harbinger of the meals to come.
The appetizers are big and dramatic: a jumbo lump crab salad served over pineapple slaw in a martini glass (12.9), a lump crab cake grilled on a cedar plank (14.9). Five deviled eggs (9.9) are lined up in a row on a long white plate, and they're pretty good: bright yellow filling tinged with a heavy dose of mustard, each topped with a ribbon of candied wild boar bacon and held in place by a squiggle of the same bright yellow filling underneath.
The scallops on the pork belly and scallops appetizer (14.9) couldn't be better: perfect texture, a generous salty brown sear, and nicely balanced by the hearty cauliflower and parsnip purée. The pork belly, though, is hindered by its lukewarm temperature, and the bourbon maple glaze that coats it adds an unwelcome sweetness that's only heightened by a smear of apple fennel compote.
Then there are the signature "On the Rocks" appetizers. "Flight of Flavor" serves chunks of petite filet with three sauces (13.9), while "Rock Candy" pairs ribeye deckle strips with a port wine gorgonzola sauce (15.9). With both, the diners themselves cook their beef tableside on a hot rock.
That's right, a hot rock: a square slab of marble enclosed in a tray made of a white space-age material that looks like plastic but doesn't melt under the 700-degree stone. Compartments on either side hold the meat and sauces, while you drape the strips of raw meat onto the rock with a little fork and sear it to your desired doneness.
Man, does that beef ever sizzle when it hits the blazing hot rock. The ribeye deckle is exquisitely tender, and, as one might expect, the superheated rock imparts a tasty char. But the generous amount of rock salt that comes sprinkled over the stone adds a big salty blast to the first strips that you cook and, with such thin slices, it's hard for a novice to judge exactly when to pull the thing off the heat and still have rare beef, leaving you with the question of whether you can send it back if you overcook your own dinner.
As a highlight of the appetizer menu, the cook-it-yourself-on-a-hot-rock thing is an amusing novelty. As an entrée concept it just doesn't work.
During one visit we ordered the encrusted big-eye tuna (29.9) and the night's special, a Wagyu ribeye deckle that was hard-sold as the tenderest steak we would ever taste. When they arrived, both the space-age trays were placed directly on the placemats in front of us, radiating an unpleasant blast of heat on our faces and leaving us grasping for how to proceed, since there wasn't room in the little compartments to put the meat once it was cooked. I suspect this was a mistake on the food runner's part, for once we moved the trays to the side and requested side plates, which were delivered promptly and with apologies, we were able to get past the beefy-steam sauna effect and move on with the meal.
The end result was still disappointing. I gave the long slab of tuna several turns on the hot rock, then ate a little, then gave it a couple of more turns, but it never got better than uninspiring: cool on the inside and seared a dull gray on the exterior, the pre-seasoning of fennel and coriander too sharp and peppery. The accompanying white bean cassoulet was laced with a cloying sweetness reminiscent of raisins, and the little ramekin of what was billed as a tomato cream amounted to a whipped orange swirl with an odd tart flavor that derived, I was told, from persimmons.
The Wagyu deckle was similarly handicapped by an amateurish succotash with corn and green limas topped with bland, soggy pillows that might have been corn dumplings. To my tastebuds, the Wagyu — the much lauded "butcher's butter" — was exceptionally tender but offered no real improvement over the more flavorful "rock candy" ribeye from the appetizer menu, though the Wagyu did come in with a whopping $46 — oops, I mean 45.9 — price tag.
When the pros do it in the kitchen for you, the results aren't significantly better. The shrimp and "grits" (24.9) come arranged on a sort of artsy glass platform. "Grits" is in quotes because it's actually quinoa, and its dry graininess is more akin to couscous than stoneground corn. Bits of red and yellow peppers and strips of firm, lemon-tinged wild boar bacon add complementary flavors, but the quinoa seems a dull step down from creamy grits and leaves one wondering the point of the substitution. The shrimp themselves sink the dish: underdone despite a bit of crisp char around the edges, they have an unpleasingly soft texture and muted flavor.
It would be merely disappointing if such stumbles were found in dishes presented in a sincere, earnest way. When such productions are draped in an unctuous veil of salesmanship, it's almost maddening. This, after all, isn't a restaurant promising just a fun, unusual night out. Burwell's boldly declares on its menu and website to serve the "best steak in Charleston," "to modernize and update the steakhouse," and be "an overnight totem of all that is wonderful about American food today," whatever that means.
The marketing doesn't stop with the website. I've no problem with a server asking, "How are you enjoying your entrées?" "Enjoying" may be a bit presumptive, but the question opens the door so that if there's a problem you can express it and have it resolved. It's a different matter when your waiter repeatedly rushes up and asks insistent questions that drag you by the nose to the answers: "Aren't those cocktails totally different from what you get anywhere else?" "Isn't that steak super tender?"
Objection! Leading the witness. And making him feel seriously uncomfortable, too, like he's being sold at every turn.
And I just can't get past this one: in over two decades of fine dining I have never encountered a restaurant that insisted that guests order their appetizers and entrées together. I order in stages all the time, whether eating quietly alone or with a large group having a rollicking night, starting with a little something for the table and enjoying another glass of wine while perusing the entrée selection. On each visit to Burwell's we were admonished that the chef strongly prefers that we put in all of our order at the same time.
If this constraint resulted in a perfectly choreographed experience, I might accept it. As it turned out, entrées came rushing to the table hot on the heels of the appetizers, robbing us even of a lingering pause to reflect, much less a chance to select a glass of wine better suited for the main course than what we had chosen for our opener.
Perhaps this is how it's going to be for the next generation, but to at least one diner from the current one, it seems downright inhospitable. As one races down such rigid hokum-greased rails, small missteps in service are glaringly painful. A dirty knife returned unceremoniously to the placemat as the appetizer plate is whisked away. A guest's pronunciation of "wag-you" being brusquely corrected, for some reason, to "way-goo."
You might be able to persuade me that the whole hot rock thing is harmless fun — something interactive and unusual, like those campy teppanyaki joints where they transform a stack of onion slices into a flaming volcano. But I just can't buy that tableside stone-searing "preserves that high quality and flavor right on your plate," not when Jeremiah Bacon over at the Macintosh will sear a rib-eye deckle for you before he slices it, serves it over a stunning bed of roasted fingerlings and oyster mushrooms, and transforms the reserved juices into a deep red sauce so stunningly intense you'll lap it from the bowl.
There's another downside to the concept. When we arrived fairly early on a Saturday night, the strong bite of seared beef was already thick in the air — a bit heavy, but still tempting. By the end of the evening, as the wood-fired grill in the open kitchen got blazing and a parade of hot rocks distributed sizzling meat throughout the snazzy dining room, the smoke was downright thick and cloying. Two days later, my wife was still complaining of the stubborn smell of seared beef fat permeating her jacket.
But one should never underestimate the power of that marketing sizzle. With its ample flash (and the cruise-line terminal just a few hundred yards away), perhaps this vision of the "next generation steakhouse" will prove compelling to the crowds. Burwell's is already tearing it up on Yelp and Tripadvisor, garnering more stars than a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I, for one, would drop it like a hot rock.