Eleven years ago, just before moving to Charleston, I read a Post & Courier article entitled "A tree grows on Bogard Street," in which residents of Cannonborough/Elliotborough resisted an initiative to line the streets with crepe myrtle trees for fear that beautification would lead to gentrification.
We can't necessarily blame those trees, but clearly, the neighborhood now sits squarely in the crosshairs of development, with the $80 million Midtown Hotel rising where Spring tees into King, and hip and delicious eateries keep popping up like crocuses. On Spring alone, we've witnessed the birth of WildFlour Pastry, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Bon Banh Mi, Warehouse, Sweet Radish Bakeshop, Artisan Meat Share, and the relocated Veggie Bin. While on the flipside, beloved longtime neighborhood soul food eatery Ernie's closed its doors due to rent hikes. With rumors of an impending two-way traffic ordinance, cheeky slogans like "Spring has sprung" and "Spring is the new King" abound.
Such slogans ran through my mind as I walked up to Cannon Green past modest mom-and-pop shops and weathered buildings in search of the new eatery that opened this past December. A trio of gas lights flickered from shiny copper lanterns above elegant, freshly painted, garden-green French doors, signaling my arrival. Any remnants of city grit vanished in a flash as I glided through those doors to behold the sleek and contemporary makeover within. The restaurant's interior incorporates the raw wall of the building's original façade as its focal point, lending comfort to the room, which glows by the warm light of hurricane votives. Pristine, cream-colored floor tiles, and wrought iron furniture with green cushioned accents, give the place a garden patio feel, as do the series of skylights punched through the towering ceiling above. Rear glass doors open onto a Sheila Wertimer-designed interior courtyard flanked by water rills, cascading fountains, and palmettos shimmering in reflected light, a promising venue for warmer weather. A renovated 1800s warehouse (for weddings and special events, complete with its own entrance on Cannon) looms beyond.
A part of me felt like Alice in Wonderland, I had fallen down the Elliotborough rabbit hole into a magical space, a trip made all the more surreal by the incessant bass-snare rhythms of a trip-hop playlist.
Cannon Green is the brainchild of Dean and Lynn Andrews (of elegant boutique hotel Zero George and Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards near Charlottesville) and Anne and David Dabney, a formidable team in hospitality and event planning. Executive Chef Amalia Scatena heads the kitchen. She trained in Florence, Italy, and was chef de cuisine at the esteemed Virginia resort Keswick Hall, which Conde Nast Traveler, named No. 1 Small Resort in America and No. 1 Hotel in North America for Food during her tenure. As a result, my culinary expectations were admittedly high.
I went in expecting a mix of Italian influences with Lowcountry classics, as the restaurant promises. But I didn't see many Lowcountry flavors at all aside from the benne seed wafer crackers that made up my first course.
Sipping on Cannon Green's smoky and spicy version of a Manhattan, I nibbled the complimentary tapenade with benne seed and cracked peppercorn crisps and took in the menu, divided into three culinary themes: garden, water, and pasture. Under the garden heading, the root vegetable bisque ($9) arrived in a petite porcelain Le Creuset "French oven" with a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of harissa oil (an amalgam of Middle Eastern peppers and spices), which catapulted the bisque from creamy to exotic. Charred, nutty Brussels sprouts ($9) mingled in a copper dish with pomegranate seeds and bright bites of caramelized orange, topped with a dollop of garlic aioli and a faint sprinkle of spearmint.
Among the water offerings were slivers of yellowfin tuna crudo ($13) in a rich Ligurian olive oil with diced Calabrian chiles. Mine came with a tousle of arugula (though the menu specified basil, which I would have preferred) and begged for a touch of salt and more acid — a good squeeze of lemon would help counterbalance the oil, and more chiles could punch up the dish. Carolina Calico ceviche ($14) was also short on citrus but otherwise a refreshing medley of textures and flavors: avocado, jicama, radish, jalapeño, grapefruit, and crispy yucca chips. The golden tilefish entrée ($28) got a little lost, obscured beneath generous sprigs of broccoli rabe and microgreens, and overshadowed by a medley of confit sweet potatoes, pickled shiitakes, and black garlic puree. Which is to say that although each component of the dish was well executed, the flavors were a bit muddled in the stacked plating. (Note to self: think twice before eating the black garlic puree on a romantic date, as it will temporarily coat your mouth in an inky blend a la Dawn of the Living Dead zombie).
Pasture choices included a pear tortellini ($15) flavored with an herb pistou, a dish that should perhaps be featured under garden if it weren't for the pancetta that counterbalanced the natural sweetness of the box-grated pears. The exquisitely thin grass-fed beef carpaccio ($13) was excellent; its delicate leaflets topped with a heap of arugula and streaks of truffle oil, graced with a feather-light and almost lacy sourdough crisp. The stuffed quail ($26) was paired with parsnips, sour cherries, sweet potato, and calvados jus, but again, the stacked plating of the dish obscured the quail itself, resulting in a competition of flavors. I suppose I've become somewhat spoiled by the pure and clean, "less is more" approach of so many contemporary chefs that I have come to expect it.
Despite the shortcomings, wonderful bites abound in much of the menu at Cannon Green. The staff is gracious and attentive without being overbearing, the mood classy but jovial (not stuffy at all). I washed my dinner down with sips of a French chardonnay whose rocky mineral notes channeled the fringes of the Swiss Alps, then indulged in luscious spoonfuls of the meyer lemon and olive oil cake ($7) with crème fraiche gelato and a hedonistically good Mexican chocolate pot de crème ($7).
Cannon Green is a radiant gem on the face of Charleston's ever-changing culinary landscape. The space alone should win awards for its creativity. In a perfect world, the food would ultimately speak to the sense of place that surrounds it, but maybe it just needs a bit of time to settle into the street scene. Then, in warmer weather, those glass doors will open wide onto that dazzling courtyard and breezes will usher in a new era of flavorful favorites.