Raw meat dishes — mostly sliced or chopped and minimally adorned beef, seafood, and game — are a refined part of almost every world cuisine. Sushi, of course, has traveled the world. And less common Western-style raw dishes, whether called tartare, crudo, or carpaccio, have been helping diners get in touch with the primal caveman inside.
Raw dishes are especially well suited to restaurants, in part because many people are reluctant to make them at home. When well prepared — think beefy, umami-rich steak tartare — raw meat makes a sublime start to a meal. When done badly — think watery, tasteless tuna cubes covered in sesame oil and soy sauce — we find ourselves wishing that forgettable fish had gotten away, saving us all (including the fish) the expense.
Because they're often minimal, raw meat dishes offer especially clear insight into a chef's ability. Without the influence of fire, a chef has to step up his other skills: careful ingredient sourcing, good storage and temperature control, solid knife skills, and the experience to match the best raw products with a few key ingredients that enhance, not overpower, subtle flavors and textures.
These are good times for raw meat. Local chefs are resurrecting tartares, crudos, and carpaccios and boldly offering them up for us all to enjoy. Here's a recent sampling. If you don't find these exact dishes, don't be surprised; chefs change their menus all the time based on the quality of ingredients they find.
232 Meeting St. (843) 805-5900
Do you need another reason to eat at FIG? How about Mike Lata's Strube Ranch Wagyu beef tartare with parsley salad and maxim potatoes ($11)? Like most of Lata's cooking, this dish is all about doing a few smart things to the best ingredients available. He finely chops Wagyu beef by hand, seasons it with just enough fleur de sel to bring out the beef's inherent sweetness, and combines it with a local egg yolk, a shallot, fresh ground black pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. It's deep red in color and profoundly meaty, nicely matched with a bright green, herbaceous, and tart parsley salad flavored with aged sherry vinegar. It's a damn good starter alongside a cool glass of Rhone red.
199 E. Bay St. (843) 724-3815
There are plenty of common, bland tuna tartares around, but High Cotton's tuna tartare-stuffed avocado ($11) isn't one of them. Plenty of impeccably fresh ahi tuna is tossed with nuoc cham (a Vietnamese dipping sauce made with ginger, jalapeño, fish sauce, and soy), mounded inside half a ripe avocado and set over two different housemade cucumber and cabbage kimchis, then drizzled with a glossy soy reduction and spicy red sriracha sauce. Raw fish and fermented cabbage together? Chef Anthony Gray not only pulls it off, but also brings out seemingly new and interesting flavor in the otherwise subtle tuna, tying it all together with the smooth, rich texture of avocado.
Another exceptional raw dish at High Cotton is the carpaccio. Very thinly sliced local grassfed Carolina eye of round, seasoned with coarse Maldon sea salt (which gives textural contrast), gets topped with rye croutons (ditto), sprinkled with chopped hard-cooked local farm egg, and drizzled with a little smoky hot paprika oil. It's a celebration of the flavor and texture of good quality raw meat.
112 N. Market St. (843) 723-0700
Chef Robert Carter has a few tricks up his sleeve on the raw dish front. His "Argentinian-style" steak tartare with grilled rye croutons ($12.50) is always on the menu. Carter seasons about three ounces of raw beef with shallot, thyme, hot sauce, basil oil, salt and pepper, lemon juice, and chopped capers, forms them into quenelles, and sets them alongside smoky grilled rye toast triangles. The smoky flavor of the grilled bread is imparted to the beef — a bit of culinary sleight-of-hand and a subtle play on the raw vs. the cooked. It's a thoughtful version of a classic dish.
41 Bogard St. (843) 973-3323
"Crudo" means raw in Italian, and you'll usually find at least one on Chef Ken Vedrinski's menu. A recent offering — crudo of local black bass with shaved fennel, grapefruit, pickled garlic, and Calabrese chiles ($11) — was expertly prepared. Local black sea bass is sliced thin enough to melt in your mouth but not so thin that it falls apart. It's anointed with citrus-y sweet-sour grapefruit and shaved fennel and punctuated with thinly sliced pickled garlic for a subtle grounding in earthiness. A generous drizzle of Ligurian extra virgin olive oil adds body, and a few thinly sliced chiles point up all the flavors.
Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar
205 E. Bay St. (843) 853-8600
What Amen Street lacks in frills it more than makes up for by consistently delivering simply prepared, top-quality seafood. Chef Todd Garrigan's local scallops crudo ($12.95) exemplifies that value. Medium-thin slices of raw sea scallops are topped with a restrained amount of pink Hawaiian sea salt, aromatic herb-infused olive oil, and a baby spoon of American caviar, topped with a delicate nest of peppery micro-greens. It's a perfectly balanced dish; there's nothing on the plate that doesn't belong and that doesn't in some way enhance the scallops' silky texture and of-the-sea flavor.