Johns Island. 2867 Maybank Hwy.
Serving: Dinner and Sun. Brunch
Entrees: Moderate ($10.95-$21.95)
If you don't think chefs matter, ride out to the Wild Olive this Friday night, where Jacques Larson has taken the helm. Here is a man with impressive experience, a delicious track record of real Italian prowess, and the ability to turn out creative fare at reasonable prices. For the Wild Olive, Larson may be just what the doctor ordered.
Eight months ago, you couldn't have gotten me to step foot in the place, which was overrun with vacationing Yanks and the food they like. I found it loud and full of missteps, with forgettable basics: polenta the texture of cream of wheat, veal the consistency of shoe leather. So I have watched with interest as Larson took over and slowly massaged the menu into a Roman dream. Now I want to go every week, just to sample a bit more of what this guy has to offer.
The place still props itself up on the Kiawah traffic, and the traditional fare still haunts the menu (he serves the best Caesar salad in town right now and a killer lasagna), but you'll find nary a misstep in the execution, and none of the overwrought Francophile action that ruined the last attempts at real Italian food. The braised meats used to come with concentrated reductions so refined as to be cloyingly thick — delicious downtown at the Charleston Grill perhaps, but totally inappropriate at a mid-priced Italian bistro on the scruffier side of the barrier islands.
These days you can order the polenta and know that you'll get a respectful example, creamy and golden, ground at Anson Mills, and stirred until it gives up its deep earthy flavor. You can start with the aforementioned Caesar ($6.95), which sports a lighter dressing than most, almost sprightly rather than creamy, without an overpowering onslaught of cheese and rich oil. The lettuce is cold, as are the wonderful marinated white anchovies that provide a delicate acidity to the whole. The dishes reveal the thoughtful simplicity that makes Italian food sing.
And you can afford to eat here. Handmade pastas (and all of the primi) come in two sizes, as they should. The sausage lasagna will only set you back 15 bucks, and the current ravioli dish ($7.95/$14.95), filled with potato and fontina and bathed in sage butter could star at any place in town.
My personal favorite comes from the forest — light, fluffy ricotta gnocchi and wild boar ragu ($8.95/$15.95), a carnivore's feast. Quality gnocchi are notoriously hard to produce in quantity — only West Ashley standby Al Di La can seem to get them right — but Wild Olive's are just as good. They're featherweight beauties with just enough chew not to disintegrate at the first touch of a fork and enough heft to wield a sheave of shredded pork to the waiting tongue. The ragu is thick and warm, without an overpowering of meat or tomato. It is a Goldilocks dish, balanced and just right.
There is linguine and clams ($8.95/ $14.95) for Uncle Eddie, and sweet potato gnocchi and scallops ($10.95/$17.95) for me. My grandma can get the eggplant parm ($12.95), while I tuck into some delicate little South Carolina quail ($21.95) that have been grilled until just pink and juicy, draped across a small stack of the most delicious butternut squash farro that you have ever put into your mouth and drizzled with a warm balsamic deal that makes the whole mysterious thing one of the great dishes in Charleston this fall.
A cursory look at the Wild Olive won't reveal the enormous shift that occurred over the last few months. There are still the pretty strings of holiday lights, the same shabby chic aesthetic, and the jars of pickles on the old sideboard that must be getting rather old by now. The plastic grapes still hang from the ceiling, and eating in the little enclosed porch is like being stuck inside a reverberating base drum for two hours. But when every bite satisfies, one can put up with such minor trivia.
To make a restaurant, one needs a great chef, one that really understands the cuisine and makes it his or her own. The Wild Olive has found its master, and with him, a prominent future. It's hard to avoid comparisons to the likes of Al di La and Mt. P's Bacco here — even the typeset of the menu seems strangely familiar — but that's some damn fine company. The price is right, the atmosphere welcoming, the food an incredible, affordable experience. It's the kind of spot that cultivates regulars waiting for the next seasonal menu to drop because they've eaten every last dish on the last one. I've already picked out the arancini ($7.95) — "fried saffron risotto fritters stuffed with smoked pork and house made mozzarella" — they're first on my list for next week.