For more than a decade, Chef Robert Carter ran the show at Peninsula Grill, the biggest of downtown's big-night-out restaurants. He wowed locals and visitors alike with his indulgently rich seafood and steaks and a coconut cake that became world famous. Now, he's taken it down a notch and moved out to the suburbs — to Mt. Pleasant's I'On neighborhood, to be precise. Back at the beginning of the year, he took over the restaurant inside the Inn at I'On, formerly known as Jacob's Kitchen, and made it his own, renaming it Carter's Kitchen
For Carter, it's a big change, moving from high-end fine dining to more of a neighborhood bistro format, but it's his place now, so he can make it into precisely the restaurant he wants it to be. Carter shares his story with patrons as he works the dining room floor, delivering meals, chatting up the guests, and regaling them with his appearance on Iron Chef America.
The menus, in keeping with the more informal style, are affixed onto tan boards with blue rubberbands, and they offer a selection of what the restaurant terms "simple yet refined American cuisine."
There's a "Tavern Menu" of items that would serve well as bar snacks, but they're perfectly fine for munchies at the table. A bowl of toasted cashews ($4.50) arrives still warm from the oven, tossed with sea salt and fragrant rosemary, a subtly addictive snack. The pickled shrimp ($6.50), served in a glass jar with a silver flip-top lid, are superb. The tender shrimp are tossed with capers and onions and infused with the bright tang of sherry vinegar.
The crab tostadas, on the other hand, are a letdown. A thin strip of fried tortilla, about two inches wide and six long is topped with a scoop of crab mixed with manchego. It's like a cold crab salad on a tortilla spoon that, unfortunately, turns out to be salty and watery, and with just three tostadas for $14.50, it's a pretty expensive letdown, too.
The appetizers have highs and lows as well. The housemade pork boudin ($11.50) is OK as a link of sausage goes, though its grainy and crumbly texture is a pale shadow of the savory, rich variety you get down in Louisiana, and it's topped with a pile of crispy fried onions that just get in the way. The grilled quail ($11) is also good but not great — a little too heavily charred, with a bit of an astringency beneath the natural dark, gamey flavor. But the fresh fettuccini that's served alongside is absolutely wonderful. The wide, tender noodles are tossed with spinach and goat cheese in a creamy sauce; a few oven-dried tomatoes add a splendid sweet bite to it all. (In fact, since I first visited, the fettuccini has been promoted to a stand-alone appetizer in its own right, its place on the quail plate taken by baby arugula and parmesan).
As the pasta shows, when Carter's combinations click, they are really, really good. The scallop appetizer ($12), three golden-seared scallops over a superbly creamy parsnip potato purée, is perhaps the best thing on the menu. It has all the sultry decadence that made Carter's cooking such a hit at Peninsula Grill, but there's one extra detail — the little piles of bacon marmalade that dot two corners of the white plate — that puts things over the top with an added smoky, sweet touch.
That same phenomenon is at work with a fried oyster appetizer special. It's a sort of play on oysters rockefeller, with four plump, crispy oysters positioned atop a bed of sautéed kale with a parmesan cream sauce replacing the traditional hollandaise. What really makes the dish are the little bits of savory pork sausage tucked away inside the greens, adding surprising little bursts of flavor to each bite.
The seven entrées that make up the Main Plates offer American bistro-style dishes, and a slate of nightly "blue plate specials" sneak in a little comfort fare like fried chicken (Sundays) and bacon crumb-crusted meatloaf (Tuesdays).
The half-chicken entrée ($18.50) is "french cut" — ballotined to remove all the bones but the tip of the drumstick — then cooked a golden brown and served sliced into rich, tender chunks. The chicken couldn't be better, juicy inside with a nicely crisped skin, though the accompanying veggies don't quite pull their weight. The chunks of baby turnips are rather stark, the "smashed" potato cake is mushy and overly salty.
Saltiness, in fact, looms threateningly over the whole menu at Carter's Kitchen. On some dishes it works; on others, like the duck confit, it wrecks things. One would expect duck confit to be salty, of course, and the big crispy leg is pleasingly so. As you dig into the bed of lentils underneath, you taste a nice note of vanilla but then hit the oversized greens, which explode on your tongue in salty bursts that overpower even the hearty duck. On the flounder and shrimp plate ($21), the single filet of crispy fried flounder and four fried shrimp are a tasty if rather paltry serving for the price. The small bowl of cheese grits on the side may be made from the good local Geechie Boy stuff, but it's so heavily salted that it doesn't really matter.
But then you get an entrée like the New York strip ($26.50), a basic skillet-seared steak served with golden-brown fries and a little silver ramekin of "BBQ jus." The steak has a generous cap of fat and just the right amount of char on the outside, and each bite is tender and intensely flavorful. It can certainly stand alone without any sauce, but the barbecue jus adds a welcome sweet, tangy complement.
Ultimately, I think, there's a little tension at play from trying to adapt Carter's high-end cooking style to a more modest, down-home setting, and the format will take a little work to perfect. It is indeed a nice setting for a relaxed, casual meal. With high ceilings and warm cream-colored walls accented by brown woods and beadboard, the dining room is stylish but comfortable. There's outdoor seating on the broad wraparound porch, and the bar area has been enlarged since the Jacob's Kitchen days.
On my first visit, the service was nothing short of a train wreck: empty glasses, appetizers finished and entrées still unordered, and our waiter nowhere in sight. On a follow-up visit, though, everything was just fine — casual but attentive service, the meal flowing around us while we talked. And the food seemed better too, perhaps a sign of ongoing calibration during the restaurant's opening months.
All told, Carter seems to have found himself a promising spot. His kitchen offers an interesting blend of high cuisine and comfort fare, and while its results may have been inconsistent out of the gate, there's plenty of potential there: the pickled shrimp, the splendid scallops, the flavorful New York strip.
Jacob's Kitchen struggled to get noticed, tucked away as it was back inside the I'On neighborhood, but the celebrity of Robert Carter and his loyal fanbase from his downtown days may prove enough of a draw to get folks to check it out.