It's interesting that Spring Street's newest restaurant is called Eclectic Cafe & Vinyl as I would also use the word eclectic to describe the mini-renaissance that has gripped the street in recent years. An area that was once seen as too scary to walk down at nighttime only 15 years ago has become a restaurant hotbed, a neighborhood that hosts Xiao Bao Biscuit, WildFlour Pastry, Artisan Meat Share, and Tapio. The random mix of bubble tea, gourmet cured meats, delicious pastries, and some of the best Asian food in town can only be grouped together with the aforementioned adjective.
And Eclectic Cafe & Vinyl looks poised to continue to pay homage to this creative side of town. It's the type of place that works because it's in the perfect area for the audience it wants to appeal to.
The atmosphere is just so damn cute and well-designed that it's impossible not to get distracted by the look alone. Classic vinyl albums line the walls featuring a selection that wouldn't be out of place in your coolest uncle's record collection. You can easily imagine yourself getting lost staring out the window while sipping a cappuccino and nibbling a chocolate croissant on a rainy Charleston afternoon. But while the aesthetic is on point, the menu needs some fine-tuning.
A trip to the bar was met with a food and beer menu with a vast selection of dishes ranging from chicken fried quail ($15) to fingerling potato salad ($7).
The crispy quail was pounded thin and deep fried, served atop a bed of whipped potatoes, collards, and quail au jus. Surprisingly, the dish featured some of the best collards I have eaten, a perfect balance of sweet and smoky without being too limp. I was so impressed, I kept distracting my companion so that I could sneak extra bites.
The most surprising starter was the golden tomato gazpacho with papaya ($6). A silky texture reminiscent of smooth, homemade applesauce was enhanced by just a hint of cucumber. And that aforementioned fingerling potato salad had an initial aji pepper smoked spice that gave way to a pleasant finish. The potatoes were just barely boiled and still had a bite — a nice departure from the overcooked Southern potato salads I've had so many times at barbecues and family gatherings.
I was equally pleased with the Charleston Nuevo Cubano sandwich ($13). Though the bread could have been crispier — if it's supposed to be like a Cuban sandwich it really should be on denser bread — I thought the flavors were spot-on. The stone ground yellow mustard held up against the chorizo and sweet pulled pork allowing the bread situation to be almost overlooked. The lobster roll ($16), however, was not nearly as good as it should have been. Big whole pieces of claw meat were overpowered by a very strong fishy flavor; I suspect this was a result of the inexplicable and unwelcome addition of a shrimp mousse spread that had no place alongside the succulent shellfish. While well chilled, the spread just seemed too old and shouldn't have been served.
Unfortunately, that's where things went downhill. The mac and cheese ($6) had obviously been made with a high-quality funky gruyere but it tasted like it had been sitting in the fridge as the mornay sauce had started to separate from being reheated. I would love to try this dish fresh out of the oven but the reheat version did it no favors. But that was the least of Eclectic's errors.
I was so excited to try the lima beans and Carolina Gold rice ($6) as I have a hard time saying no to two of my favorite Lowcountry staples, and when the dish arrived, the presentation was promising. But the first bite caused an instant knee-jerk reaction. The flavor was pure salt. I couldn't even taste the texture of the rice. One bite was enough for me and I had to put it down.
But things finished strong. The banana bread pudding cobbler ($4) was whipped smooth and evoked the classic Southern recipe found at almost every Thanksgiving table. My only critique was that the bananas were just slightly brown, another fridge foible, perhaps.
The one recurring theme that I took away from Eclectic Café is that Chef Timothy Jackson clearly understands good quality ingredients and how to prepare them, but perhaps due to demand or budget, some ingredients seem to have lost their freshness.
Eclectic Café is meant to be a hip neighborhood record joint that just so happens to have food, but they might be shooting too high with the menu. You don't necessarily need to serve a lobster roll in a record store. Sure, it's a unique and definitely eclectic move, but if you're going to serve one in this city, especially on a food-centric street like Spring, it better be tasty and fresh. A menu tweak is needed. Luckily, Eclectic Cafe & Vinyl has a great space and some great tunes to listen to while they work on it.