The debut of Ellis Creek Fish Camp has been a long time coming. Owner Richard Stoney, whose restaurant group Crew Carolina runs the popular Boathouse at Breach Inlet and SALT, bought the former Mimi's Café building in 2008. After outfitting it with a nautical theme Stoney opened The Boathouse on Ellis Creek in 2009. But just as the new venture was getting its sea legs and ramping up for Charleston's annual Wine + Food Festival, a midnight kitchen fire incinerated the building.
That's a shame. The Boathouse on Ellis Creek and its predecessor Mimi's Café were beautifully positioned. Comfy wooden decks lined the marsh. Diners sipped and lingered to watch the setting sun cast its glow across the water.
By contrast, the newly opened Ellis Creek Fish Camp sits not on the marsh, but significantly inland. The former creekside deck is now a parking lot. Although Ellis Creek Fish Camp advertises itself as "creek-front dining," the reality is even at the outdoor picnic tables, one must rubberneck over parked cars to take in the view. Inside is no different. I faced away from the overhead flat screens to avoid Donald Trump impacting my meal, and from my chair, I could see neither parking lot nor marsh. The windows are just high enough to preclude diners from looking straight out, but I did enjoy seeing live oak branches just outside the window.
Walls of tabby veneer and white-washed trim give the place a polished rustic feel, definitely sleeker than its "fish camp" title. When I think fish camp, I envision something more along the lines of the Wreck of the Richard & Charlene on Shem Creek, a seafood slinging well-worn edifice with drop-down plastic in winter and a steady stream of shrimp boats just steps away. Historically, fish camps sprang up as ramshackle pop-up eateries where local fishermen served creek laborers. The term has now expanded to infer a casual restaurant offering ample servings of mostly fried fish at affordable prices, alongside comfort items like hush puppies and French fries.
Ellis Creek Fish Camp embraces that principal to a degree, but with fancier fare. The menu, which changed a bit on my various visits and is therefore still evolving, brims with fresh salads, tasty burgers, flavorfully dressed tacos, artful flatbreads, even chicken and waffles. Ellis Creek offers a fried grouper sandwich, fried oyster basket, fish & chips, and some other po-boy iterations. Then there's the Bubba Gump levels of shrimp — fried shrimp, peel & eat shrimp, shrimp roll, skewered shrimp, shrimp po-boy...
The house cocktail list is creative, peppered with fresh ingredients like lemongrass, mint, muddled fruit, and basil, and giving lip service to local distillery darlings High Wire and Striped Pig. To squeeze the last drop out of summer, I went for the sriracha-peach margarita ($8), a zippy spiked slushy with fresh peach purée and a bit of a kick, served in a clear plastic cup made of compostable material. It was a refreshing sip. Unfortunately, it took 20 minutes for us to get our drinks; we saw them poured and sitting on the counter, then finally stood up and got them ourselves
For apps, delicately coated tentacles of cala-mari ($8) crunched beneath a light lemony dip. The hush puppies ($6) came tricked out with blue corn, fried to a golden crisp. They were slathered with accompanying honey-sumac butter and delicous. The okra ($5) came fried whole, with a smoky jalapeño aioli. Less impressive were the crispy catfish bites ($6) whose bland flavor wasn't quite rescued by the spicy-sweet sriracha-honey dipping sauce. Nor could a spicy coating make up for the soggy chicken wings ($8).
Our waitress, though friendly, seemed a bit confused, explaining, that every time she takes some days off, she returns to find the menu has changed. That was her response to our question, "Do you have a kids menu?" They do, and frankly, the chicken fingers ($7) were the best we have ever had, with the tender, moist, crispy chicken and shoe-string fries gobbled up in short order. An equally tasty burger ($8.75) came on a pliant bun, loaded with ripe tomato and fresh mixed greens. On a lunchtime visit, I was happy to see the Limehouse Produce truck pull up, always a symbol of quality sourcing.
Individual soft tacos ($4-$6) came with flavorful dressings such as cilantro lime slaw and tomatillo salsa, some of them super drippy. My advice would be to opt for the flour tortilla which seemed to hold up better than its corn peer. My favorite taco — winning out over pulled pork, blackened shrimp, and fish — was the grilled chicken taco with a depth charge of cumin somewhere in the mix.
Artful flat breads are definitely not typical "fish camp" fare, but I could not complain when presented with a generously sized stretch of crispy, buttery dough stacked with melted cheddar, wilted arugula, chunky bits of bacon, and three jiggly, sunnyside up eggs ($10). This chef is clearly thinking outside the fishnet.
We devoured our basket of fried shrimp ($12 for small, $16 for large) — medium-sized, juicy shrimp with a slightly heavy crunch. My fried oyster po-boy ($15) came loaded with tomatoes and pickles, overwhelming the briny flesh of the oysters themselves, but I was able to remove some pickle dressing and enjoy the sandwich. The table's star entrée by far was the shrimp roll ($14) piled high with succulent chilled shrimp and shredded basil encased in an airy brioche bun. I washed it down with a smooth, sweet Welder's Agave Wheat ($6.50) draft and got the distinct impression the stuffed buck on the wall was grinning at me.
All in all, once we got over the disappointment of the fact that Ellis Creek Fish Camp is not right on the water, and laughed off some slips in service, the food was good — maybe a bit elevated, both in style and price, for anyone expecting a rustic fish camp experience. The cole slaw side is a perfect example. If you're looking for the classic vinegar-dressed or mayo-swimming stuff, forget it. At Ellis Creek Fish Camp, slaw comes tossed in blue cheese, then further dolled up with candied pecans and sliced red grapes.
For James Island residents, Ellis Creek Fish Camp is a welcome addition. They may fret about traffic slowdowns caused by the restaurant's positioning on a blind Harborview Road curve, but the place appeared full of residents enjoying themselves. And this week's arrival of a new general manager (per our server) should help iron out kinks. If only an army of Vikings could pick the place up under cover of darkness and tip-toe it closer to the marsh.