Named for the all-but-forgotten heirloom fruit, a cousin of the papaya and part of the tropical custard apple family, Pawpaw restaurant occupies the former home of Wet Willie's. Devoid of the colorful wall of spinning frozen daiquiris and accompanying spinning, drunken revelers, it's now a posh, welcoming space with a menu that's unabashedly upfront in its Southern sensibilities.
Case in point, Davee's buttermilk biscuits ($5.50). A hug on a plate, the three perfectly light, fluffy biscuits are seemingly made by the fairy grandmother of your dreams. Topped with a sprinkle of salt, the accompanying honey butter and sweet strawberry jalapeño jam offer lovely contrast, but the real star of the show is the smoked pimento cheese. Finely shredded to a featherlight texture and imbued with chipotle-esque notes, this will likely become the yardstick by which all future pimento concoctions are measured.
Similarly, the fluffy hushpuppies ($7.50) are indeed as airy as described. A marvel of construction, they're fried to perfection with the crisp exterior yielding to the pillowy innards. Unfortunately, the thrills stop there, as the flavor is blah and the lemon-dill dipping sauce, honey butter, and tarragon remoulade don't add enough to compensate. Life posits many a quandary, and Pawpaw's cocktail menu adds a new one to the list with the "Why Haven't I Met Bill Murray? ($25) cocktail. A drink as much as an invocation, it's billed as a smoked old fashioned, and comes to the table literally smoking. It smells like camping, with woodsy, nostalgic flavors and a finish reminiscent of a gourmet s'more. I am not among the anointed, but I can tell you a WHIMBM makes for an excellent invitation to others to share their Murray encounters. While sipping I heard the following from my friends:
"Bill used to come into YoBo in his dad sweater vest and big white tennis shoes and serve people tequila from behind the bar, regardless of what they ordered."
"I was picking up my mother-in-law outside the airport. When I pulled up, here he comes behind her, carrying her luggage, which he put in my trunk."
"We were sharing a blunt outside this yoga studio, when he came up and joined us. Right before he left, he told us, 'No one will ever believe you.'"
Perhaps the restaurant should consider a monthly "Show and Tell" event?
In the meantime, the ahi tuna tartare bites ($13.50) will have to suffice. Cubed and served with sesame seeds, the fish is reminiscent of Hawaiian poke. Plated on tiny rounds of fried golden rice, the amuse bouche-like dish is tasty, but would have benefitted if the six tiny rice cakes were crisper. Think love child of the Spago classic, Spicy Tuna Tartare in Sesame Miso Cones and a poke bowl, and you're there.
The former Wet Willie's space has cleaned up nicely, with sophisticated muted colors, wood-grain tabletops, and a mirror tiled bar adding some glam, but one thing still reminiscent of a room filled with bachelorette parties is the noise level. At times only the drumbeat is audible, leading to guesses ranging from "Billie Jean" to "Ridin' Dirty".
But you won't want to talk much anyway, as it takes focus to make sure you get your fair share of the crispy blue crab cakes ($15.75). The breaded, fried spheres have a crunchy exterior that gives way to a lava flow of gooey crabby goodness. Accompanied by a smoked pepper coulis and tarragon remoulade, the prime directive of crab cakes — don't interfere with the crab — is honored to great effect.
Meanwhile, the cast iron potato gnocchi ($16.50) is a head-scratcher. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with char: One of my favorite family recipes involves intentionally scorching the life out of some onions. All the same, the light, pillowy gnocchi came out so hard and black on one side, I thought it had to be an accident.
"It's coal roasted," the waitress explained. Hm. Cast iron conveys one thing, coal roasted quite another. Burned by most standards, the otherwise beautifully prepared gnocchi seem short-changed. Paired with a doggedly savory combination of sausage, kale, Parmesan, and oyster mushrooms, there's no real relief from the flavor of carbon.
Service at Pawpaw is also a puzzler. Although friendly, sustained attention was hard to come by. By mid-meal my genial waitress had presumably fallen off a cliff, and I found myself moving dirty plates to an adjacent empty table to make room. Before she went missing, she'd mentioned twice that she began training for the job back in August, visiting farms and wineries. Nonetheless, she answered almost every food-related question with a cheery "I don't know."
Perhaps this is why she so stridently recommended the hickory smoked and grilled ribeye ($32.95). Perfectly cooked, but notably underseasoned, the aggressive char flavor was once again a little too front and center. The generous portion is served with tender green beans and crisp, battered steak fries. There are no real surprises here. Certainly it's as good a steak as you could get anywhere, but why play it safe when there are some superlative plates — like Chef Jared Rogers' free-range recipe #88 fried chicken ($22.95) — to be had?
When it first arrives, the chicken looks way too dark, as in waaaay too dark. But don't be afraid, as whatever sort of campfire sorcery has occurred adds a depth that is both sultry and comforting. Inside the crisp coating, the meat remains moist and tender. The pedestrian mashed potatoes don't add much, but the collard greens made with honey were a revelation and worth a trip in and of themselves.
Similarly, break through the rich, charred crust of the market catch ($27.95) — grouper, in my case — and find luscious, fall-apart-tender fish. One of the most bountiful portions I've seen in a while, it's served with bright green asparagus, crab butter, and an unnecessarily generous allocation of sweet potato puree. When I return for Bill Murray open mic night, it will be for an encore of the daily catch, sweet potatoes on the side.
With such a patently Southern menu, it's no real surprise that Charleston's signature dish makes the cut, and the smoked shrimp and grits ($25.95) pays creative homage to the classic. Served on a bed of not-drowning-in-cheese-and-butter-for-once grits, it's the brightest, freshest rendition with which I've had the pleasure. Accompanied by a dazzling array of breadcrumb-crusted fried okra pods, sausage links, raw baby spinach, and even more asparagus spears, this preparation takes the classically rich and heavy dish and renders it almost refreshing. Topped with three gargantuan wood-charred shrimp and accompanied by vibrant pickled green beans and carrots, it's familiar yet contemporary.
And that, in short, is what Pawpaw does best. With its modern take on homespun classics, this was an impressive culinary showing from what's likely to become a new hotspot. You won't miss the daiquiri machines one bit.