The black grouper ceviche at Feathertop, Damon Wise's new downtown restaurant, is brilliant. Tender white nuggets of fish ($14) and sweet corn kernels are tossed with long strips of fennel and tiny green leaves and tendrils that impart wonderful herbal notes amid a pleasing dose of citrus.
And then there's the wreckfish ($20), which is tightly wrapped in a bright green collard leaf and laid atop a bed of butter beans and tiny tomatoes in a bright orange chili vinaigrette. The fish, which is sort of steamed inside the taut leaf, has a wonderfully firm texture and clean flavor, but in this case the citrusy bite of the vinaigrette goes too far, leaving the stuff underneath overly tart. Amid the multi-colored beans and the tomatoes and the edible flowers and bits of herbs, there's just a little too much going on.
And that reflects the uneasy balance of the offerings at Feathertop, which work brilliantly when they click but sometimes tumble off the wire and into the net.
Ever since word leaked out that chef and co-owner Damon Wise was en route from New York City, Charleston diners have been waiting with some anticipation to see what he had up his sleeve. Wise's impressive resume includes stints at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern, and Andrew Carmellini's Lafayette in New York City. Most notable was his seven year run with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio's Craft Restaurants, first as chef de cuisine at the flagship location and then as executive chef for the restaurant group, helping open Craft outposts in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta.
This time Wise has brought to a new city concepts that are 100 percent his own, and he's doing it not in a single restaurant but in a trio of establishments that make up Scarecrow & Co.: Feathertop, Wise Buck Smoked Meats, and the still-pending Scarecrow.
All three restaurants occupy a single long brick building that used to be a freight depot back when John Street was the terminus of the South Carolina Railroad. Inside that historic shell, the Feathertop dining room is stylish but spartan in all browns and whites. The thick rafters are stained dark brown against a white ceiling sloping high above. The tables are sleek and minimalist, and wood-backed banquettes line all four sides of the room.
The menu is ordered by size, with small plates then salads and veggies followed by pastas and more protein-centric entrees. The most expensive, Ora King salmon, clocks in at just $21, well below the big-night-out tier. Each entry is a list of ingredients ("cuscino, zipper peas, burgundy okra, shiso pesto" — $16) without any hint at how they're combined and constructed.
That leaves lots of room for surprises, and, indeed, each dish seems to have at least one unexpected twist. The spaghetti ($15) is dressed with smoked almonds, the rigatoni and rabbit ragout ($18) with tomato soffrito. The oysters ($3 each) hail from Nelson Bay, N.C., and are topped with a "tomatillo cocktail" — small slices of green tomatillo and a thin tart sauce that offers a deft counterpoint to the cold, briny oysters.
Thick twirls of bucatini ($17), tinted jet black by squid ink, are laced with flakes of whitefish, and the pasta has a toothsome texture and a big acidic hit of lemon. But wait, there's more, and in this case it works: a sneaky pepper heat lurking in the sauce, and some pleasantly crisp notes added by light brown crumbs of something sprinkled over the top.
The smoked whole wheat orecchiette ($16) looks equally intriguing but doesn't pay off as well on the plate. The pasta is blended with lamb so finely minced you almost can't spot it, and that lamb gives each forkful a delicious initial burst of rich, meaty flavor. But then you bite down into the flattened pasta orbs and the spell is shattered by an overly chewy texture. A few almost crunchy lima beans are tucked away inside, too, adding one more textural element that doesn't bring anything to the party.
I was most baffled by the cheshire pork ($19). The boneless chop has just a minimal brown sear to the outside and its soft, smooth texture is surprisingly bland. It's served over a mound of summer squash and shishito peppers so finely minced that they have an almost grits-like consistency, and they're laced with odd herbal flavors and a blast of lemon oil (presumably from a lot of zest) so sharp it almost burns the tongue.
But then there's the very first and maybe the best item on the menu: "three-day" sourdough ($8). It's a beautiful dome of a loaf with a crisp crust that cracks as you slice it, revealing a steamy, soft interior with a perfect crumb. Smear a little dab of the accompanying grass-fed butter (thankfully served room-temperature) and it's about as warm, comforting, and delicious a bite as I've had in a long time.
While munching on that sourdough, one can ponder the restaurant's name, which is taken from a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. A New England witch makes a scarecrow from a pumpkin head and her broom. She names him Feathertop and brings him to life with a magical pipe of tobacco, then sends him out among the townsfolk, who take him to be an elegant nobleman. Feathertop ends up courting the daughter of a prosperous local merchant and almost wins her, but he is undone when they both see his real scarecrow self reflected in a mirror.
None of this seems to have anything to do with Feathertop the restaurant, which is decidedly free of witch and scarecrow imagery (though I will note that the tasty Field of Dreams cocktail is garnished with a thin disc cut from an ear of corn.) There's definitely a lot to like about the place — the creativity, the unexpected ingredients, the flashes of talent and well-honed technique. Like the Hawthorne story, though, there is something too ethereal and abstract about Feathertop for me — a flight of fancy that gets choppy in spots and never quite manages to land.