When I first started writing about Charleston restaurants in 2006, Peninsula Grill was riding high. The Ravenel Bridge was brand new, the city hosted its first wine and food festival, and R. W. Apple had just declared Charleston a Southern star rising. For almost a decade, Peninsula Grill had been at the head of the pack, neck and neck with Charleston Grill as the best big-ticket meal in town. That same year a kid named Sean Brock took over for Michael Kramer as executive chef of McCrady's.
Fast forward six years and it's a very different dining scene. Line-caught fish, heirloom pork, hyper-fresh vegetables, in-house pickling and canning, and massive wood-fired ovens are the order of the day. It's a movement led by Brock and other passionate chefs like Jeremiah Bacon of Oak and the Macintosh, Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca, Kevin Johnson of the Grocery, and Mike Lata of FIG.
In many ways, these chefs made names for themselves by reacting against the formal style of high-end restaurants like Peninsula Grill. Brock actually got his start in the Peninsula kitchen when he was fresh out of Johnson & Wales, but his molecular gastronomic experiments at McCrady's and his later evangelism of heirloom Southern ingredients took him down a much different path.
Now a decade and a half in, the big question is this: Is Peninsula Grill, in light of the myriad changes in local dining trends, still relevant?
Recent events have only stirred the pot. Last May, Peninsula Grill announced that Robert Carter, its founding chef, was taking an extended leave of absence to work on a cookbook. By the end of the summer, what many had suspected was made public: Carter's leave was permanent, and Graham Dailey — who had served as Carter's chef de cuisine for eight years — was promoted into the executive chef role.
There's been much speculation over whether Dailey would make big changes, and the restaurant's marketing has suggested that he would. The official fact sheet from Peninsula Grill highlights Dailey's experience as a fisherman and promises he is ushering in "a new era of lighter, refreshed fare" and "showcasing the natural flavors of seasonal ingredients."
Dailey recently scored a coveted invitation to cook at the James Beard House, where his menu read chapter and verse from the latest hyper-Southern litany: Carolina yellowfin tuna tartare with pickled dilly beans, Geechie Boy grits fritters, and Carolina triggerfish with roasted root veggies.
But if you look at the regular menu at the restaurant itself, there's not much sign of a transformation. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, for there are plenty of things about Peninsula Grill that don't need fixing. Their style of high-end dining has always been about top-notch ingredients, whether local or not.
Peninsula has the best entrance of any restaurant in Charleston, guiding you down a stone-tiled alleyway along the side of the Planters Inn, a few tables set with white tablecloths and gleaming candles even in the winter when the courtyard is closed for seating. It's a stunning entry, setting the mood of sophistication and elegance even before you step in the front door.
That mood continues inside. The restaurant fills a rather small space, just a single dining room with a tiny bar area that you pass through as you enter. The antique cypress wainscoting and gold-framed oil portraits on the gray velvet-covered walls give it an old Colonial feel, while the sweetgrass bread baskets and the big, somewhat incongruous painting of a donkey impart a few hints of the rural Lowcountry.
That setting of old luxury is an appropriate stage for the food. If Chef Dailey has brought a new, lighter touch to the menu, I can find scant evidence of it. Many of the dishes have been served at Peninsula Grill for over a decade: the Lowcountry Oyster Stew with wild mushroom grits ($13), the seared foie gras with barbecued duck and peach jam ($18), the salmon ($25) and black grouper ($30) with a choice of sauces like ginger-lime butter and horseradish cream.
You don't have to work hard to figure out that this is intentionally decadent eating: the menu says it outright. The "Champagne Bar Menu" offers oysters, steak tartare, and Ossetra caviar at $170 an ounce. Live lobster headlines the "Succulent Seafood" selection, and the steaks are all "Sinfully Grilled."
The Lobster "3-Way" ($18) has a titillating name and an elegant piled-high presentation. A big piece of golden brown tempura-fried lobster rests atop a lobster-filled ravioli, flanked by a few chunks of poached lobster, all enrobed in a pale yellow sauce that's exceptionally buttery and lemony. The crab, spinach, and tomato salad ($18) is equally sinful, thanks to the huge chunks of cool lump crab tossed into the strips of spinach and tomato, plus six slices of fried green tomato fanned around the plate, and — as if all that wasn't enough — an ultra-rich buttery sauce, too.
Perhaps as a cautionary tale against novelty, the only real clunker during my recent visits was one of the nightly specials, a pork osso bucco. The pork shank was slow cooked, then flash-fried right before serving, a step that promised to leave the pork crispy on the outside and fall-off-the-bone tender in the middle. But the outside wasn't crispy enough to wow us, and the frying seemed to make the meat inside too dry — a shank nowhere near as meltingly tender as the kind regularly served up by neighborhood bistros at half the price.
We had better luck with the tried and true. The pan-roasted scallops ($39) present four big whoppers arranged in a line across what is essentially a long, wide, flat crouton. The palette of colors is gorgeous: the golden sear of the scallops against the dark brown of the crouton against the white garlic-chive potatoes and pale citrus lobster broth with green accents from strands of braised butter lettuce. But beware: that beautiful crouton is saturated through with butter, and the creamy potatoes and the chunks of pink lobster scattered through the buttery sauce all add up to so many layers of richness that you might just cry "uncle" midway through.
And that was my overwhelming impression upon returning to Peninsula Grill for the first time in several years — everything seemed remarkably butter-laden, salty, and over-the-top in richness. It felt like the cuisine of an earlier era, when soccer moms drove massive black Escalades, and we all bought boats with second mortgages on our ever-appreciating houses.
On a follow-up visit, I challenged myself to try the most up-to-date and freshest-seeming options from the menu, items that might fulfill that promise of "lighter, refreshed fare."
The Bibb salad ($9) is made with lettuce from Moncks Corner's Kurios Farms. Though it is fairly light and refreshing, it's still dramatic in its own way. The leaves are left whole and stacked in a big overlapping pile and layered with a cool, creamy cucumber dressing that adds a delightfully garlicky zip.
The pan-roasted Carolina rainbow trout ($36) features not only regional fish but also purveyor-specific Geechie Boy tomatoes in its tomato confit. It's absolutely delicious — the fish tender and seared a wonderful golden brown — but the big dose of rock shrimp cream underneath the two filets and the juicy bok choy give it that same heavy touch of luxury. Both salad and trout are perfectly at home amid the long-time menu standbys.
But let's not kid ourselves. Peninsula Grill is not where you go if you're looking for light, fresh flavors. It's supposed to be all about luxury. And that means one extravagant flavor after another. If one lobster recipe is really good, why not three on a single plate? That big hunk of rare filet isn't reckless enough? Spoon on some foie gras truffle butter! This is high cuisine in the classic mode, when chefs prided themselves not on finding the freshest and most authentic local ingredients but rather on jetting in the most extravagant foodstuffs from around the world.
Yes, the culinary world has moved away from this high-luxury style in recent years. One noteworthy data point: Between 1998 and 2008, Peninsula Grill won the City Paper's Readers' Pick for Best Restaurant 10 out of 11 times. FIG has taken that crown now for the past three years running.
And it's not just the food that seems a little dated. In an era when men no longer wear ties to business meetings, many restaurant patrons are starting to avoid settings where gentlemen are recommended to wear jackets for dinner. The restaurant's old Lowcountry decor, while impeccable, evokes the mythologized antebellum South and jars our contemporary sensibilities.
But how much does that matter? Peninsula Grill still routinely wows one customer after another, as their rapturous comments on Yelp and Trip Advisor confirm.
To understand why, just have dessert. Peninsula Grill's coconut cake ($10) is world famous for a reason — sheer extravagance. If the layers of white cake and gooey coconut filling aren't enough, there's a final trick: each of the cake's six layers is saturated with a simple syrup that makes each bite a soft, sweet, and perfect little morsel of sin.
And while the coconut cake is a must, don't ignore the other options. The banana "panna cotta" pudding is Peninsula Grill's melodious take on a banana cream pie, with creamy banana pudding ensconced in a dome of chocolate ganache and garnished with a dramatic arc of homemade vanilla wafer. It's an outright beautiful plate, perfectly composed with triangular panes of hardened caramel forming an eye-catching foundation.
The same attention to detail carries over to the service, too. Everything arrives at precisely the right time, with no long waits for a drink or the next course and no entrées appearing before you finish your appetizers, either. Multiple hands reliably whisk away each plate as soon as it's empty, and the waiters speak knowledgeably of the entire menu and make spot-on suggestions for wines.
And that's what's missing these days at many of the trendy temples of the new New Southern dining: elegant service and the full-on, big-night-out experience. No denim shirts or khaki slacks here; the waiters wear classic white shirts, black vests, and white aprons, and the managers' suits are as impeccable as a banker's. The meal flows around you, and you can focus your attention on your companions, your conversation, and your food.
A more casual style and lighter, more seasonal fare may play well in marketing focus groups, but I hope that the unapologetic heavy hand of luxury will continue to hold sway at Peninsula Grill. We don't need every restaurant to be forever reinventing itself to follow the latest fashions.
We'll eventually get tired of restaurants storing their pantry contents on the dining room walls and clamping cardstock menus onto clipboards like lowly bills of lading. We'll long for the nights when we used to stumble out of restaurants stunned by the utter sensuousness of it all and feeling the need to duck into a confessional on the way home.
In some ways, restaurants are like automobiles. They look great when they are shiny and new, but after a decade or so style moves on and they begin to seem dated and tragically uncool. But, if you can hold on to one long enough, the magic of time transforms it into a classic.
And classics are something we don't really have yet in Charleston, where restaurant dining is a relatively recent phenomenon and has nothing approaching the long history of other great restaurant towns like New Orleans or New York.
But if places like Peninsula Grill stick to their guns, perhaps some day we will. And then, just as the connoisseurs say today, "If you're in New Orleans, of course, you must stop into Antoine's for the soufflé potatoes and Gallatoire's for the crabmeat maison," perhaps one day they'll also say, "While you're in Charleston, you simply must have some coconut cake at Peninsula Grill."
Maybe they'll even plaster on their advertisements: "20th-century dining at its most elegant." That would suit me just fine.