The Darling on King Street is clearly doing something right. A place to see and be seen, there's a palpable buzz the minute you step through the door. Reservations require advance planning, and large parties hoping for a last-minute table can anticipate such requests to be met with peals of good-natured, incredulous laughter. The former Union Provisions has been re-conceptualized as a sophisticated, elegant oyster bar. They've re-built it, and the people have come. But should you?
Well, that depends.
Should advance planning, fine breeding, or pure luck land you a seat at the elegant raw bar, then The Darling may just bump other King Street-faves down a notch or two on your list. Hip and sleek, the choice seats provide front-row viewing of both passing traffic and the oyster shucking itself.
Offering six mostly-East-Coast raw oyster options, local littleneck clams, and a handful of shellfish-based dishes, raw or thereabouts, the raw bar is by far The Darling's strength. Happy hour even sees one variety of bivalve (James River oysters during both visits) knocked down to $1 a pop. Light and mild, the oysters arrived ice cold and accompanied by cocktail sauce, lemons, and a refreshing ginger mignonette. You can't go wrong there.
By and large a sure thing, the raw bar menu does contain one notable land mine, the poke ($13). Ubiquitous in the Hawaiian islands, traditional poke — rhymes with OK — is a simple dish of chopped raw tuna, sweet onions, and limu (a salty sea algae) with the predominant flavors of sesame oil and soy sauce. The briny, nutty dish can be made with other fish or even squid, and is always served chilled and never fails to be light yet substantial. What a difference a few ingredients make. The Darling's reinvented version is downright freaky, with the innocent enough-sounding combo of tuna, green grapes, soy sauce, and sesame seeds somehow coalescing into a sweet, yet acrid flavor sensation reminiscent of absinthe. Kudos for the unabashed creativity, but no.
Turning my attention to the primary menu, appetizer options lean more toward a casual fry house, with hush puppies, fried oysters, and clam chowder all making an appearance. Ask one of the energetic, helpful servers for an opinion and you will surely be directed toward the creole shrimp ($11) appetizer. Billed by seemingly everyone — my waiter, the gentleman dropping the dish, a passer-by — as "the best thing on the menu," it's safe to say expectations were high.
Ten sauteed shrimp arrive plated over two fried, rice croquettes and smothered in a bacony, buttery mustard sauce. It's lush and rich with a hint of spice and too much salt, but nothing extraordinary. Best thing on the menu? Huh.
Similarly, the spicy shrimp salad ($7) — cream cheese, house-made crackers — is an act of "what you see is what you get" simplicity. A scoop of dip featuring chopped shrimp mixed with cream cheese, onion, and cayenne pepper is served with some simple crackers. Although not technically the same thing, pimento cheese fans will likely approve.
Personally, I'd be far more inclined to guide guests toward the delicate snapper ceviche ($13). A fresh, balanced option, the mild fish is paired with small bits of Cara Cara orange segments and finished with piquant lime juice, a touch of fennel, and a dusting of zippy chili powder. Less cured than many traditional ceviche preparations, the light, bright flavors are evocative of crudo or even sashimi and provide a welcome break from the more heavy-handed offerings.
Case in point, the oyster spaghetti ($21). Also billed as a menu highlight, think carbonara with five tiny steamed oysters and you're pretty much there — it's surprisingly bland yet salty. The bacon was flabby and under cooked, while the beautifully diced celery root was unexpectedly tough. There's probably a good idea in there somewhere, but the execution fell flat.
The Darling itself has a conspicuous yin-yang thing going on, with two polar-opposite dining areas separated by the large bar. To the left, you'll find a dark, somber space with navy blue walls and heavy wood furniture. On the right, white honeycomb tile floors and picture windows are flanked by green booths and result in a vibrant, welcoming vibe. It feels like two different restaurants, but perhaps the incongruence is intentional.
Similarly puzzling was the trifecta fry basket ($17, $22, or $27). The flounder, shrimp, and oysters come corn-meal dusted, crisply fried, and accompanied by a healthy portion of thin fries. The seafood — particularly the filleted fish — is undeniably fresh, and there's a pleasing spicy heat to the batter. However, the dish is salty enough to induce hallucinations. Even the lovely, lemony tartar sauce can't quite balance the salinity. Enjoyed separately, the accompanying kale slaw is a successful riff on a trend. Tossed with tiny bits of carrot, the mildly bitter kale is softened by the traditional mayo-based dressing and offers a pleasing herbaceous contrast to the rest of the plate.
Similarly notable, and despite the extreme popularity, service at The Darling was consistently fast and friendly. Food came quickly and with a smile, and varying members of the staff stopped by to check in or offer recommendations during both visits.
One such testimonial led to an order of the shrimp and grits ($23). More Louisiana than Lowcountry, the yellow grits come topped with nine shrimp, several thin strips of bell pepper, and a soupy, savory sauce replete with ham. The fried Brussels sprout leaves sprinkled on top are a thoughtful touch and provide a creative and much-welcome crunch. Unfortunately, and once again, the sodium cup runneth over. Every component seemed guilty, the otherwise delightful Brussels sprouts included. With a lighter touch, this would be the entree to beat.
Nonetheless, and judging by the crowds flocking to The Darling, salt may just be the new black. And with its energetic vibe and compelling seafood options, the assembled crowds don't seem too worried about bloat. Take a tip from those who seem to know: Stay hydrated, sit at the raw bar, and stick with the oysters