In most cities, a restaurant located seven floors up wouldn't be a big deal. But here, seven floors are all that's necessary to catapult diners and sippers above Charleston's skyline. The Watch Rooftop Kitchen and Spirits, perched atop the chic addition to The Restoration Hotel on Wentworth, achieves just that. Outfitted in shades of sky, from subdued greys to soft whites to cobalt blues, even the servers don soft denim. — The Watch's window-rich dining rooms and balconies afford 360° views. No other dining establishment on the peninsula can boast quite such a roost.
So, for example, should you choose to lunch on the shaded east balcony, you may find yourself somewhat distracted from your house-ground wagyu-brisket burger dripping with pimento cheese ($16) as you gaze clear to the harbor where cargo ships and sailboats glide, as if on cue for your dining pleasure, beneath the Ravenel Bridge. Duck into the sunny, enclosed eastern dining room for an afternoon snack of smoked paprika-dusted deviled eggs ($6), and you'll be greeted to the north by John C. Calhoun himself popping up from Marion Square with his signature grimace. Devour the candy-striped beet winter salad ($13) for Sunday brunch as you trace the sound of ringing church bells southward towards a trio of perfectly aligned steeples on Archdale Street set up like holy bowling pins. Grab a seat at the bar for a happy hour Natty Boh ($3), hickory smoked bar nuts ($5), or sorghum drizzled goat cheese fritters ($5), and peer through enclosed glass as twilight waxes lavender on rooftops. Or best of all, snag a sunset spot on the westward open terrace, sip a Spoleto cocktail ($12) of Virgil Kaine ginger bourbon, fernet rinse, and lemon shrub, and brace yourself for Mother Sky's daily finale over the Ashley.
If Executive Chef Chad Anderson's instagram feed is any indication, he must surely enjoy his new heights. Alongside photos of freshly delivered heirloom radishes, beef short ribs enjoying a pressure cooker's steamy embrace, eggs pickling in magenta beet juice, whole striper slumbering on ice, or tongs adjusting fist-sized oysters on the grill, Anderson throws in the occasional gasp-worthy shot of sky porn. Our rumbling storms and vivid Lowcountry sunsets place him a few hundred miles away from his years in Atlanta, where he honed his skills at such venerable locales as Rathbun's, The Optimist, King + Duke, and Oak Steakhouse.
Anderson's task here is to create dishes that rival The Watch's views. And some are quite striking. Planks of tender hamachi crudo ($16) peek from beneath kaleidoscope hues of pink watermelon radishes, peppery black radish, red jalapeño slices, green wisps of micro-cilantro and red-veined sorrel, semi-transparent apple cubes, and bright orange clusters of smoked trout roe. It's almost too pretty to eat. Subtle notes of citrus and sesame infuse the fish itself, layered with mild heat and paper-thin crunches. Sink your fork into perfect little cubes of ginger-terragon-compressed Granny Smith apples and have fun bursting the little orbs of smoked trout roe on your tongue. It's a beautifully designed dish, both in texture, flavor, and artistry.
Then there are dishes that aim more for the palate than the eye. Pitching straight to the guilty pleasure zone are the chicken skins ($8 all day, $5 at happy hour). The crispy-yet-pliant cracklins benefit from a crumble of moist blue cheese and a dip in house-made sorghum-sweetened hot sauce. They might not win beauty pageants, but beauty is, after all, in the stomach of the beholder, and this snack is sure to win passionate followers.
Dinner time's agnolotti ($15) envelops soft pork shoulder in hand-pinched folds of al dente pasta ladled with creamy mascarpone sauce sprinkled with crushed almonds and dotted with Spanish chorizo, all topped with a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette and sprigs of watercress. Herb-roasted chicken ($21) elevates a plump and tender bird with comforting hints of tarragon, lemon, and thyme. The flavorful skin seals the dish. Mahi ($29) bears the honest marks of an open-flame grill: balanced on a succotash of butterbeans, mixed peas, and generous chunks of crabmeat and kissed with a velvety lemon beurre fondue.
Yet The Watch is not without some stumbles. The Mexican shrimp cocktail ($16) tastes more like my grandmother's chilled sweet tomato aspic than anything Mexican. I was hoping for some heat and more than one leaf of cilantro. The shrimp and grits ($27, that's not a typo) bears the weight of a heavy tomato-bacon gravy akin to a spicy Cajun roux, smothered with caramelized onions. This might please some palates and help treat hangover blues, but it's far too dense a dish, especially given that Greg Johnsman's wonderful Geechee Boy Mill stone-ground grits are dense to begin with.
My chief complaint is The Watch's use of salt. I like salt. Love it, in fact. Yet I found myself parched for hours (no alcohol involved) following a shared group lunch of falafel and feta over tangy tzatziki ($11), a pressed Cuban sandwich with powerfully salty country ham ($14), salt-and-vinegar house chips, and The Watch burger ($16) with salty white-truffle-oil-infused fries and freshly grated Grana Padano cheese. No amount of water could clear the minerality from my palate. Salt also provided the buzz-kill for an otherwise pleasant seasonal vegetable salad ($13) whose golden beets and turnips balanced well with a beautiful beet-juice-pickled egg, cornbread croutons, and buttermilk dressing, all perfect if it weren't for pesky little bites of what I'm assuming was a roasted beet that absorbed too much of a good thing. It was like chewing on a salt lick — no exaggeration. I would caution cooks to taste-test any salt-pickled, salt-cured, or salt-roasted items before serving.
Luckily, desserts save the day, evidence that The Watch hits plenty of high notes and aims to please. Vanilla beans flavor whipped cream over creamy slices of lemon ice box pie ($8), bubbling sticky toffee cools into lushly dense squares ($8), and whipped peanut butter balances with banana slices for a tasty take on banana pudding ($7). My favorite dessert of all, one I will promote with a megaphone from The Watch's rooftop, is the hand pie ($7) made of buttery little crimped crescents of golden-fried pastry dough, stuffed with hot tart-sweet strawberry filling, served with a scoop of Kelly Chu's small-batch Cirsea ice cream, in this case "strawberry goat cheese." Slam dunk. I predict the hand pies and local ice cream combo will morph beautifully with the changing seasons.
Ironically, The Watch's fabulous "new views" put to rest some old ones. Some of you will watch the sun set and reminisce about the good old days when students could swivel telescopes in the college observatory towards hotel rooms in Charleston Place. Others may think back to when the town was sleepier and co-eds would hop from rooftop to rooftop. Ah, the good old days. Surely there are more good days, drinks, and meals to be had, and The Watch, with the right tweaks, will help us have them.