Lowcountry Bistro serves plenty of she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and Frogmore stew, which should come as no surprise considering it's the kid sister of 82 Queen, a restaurant that has elevated those Southern classics to haute cuisine. 82 Queen's owners recently snatched up the space at 49 Market St. — the original home of Limehouse Produce — and transformed it into a Southern-style bistro. Here, they vow to keep the integrity of the building's past alive by using fresh, local produce and seafood for their value-priced menu.
Inside the two-story brick building, the lower level has a handful of light wooden tables and chairs and a small bar, but there's still quite a bit of empty space. Exposed wooden beams and old church pews give the room a rustic feel, but the pews pair awkwardly with the much lower chairs across the table. Additional seating can be found on a small outside patio and on the second floor.
As expected, the Southern staples they're cooking up are just as good as what 82 Queen has to offer but with a less expensive bistro twist. While 82 Queen serves barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese with their $27 shrimp and grits, Lowcountry Bistro adds parmesan and chives to the grits and tops them with fried green tomatoes and smoked tomato and bacon sauce for $18 at dinner, $15 at lunch, and $9 for an appetizer portion available any time of day. The grits in both dishes are hand-ground in-house, and they are exceptional no matter which cheese or herb is added.
Another dish with a bistro spin is the chicken and waffle ($14 lunch/$16 dinner), which is anything but traditional. It's no ordinary buttermilk rendition: the crispy fried chicken rests on a waffle made of sweet potato, cornmeal, and bacon. The whole thing is served with a scoop of pecan butter and drizzled with sweet bourbon reduction. The waffle was too soft, but the flavor combinations worked well together — sweet and salty.
A recent special was the crab imperial encrusted rib-eye with ranch steak fries and season vegetables ($25). The rich crab imperial — think lump crab and mayonnaise — was liberally spread over the surface of the entire steak. The steak was well-seasoned and cooked medium-rare, and the crab was tasty in itself, but the dish was more enjoyable when we moved the crab to the side and ate each separately. A thinner layer may have melded it with the steak a little better.
A grilled piece of mahi-mahi topped with vibrant pesto rested against a bed of creamy white cheddar and county ham grits. To the side was a medley of roasted corn and cherry tomatoes. A waterfall of unusually thick champagne beurre blanc cascaded off the grits onto the plate ($15/$19). Most of the flavors worked well together, but the pesto and beurre blanc clashed. Flip a coin, choose one or the other, and you have a solid dish.
The pan-seared flounder ($18) was good, but the plate had too much going on. The flounder was cooked perfectly, and the rice pilaf, with chunks of crab and vegetables, was delightful. The chive beurre blanc was respectable, but there was so much on the plate that the mound of pilaf looked like an island swimming in a sea of butter. As the island eroded, the only thing I could taste was butter.
The food at Lowcountry Bistro isn't bad — these criticisms are small — but some dishes need a little refining. That said, several standouts need no such tweaking. The corn fritters ($5), ranch pork rinds ($4), and parmesan okra ($7) are all wonderful starters. We particularly enjoyed the roasted fingerling sweet potatoes, which are cut into wedges, piled on top of each other like Lincoln logs and topped with pieces of gorgonzola, bacon, and rosemary honey ($7).
The sandwiches are also good. A hefty portion of housemade corned beef, gruyere cheese, and creamy bacon mustard sits between two thick slices of marble rye bread ($10/$12). Tender, freshly roasted turkey is complemented by roasted red pepper, brie, spinach, and garlic aioli, all on focaccia bread ($10/$11). The sandwiches are served with sweet potato fries or regular fries, both satisfying.
Lowcountry Bistro offers a few standard domestic beers and 30 or so wine options, but it's the specialty cocktail menu that shines. The Southern Peach Cooler ($10) is a light and refreshing mixture of Tanqueray, muddled peach and mint, simple syrup, peach liqueur, and lemon juice, garnished with peach and lemon wedges. The sangria ($8) blends Peach Ciroc, pineapple, sparkling wine, pure cane syrup, and muddled fruit, bringing to mind an adult version of Hi-C — it's danger in a glass.
Each time I dined at Lowcountry Bistro I played the "what if" game in my head. What if they didn't go overboard on toppings? What if they kept it simple and didn't put too many ingredients on a single plate? What if they tightened up the space by rearranging and adding more tables? They certainly don't have to worry about location, as they are in the middle of the action. Tourists and locals alike will be attracted to this spot for a bite during a busy day of shopping or a night on the town. But they've got the right idea: Open a locally owned restaurant that focuses on well-executed Southern bistro dishes smack dab in the center of the Market. It's a recipe for success.