The hype surrounding Kitchen 208's grand opening was impressive. More chicken and waffles were coming to the city, a gorgeous patio was being built adjacent to the former antique store space, and Circa 1886 chef Marc Collins was helping build the menu. But nowhere was there a mention that the restaurant would be a counter service joint that painfully resembled a Bruegger's Bagels shop.
Upon walking in for a recent Sunday brunch, we encountered a haphazard queue and a confusing ordering system. Rather than displaying their menu on the back wall, Kitchen 208 invites customers to enter into an awkward dance in which they must approach the register, grab a menu, and retreat to a corner to peruse it before making their way back up to order. Despite an upbeat and polite staff, the very act of asking about menu specifics and preparations feels rushed when conducted in front of a cash register.
We kept our order simple, trying both a breakfast and lunch item. The Low Country ($7) consisted of two eggs topped with stewed tomatoes and okra and a side of bacon, but our request for over-easy was met with nearly solid yolks. The tomato and okra combination that sat atop the eggs was quickly scraped off, too mushy to be appetizing. The Smokey Joe ($9) underwhelmed as the brisket was neither smoky nor flavorful. The aged cheddar clung to the meat like a Kraft single slice, and the Texas toast was burnt on the edges.
Thankfully, the food improved upon a second visit. The triumph of the breakfast menu is the Cobblestone ($8), a humble bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich that sits upon a benne seed bun and bursts with flavor. The bacon is candied, just sweet enough to complement an egg with the perfect level of yolkiness for a sandwich. Gruyere cheese, tomato, and arugula top it off, but the real star is a lemon mayo that brightens the entire sandwich.
The Griddler ($7), a grilled cheese that boasts every cheese in the house, was delicious — gruyere, swiss, feta, and cheddar oozed together between thick slices of perfectly grilled Texas toast. The Shrimp Roll ($12) was brought down by a celery seed aioli that was bland and begging for salt, while the baguette on which it came was rough and chewy. A pork loin sandwich called the Pickleback ($9) was overpowered on the first bite by the acidity of its pickled green tomatoes, but finished with the strong sweetness of bourbon fig jam. It wasn't until the final bite that we realized there was no discernible pork flavor in the entire dish. Less jam would probably fix the problem. A special cucumber and avocado gazpacho was thick, creamy, and garlicky. While the garlic added a nice light heat, it ultimately overpowered the delicate cucumber profile.
The quinoa salad ($8) combined feta with cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes in a Mediterranean vinaigrette, and although the vegetables were fresh and crisp, it seemed like the dish was in need of nuts or dried fruit to add texture and contrasting flavor. There was also a touch too much dressing, which rendered the whole salad unappealing.
The aptly named Belle-Gem ($9) was by far the gem of the lunch menu. Buttermilk fried chicken nestles between two slices of bacon waffles, dressed with swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and whole grain mustard aioli. It was a relief to see them take the chicken and waffles trend in a decidedly savory direction with the addition of the mustard aioli and not some syrupy concoction. But the Belle-Gem ultimately succeeds due to the quality of its protein. The chicken had a lightly fried golden exterior that complemented the juicy, flavorful meat.
Kitchen 208's interior ambiance is built upon exposed brick walls and heart pine floors that are not overly cozy. A few pieces of artwork would do wonders in cementing Kitchen 208's identity and prevent it from feeling like a reworked chain restaurant. The patio has a lovely awning system, but the arrangement of tables and chairs is scattered like a college cafeteria. It feels more like a quick stop on a tourist's first morning in town than a leisurely breakfast haven for locals.
The food at Kitchen 208 will most likely improve as executive chef Matthew Pleasants tinkers and fine-tunes his menu. But the look and feel of a restaurant, which can often determine where we'll dine, need some work before Kitchen 208 can truly shine.