Close your eyes. Imagine you are sitting in a brand-new restaurant. Your back cozies up to a plush white leather banquette. Tables of distressed wooden planks (carefully sealed to prevent splinters) stand on artsy, welded pipes. Minimalist industrial lights with retro-bare Edison bulbs cast a hip, chic aesthetic. An acoustic playlist channels a Wes Anderson film. Black and white photos of sprawling Charleston yards line the otherwise bare walls. A server hands you a craft cocktail of gin with basil and cucumber.
Where are you? Three guesses. East Bay? Upper King? Elliotborough? Wrong. This is the inner dining room of restaurant On Forty-One, named appropriately enough after the highway that runs in front of it. That's right, you're in the 'burbs.
Like uncontrollable fig ivy, Mt. Pleasant's urban development extended its vines, gained traction, and finally, grew out of control. I couldn't help but think of this last week during rush hour as I fought bumper-to-bumper traffic heading north on 17 on a pilgrimage to find Chef Brannon Florie's newest eatery. Where were all these cars headed? And why would an accomplished chef open a restaurant way out here? Funneling slowly onto Highway 41, it dawned on me. There are tens of thousands of homes out this way: Brickyard Plantation, Park West, Dunes West, Planters Point, Rivertown, subdivisions galore. All these people need to eat. And they deserve more options than Sonic and P.F. Chang's.
Clearly Florie beat me to this epicurean epiphany with the opening of On Forty-One, the latest in a string of respectable venues for which he has either served as chef or consultant, from 17 North to The Rarebit to The Granary. On Forty-One targets the stomachs of all those hungry commuters heading to their Pleasantville homes.
The restaurant advertises "backyard dining." To be honest, I expected an actual backyard, perhaps a rambling patch of grass under sprawling live oaks. So I was surprised to find On Forty-One in a shopping center, right next to the popular Vietnamese restaurant Mì Xào. That said, the restaurant's design works hard to establish a backyard feel, with a large covered deck, some outlying picnic tables under tall pines, even a picket fence. The outdoor wraparound bar serves $3 High Lifes alongside $6 local craft beers like Holy City's Follicle Brown and Westbrook's White Thai, as well as a modest selection of craft cocktails and wine (the house white was right up my alley).
At first glance, the menu reads like an old-school roadside diner: deviled eggs, chicken livers, ribs, wings, hush puppies, fried green tomatoes. But that's deceiving. When the dishes arrived, they were hardly standard. Let's call this "Southern gourmand:" fresh, thoughtful, and well-executed versions of the classics. The chowder ($7) was creamy and velvety smooth, accented by sweet kernels of corn, crunchy cubes of house bacon, whole shrimp, and nuggets of blue crab. Rather than the typically overdressed wilted romaine, the Caesar salad ($7) comprised a generous crescent of fresh ripped kale softened with lemon juice, topped with thinly shaved planks of parmesan, a crumbled hard-boiled egg, herb croutons, and an artful side smear of anchovy dressing.
The beer-braised BBQ shrimp ($11) came swimming in a subtly spicy garlic sauce, a delicious mess served with buttery toasted baguettes to sop up the juices. In other seafood fare, the fried oysters ($12) were perfectly crunchy (if slightly over-browned), succulent, and piping hot within, served over wilted spinach in a rich cream reduction perfect for dredging.
My son wolfed down his shoestring truffle fries and house-ground burger (kids menu, $6) as I dove into a massive bowl of lobster, shrimp, and grits ($20). The grits alone were off-the-charts good: stone-ground, luscious, toothsome, with great flavor. In other words, real grits, processed the right way, cooked the right way — grits that would inspire a Yankee in two seconds flat to move South and never look back. Ladled with a delicious smothering of local shrimp, plump lobster bites, julienned sweet peppers and onions, strips of bacon, and a garnish of flat Italian parsley, this dish alone is worth the trek to the strip mall heart of suburbia.
My dinner companion gave the thumbs up on her fried chicken plate ($15), a generous serving of four pieces of tender white and dark meat encased in a shattering crunch. Her side of collards, whose leaves I saw earlier that day on social media, had just the right kick of apple cider vinegar tamed by a good bath in savory ham stock.
I vowed to return to try the braised beef short rib ($23) and smoked seared pork chop ($22) with maple-apple gastrique and skillet mac-and-cheese. Make no mistake, there are plenty of stick-to-your ribs options here. But I also noted, with a nod to the gym-goers dutifully attacking elliptical machines catty-corner from the restaurant, that there are plenty of lighter options as well, such as a seasonal veggie plate with quinoa ($13), a veggie rich pasta with spinach pesto ($16), and grilled salmon ($19) over leek and corn risotto.
The tableside s'mores ($7) sealed the ersatz backyard experience. We roasted our marshmallows over a live blue flame crackling up (with a Sterno's help) from lava rocks in a cast iron dish. A nice touch. Our waitress let on that actual outdoor fire pits will come to life with the advent of warmer weather. Maybe by then, On Forty-One can plant some bushes to better seclude the picnic area from all the traffic at this major intersection. Regardless, Mt. Pleasant residents now have a solid new option for dining in their communal backyard.