It was with both curiosity and a sense of relief that I found myself sitting on Poogan's eponymous front porch a few weeks ago, enjoying a late lunch on a warm Lowcountry afternoon. The sun was out, a light breeze was blowing, and there was a pleasant buzz of activity up and down Queen Street.
There was just one problem. Milling passersby kept mistaking our table for some sort of public preview booth. They'd step into the courtyard, check out the little marker memorializing Poogan the dog (for whom the restaurant is named), then walk up the steps to the porch. Each took a quick peek inside the front door, then stepped to within two feet of our table and stared intently at our plates for a full 30 seconds.
"This is getting sort of annoying," my wife said after about the sixth time it happened.
Just then an older woman in a pink tracksuit walked up. "Is that salmon any good?" she demanded.
My wife paused to swallow, then said with the kind of forbearance that could only come from two decades of living with someone like me, "Yes. It's good."
Truth be told, I had been asking basically the same question for years but had never been convinced enough to find my way through the front door. Poogan's Porch opened in 1976, making it one of the city's oldest downtown restaurants, but somehow, in over a decade of dining in Charleston, I never quite managed to eat there. Perhaps it was a place I had always associated with the tourist trade and, confronted with so many more downtown options, I just never got around to it.
I dug up a copy of the restaurant's menu from five years ago, and I can see why I had such reluctance. The old offering was an unadventurous blend of "Lowcountry classics" and Cajun fare: she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes mingled with crawfish fritters and jambalaya. But that has started to change under the watch of Executive Chef Daniel Doyle, who, over the past few years, has steadily nudged the menu toward more contemporary Lowcountry cuisine, discarding the gumbos and jambalaya, adding local meat and produce, and bringing some more ambition to the preparations.
It seemed time to give it a try.
Poogan's menu has plenty of Southern fusion fare that incorporates down-home ingredients like barbecue, collards, ham hocks, and grits. The mac 'n' cheese appetizer ($6) is a praiseworthy example. Big elbow noodles are enrobed in a thick, creamy sauce made with aged smoked gouda, and the cheese, along with big squares of country ham, infuse the whole thing with a wonderfully smoky flavor.
The pulled pork ravioli ($8) are quite tasty. The pasta has a nice taut texture, and the pork inside is finely shredded and slightly smoky. They're served with a "tomato ham hock sauce" that seems, to my palate at least, not significantly different than a standard red tomato sauce, and it doesn't really go with the smooth pork.
Perhaps the most ambitious appetizer on the dinner menu is the scallop and pork belly ($9), which, complete with pickled shallots, arugula purée, and barbecue sauce reduction, sounds like it couldn't possibly go wrong. But it finds several ways to. The scallops are cooked sous vide before being pan seared, though if anything that just gives them a more uniform but not more tender texture than the traditional pan-cooked variety. Scallops and bacon are a classic combination, so you'd think a big wedge of pork belly would pair well, but without bacon's smoke you're left with two rich, smooth textures that don't marry up. The sweet barbecue reduction tastes fine drizzled on the belly, but not on the scallops, while the bright green arugula purée has a harsh vegetal bite that just doesn't seem to go with anything. The big pile of microgreens on top just get in the way.
Ultimately, there seems a definite divide between the old style and the new. The dishes that still remain from Poogan's old menu are solid if unremarkable. The she-crab soup ($6) is a representative variety — plentiful shreds of crab inside a creamy, heavily thickened soup with a touch of sherry and a drizzle of chive oil over the top. There are shrimp and grits ($20), of course, and Poogan's version uses thick stone-ground yellow grits that are swimming in a generous amount of gravy and loaded with red and green peppers, onions, sausage, and tasso. The two big boneless breasts of buttermilk fried chicken ($17), with their light, crispy batter speckled with black pepper, are pretty tasty, though they're served over a rather standard sort of thick, whipped potatoes with a sage-laden pan gravy.
The biscuits, deliciously light, slightly sweet, and almost powdery in texture, deserve special notice, and they're served alongside some much more adventurous fare, like sous vide duck breast ($24) with potato dumplings and merlot gastrique or the filet ($28) with a Mepkin Abbey oyster mushroom demi-glace, broccolini, and blue cheese potato gratin.
In a legalistic sort of way, my wife was truthful to our front-porch interloper about her salmon. The fish itself ($14) is quite good, grilled to a crusty golden brown on the top but still silky inside. The cheddar cheese grits it's served over, though, are a little on the heavy side, and the sweet and spicy barbecue sauce that's drizzled back and forth across the top doesn't seem to be the right match for the salmon's rich, oily flavor.
The sous vide machine is applied to the double-cut pork chop ($19) with good effect, resulting in a thick chop with a silky and tender texture, while a final pan-searing imparts a light golden brown around the edges. The blackberry reduction is sweet and perhaps a little heavy on the savory spices, and a handful of halved and grilled Brussels sprouts just sort of sit off on the side on their own. Most unfortunately, the chop is served over what's called a "warm smoked gouda potato salad," which is pretty much just small cubes of potatoes tossed in what seems to be the same gouda cream sauce used with the mac 'n' cheese, and it fights with the tender pork and the sweet blueberry sauce. Once again, a wad of microgreens are bunched on top, adding pretty color but leaving you wondering if you are actually supposed to eat them along with a forkful of pork.
But there's still much to like about dinner at Poogan's, especially the setting. It's in a big yellow Victorian house that dates back to 1888. Inside, the dining areas are spread among multiple rooms upstairs and down, and they have that classic atmosphere of old wood floors and brick fireplaces and lots of tall windows. It's a very pleasant environment for a meal, if you can forgive a few distractions, and the menu has some notable high points, even if the flavors get a little sideways on some of the more contemporary dishes.
Poogan's Porch shares a single block of Queen Street with two other noted Charleston restaurants. One, 82 Queen, is another local warhouse sticking to the old standards of "Lowcountry cuisine," while the other, Husk, is the brash new rebel intent on forging something very new from old ingredients. Poogan's seems pulled in both directions, and one wonders which side will end up pulling the most weight in this tug of war between old and new.