Downtown, 10 Exchange St.
Entrees: $20 and up
It's hard not to love the latest incarnation of Carolina's, the age-old classic nestled among the old wharves- turned-ritzy-townhouses of lower East Bay Street. And it's hard not to love the chef, or at least his name — I'm not sure you can get a better one for a chef than Jeremiah Bacon. Add to that a cerebral quality beyond your typical hash-slinger (the guy has a degree in philosophy from the College of Charleston), along with a professional culinary education at the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America (the Harvard of cooking schools), and experience at some of the most celebrated restaurants in America (Thomas Keller's Per Se and Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin, among others), and it's easy to understand why foodies should get excited about Carolina's once again.
Since opening as Perdita's in the early 1950s, the space has been a revolving door of great chefs and preparations, and always a place that moved Lowcountry cuisine forward. From the classic Perdita's "Fruits de Mer" to the legendary tenure of "Mama" Rose Durden and the brief but beautiful time put in by Tin Dizdarevic (whose braised lamb shank with white beans and Palmetto bass preparations were the best in town), Carolina's has always experimented with the concept of Lowcountry cuisine. Bacon is now pushing beyond the limit of what the tourists expect to eat and is making fresh dishes that are exciting and successful.
Hallowed restaurants might be the most challenging environments for innovative young chefs. These institutions bring established clienteles, demanding and complacent, fretful that their favorite place might change, and suspicious of the guy who would make it do so. The new chef must negotiate a fine line between the popular classics of an existing menu and his or her vision for the future. Bacon clearly understands this challenge.
He pushes forward in a new direction, but the old stuff is still there. Carolina's bills itself as "The Original Southern Bistro," after all, and the "Shrimp and Grits with Tasso Gravy" ($22) shows a desire to keep the boat from rocking. "Shrimp and Crabmeat Wontons with Soy Lime Ginger Aioli" ($10), reminiscent of Mama Rose's Asian influence, intertwine with more contemporary fare like braised pork belly ($8 and evidently so delicious that they can't keep it in the kitchen for me to try).
The "Glazed Quail with Collard Greens, Bacon, Hominy, and Black-Eyed Pea Relish" ($10) presents a whole bird, practically de-boned save for the ends of the wings and the little drumsticks peeking from beneath a lacquered crust that encases the plump, juicy, perfectly-cooked breasts. If they're not prepared sous vide, then the skillet guy is a master. The "Beef Carpaccio" ($10) coats an entire plate with the paper-thin meat and the exotic flavor of the Maghreb, dressed with only a few greens, a small pile of shaved parmesan, and an inventive vinaigrette tainted with the mysteriously salty backbeat of preserved lemons.
Chef Bacon poaches tuna in olive oil and stuffs it into roasted piquillo peppers ($9), drizzles the whole with the salty tang of ricotta salata, and calls it a salad. He serves whole fried flounders with housemade peach jam ($26), and dresses grouper with inky port wine reductions ($24). His herb-crusted rack of lamb ($29) comes splayed across a dense gratin of garlic potatoes and little nuggets of sautéed green beans with fresh oyster mushrooms — delish.
Of course, the classics come through equally well. Big slabs of well-marbled New York Strip ($28) perch on the silkiest mound of mashed potatoes, surrounded by an expertly-blended red wine reduction sauce with a hint of shiitake mushrooms.
If there is a flaw, it's the same that Carolina's has frequently succumbed to — amateurish service. Compared to other fine dining establishments in town, places run by people that Chef Bacon would consider worthy contemporaries, the front of the house just never adds up. It's in the details: uneven timing, dishes laid to table before accompanying silverware, long waits between courses and short stints between others, inadequate knowledge of the ingredients and the wine — at least at the prices one is paying. Serious food must take a serious approach to the experience itself, and anyone who has ever eaten (much less cooked) in the shrines of Thomas Keller, can't help but loath the juxtaposition of such shoddy service against stellar food. But you can't blame Bacon. Carolina's has struggled with such things before he arrived. Here's hoping all his experience in some of the best restaurants in America will whip them into shape.