Crave Kitchen & Cocktails
1968 Riviera Drive, Mt. Pleasant
Entrée Prices: Expensive ($14-$25)
Serving: Lunch, Dinner, & Late Night (Tues.-Sat.),
Brunch and Dinner (Sun.)
There isn't much in the way of fine dining once you get north of I-526 in Mt. Pleasant. Crave Kitchen & Cocktails, which opened in March in the Seaside Farms shopping center off the Isle of Palms Connector, is looking to change that. Proprietors Chris and Cara Dolan, refugees from the New York food and beverage trade, arrived in Mt. Pleasant a year ago and have opened a restaurant on the northern edge of town intent on delivering truly upscale food with a casual Mt. Pleasant feel.
As the restaurant's name suggests, Crave combines both food and cocktails in its formula and reminds us that a good stiff martini has remarkable powers for stimulating the appetite. Crave has plenty to choose from, with 16 selections on its martini list. Many lean toward the sweet and fruity end of the spectrum, and a few stray far afield from the martini name. The Blood and Sand ($7), for example, is Scotch, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth, and orange juice. This is actually a rather old cocktail that dates back to the 1930s and was named for a Rudolph Valentino silent movie. The combination sounds odd, but it comes off a lot better than you would think, proving that you actually can mix up a good cocktail with Scotch. The London Martini ($7) is more in the classic vein — Beefeater with a splash of Cointreau instead of vermouth and a little lemon and lime. It isn't clear why it's called a London Martini (since Cointreau is French), but it's an excellent cocktail and puts you in the right frame of mind to enjoy a good meal.
Crave categorizes its menu as American fusion cuisine, which they mean as a mélange of styles, frequently mixing multiple cuisines within a single dish. Or, as Chris Dolan puts it, "an all-over-the-place" menu. The appetizer menu hits at least eight international styles in just 10 selections, from Thai (red curry mussels — $10) to the curiously-named Greek dip ($8), which combines the Middle East's hummus with Provençal's tapenade. The grilled shrimp ($10) delivers local shrimp and pineapple chunks on sugarcane skewers with a peanut barbecue sauce that claims to be Caribbean but seems more Thai inspired to me. But does it matter? The shrimp are nicely blackened, and the spice lingers pleasantly, enhanced by the fruit and peanuts.
An even better starter is Crave's she-crab soup ($8). This hews fairly closely to the traditional Lowcountry recipe — a creamy crab bisque with noticeable bits of roe, not too thick and slightly tangy. When Landen Ganstrom, former executive chef at 11 Center Street on Folly Beach, wanted to put she-crab soup on the menu, Dolan challenged him to "blow it out of the park" and do something more than the same old Lowcountry specialty. Ganstrom responded with a few international twists, including drizzles of chili oil and crème fraîche and two big lumps of crab meat riding atop thin crouton rafts. I was a little skeptical of the croutons and chili oil at first, but the combination works. When stirred into the soup they add an extra bit of texture and a spicy zip that, combined with the gin from a London Martini, leaves behind an enticing afterglow.
Crave's entrées show a similar fusion of styles and textures, with a lineup of 14 regular items that run the gamut from cedar-planked salmon ($18) and fresh Dover sole ($22) to sweet Kentucky bourbon short ribs ($18) and a pesto-encrusted ribeye ($22).
The stuffed pork chop ($20) makes a splashy entrance because of its sheer size: an extra-thick, softball-sized cut with not one but two Frenched bones. The searing creates a bit of an unpleasant char on the exterior, but the meat is tender inside, and the Italian sausage, spinach, and cheese stuffing blends well. The best part of the dish is the accompanying wild mushroom risotto: thick and creamy with the grains firm and distinct.
The hanger steak ($20) is served sliced over a layer of warm spinach salad with bing cherries, candied onions, and walnuts topped with a balsamic reduction and — in an unusual touch — a few cubes of Brie. It's not quite as appealing as the more traditional shallot sauce and frites, but it's a creative combination.
In its décor, Crave aspires to take things to a higher level than your standard Towne Centre joint. It occupies a large rectangular space with the bar separated from the dining area by a seven-foot arc of a wall. The high ceiling is painted black with lots of exposed ductwork, and the garnet-painted walls are rather stark in the daylight, but once the sun goes down and the halogen pendant lights come up, the room takes on a new, more glamorous feel.
Perhaps appropriately, the most impressive feature of the interior is the custom-built mahogany bar, with its tall built-in wine racks and brown, acid-stained concrete bar top. The service behind the big bar is superb, too. Most of the patrons seem to be visitors from somewhere else, and the bartenders go out of their way to be welcoming and friendly with plenty of samples and helpful recommendations on beverages and food.
The pour of the night on my last visit was the new Sweet Tea Vodka from Wadmalaw Island's own Firefly Distillery. It's perfectly positioned to make Long Island Iced Tea a faint memory in South Carolina and likely cemented a few regular customers among the beach-going crowd.
In some ways, after just two months of operation, Crave still seems to be searching for its own distinctive style amid the blur of international influences. It's a prime spot for Isle of Palms vacationers to kick off the evening with a martini or two and some tasty appetizers. But, according to Dolan, Crave's real target market is the local crowd, particularly those who live north of town and don't always want to make the long trek downtown for a night out. For these diners, Crave offers a welcome upscale option amid the multitude of chain restaurants and sandwich shops.