American/Eclectic — Upscale
112 N. Market St.
Entrées: $20 and up
It's an elite bird, this Peninsula Grill, residing in the Planter's Inn, after all, where the planters stay, men of character and wealth, holders of property and the moneyed trappings of the ancient regime. Men who arrive in gilded carriages and dine on luxuries brought from the far reaches of the empire. These are the men who run things, who make the rules for those who can't afford to break them, who dine upon tender morsels of rare flesh.
This is the home of wild mushroom grits and oyster stew ($10.50), perhaps the most famous of the grits adaptations to appear in the last 20 years, famous all the way to New York and Chicago. She's the darling of the papers, and the critics, and the internet musings that extol her name — home to the even more famous "Ultimate Coconut Cake," lauded by Martha Stewart herself, a six-layer extravaganza that would make a convent of nuns swoon with pleasure, and a place to see and be seen, to wear your best clothes, to impress your girl and make your wife love you again.
Each moment within blesses you with the promise of another kiss, another whiff of the salty romance contained inside a fresh plate of rough-hewn mollusks. They call with a siren's song, beckoning you even if you don't belong, and most of us don't, but we are inside; allowed a glass of the bubbling fruit, a tray of briny oysters in the summer heat, spirited from far-off lands where the water stays cold even in June. We laugh and mingle over the season's bounty, a spring onion soup ($8.50) from the fertile fields of Wadmalaw, as fresh as the first blooms of May, rich, thick, and smooth, with the bite of onion and the icy cold of rich cream, and this is what it means to be a planter in today's world. This is what it means to enter the world of Peninsula Grill and taste the most storied traditions of Charleston.
Planters dine like kings. They snack on Lobster and Corn Chowder ($9.50), a steamy reduction in the French style with a hint of springtime basil. They revel in the "Lobster 3-Way" ($18.50) — crispy claws, an unctuous ravioli, and some fine tail cavorting in a buttery froth full of tomato. The old school looks you over; staid faces of white men who once ruled the city stare out from somber portraits hung from velvet walls. A large canvas remembers the Charleston Racetrack, the playground of yesteryear's elite, proud gentlemen admiring a buxom steed.
You pass through the champagne bar to get inside, luxuries flowing throughout the menu, fizzing glasses beneath a painting of slaves. In the muted landscape, they are cultivating rice with methods brought from West Africa, producing the crop that enriched Charleston and the planters with unspeakable wealth; dark legacies now afford us the opportunity to sit in elegant bar booths, and out on the open patio, dining on seared foie gras ($18) in the loveliest of cities. It is delicious foie gras, of good quality, not just because it was the first foie gras I ever tasted one starlit night with a beautiful girl and a gentle breeze in the garden palms. What a buttery sensation, with a backbeat of bitterness balanced by homespun peach jam and that little biscuit with the fat of shredded duck.
Everyone has their own favorite from the list. They must have served 10,000 plates of the benne-crusted lamb by now. They come out by the dozens, so good that the ladies sometimes gnaw the bones, throwing caution and decorum to the wind. They can't help themselves, these morsels rolled in hoisin sauce and sesame seeds and napped with a tropical wash of coconut and mint prove addictively alluring, and have for almost a decade. Chef Robert Carter subscribes to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought and it has served him well over the years.
I always order the steak; the prime ribeye, to be exact. It costs $31. It is the best steak in South Carolina, charred and heaving with juice. They marinate it in basil, olive oil, and garlic. Not much, mind you. Just so the flavors harmonize and sing a perfect bloody rare tune. This is pure meat, accentuated, tender, dripping with flavor, so big I've never finished one in-house. I always get the foie gras truffle butter, too. They have five sauces (and five for the fish preparations), but I've had only the one. It's my tradition. It's how I reward myself for slogging through another deadline or meeting some long-held goal. I look forward to the salty cut and the livery essence. It's my Valhalla, with a side of goat cheese smashed potatoes.
I also love the okra and tomato soup when it is on the menu. It makes me think of the slaves picking rice because they invented okra soup, brought the gumbo from Africa and borrowed tomatoes from some Americans farther South, those original Americans down in Mexico, the ones whose descendants now crash the borders looking for a better life. All of them travel though time in search of prosperity, the old school and the new, and they always bring their food. We share it across our tables and it is refined and reworked, made of better, fresher, and more wholesome products, reborn among us and seared into the roots of our cultural soul.
I stare at those rice fields at Peninsula Grill and I wish I could talk to those slaves, tell them what they have created, let them know of the freedom to come, how good the okra tastes today, how their children's children have become planters and eat at the privileged table. Not all of them, not even a bare few compared to the trivialized masses, but some, supping cold soups in the springtime, in the finest of restaurants, with expert service that attends to every conceivable need, the kind that folds the napkin at your vacated seat and waits for your return, that pours wine with ease and at the perfect temperature, that focuses on consistency and details, gets it right every time, serves a perfect meal to all who enter the warm interior and makes everyone a planter, even if for only a single beautiful evening in the city that slaves built.