Saffire: Charleston's Oven
American/Eclectic - Upscale
170 Lockwood Blvd.
Entrées: $20 and up
Lunch and Dinner
Strut down the open concourse nestled between the old and new sections of the Marriott hotel on Lockwood Boulevard, past the dark acrylic wicker furniture, the trickling sounds of falling water, and sheets of sheer fabric that billow around small seating nooks, and you'll forget that this delightfully modern space was once an aging '70s eyesore of a tower, all hot pink and top-heavy. Mariott not only completely renovated the space, but they've put together a pretty darn good restaurant with an emphasis on local, fresh ingredients too. It's certainly not yet the branded, media-driven extravaganza of the more boutique hotel "grills" about town. It has none of the cachet associated with Charleston Grill, Grill 225, or Peninsula Grill. It sits well off the beaten track and it's a bit pricey, but for the most part, it's really good.
The interior is ultra-modern, cool, and sparse — antithetical to the benne-topped wedding cake structures that line the lower portions of the Peninsula. You could shoot a Kubrick film in the front lobby. Bold colors and graceful lines flow all the way back to the restaurant, tucked in the rear of the hotel along a well traveled open corridor that leads past the bar, a long silhouetted affair ablaze with an ethereal glow where you can get one mean martini.
The restaurant itself boasts an array of intimate booths, clustered in the center of the space and surrounded by a smattering of dark wood tables. The open kitchen lines the back wall, displaying a large tiled oven full of blazing wood — which brings us to the pizza.
Pizza in a Marriott? Well, this isn't just pizza (they call it "flatbread"); this is a perfectly thin crust of dough topped with quality ingredients — shrimp and lobster with local Split Creek Farm's goat cheese, grilled asparagus, and sweet peppers ($7); or local heirloom tomatoes, slabs of fresh mozzarella, toasted pine nuts, and fresh pesto ($6). You can also get a charred dough sheet anointed simply with rosemary, parmesan cheese, and a drizzle of oil — for four bucks.
Other plates are equally exciting, and the oven-roasted tomato soup ($3) alone is sublime — not too thick, but substantial, with an ideal balance of sweetness and the acid twang of good, ripe, seasonal tomatoes, which means it will probably fade with the summer, so get it while you can. The asparagus plate ($7), sporting asparagus fritters — whole, fat asparagus deep fried in a delicate tempura batter, and a decadent gruyere fondue for dipping — also brings some tasty flavor to the table. Asparagus may not be exactly "in season" in a sweltering Lowcountry August, but you'll order two servings for a big crowd and go back for more.
The main dishes show real potential and deliver a solid overall experience. Perhaps the most innovative dish on the menu involves local shrimp, braised in butter and served around a pile of rich, gooey macaroni and cheese ($24). The shrimp rival anything in town — they are perfectly cooked, almost rare — and the macaroni could only find equal down at Cru Café (whose orchiette dressed with a dense béchamel is so good it gives me the shivers). The pan-seared grouper ($26) is also an excellent choice for the seafood side of things, taking advantage of a sweet peach-basil jam featured in several dishes and more of those plump asparagus spears, just kissed by the grill until charred and flavorful.
The garlic-herb stuffed chicken ($18) is of the free-range variety, flavorful and dense, and served alongside more of that asparagus (which gets a bit redundant), but the New York Strip ($28) is excellent — just ask for the "steak butter" on the side (I found it insipid and full of overwhelming flavors).
For all the satisfaction we found at Saffire, the wine list made us cringe. The offerings are slim, heavily skewed toward oak-filled fruit bombs cooked up in California, and they demand a pretty penny for wine that might cost the restaurant $10 or $15 a bottle at the wholesale level. While we understand the need to make a decent profit margin and the tendency for restaurateurs to extract a large margin out of this part of their business, the price/value ratio at Saffire is particularly dismal. But maybe that's the complete charm of the place. You almost forget for a moment that you're in a fancy corporate job that caters to a potential "resort" market. Perhaps they don't even have a choice over the wine there. Next time I'll hide a split in my wife's purse.