It's hard to argue for radical change at a place like The Woodlands. For years, the kitchen has led the way for culinary excellence in the Lowcountry — a daunting mission if one considers the incredible selection of fine dining in nearby Charleston. For a restaurant to succeed as The Woodlands does, sequestered away in the hinterlands of Summerville, testifies to the vision and skill of its kitchen and the intimidating task of filling Ken Vedrinski's and then Scott Crawford's shoes, which would make even the most accomplished chefs fear a disappointing failure. Vedrinksi consistently won accolades, acclaim, and a highly coveted five-diamond status, which Crawford adeptly secured in his short-lived tenure. One could easily imagine the temptation to hire a luminary chef, a known entity that would validate the exemplary nature of the place. Yet, at the end of a long search, the best man to run the show proved to be right under their noses.
He may have yet to be a superstar, but new executive chef Tarver M. King holds his own against the stiffest of comparisons (read the Q&A with him below). He inherits a veritable palace of gastronomy, a place where the expectation of perfection applies to all aspects of the experience, and while the dining room retains its staid demeanor, King enhances the already heady experience with new twists on Woodlands' classic cuisine. Dining at the Woodlands has lost none of its flair under his command; it's as good as it ever was.
The place still stands as if locked in time, all brick and column, a ceremonial space that demands reverence — and that men wear jackets. Two attendants welcome you at the door, whisking away your car as you enter the gracious lobby of the inn and proceed to the dining space, also unchanged. More large columns greet you as you settle into the big, comfy chairs and the expert servers descend upon your table. The Woodlands is all about minutiae, and few details are ever overlooked, on the plate or at the table. The menu retains its emphasis on multicourse progressions, amuse-bouches and the like woven within the tapestry of flavor. They range in price from $65 for the four-course offering to $115, which will snag you a "spontaneous menu preparation using the most luxurious ingredients in the world." Any way you slice it, they make big promises at the Woodlands, and they do deliver.
First courses, like "Maine Lobster Tail, Endive Tips, Creamy Yuzu Vinaigrette, Lobster Cappuccino, Garlic Biscotti" deliver adroit execution and showcase the considerable talent of Chef King. As a former associate puts it, "Tarver is a veritable encyclopedia of food" and it shows through in the creative combinations that fly from the kitchen. The "Crispy Sweetbread 'Sandwich,' Sunny Side Up Chicken Egg, Sopressata, Truffle Emulsion" comes perfectly crisped, the crunch of the sweetbreads buttressed by equally rich, but silky smooth, egg yolk and an earthy sheen of black truffle. "Carpaccio and Tartare of Big Eye Tuna, Tomato Tabbouleh, Meyer Lemon Juice" features tuna so thin as to be translucent, so clean and fresh that the accompaniments seem almost superfluous (and they are certainly spectacular in their own right).
Salads provide imaginative applications that stretch the definitions of the genre. They bring deconstructed arrangements, iceberg lettuces presented as perfect "ice cubes," napped with buttermilk. A Caesar salad plates a mixture of constituent ingredients that must be customized by the diner, the lettuces bounded by crunchy napkin rings of croutons.
These playful adaptations transition beautifully into the main course. Perhaps the best dish on the menu is the "Cornmeal Crusted Tasmanian Salmon, Shaved Speck, Ramps, Polenta Butter, Lemon Vinegar." The salmon skin crackles, dusted with the lightest of cornmeal sprinkles. The lemon and ramps provide sharp, contrasting high notes against the rich butter and pork shavings, all supporting the perfectly cooked fillet of fish. A "Garlic Roasted Rabbit 'Roulade,' Truffled King Trumpet Mushrooms, Brussels Sprouts Confit" seems magically produced, with a meltingly tender rabbit loin that's surprisingly rare (sous vide perhaps?). It, like the rest of the dishes, is flawlessly executed and masterfully served with ingredients at the peak of freshness, perfect examples of perfect food.
Taking over a place like The Woodlands presents enormous pressures for a chef. Barring radical change, there really seems no place for it to go but down. Expectations are at their highest from the first night and any letdown from the previous performance would be strikingly noticeable. It is a testament to King's abilities then that Woodlands has become even better than before. King has taken the lessons of Crawford and Vedrinski and expanded upon them, marrying the constraints of a successful tradition with his own unique, creative influences that update the cuisine. Under his command, The Woodlands will no doubt keep its five diamonds. If you ask me, it added another one when it promoted King to its top spot.