RESTAURANT REVIEW: Turtle's Kitchen and Raw Bar 

Serious shellfish in the Belle Hall Plaza

Turtle's Kitchen and Raw Bar
Entrées $10-$15
Mt. Pleasant
660 Long Point Road
Lunch and Dinner

Oysters are most certainly a gift from the gods. Cold, salty, with a bit of shell or pluff mud still lingering in the gelatinous broth, one can imagine Zeus perched there on the mountaintop, sucking them down with a cold glass of wine beside a pile of spent shells, throwing down the leftovers for mere mortals to salivate over. A platter of excellent raw shellfish, shucked fresh before the eyes, could lure a true oyster lover from a coma, to say nothing of their supposed power to stir the loins. Our area is crowded with legendary seafood palaces -- the newly reopened Bowens Island, the venerable old Wreck of the Richard and Charlene, Shem Creek Bar and Grill, A.W. Shuck's, The Boathouse, Hank's, and my favorite secret Friday night spot tucked in the back of The Noisy Oyster downtown. Add Turtle's to that list of classic seafood havens; we live in seafood heaven.

You know it when the first oyster-laden platter of chunky ice finds its way to your spot. You've landed in another worthy Lowcountry raw bar. Never mind that it seems oddly misplaced among the façades of the Belle Hall shopping center. Turtle's Kitchen and Raw Bar erases all doubt with the first beautiful plate. Six cold calcified stones sweating saltiness, teeming with brine, and quivering with a silent song that lures the tongue.

Illuminated paper spires hold up the ceiling. They are otherworldly, sculptural elements that blend into the trendy décor. A long wall bisects the space, topped with an undulating curtain that glows a faint blue from lights beneath. The whole scene is vaguely nautical, but it lies below the waves, like your own personal Atlantis. Ask for the raw bar and the hostess points you around the corner. Tucked back behind the main dining space, the bar area at Turtle's is serious business. They have their own separate little kitchen back there churning out plates of exemplary steaming clams ($10), swimming around in butter and white wine beside the day's selection of fresh oysters from numerous locales ($12, half-dozen). You could sit for hours and chat with the locals who seem enamored with the place. Who would not fall in love with a bar serving up cold beer, oysters, and episodes of Iron Chef on a crystal-clear flat screen? They have fried calamari (steeply priced at $9), crisp, tender, and smacking of the delicious nuance of a Hefewiesen marinade, served in a paper cone dripping with hot grease. Pure bliss, and my new favorite watering hole this side of Myrtle Beach.

It's all so good one can't wait to venture into the dining area, take a seat among the stylish décor, and dig into a steaming plate. It's a short jaunt over to the land of seated dining, but it might as well be a thousand miles. In a tale of two kitchens, raw bar and dining room, there exists a shocking disparity in quality and performance. Order up a bevy of entrées and it will wash away the good times at the bar. Not just because at seven o'clock on a weekday it can take 45 minutes to get your food with only eight people eating in the entire joint, but because once it shows up, much of it can border on inedible. Sure, the appetizers, oysters, clams, and other seafood specialties are just as delicious in the dining room as the bar, but the signature "Surf and Turf," enthusiastically pumped by your waitress, could gag the most stalwart of eaters.

It comes out as a small filet of beef topped with a "jumbo lump crab cake" and a "sundried tomato lobster béarnaise sauce," all yours, perched atop a pile of "mushroom risotto" and paired with a vegetable of the day for $19 (plus tax). Separate the vegetables, since they are pretty good on their own, take the crab cake off and toss it in the doggie bag (because dogs don't fret that a "lump crab cake" with too much breading inside doesn't really seem all that "lumpy"), carefully peel away any of the overly-thick, congealed "béarnaise" sauce, and eat the slightly chewy filet, which really isn't all that bad. In fact, let me say that the filet is delicious.

The scallop special comes out in equally dim fashion, late and lukewarm, overcooked (a cardinal sin of scallop cookery) and skimpy. A paltry three undersized scallops surround a fried ball of corn and black bean mush. They call it a croquette, and it's probably the biggest one you will ever see, sporting a strange, gooey inside, lackluster flavor, and a soggy bottom due to being mounted atop a pile of limp arugula (note to world: wilted greens under fried food is a dated cliché). Cracking the crust alone should qualify you for service in the Special Forces.

If you want to play it safe, order the "Fennel-Roasted Prime Rib" ($16), an excellent preparation that actually delivers big fennel flavor, balanced against the richness of the beef, nuanced and deeply satisfying. The mashed potatoes come spiked with Camembert cheese.

Turtle's should become a very popular spot. It's trendy, cool, and serves the best selection of oysters in Mt. Pleasant. But the buyer must beware. They're running a bit of a shell game over there (no pun intended). When they ask you to order an entrée, pull those fins in and hide behind your pile of spent shells. Or better yet, stick to that little kitchen behind the raw bar. I think those Iron Chef episodes are rubbing off on them.


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