RESTAURANT REVIEW: Virginia's 

A Coastal Classic: Virginia's on King does right by its homegrown cuisine

Virginia's on King
Southern
Entrée Prices: Moderate
Lunch, Dinner, Sun. Brunch
412 King St.
Downtown
735-5800

The menu at Virginia's on King is packed with classic coastal Southern cuisine, but the most authentic dish lurking among the country-fried steak and collard greens is the humble bowl of okra soup. It's also the most overlooked of all traditional Charleston preparations. It comes out of a few kitchens across town in various guises, but real okra soup, the kind served at Virginia's, is closer to the heart of Charleston's true cuisine than even shrimp and grits. It doesn't lean too heavily on tomatoes, or beef, or okra. It combines all three in a perfect mélange.

It's an ideal balance — the leftover bones of a beef carcass, boiled for hours until relieved of their rich flavor and body, the acid bite of tomato chunks, and the mucilaginous ooze of the African okra pod — that dates back to the rice fields of another time. It is our answer to the New Orleans gumbo (even if Charleston claims a "gumbo" of its own as well). From the pots of Lowcountry slaves, through the hands of Mrs. Virginia Bennett, to the restaurant that now bears her name, such strong roots can be sensed. Her okra soup is deep and redolent, bursting at the seams with the lip-smacking stickiness of rendered knuckle bones and the mysterious, musky vegetal character of stewed okra.

The mere existence of okra soup ($5.95) at this brand new restaurant from the Holy City Hospitality Group proves how serious they take this food. In fact, there are more nods to Southern cuisine on the menu than at a backcountry camp meeting. And the prices, like the portions, are generous — dishes like country-fried steak ($13.95), chicken and dumplings ($12.95), and fried catfish ($13.95). Crispy fried okra comes out crunchy and hot in large portions for $5.95. The pimento cheese ($6.95) bites the tongue with the sharp snap of real, grated cheddar, thick and lumpy like Grandma's. Even the deviled crab ($8.95) won't break the bank, and it's full of sweet body meat, spicy and rich, with a crunchy crust on top to balance all that creaminess beneath. Try finding an edible crab dish on the peninsula for fewer than ten bucks, let alone one as satisfying as that found at Virginia's.

Other offerings are equally stellar. The creamy she-crab soup ($7.95) claims to replicate the original recipe created by William Deas, the black cook at the legendary Everett's. Collard greens, smoky and thick with bacon, go around the table once before being devoured, and the rice is authentic Carolina Gold. By merely appropriating the family recipes safeguarded for a generation by the grandmotherly figure for which the place is named, the proprietors of Virginia's have set the standard for authentic Lowcountry cuisine on the lower peninsula. I have nothing negative to say about the food — only the highest praise for a kitchen willing to serve the real thing, without cutting corners, and at a fair price. You'd better get there before the lunch line has Yankees queued clear around the corner and down the middle of Marion Square.

If I have to quibble a bit with Virginia's approach, it's not in what's there, but what's missing. In all the celebration of mythic Southern food, the glazed hams, po' boys, and pulled pork sandwiches, in the awesome grilled cheese designed for dipping into tomato soup and the Lowcountry oyster stew, it's hard to ignore the unspoken legacies from which such food is derived. There's a large picture on the wall of a joyful dinner party, well-dressed men, women, and children comfortably seated in the affluent surroundings of a grand Southern home with smiles all around at the thought of digging into another feast courtesy of Mrs. Virginia Bennett. But I miss the other cooks, the help in the kitchen and beyond. I miss the sharecropper who scrapped by on salt pork, cornmeal, and molasses. I miss the slave who brought the okra and rice from West African shores. I miss the hardscrabble Southerners who lived on such cuisine before motherly matrons appropriated it as their own.

If it were my place, I'd a hang a portrait of William Deas himself. I'd invoke the smallholders and the mosquito fleet, ragtag freedmen in precarious vessels sailing the coast to bring back the bounty of the sea. I'd give credit where credit is due. Then I'd sit down to a "farmer's plate," a big pile of sides — butter beans, rice, mac and cheese, and maybe even some grits, and I'd toast Mrs. Virginia Bennett, who must have been one hell of a cook.

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