12 Anson St., (Downtown)
She's a darling, a place where people have celebrated countless milestones, a beautifully intimate space that just gets better with age. As some of her peers have succumbed to the draw of mass tourism, Anson still exudes originality, a certain timeless, authentic appeal — a rare find indeed.
Its authenticity starts before the entryway, as the smell of carriage horses wafts down Anson Street. You walk the uneven sidewalk, venture through the portal of time-worn wood, and realize that you could only be in Charleston. This is the place where Mike Lata (current chef/owner of FIG) sharpened his skills, and a place where his influence still reverberates. Such is the true definition of a classic. Anson drifts through the years, collecting the best of what transpires, and keeps what works well — and perhaps this is its secret.
Tables are elegant, white cloths and tinkling silverware, wine poured gracefully like bubbling fountains — the service honed smooth by years of dedicated practice. Mistakes are corrected gracefully, without embarrassment, but with the firm confidence that getting it right with the diner trumps the number of tables turned. Anson is a place of good bread and a solid wine list, where little things count, and the people of Charleston can still find a dependable, and thoroughly Southern, meal.
The menu follows the traditional theme but with a modern edge, as if they constantly search for novelty, ready to be transformed into archetypal fare. You see this with fruit at Anson. I can still remember a special night years ago when Lata was at the helm, a whole steamed fish, grouper I think, with a fruit-laced barbecue sauce. That theme seems to have caught on, and it graces a number of appetizers and are entrées. Fried calamari ($8), feathery and crisp, come served with an apricot-shallot dip. Seared scallops ($12) sit next to grapefruit and drizzled with citrus vinaigrette. Their most delicious dish is also its most influential, the "Whole Crispy Flounder" ($28), which comes out with the apricot-shallot sauce steaming among a benne slaw. Except they don't call it "benne," they use a more familiar term — certainly not because they have some aversion to the African term for sesame seeds, but I'd guess because they don't need to invoke the terminology of slaves to sell the seats of fine dining in modern Charleston. Real places make it on the strength of other virtues.
Anson does the classics with such style. It's one of the few places that I will even consider eating shrimp and grits ($9) for dinner — they serve it as a first course. On a cold winter night, I usually go for the sweet potato ravioli ($9), all warm and spiced and swimming in a bath of cream spiked with sage. Or I sample the she-crab soup ($7) for the umpteenth time, because it's made in the right way, the way I imagine William Deas might stir it together in today's kitchen. And sometimes I snack on the fried okra ($7) because as long as you have fresh, hot grease, it's hard to get fried okra wrong, and they pair it with goat cheese, which is a genius move.
The real stars at Anson are the fish and shrimp. They come whole, in filets, fried, and steamed. They pay homage to the rich tradition of maritime culture that surrounds our city. A grouper ($25), encrusted in nuts and served alongside a perfect Hoppin' John, speaks the true language of the old South. The fried shrimp ($19) is perfectly crispy, accompanied by piles of french fries (I'd throw some hushpuppies on that plate as well, but that might be a bit too pedestrian). And there are always specials: wreckfish, triggerfish, sea bass, others cooked in the same traditional manner while still yielding to the chef's explorations.
The meats are equally well done. Crispy duck breasts with cranberries and orange ($22), lamb chops splayed over white beans ($31), and braised meats — the short ribs ($24) tend to be fantastic with the heirloom polenta. They cook an excellent steak, with roasted potatoes or potato puree, and rich sauces like the bordelaise that gets ladled under the filet mignon.
If I have friends in town, and they want to eat "Lowcountry food," we more often than not end up at Anson. It's not a perfect representation. I wish they would explore the rice culture a little bit more and develop an outstanding okra soup, but they don't hide behind the idea that they are selling Southern cuisine, they just cook what they have been working on for years, and in doing so demonstrate the characteristics that make legendary places stand out. They keep gathering the successes and innovating for the diners of tomorrow. I think that Anson qualifies in this respect, and in a town that sees so many "successes" turned into Disneyfied jokes, overcoming its mere proximity to city Market could be considered a miracle in itself.