I've become addicted to the new Netflix series, The Chef's Table. One episode highlighting Chef Francis Mallmann of Patagonia Sur in Argentina recounted a poignant story in the celebrated chef's career. He was serving an elaborate multicoursed French dinner to the owners of the jewelry maker Cartier when he was pulled aside by the president of the company and told that while it was clear he was working very hard and everything was executed properly, essentially there was no heart in the dish, no soul.
That was a turning point in Mallmann's career. He set off to find his own voice in cooking and vowed to never stop learning, for once you start to think you know everything in the culinary world, you're toast.
Which brings us to Chef Robert Carter.
Chef Carter has had an illustrious history in Charleston, with his acclaimed, award-winning executive position at Peninsula Grill, where he taught many up-and-coming chefs, before moving onto Carter's Kitchen in I'On, which dissolved, followed by the Rutledge Cab Company in Wagner Terrace, with which he has now broken ties. Barony Tavern is Carter's latest venture, and as he told The Post and Courier this January, "This is the restaurant I've been wanting to do."
Located inside the Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel, Barony Tavern has a very distinctive décor choice that delineates from the hotel's overall feel. Barony feels like an Americanized mix of an Irish tavern and a hunting lodge, replete with faux classic texts, antique Charleston maps, monogrammed silver trophies, mismatched gold candlesticks, mounted game antlers, and stuffed deer heads adorning the walls. There are dioramas of a Scottish stuffed black squirrel with a top hat smoking a cigar and a sophisticated stuffed bobcat composed with his tartan bow tie and green felt dickey; both add comical touches to the room. The rich mahogany tables and wood-paneled walls add a masculine warmth that seems suited to the moors.
But the most character in the room comes from the full-sized painting of the eight-point "Baron" deer, in a double-breasted dinner jacket with a violet blue neckerchief holding a cocktail, as he stares back at you with soulful eyes. If only the food had as much depth as the deer's sorrowful gaze.
After perusing the menu and the wine list heavy with California producers, I ordered the seared beef carpaccio appetizer ($12) with okra aioli, fried okra, and arugula salad. I was intrigued by the concept of okra aioli, but I soon discovered that it just seemed like traditional aioli to me. What I do know is that this dish would have been better served as a salt lick for the mounted deer encircling the room. The gray — not red — meat was covered with the aioli, fried capers, fried whole okra pods, and a tablespoon of dressed arugula greens. Each component on its own worked, but together they overwhelmed the palate with one-note salinity.
The shrimp cocktail ($14) was simple enough, consisting of four shrimp, lined with cocktail sauce on their spine circling the typical martini glass. The confusing element was the horseradish spoonbread which was formed into two balls and plopped into the bottom of the glass; they had the consistency of uncooked dough and were lacking the expected bite of spicy horseradish. The dense griddled crab cakes ($16) were a disappointment atop the Old Bay aioli. After prying the cake open, it was hard to find the actual crab amidst the filler and grated carrot. As for the rolls, don't even waste your time; they become instantly stale once you bite into them, as if they were left in the warmer for too long.
Moving on to the salads, the house ($9) was your basic assortment of mixed greens with julienned vegetables, this time with a lemon-basil vinaigrette. The toasted farro salad, the most eclectic offering of the assortment, was heavy on the red wine vinegar, which gave the salad a pungent first bite that even the heavy-handed dose of farro couldn't absorb. But I enjoyed the sweet note of the oven-roasted grapes, the crunch of the pistachios, and the creaminess of the feta with the kale, making this arguably the most creative dish on the menu.
The grilled section of the menu was consistent in its quality and flavor. The grouper ($29), with its crosshatched sear marks, was adorned on the plate with a lemon wedge, a silver thimble of lemon-herb beurre blanc, and a sprig of parsley. The filet mignon ($32) was cooked expertly to medium-rare and served with a head of roasted garlic, which was simple and gorgeous as the red wine shallot butter was left purposefully on the side. The other sauces offered were very traditional: bernaise and a tomato-herb compound butter.
In true steak-house style, one needs to order sides to fill out the meal, and while all the sides are a reasonably priced $7, it was disappointing for this time of year to see only three real vegetables offered: steamed asparagus with tomato confit, caramelized cauliflower with truffled brioche, and squash casserole with toasted corn flakes; the other sides included potatoes, grits, and spaetzle. While neither offered much to write home about, they left me curious as to why the menu wasn't more seasonal.
As for the house specialties that make up the composed plates on the menu, I was hoping to find an example of Chef Carter leaving his mark, as most of the marketing materials highlight these dishes. Alas, I'm left still searching. The Dijon-crusted rack of lamb ($38) came highly recommended with the mushroom potpie. I've never seen such an unappetizing plate of meat. The chops were sliced separately and circled around the plate, surrounding the potpie in the center. The herbed crust was hardly noticeable as it was falling off into the syrupy demi-glaze at the base of the dish. From a presentation standpoint, it was a sea of staid brown. The potpie was curious as it had the consistency of a mushroom broth with the brunoise of mirepoix as the only element to eat. Essentially, it was a mushroom consommé with three small mushrooms topped with puffed pastry and served with a fork. Again, I was baffled. When asking the general manager what I was supposed to do with this dish, he concurred that he was at odds with the chef on the execution of this plate.
Next was the pork "standing rib roast" with roasted new potatoes and carrots ($24). Again, the presentation was lacking; the large bone — with pieces of fat and gristle still on it — protruded across much of the plate, and it was accented with brown potatoes and roasted carrots over a mustard glaze. The meat had great flavor, but on a whole, this hearty dish felt out of place in late May and could have used some seasonal pick-me-ups.
I knew one sure-fire bet on the menu would be the coconut cake ($8), arguably Mr. Carter's signature dish. The cake is good, of course. Nothing has changed there.
I did try the lemon curd cake with raspberry coulis and lemon ice cream. Presented in the shape of a small cup, the thin chiffon cake holds the lemon custard center, while the dish is topped with ice cream and dotted with raspberry sauce around the perimeter of the plate. The custard was grainy, but I quite enjoyed the light, tart lemon ice cream.
I returned for a third visit to see if the more notable lunch menu was worth the trip, and I found it was pleasant and featured much more of a Southern slant. There was a nice selection of appetizers not found on the dinner menu, which included basil marinated duck livers ($10), roasted veal sweetbreads ($14), and Southern shrimp toast ($12). The salad selection, while traditional, tried to offer little spins with green onion fry bread (hushpuppies) to accompany the chicken supreme salad ($15), while the tuna nicoise was house-cured ($17). The Lobster Sliders with celery seed aioli looked tempting ($22) as did the Southern grilled cheese with crispy country ham, pepper jelly, and pimento cheese ($10).
While the lunch was more successful than the dinner, it does leave me wondering, is this really what Carter wanted to do? Will his lasting impression on Charleston be, as the Barony's literature claims, "Southern-inspired, simply prepared" food, all served in a tavern-like setting? I hope not. At best the Barony is over-priced hotel food in an amusing setting. At worst, it's a cacophony of ideas with no clear directive or soul.