My heart always sinks a little when I see the "opening soon" sign hanging in the front window of a Daniel Island storefront, announcing the arrival of the next hopeful bistro or café. I've worked on the island since 2002, and I've watched them come and go: fine-dining restaurants and plain pizza joints, tony bistros and straight-up meat 'n' threes. Only a handful have managed to last more than a year or two. On two separate occasions I've eaten big review-visit meals at Daniel Island restaurants only to have them close their doors before the review could make it into print.
But hope springs eternal. You can see why Daniel Island, with its expensive new neighborhoods and office parks filled with "information workers," is tempting to restaurateurs. There's a lot of disposable income out there looking for a place to be spent. But the rents are high, and in a business with steep fixed costs and thin margins, a few extra parties a night can mean the difference between making a go of it and losing your lease.
One of the latest aspirants to give the Daniel Island market a shot is no bright-eyed novice. Sermet Aslan is a seasoned veteran. For more than 15 years, his downtown restaurant, Sermet's Corner, has thrived at the corner of King and Wentworth with a unique style of Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Last fall, Aslan expanded to a second location out on Daniel Island, taking over a space on River Landing Drive and looking to translate the formula that ensured success downtown to a very new and different environment.
The menu is essentially the same at the two locations, though the new Daniel Island one serves only dinner and the downtown one has a couple of extra sandwiches for the lunch crowd.
At both, the meal begins with a basket of good crusty bread and a little bowl of olive oil that's tinged a brilliant orange by puréed sun-dried tomatoes. The small appetizer selection includes sautéed mussels in a lemon curry cream sauce ($11) and shrimp and bacon over grilled polenta ($11). The calamari ($10), in a welcome departure from the typical preparation, is not fried but rather sautéed and tossed with capers, orange zest, and pesto along with diced tomatoes and long strips of shaved fennel. The whole dish is flavorful and light, with the tomatoes and fennel adding a nice lift. The small pile of wilted spinach served alongside has a slightly bitter, lemon-tinged flavor that rounds out a small but excellent plate.
The small slate of salads and sandwiches includes mixed greens with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella that's made in-house ($10), a burger topped with mushroom pesto and provolone ($11), and a grilled salmon filet served either on a kaiser roll ($13) or over a baby green salad with poached pears and gorgonzola ($13.50). The lamb burger ($11.50) is definitely a step away from the ordinary. Its thin patty of ground lamb is quite savory and pleasantly chewy, and the caramelized onions and gorgonzola cheese on top lend a sweet, sharp bite. But there seems to be something missing, since the whole sandwich is a little too dry and needs some sort of sauce or condiment to pull it together.
Sermet's entrées focus on seafood, pasta, and chicken. Shrimp, mussels, and calamari are sautéed with chorizo and fennel then tossed with linguini in a sambuca-tinged tomato sauce ($15). While the sauce itself is a little mild and muted, the big shrimp have a nice flavor, and the fennel and sambuca lend a rich, licorice-like sweetness that balances out the spicy pops of chorizo.
A recent addition to the menu is the grilled chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms and spinach ($16). Like many of Sermet's entrées, it has a lot of flavors going on in a single dish, but they come together well. The herb-tinged chicken breasts are served alongside cheese ravioli in a rich sweet corn sherry sauce. A roasted red pepper coulis adds a flash of bright orange color while bits of chorizo provide pleasant spicy accents.
The skirt steak ($19) is marinated in soy and ginger before grilling, and the green chimichuri sauce drizzled on top adds a sweet, subtle tang. The steak sits on a pile of tender pearl couscous dotted with green peas and diced yellow peppers. The grilled asparagus on the side rounds out a red meat dish that's not too heavy and has nice summertime flavors.
The Courtyard location on Daniel Island also features a big dessert cabinet that tempts you as you step inside the front door, and both the cream-filled eclair cake ($5.50), with its two-toned white and brown chocolate icing, and the ridiculously dense, sweet, rich tres leche cake ($6) follow through on the promise.
While the food at the two restaurants is very much the same, the atmosphere is quite different at each. The original downtown spot, with its big windows and King Street setting, has more of a busy, energetic feel. It's an old building with high ceilings and big mirrors, a funky mix of century-old style with a bohemian artistic flair from the colorful paintings that cover the walls. The open kitchen with its big grill sits right behind the bar. The room can get a bit jammed and crowded at the height of the lunch rush, but if you get there a little bit later and grab the prized four-top in the front window, you'll have a splendid view of the King Street sidewalks and one of the best people-watching spots in town.
The location out on Daniel Island is new and clean, with lots of dark woods. The same type of bright, funky paintings — many of them signed "Sermet" — offset the suburban feel of new high-end construction, while the big patio outside (the "courtyard" in Sermet's Courtyard), offers a quiet, out-of-the-way place for a glass of wine amid the giant live oaks that line River Landing Drive.
And that out-of-the way location may be both a big asset and a challenge for the Courtyard incarnation of Sermet's. Perhaps the toughest thing about the Daniel Island market is that you are really only dealing with the population that is already there: the island residents and the daytime workers. The latter may buy a few happy hour beers at the end of the day, but few are sticking around for dinner. And once they've crossed over one of the big bridges and are headed home, they're not likely to come back out for dinner on the weekend. Folks from other parts of the city aren't going to cross those bridges either, unless they're coming out for a game at Blackbaud Stadium or an event at the Family Circle Tennis Center.
It's interesting that Sermet's has chosen to forgo lunch service at the Daniel Island location, something I don't recall any other restaurant doing. It seems the office parks would generate a strong midday business, but the prices restaurants have to charge to make lunch profitable pose a challenge. It's one thing for someone to drop 15 to 20 bucks for lunch when they're out shopping with a friend on King Street or they're a tourist in town on vacation. Your typical office worker isn't going to pay that on an ordinary weekday.
Instead, Sermet's Courtyard is focusing on the evening crowd. It's definitely a different demographic than you see downtown, a mix of families with children and lots of parties of women — some younger, some older — out for wine and dinner. Instead of happy hour, Sermet's features a daily "Sangria Hour" from 5 to 6 p.m., with glasses of sangria for three bucks. "Swing by after work," the website suggests, "or perhaps on your way to the soccer game or tennis match."
To win over this crowd, I think, the best thing Sermet's has going for it is that, unlike a lot of the cookie-cutter upscale bistros that didn't make the cut, everything is not just well-prepared but also a little bit out of the ordinary. Where another restaurant might go for the predictable combination, Sermet's consistently throws in an exotic twist or two, and that makes for a meal that's not quite like everywhere else. It has worked well downtown, making Sermet's a neighborhood favorite in the middle of the King Street bustle, and it just might do the trick in the more relaxed, subdued, and challenging setting out on Daniel Island.