Charlestonians and visitors alike complain about the shortage of waterfront dining venues. There just aren't that many places on the harbor or along inland waterways where you can feast, sip, and soak up the sun, let alone places with inventive menus, decent wine lists, and excellent burgers.
Tavern & Table is a welcome addition for those of us seeking to blend a little nautical zen with craft cocktails and good food. Let's call it "T&T" for short. The building, with its signature vintage black-and-white lighthouse, once housed a seafood restaurant named The Trawler before becoming an event venue, Lighthouse on Shem Creek. More recently, the site narrowly avoided becoming a condotel.
Reborn as Tavern & Table, the interior has undergone a stunning makeover. Stylish dining rooms sport rustic overhead beams, driftwood chandeliers, and creamy leather banquettes. Couches line the dockside lower deck, allowing guests to ogle kayakers while downing craft lagers and double IPAs. Fishing boats and cruisers idle by as dolphins surface for air. Gorgeous, wooden floors with milky hand-painted patterns lead past a gleaming display case of meats curing on metal hooks, backed by jars of housemade provisions. Here's where T&T starts to blow your mind. Shem Creek is not known for ambitious venues with housemade charcuterie, house-pickled veggies, and handcrafted whole grain mustards. But Executive Chef Katie Lorenzen-Smith, who was wooed here from a post in Aspen and competed alongside Chef Beau MacMillan on Iron Chef America (beating Bobby Flay), clearly means business.
The weekend of T&T's opening, we beelined for the expansive covered wooden deck fronting the creek. Festive white lights hung above the well-attended outdoor bar. Heating towers kept tables cozily warm. We chose an outer table bathed in slanted sunlight, next to planters overflowing with kitchen peppers and herbs.
Choosing what to try first was daunting, given all the delicious foodie buzz words and familiar local purveyors on the menu. We were tempted by crispy chicken skin tacos ($10) with Peruvean-inspired anticucho sauce; citrus-cured pork belly steam buns ($7) with Szechuan pickles; kung pao sweetbreads in lettuce wraps ($14). We decided on the deviled egg trio ($9) to start: three delicious interpretations of a classic, one stuffed with jumbo lump crab meat, one laced with smoky bacon, the third whipped with fresh basil pesto and topped with slivered country ham. Adjacent tables snacked on heirloom popcorn ($6) tossed in salted caramel with smoked bacon and toasted peanuts.
We dove into the lobster wontons ($9) and shrimp beignets ($10). Chunks of juicy lobster slathered with creamy cheese came nestled in pockets of large, paper-thin, crispy wontons with dollops of sweet red pepper jelly. Whole shrimp formed the center of the beignets that were made of panko moistened with egg then fried to a golden crisp and topped with a lemony white remoulade and bright green scallions. Delicious.
In between bites, I sipped a bacon sea salt rimmed Bloody Mary ($6) nibbling on the pickled okra and white asparagus garnishes as we watched pelicans skim the water.
The BLT ($10) was no sandwich, but rather a creatively deconstructed salad of wedged baby iceberg, crispy pork belly chunks, house-pickled green tomatoes, and crunchy fried onion rings, all drizzled with buttermilk ranch. I opted for a brick oven-blistered flatbread, scattered with shredded duck confit and oyster mushrooms from the mycological monks up at Mepkin Abbey. The salt-cured duck and earthy mushrooms played nicely against shavings of bright lemon zest and sprinklings of fresh basil, all topped with a fried egg sunny-side-up.
Meanwhile my son inhaled his kid's cheeseburger ($6), which isn't unusual apart from the fact that T&T grinds its own meat daily with a special blend of 50 percent short rib, 20 percent chuck, and 30 percent tenderloin to achieve the perfect fatty-to-taste ratio.
On a subsequent evening, we dove into the cheese and housemade charcuterie board ($20). My son devoured thinly sliced porchetta, peppery duck pastrami, smoky and tender pork rillette, and an unctuous liver pate that rivaled anything I've tried in the Dordogne region of France.
Wafts of freshly stained wood reminded us that this establishment is still brand new, as did the uninformed but attentive waitress who had to consult the bartender for wine pairing recommendations (my $9 pinot noir from Chile was delicious). Although she could not immediately answer my inquiries about the cheese on the charcuterie board, she did return quickly to explain that the cheeses came from France and "somewhere here in the U.S.A." This was a minor disappointment. If she's any indication, the waitstaff need to get up to speed. In addition, I'd love to see regional cheesemakers added to an already strong purveyor list that includes fisherman Mark Marhefka, whose boat docks within shouting distance of the restaurant.
Speaking of, the black bass came whole ($40) and pan-fried. The skin was shattering crisp protecting the tender flesh encased within. Accompanied by nothing but a simple dipping sauce, the unadorned, boldly plated fish won us with its artful simplicity.
Tavern & Table served 1,000 people in its first weekend and has hosted numerous holiday events in its private dining room already. Each time I pass it, the dockside patio bustles with guests, especially at sunset when the sky glows pink behind shrimp boat silhouettes. I suspect that when spring eases into summer, the restaurant will truly hit its stride. The future appears to be Chef Lorenzen-Smith's oyster.