Each time I've visited Southern Season, the new Southern-themed gourmet food market in Mt. Pleasant, I've found myself lapsing into what I call the fancy store sag. I go in with high expectations, for the concept has great appeal: a 44,000 square-foot emporium chock full of the finest foodstuffs from across the South and around the world. Shelves brim with variety: 500 different hot sauces, dozens of brands of loose leaf tea, jar after jar of jams, relishes, and chutneys
But after roaming the aisles for an aimless half hour, I find my basket empty but for a roll of cultured butter and some imported sausage or perhaps a few beautiful handmade chocolates in a tiny white box. Somewhere amid the brightly colored tins of gourmet cheese straws and the hundreds of varieties of imported dried pasta, the exotic novelty blurs into an undifferentiated sameness, and nothing seems particularly special anymore.
Adjoining the food market is the Southerly, a full-service restaurant that is similarly large in scope and ambition. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, with brunch added on the weekends. The menu is essentially the same as the one served at the Weathervane, the restaurant at the original Southern Season store in Chapel Hill, N.C., and that means contemporary cooking with plenty of new Southern flourishes.
The downhome twists on the "For the Tables" appetizers work pretty well. Shrimp are tucked inside the hushpuppies ($11), and the house-cut potato chips ($5) are served with barbecue jam and buttermilk-cucumber dressing.
I ordered the pimento cheese fritters ($8) warily, having been burned in the past both literally and figuratively by fried pimento cheese experiments as hot as molten iron that melt away into searing oily nothingness once you bite into them. Southerly's version, however, delivers on its promise with a pleasingly warm and gooey interior beneath a delightfully crisp crust. In a clever touch, the half dozen golden orbs are served in a miniature stainless steel fry basket. (Tread lightly, though,with unnecessary dish of Peggy Rose's Hot Pepper Jelly that comes alongside: it's a thin, fiery orange liquid that will blast your tongue with Scoville heat.)
The deviled eggs ($6) come five to a plate, and perched atop each like a rooster comb is a shard of crisp country ham. The pale yellow filling is exceptionally smooth and creamy, and the salty crunch of the ham makes the bite superb.
At dinner, the small plates and entrées offer substantial versions of upscale cuisine, and even the requisite staples have a few fancy twists. The shrimp and grits ($21) are gussied up with tomato-bacon marmalade and wild mushroom succotash. The 8-oz. sirloin ($23) is paired with smoked gouda tater tots ($23), while masa dumplings and tomato-braised kale accompany the roasted chicken ($19).
The 48-hour short rib ($11) is categorized as a small plate, but it's hearty enough for a full meal. Ultra-tender and flavorful, the beef is served over a creamy "mac and cheese" with tiny spheres of couscous-like fregula in place of macaroni. Accented nicely by earthy nibs of roasted mushrooms and a sweet, slightly spicy orange pepper sauce, it's a rich, satisfying plate.
The sweet tea glazed salmon ($21) and its accompanying black-eyed pea succotash sound promising on the menu, and when the plate arrives they look even better. A long slab of fish rests high above a colorful bed of not just peas and white corn kernels but chopped greens, red peppers, and onions, too.
But the first bite droops. The succotash turns out to be a pallid medley that needs more herbs or acid or something to enliven it. Atop it, despite a lovely crosshatch of grill marks, the salmon lacks char or sear, and the "sweet tea glaze" adds but the fleetingest hint of sweetness. Not even the tangy accent from the bright green tomato vinaigrette circling the plate is enough to pull it up.
At lunchtime, an expanded slate of salads and sandwiches replaces many of the entrées. They include a BLT with the tomatoes green and fried ($11), chipotle-rubbed pulled pork on a challah bun ($11), and a Lowcountry reuben with zucchini chow chow ($13).
Roasted almond chicken salad ($12) is served inside a croissant that's fluffy, soft, and in desperate need of toasting. The large, cool chunks of chicken have a nice texture, but they leave one wondering how something with such a bold burst of tarragon can simultaneously seem bland and flavorless.
During the weekend brunch, a pair of edgy hashes (both $14) — one made with duck confit and the other with short-rib — are served with poached eggs and red bliss potatoes. You can get eggs Benedict the classic way ($12) or topped with grilled asparagus ($11) and, for an extra four bucks, smoked salmon.
More down-the-middle are the buttermilk pancakes ($9) and the French toast ($9), which is made from Southern Season's own cinnamon-raisin bread and has a dusting of powdered sugar and a silver ramekin of maple syrup by its side. It's basic but sweet and hearty, and with a side of bacon ($2) makes for a decent brunch-time bite.
This broad array of food is served in a setting that is well-appointed and nice but with the clean, impersonal charm of a new McMansion. The large open dining room has plenty of space, and its bright yellow walls are offset with appealing brown accents. Semi-circular banquettes with brown, thickly-padded seats arc around the curved interior wall.
That wall is hung with huge vintage French liquor posters in frames, which gives one pause, for it's not exactly clear what they are doing in a Southern-themed restaurant. But they're stylish and elegant and look really cool on the wall, which I guess is all that matters.
Out back, a large walled-in patio has plenty of tables and a small bar beneath tall oaks wrapped in white Christmas lights, and it's quite a pleasant place for a cocktail on a mild evening.
There are some intriguing cocktails to try, too. The Quintessential Statesman ($10) combines Jefferson rye with madeira, Hoodoo chicory liqueur, lemon, and mole bitters, a compellingly dark and bittersweet concoction. The intriguingly-named Small Craft Ships Steered by Classics ($10) isn't for the faint of palate, for the float of Pusser's rum that tops it gives a sharp alcohol slap to the first sip, but once you get beneath it, the sweetness really opens up from a blend of brandy, chartreuse, ginger nectar, and muddled pineapple.
In the end, there's a lot to choose from at the Southerly, and amid the jumble of the exotic and down-home, the brilliant and dull, you can piece together a pleasant enough meal. For me, though, it still brings on the old gourmet sag.
Southern Season promises to be "a culinary mecca for gourmands of every age" and "a food lover's paradise." Perhaps one shouldn't expect a business to live up to its own marketing, but it seems a very Presbyterian sort of paradise to me: pleasant, prosperous, and elegant, but not at all likely to raise one's passions very high.