I could bore you with at least three paragraphs describing my latest addiction to Spero's ham and mustard butter, but I'm not going to do that. I'm also not going to string you along by asking a question only to answer it in the closing paragraph, so let's cut to the chase: Spero is where you should eat right now.
At Spero there are no foie gras foams, smoked pine needles, or dishes dressed with vibrant flower petals from someone's grandmother's garden. There are no tall chairs upholstered with a vegan cow's hide or elegant chandeliers that pre-date the Civil War. It's a simple place with a few basic tables and a small bar where they serve a 40-ounce High Life in a champagne flute for $7.50.
Former Pearlz Oyster Bar employees, owners Rob Laudicina and owner/chef RJ Moody will be the first to tell you that they focus on creating dishes meant for sharing using local and seasonal ingredients. They want patrons to experience an array of flavors and textures without having to break the bank, and, so far, they're doing just that.
The menu changes daily, but over the course of several visits, we confirmed that the entire front page, which includes 15 dishes, can be purchased for under $90. Now, there's no reason to order a 15-course meal, the portions are sizable. But it's not a bad option for group of six or eight to share. One can easily get away with ordering two to four dishes and be completely satisfied.
We've seen mushroom agnolotti replaced with chicken liver mousse and pickles and smoked duck sausage followed up with pork and beans. Four dollars will get you two long, toasted slices of bread covered with cured fat back, shreds of preserved lemon, and sage. The most expensive dishes range from $15 to $18, like beef short ribs with ancho chile and Charleston Gold rice middlins or an ode to chicken paprikash that consists of a roast half chicken, charred cabbage, and red potatoes.
Just about everything is made in-house, including the breads, which can be ordered individually or in a flight of three for $6.50. There's cornbread with burnt honey miso butter ($4), the previously mentioned ham and mustard butter (which I could eat by the spoonful) with sourdough pretzel bread ($5.50), flatbread with butterbean hummus ($5.50), and biscuits made with 100 percent beef tallow and horseradish crème ($5).
Edisto clams, spring onions, and sweet potatoes sit in a beautiful bowl of miso cream broth ($8) that begs to be sopped up with the buttered crostini served on the side, while mussels the size of an iPhone 6 get the royal kimchi treatment ($8). Both are equally good.
If the dishes at Spero suffer from one thing, it's the plating. The trotter tots ($6.50), for example, are served in a small white paper bag dumped alongside an unappealing smear of sweet potato mustard in an unlined red plastic basket. A paper-lined basket would've helped, but the meaty tots were scarfed up so quickly that it didn't matter — they were a table favorite. At least the sweet potatoes weren't piped.
We won't fret about the appearance, as there are clear signs of simplistic creativity in the kitchen. Those trotter tots are simply breaded deep-fried pieces of headcheese — a real treat. Equally as good, and somewhat off-putting when described, are the oysters with diced bread, butter pickles, and yellow mustard (two for $5, five for $10). "This is going to sound crazy, but we use French's classic yellow mustard," Laudicina told us with a cheerful laugh. We were skeptical, but the combination of mustard with the salinity from the oysters and sweetness from the pickles made for an incredible umami flavor.
As with the oysters, Laudicina excitedly described the clay pea salad that's topped with a seven-minute tea spice egg and lemon zest ($6) after thoroughly examining the table to see who's a first timer and who's been in before. "You had the oysters and duck confit last time. The pierogies are back. You should give them a try," he'll say, and he'll be the first to greet guests each and every time the door opens.
It's no wonder the pierogies reappeared on the menu, as they were as good as my grandmother use to make. At Spero, two pan-fried pillows are filled with confit of beef and sided with house sauerkraut and horseradish crème ($5.50). With the return of the pierogies, there was also a newcomer: local pan-roasted asparagus with seared tuna, pulverized hard boiled egg, and chicken jus ($8.50) — a fresh reminder that spring has sprung.
The bar is free of spirits, but one can order a pint of Holy City Pecan Dream ($6.50), a glass of rose ($7), or one of the few spiritless cocktails made with beer, wine, or bubbly. The fanciest of hipsters will spring for the 40 of High Life.
The small plates keep coming: a delightful salad of duck confit with beets, strawberries, and buttermilk blue cheese ($9) and crispy pork belly atop field peas stewed with tomatoes with a drizzle of sorghum molasses ($6.50).
The back of the menu houses a rotating list of four sandwiches and a few bigger entrees like the short ribs. Succulent pork shoulder, kimchi, pickled mustard seeds, and Swiss cheese on pressed bread and tender pulled lamb meat with citrus-pickled jalapeños, mayo, and a dabble of queso fesco make for two killer sandwiches (both $9). The latest addition was a massive knackwurst with whipped chicken pâté, escabeche, cilantro, and sriracha mayo, on crunchy French bread — a German/Vietnamese creation aptly called "The Wurst Banh Mi."
Two guys hailing from Pearlz have come together to do something they love, and they're doing so with unrivaled dedication. If you're looking for elegance and ambiance, this it not the place for you. But I'll be damned if you don't walk out of Spero full and wondering how many spoonfuls of ham and mustard butter you can eat without feeling guilty.