Although it's probably not how The Vendue's Drawing Room restaurant arrived at its current menu offerings from new chef de cuisine Forrest Parker, sometimes dishes feel like they're the result of a Chopped competition. In the case of the roasted sweet potato bisque ($9) the ragtag crew of ingredients — sweet potatoes, Sea Island popcorn, shagbark, and corn shoots — are dramatically poured at the table. Notably light as bisques go, the bits of country ham perfectly balance the sweet, creamy broth. The popcorn, however, while whimsical, sogs quickly, leaving just the sharp edges of the kernel to catch in your throat. I probably could have done without that particular flourish, as the delicate soup is better without it.
The hearts of palmetto salad ($13), however, hits on all notes. Bright and acidic, there's a vibrant freshness to every bite. The palm itself is firm, yet luxe, though be certain to thoroughly distribute the olive tapenade throughout the mix of tomato, avocado, pickled onion, and butter lettuce as it's the only discernable source of salt in there. While a little bit of a do-it-yourself project, once you get the right combination of ingredients on the fork, it's magic.
A former library, Drawing Room offers tall candlesticks, sparkling chandeliers, and checks delivered in old hardbound books. But don't be deceived; it also possesses a casually seductive vibe. Small, but swanky, with the feel of a sexy, sophisticated lounge, it would be a great place for an intimate date or a quiet after-dinner drink, with jazzy live music on the weekends adding to the chic ambiance. The food, in contrast, is more inclined toward chastity.
Now if you go out foraging and return with quail, native chestnuts, and wild mushrooms, by all means see what you can come up with, but maybe take advantage of the items in the pantry and fridge. As much as I love the commitment to indigenous ingredients, the pleasures of simple deliciousness seem to have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle in this dish.
This is the case elsewhere on the menu too. I'm looking at you, Native Chestnut Risotto. Earthy and bitter, the smoky starch has a crunchy texture, peppered with occasional, unexpected collisions with hard chestnut bits. Notably under-seasoned, the mushrooms are gorgeous, but lack much flavor beyond their own muskiness. Meanwhile the otherwise sumptuous sous vide egg lacks seasoning and is powerless to help. Why burden the sweet, smoky meat — by far the highlight of the plate, yet in spartan supply — with this semi-experimental mush?
Alas, you'll have plenty of time to ponder such mysteries as service can be slow. A general lassitude seems to have affected everyone, as even the kitchen staff wandered out into the dining room from time to time, silently observing from the corners during my visits.
Or perhaps they were just watching the heritage pork osso bucco ($31) arrive at its destination. A Milanese specialty typically made with bone-in veal shanks braised in white wine, although expertly done, the bone-in braised pork tastes pretty much like every other slow-cooked pork. That said, the accompaniments are anything but. The glorious, risotto-esque Gold Rice grits are rich and al dente, and the crisp, flavorful Brussels sprouts add a touch of quintessential gremolata flavor, although more would certainly be welcome and might add more depth to the meat.
The 14-ounce center-cut New York strip steak ($48) arrived perfectly cooked to order, but after a few bites, I started to wonder if maybe the chef has a sodium allergy. The thick, meaty trumpet royale mushrooms and accompanying potatoes are lovely and expertly prepared, yet inexcusably under-seasoned and thus bland. While I'm a fan of simplicity, especially with such quality ingredients, this is asceticism at a level with which I can't quite abide. Word to the wise: Smuggle in some salt packets.
Last up, the pan roasted grouper ($36) more successfully honors Southern tradition with a cauliflower purée, cauliflower fritters, and "kilt greens" reminiscent of spinach with hot bacon dressing. Plainly seared, the grouper was a tad overcooked and under-seasoned, in keeping with the overall trend.
Drawing Room offers a compelling space and strong regional sensibilities, but the food lacks heart. Despite the uber-regional, even historic ingredients, the end result is more mystery basket than Southern charm, and that's a shame. But it's also quite fixable. Dial back the portion size of some of the oddball elements and bust out some salt, and things will be looking up already.