Out on the islands, there's quite a bit of restaurant retooling underway. On Isle of Palms, Hucks Lowcountry Table has given way to Ken Vedrinski's spanking-new Coda del Pesce. Over on Sullivan's, Atlanticville closed its doors for renovations months ago, and, just two blocks north, Station 22 did the same.
Station 22 got its overhaul completed first, reopening at the beginning of May with a slightly upgraded name, SALT at Station 22, and it gives us an initial glimpse of a new mode of island dining.
While still casual in tone, things have inched up a notch or two on the fancy scale. Gone is the bright blue-green paint outside and the old beachy palm tree motif. The restaurant's second-story front porch has been reconfigured, and a big new bar now opens onto it, making the dining room partially open to the air on pleasant nights.
The menu has been thoroughly remodeled, too. New Executive Chef Laird Boles, who once worked under Bob Waggoner at Charleston Grill, is back in the Lowcountry after stints in Florida and San Francisco, and he's brought with him a style that's very much in a contemporary key. Old warhorses like crab cakes and shrimp and grits have been retired, and gone are the usual fishy suspects like tilapia and salmon. They've been replaced by a rotating selection of freshly caught local fish, with rudderfish, wreckfish, and Atlantic swordfish all making recent appearances.
Appetizers and entrées have given way to smalls and mains, and now there's a raw bar listing too. The selection of oysters includes briny Summerside from Prince Edward Island and Cape Spears from New Brunswick ($2.50 each). The day's fresh fish gets sliced thin and served as crudo ($12) with shaved radish and jalapeño.
In the 1990s, we took to calling dolphin fish by its Hawaiian name "mahi mahi" to squelch the jokes about eating Flipper. Now the Mexican term for it, dorado, seems to be on the rise. Local dorado was incorporated into the raw bar's ceviche ($13) on the night I tried it, and it's a great starter for sharing. Chunks of the white fish and local shrimp are tossed with red onions, cilantro, and avocado in a Peruvian-style "leche de tigre." Both shrimp and fish have a firm texture and clean taste that's set off nicely by the tangy citrus and creamy avocado, and the subtle touch of coconut milk in the marinade brings everything together beautifully.
The "smalls" selection offers freshly baked pretzel bread with mornay sauce ($4) and ricotta gnocchi with ragu bolognese ($13). The sweet corn soup ($7), with its dollop of creme fraiche and a few drizzles of spicy salsa verde, is rich and delicious.
If you can get past the steep $15 price tag, the blue crab beignets are a good choice for sharing. A small cast iron skillet holds seven walnut-sized orbs of blue crab rolled in a beignet-style batter that's exceedingly light and crisp, and the Old Bay aioli you dunk them in is sharp and spicy.
SALT's entrées shift each day to reflect the latest fresh catches, but there are some set patterns. Hog snapper or flounder might be fried and served with Old Bay steak fries as fish and chips ($19). Grilled dorado or roasted tilefish might be paired with sweet corn succotash and Meyer lemon butter ($26). The fontina-topped Station 22 burger ($14) is a menu anchor, and you can add suitably up-to-date fixings like crispy pork belly ($3) or a farm egg ($2).
A big chunk of black grouper ($29) is pan-seared until its skin is beautifully dark brown and crisp. The fish is cooked a bit too firm, but that's mitigated by the bright green smear of salsa verde that adorns the plate, which adds a welcome tangy, spicy bite. The pool of mild potato-fennel puree alongside is upstaged by the superbly fresh yellow squash from Ambrose Farms, which has a wonderful touch of char from the grill.
In this new mode of beach dining, there's still red meat for the landlubbers, but ribeyes and filets have given way to a bistro steak ($27), which is cooked sous vide before a final searing on the grill. The meat is very tender inside, while the exterior is salty and crispy. But the overall plate doesn't quite come together, since against the beef's bold flavor, the generous portion of "confit" fingerling potatoes seems bland, and the roasted mushrooms and Vidalias braised in red wine merge together into a creamy but undistinguished muddle.
Fans of the old Station 22's beloved coconut cake will be relieved to know it's still on the menu, though for my money the peach cobbler ($7), with fresh, firm peaches and a gooey sauce, is an even better way to round things out.
All in all, Station 22's overhaul is a timely one, a sign that our local beach dining is finally catching up with the trends that were established downtown. Craft beer on tap, a daily rotation of fresh local fish, produce from named local purveyors — these are now just table stakes to get into the game.
Old regulars will note that the prices are starting to catch up with downtown, too, and it will be interesting to see whether casual beach diners will be as receptive to them as the big-night crowd on the peninsula. The retooled SALT at Station 22 has one big thing working in its favor: thanks to the large front porch and semi-open-air dining room, you can enjoy the evening sea air along with a tasty, contemporary meal, and that's the formula for a very pleasant night out.