In the simplest terms, Harold's Cabin is an homage to a former neighborhood corner store set in what looks like a Wes Anderson movie set. From the potbelly stoves to the mismatched grandma dishes, no quirky detail of this two-story restaurant has been overlooked. Similarly, the unconventional menu focuses on local, seasonal cuisine, some of which is provided — or at least inspired — by a small, on-site rooftop garden.
Unabashedly wry, Harold's lunch menu is divided into three categories: Kickshaw, On a Roll, and Nectar and Regale. If you're wondering if the homey decor is hiding a dictionary or two, you're not alone. The menu is full of one-word terms used to define much more complex dishes. Take for instance, Kickshaw. The internet defines Kickshaw as "an archaic term meaning a fancy, but insubstantial cooked dish," but what that section of the menu kicks off with is some epic hush puppies merely labeled Corn ($5). Forget the usual sawdust-like hushpuppy renditions, these golfball-sized pups are crisp on the outside, with tender, donut-like centers loaded with fresh corn kernels. Complemented with a sweet and spicy chili sauce reminiscent of nam pla, this is a surefire crowd pleaser.
Shishito peppers ($8) are always a welcome sight. Harold's rendition finds around 20 of the small, mild peppers pan-seared, and plated on a delicate romesco sauce made with pistachios and vanilla bean. Accompanied by some baguette slices so intensely burned you assume it's intentional, it's a light, fresh starter that's arguably better without the chunks of carbon anyway.
In contrast, the catfish sandwich ($11) finds four breaded, crisply fried medallions on a lightly grilled hoagie roll. Topped with a creamy, lemony slaw, the usual catfish downfall — exuberant fishiness — is wonderfully subdued. The crisp bread, tender fish, and crunchy slaw form a perfectly balanced bite.
Similarly, the bison burger ($12) highlights Chef Justin Pfau's mastery of the lean meat. Served on a brioche bun and topped with seared onions, lettuce, and a small smear of smoked cheddar pate, it's as close to a traditional burger as you'll find at Harold's, and a welcome — if tiny — substitute. Even if bison's not your pleasure, the accompanying house-made salt and vinegar chips are reason enough to make the trip.
Although the same burger appears on the dinner menu, that's also when things get a bit avant garde. On a Roll is replaced by Vittles, although the elegant food itself is about as far from the down-home term as one can imagine.
As you walk up the stairs to Harold's second story, a huge painting of a jackalope graces the wall. Peek out back and you can see the miniature produce growing on the roof deck. But wascally wabbits aren't the only ones drawn to a dish named Carrot ($17). Our waitress struggled mightily with a definition, but it's essentially a carrot and wheatberries casserole with predominant cumin notes. Topped with breadcrumbs, Harold's seemingly scorched earth policy toward gluten required that it arrive largely blackened. Sufficiently carroty and probably very good for you, some may dismiss this as rabbit food. Thus, it's with no small amount of sardonic flair that the dish is accompanied by a small chicken-fried rabbit foreleg. Billed as a wing and equally tiny, it's so beautifully prepared it's hard not to lament the two-bite serving size, but alas, this dish is called Carrot, not wabbit.
Harold's Cabin's service is down-to-earth and friendly, with a small dash of space cadet on the side. While one server brought several cocktails we didn't order, the other muttered "I have no idea what's going on," at least twice. But even so, the discombobulated-feel was more charming than meddlesome. Besides, multiple trips up and down the steep stairs might make anyone daffy.
The menu is equally full of surprises, and Cucumber ($14) may be the most refreshing entree I've ever had. Plated in a manner approaching fine art, thin slices of radish and cucumber are tossed with green peas, vadouvan-marinated strawberries, and three head-on shrimp. Light, clean, and inventive, this is about as far from typical Charleston fare as you can get.
Those looking for a few more calories in their meal would do well to try the dish simply called Melon ($16). An adventurous play on traditional barbecue offerings, slightly pickled chunks of watermelon rub elbows with diced cantaloupe, fresh mint, and cilantro, as well as two tender chunks of pork and a deep fried arancini rice ball filled with she-crab. The gooey Sicilian rice ball and rich pork are brilliantly buoyed by the herbs and fruit, with each bite offering a different set of flavors. Bold and toothsome, this is a dish — down to the wooden board used for the plate — you want to hoard.
At once hip, homey, experimental, and exciting, Harold's Cabin is carving out its own corner of the Charleston food scene. Presuming the selections will change with the seasons, the risk of cabin fever seems low. Whether it's bok choy, Brussels sprouts, leeks, or persimmons, I can hardly wait to see what comes next.