It's been a remarkable 18 months for Charleston dining, as a steady procession of new restaurants has really shaken up the downtown scene, bent on remaking the local culinary style. With The Grocery, Kevin Johnson takes his place squarely in that vanguard of ambitious chefs who are pushing our city's food scene forward. From the minute you step inside, you'll see that it's a new breed of downtown dining. It has all the makings of a big hit.
Take the setting. It's in one half of the old Altman Furniture building on Cannon Street, just a few steps off of King. The interior has been completely overhauled, but the old furniture showroom makes for an unusual restaurant space, far wider than it is deep. Just inside the front door sits a massive old safe that, in a clever touch, holds the restaurant's framed business license. But the most dramatic ornamentation is edible. Big shelves built into the wall over the entryway to the kitchen are lined with hundreds of glass jars of pickles and preserves. A glass-doored cooler to the left displays a massive ham on a spit, ready for carving.
The Grocery embodies all of the themes of contemporary Charleston dining: a less-formal style, a passionate focus on ingredients, a respectful glance back to traditional Southern foodways. The most noticeable feature is visible just behind the counter of the open kitchen: a massive brick oven built right into the wall with not just a flame or two but an outright conflagration enveloping the logs inside.
The Grocery's menu has a novel format, too, with dishes that work their way up in size. Tiny "snacks" and small "bites" — appetizer portions suitable for sharing — progress to larger "tastes" and "plates" followed by a few large platters designed for a whole table to share. The abbreviated list of wines from small producers fits on two sides of a single sheet of paper, and the beers and handcrafted cocktails get equal focus.
It's a little puzzling how to get started, but the best bet is to order a few snacks and bites and work your way up. Ask for the food to come out as it's ready and be prepared to share —the parade of treats arrives quickly, so you can decide on the fly to throttle it up or down. We throttled it up, since each course seemed better than the previous, inspiring us to try more.
The snacks offer a mixed start. Crispy pimento cheese ($4) comes on a glass tray cleverly fashioned from a melted coke bottle, holding about a dozen golden brown orbs, each the size of a shooter marble. The breading is crispy and light, the inside golden and gooey. It's hard to imagine having a quibble against deep-fried pimento cheese, but I have one: it really could use a sauce.
The charred onion dip with kettle chips ($4) is an upscale take on a junk food staple, with thinly sliced potatoes fried very brown and crispy, the dip a pale brownish color but with a sweet smoky onion flavor to it. It's upscale french onion dip, better than the typical Super Bowl party kind, but it doesn't knock your socks off.
Things really get rolling on the "bites," though. A link of slightly seared boudin-blanc ($10) is balanced on a pile of sweet-and-sour cabbage with a slice of apple and a bacon-wrapped prune trailing off to the side, a grainy mustard sauce spooned over the top. The sausage is crumbly, savory, and magnificent, while the ultra-sweet apple and bacon-wrapped prune add a big syncopation of flavor.
The fried oysters ($10) have a down-home twist. Oyster half-shells are spread with a bright orange "deviled egg sauce," the fried oyster placed back inside and topped with a floppy bread-and-butter chip. The deviled egg sauce adds a splendid richness to the crisp oysters, and the tangy bite of the bread-and-butter pickle at the end caps it perfectly.
The swordfish crudo ($12) is superb, too. The firm fish is sliced into thin, two-inch squares, raw in the middle but with a crispy pepper crust on the very outside. Topped with chunks of pink grapefruit, thinly sliced radishes, and a citrusy vinaigrette, each bite is cool and pure.
The menu starts to really open up with the medium-sized "tastes." A chunk of golden tilefish ($19) is served over a parsnip purée that's addictively creamy, and the charred Brussels leaves sprinkled around the outside offer a nice dark element. Two large seared scallops ($19) rest atop a bed of wilted cabbage, with slices of pork belly and a few whole carrots and parsnips, slightly blackened from the wood oven, splayed over the top. The scallops are salty on the outside and silky inside, while the cabbage absolutely explodes with a charred flavor that's balanced by the sweet swirl of sorghum gastrique encircling it all.
I very much like the size of the "taste" selections, which offer a fully composed plate but aren't so big that you struggle to finish it: a size well suited for the grazing and sampling mode. The "plates" offer more conventional entrée-sized portions — a fire-roasted pork chop ($30), a New York strip with fingerling potatoes ($32). And then there are the "table" dishes, a bit of a novelty specifically designed for family-style sharing. There's a Southern take on cassoulet ($37) with three cuts of local Keegan-Filion Farm pork — a bone-in shank, a square of roasted shoulder, and a garlic-laced pork sausage — nestled among white beans and greens. A whole beeliner snapper ($38) — eyes, fins, and all — is topped with fennel and sliced lemons and roasted in the big wood-fired oven until the skin is crispy and slightly charred. With only two in our party, we had to leave the larger items for another visit.
For dessert, there are perfectly executed churros, exterior gleaming with sugar crystals, all curly and standing upright in a rocks glass, with a trio of sauces in little square trays, a chocolate sauce with a hint of chile, vanilla anglaise, and — best of all — a salty caramel sauce. The churros are just right for sharing.
At The Grocery, the focus is squarely on the food. The casual atmosphere is enhanced by the format of the menu, which encourages large groups to come in and share. The table-sized platters show some risk-taking, bringing something to the market that many diners won't be familiar with. The wood-fired oven and the in-house canning add a new palette of flavors that complement the pure freshness of the local produce. The Grocery is the handiwork of owner and executive chef Johnson, who, before a more recent stint at REV Foods, led the kitchen for seven years at Anson Restaurant, one of the city's pioneers of fresh, local ingredients and the do-it-in-house aesthetic (they even grind their own grits!). The Grocery shows a natural, successful evolution of that philosophy.