In the grand scheme of Charleston's urban development, Daniel Island is a newborn. Each time I make it out there, I marvel at its eerie perfection, shiny curbs, gleaming rows of new homes, exquisitely aligned palm trees. I half expect to hear "Cue the sun!" a la The Truman Show.
Surreal new urbanism aside, I can attest there is fun to be had on D.I.
Open since May, The Islander is one such offering brought to us by Holy City Hospitality, the same group that operates practically an entire city block downtown, including the popular 39 Rue de Jean, Coast Bar and Grill, and Virginia's on King. The Islander's website beckons with tropical seduction: "Leave your cares behind," "Escape to The Islander," "Where every day is your vacation," against a visual backdrop of vast, lush, unspoiled marshland.
The Islander inhabits a surreal pocket of urban planning. Nestled between a Hampton Inn and T-Mobile headquarters, with a catty-corner new office building under construction and Blackbaud just down the street, the restaurant stands alone in an office park. Its name takes on new meaning, for The Islander is not just a restaurant on an island, it is a culinary island in a sea of industry. Instead of ocean waves lapping its shores, a parking lot and man-made pond hem it in.
Guys in crisp starched shirts and uniform khakis pass by as we sink into a tall booth near the indoor/outdoor bar. Outside, misting fans seem to mimic the ocean breeze. Bob Marley soothes from invisible speakers, "Don't worry 'bout a thing." But given my guess that the restaurant caters to a captive, hungry, decently paid corporate audience, my expectations for any innovative cuisine are minimal at best.
I'm dead wrong.
My friend and I order salads, and right off the bat, I'm impressed with the quality of the greens and depth of flavor. An assertive dose of garlic pervades the roasted kale salad ($8.99) laced with the crunch of shaved fennel, the juicy burst of supremed oranges, creamy avocado, and thick-cut bacon, all tossed lightly in a smoky chipotle vinaigrette. The chorus of flavors and textures play nicely off each other in the sesame seared shrimp salad ($11.99), with slivered hearts of palm, seared pineapple, red onions, and arugula so fresh it cannot have traveled far.
Our waiter assures us that the chef is passionate about sourcing locally, and indeed, Executive Chef John Whisenant has a number of well-regarded venues under his chef's hat (Rue de Jean, Grill 225, Fat Hen). Clearly he is attempting more here than burgers and umbrella drinks.
Louis Armstrong croons sweetly, "What a wonderful world," and I start to rethink this place. To test the waters, I order something status quo: a tuna melt ($12.99 "lunch express" special, inclusive of caesar salad and drink). The tuna melt bears no resemblance to the typical cheese-smothered, mayonnaise-heavy standard. Instead, two slices of crisp, buttery orange rosemary bread from local bakery Normandy Farm encase lemony chunks of fresh, slow-poached yellowtail tuna, peppery purple onion, tomato, lettuce, and melted gruyere, alongside a mix of earthy greens picked from fields that very morning. Excellent. The crisp caesar impresses as well, with thick slices of parmesan, smoky sundried tomatoes, pungent anchovies, and a light creamy dressing. Unfortunately, the grilled jerk chicken (a $12.99 "lunch express" special inclusive of a velvety truffled potato soup and iced tea), falls a little flat, largely because the bland "Big Ben" rice, despite being laced with pineapple and cilantro, doesn't live up to the stronger flavors of the rest of the dish. But the squash casserole side, featuring loosely tossed Ambrose Farms patty pan squash, onion slivers, and tomatoes, saves the plate.
I resolve to return with friends for a weekend dinner, to see what the place is like without the weekday workforce regulars. The advertised "live calypso band" turns out to be a solo dude with steel drums and a computerized synthesizer, but he's a hit with the giggly tween girls who venture here with their resident parents. Indeed, the place seems full of Daniel Island locals, kids among them, livening up the outdoor patio as steel drums tap out the melody to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in this now empty office park.
The setting sun pulls a dark veil over the surrounding parking lot, and the steel drums tap out Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On?" With the arrival of rum drinks, our tropical vacation fantasy kicks into gear. To my surprise, the cocktails are better than any I've had on a real Caribbean island. Not mix-based or sugary sweet, the libations are fresh and well designed. The Calypso ($8), with a Hendrick's Gin base infused with rose petals and cucumber, sports tiny muddled blackberries suspended in its magenta hue, topped off with a sprig of basil. The Tropical Mojito ($8) adds pineapple and coconut water to the requisite rum/mint combo. And the Goombay Smash ($8) blends fresh fruits with Grenadine and our local Firefly Distillery's Sea Island Spiced Rum.
Some of us stick to wine, some to Grey Goose martinis, as we pass around appetizers and entrees. Oysters Rockefeller (six for $11.99), although tasty and filling, are piled so high with toppings that the breadcrumbs, spinach, bacon, and cheese totally drown out the oyster. It's a pity not to taste the bivalves themselves, given that The Islander sources fine oysters from the ACE Basin and Chesapeake Bay.
The soft flesh of thinly sliced ancho and garlic charred octopus ceviche ($11.99), however, balances with a crispy, tart medley of julienned jicama, green apple, lime juice, and house-made taro root chips. The Islander sushi roll ($18.99) delivers ample bites of tuna and soy-cured salmon with house-made Sriracha.
By far my favorite dish of the night is the crispy, golden brown cassava crusted grouper ($26.99) over a luscious succotash of shiitake slivers and local speckled butterbeans braised in ham hocks, chicken stock, mire poix, and garlic butter, brightened by a key lime beurre blanc. Also surprising is a smoked goat cheese potato gratin that accompanies the rum-brined grilled pork chop ($18.99).
Desserts are laudable and anything but saccharine, a sign of a sophisticated chef. This is especially true of the peanut butter cup pie ($8.50) and the banana bread pudding ($8.50).
As the calypso soloist breaks into a rendition of Lorde's "Royals" with the closing lyrics "Let me live that fantasy," it occurs to me that there are people, some of my friends among them, who might prefer a Disney-fied island getaway to the real thing. But when the getaway is as well executed as The Islander, that's just fine by me.