I was a little nervous when I stepped into the Lot, the newly renovated restaurant adjoining the Pour House on James Island. For years it had been El Bohio, serving co-owner Vanessa Harris' Cuban-American family recipes. Back in the summer, though, she and her husband Alex decided it was time for a transformation.
The press release announcing the new restaurant declared the Lot was bringing "farm-to-table cuisine" to the Pour House's live-music bar setting and that they had "consciously joined the local food and farmer movement." On the one hand, I was relieved that they hadn't joined the local food and farmer movement by accident, but, on the other, the fact that they had joined at all made me nervous.
Three years ago, our city experienced a rash of sports bars and watering holes retooling their kitchens and getting ambitious with their menus. I wrote a piece decrying the rise of the "gastropub" and pleading with bars to stick to what they do best — wings, sliders, nachos — and not to get all fancy-pants with pork shanks or pan-seared salmon or anything involving truffle oil.
More recently, we've seen a flurry of strip-mall bistros draping themselves in trendy farm-to-table adjectives like local, sustainable, and heirloom with, at best, mixed results. A pork chop may be "sourced" from Keegan-Filion farm, but if it's overcooked and topped with a dull sauce and too much pepper, it's still not good. Not surprisingly, many of these ventures have already closed their doors.
The whole concept of the Lot, in other words, seemed fraught with peril. My nervousness increased as I climbed onto a stool and the bartender began walking me through each of the 10 items on the little chalkboard menu, explaining the ingredients and preparations of each. This could get tedious, I thought, as he was wrapping up item number two a couple minutes later.
But it didn't get tedious, because each item sounded better than the first. I ordered the "farmer's pick" ($8), and it was stunning.
What the farmer picked that evening was a white plate bursting with beautiful colors. A base of green broccoli and limas was dotted with tan field peas and big splashes of bright pink radishes, some quartered and some sliced thin, and lovely slices of watermelon radish, too. Tucked away inside was a raw copper-colored carrot, sliced in half lengthwise, and a nub of sweet corn still on the cob. A big smear of chili-tinged aioli finished the plate.
All the veggies were either raw or blanched just enough to cook them through but still leave them crisp and deeply flavorful. They were tossed lightly in a little vinaigrette and minced herbs, and with each cool and crisp bite came bright bursts of basil. It was one of those dishes where you take a bite, then pause and think, damn, this is delicious. You take two more bites and pause again and think, damn, this is really delicious.
I tweeted out a pic of the veggie plate and asked the Twitterverse to guess where it was from. The replies came back: the Macintosh? FIG? Stars?
Nope, nope, and nope. This veggie plate came from a damn bar.
This isn't lip-service locavorism where a few ingredients from local farms are name-dropped on the menu. It's the serious, hardcore mode where everything is made from scratch, and each and every ingredient is superbly fresh, and it shows in the resulting dishes.
The cavatelli ($14) is rolled fresh, and, depending upon the night, might be paired with smoked pork shoulder and broccoli greens or tossed with Cherry Point shrimp and the Lot's own house-cured bacon. Octopus appears on the menu regularly, grilled and served alongside white beans and pork ribs or mixed with greens in a salad. The regular charcuterie plate has included everything from chicken liver pâté to head cheese and smoked ham.
A leg-thigh chicken quarter ($12) is slow-braised, then coated with spices and finished on the grill and served with a drizzling of the reduced braising jus. The meat itself couldn't be any tastier: so tender that you need only a fork to pull big shreds straight off the bone, yet with an intense dark-meat flavor and enough texture to be pleasantly chewy. It's accompanied by a generous scoop of Anson Mills grits, relatively unadorned so the pure corn flavor shines through, and a couple of magnificently sweet bulb onions that are halved and grilled until nicely caramelized and lightly charred. For just 12 bucks, such an impressively flavorful dish is a heck of a bargain.
There's also a regular slate of bar fare that puts the farm-to-table spin on late night munchies, including pork chicharrones ($5), beef jerky ($8), and — that old favorite of drunken French-Canadians — poutine ($9), made with hand-cut fries topped with fresh cheddar curds, pork belly, and chicken gravy. The burger ($12) is served in a black metal basket lined with waxed paper, and the big slab of house-ground beef (from Barnwell's MiBek Farms) is relatively unencumbered by "gourmet" toppings so the big beefy flavor can shine through. The dog ($10) is actually a house-made smoked sausage, and it's loaded onto a hoagie from Saffron Bakery and topped with fresh sauerkraut and mustard.
All this is the handiwork of new head chef Alex Lira. A native of Richmond, Va., he honed his cooking skills at Tom Colicchio's Craft in New York City and practiced head-to-tail butchery at Marlow & Daughters, the artisan butcher shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He's putting that training to good use at the Lot.
In fact, as I was finishing up my farmer's pick, I realized that the Lot might just be my kind of bar. The actual bar itself — heavy and all brown wood — is worn enough to feel old and comfortable, while the walls of the dining room have been painted in vivid yellows, reds, and blues. The six beers on tap are good ones, half from the local trinity of Westbrook, COAST, and Holy City. Instead of 42 flat screens blasting content, a single small television hangs off to one side, its volume muted. On the sound system, James Brown sings "Get Up Offa That Thing" and John Lee Hooker does his version of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer."
I imagine not everyone will find this the perfect venue for a bowl of wreckfish gumbo with handmade sausage and Carolina Gold rice, but it works for me. Sometimes it's refreshing when a place comes along and makes you rethink your convictions, and the Lot has done just that. I hereby amend my plea to bar owners and their executive chefs: feel free to give "bistropub" a shot, but if you do, please don't half-ass it. Throw yourself into it heart and soul and pull it off with the same intensity and effectiveness as the Harrises and Alex Lira have down at the Lot.