"If this was the last meal I'd have before I die, I'd be happy," said my girlfriend, dressed up in a stunning blue dress and looking quite content. I sat across the table feeling equally satisfied. The view from our window revealed impeccably cut grass, palmettos swaying in the wind, and waves rolling in from the sea. The sun was lowering into the horizon, light music was playing, and cocktails were in hand — the perfect setting.
We were at the Ocean Room at Kiawah Island Resort, and we had not yet finished our meal. In fact, we had just moved from our appetizers to the entrées, which sat before us on the table. In a sense, though, we were deep into the overall experience.
The drive from Charleston to Kiawah Island is nothing short of breathtaking, with live oak trees cloaked in Spanish moss, miles of marshland, and an abundance of coastal wildlife. It's a fantastic way to start an evening.
The Sanctuary sits in the middle of this work of art. At the entrance, doormen let you in to a place of gentrified glamour: plush furniture, dark wood, and sparkling chandeliers. To the left is a wide, winding staircase that leads to the Ocean Room. The lounge and dining room feel like a 1920s-era clubhouse with old furniture and antiques, dark wooden walls, and a staff attired in vests and ties.
The Ocean Room is a steakhouse, which specializes in the preparation of local, grass-fed beef from MiBek farms in Barnwell, S.C. The menu typically offers five cuts of beef and four to five additional entrées. There are about a half-dozen appetizers and as many sides. On our first visit, we opted to try the summer tasting menu. There's no better way to fully experience what a restaurant has to offer than going with the chef's tasting menu. On this particular occasion, I was on a mission to see what Chef de Cuisine Andrew Venable could do.
Earlier this year, former Chef de Cuisine Nathan Thurston decided to make a big move by heading downtown to take the executive chef position at the soon-to-open Stars restaurant. Venable, who came to the Ocean Room in 2008, worked his way up to sous chef and stepped into Thurston's shoes upon his departure.
The $79 tasting menu is seasonal and consists of five courses with optional wine pairings for an additional $49. Before the first course, we were presented with an amuse bouche of golden watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew gelée, which was a light, refreshing kickstart to the palate.
The first course, served in a long, wide, boat-shaped dish, topped a pile of lump crab meat with thin rings of roasted banana peppers; the dish was dusted with a bright red, very mild ground pepper called espelette. Servers poured an ivory-colored, chilled Johns Island corn soup into the dish. Corn and crab are a classic combination, and the slightly chunky cold soup was a nice complement to the hot summer day, as was the 2011 Nigl Grüner Veltliner Freiheit, a crisp, effervescent white wine from Austria.
Next came a small puck of beef tartare with egg yolk tarragon custard, a couple pieces of fried shallot, and a few wedges of orange. A pale salmon pink rosé from Côtes de Provence brought color and zest to the dish.
Throughout the dinner our service was managed by a tag team of waiters who were always on their toes. Water was replenished, dishes arrived promptly one after another, and the table was always clean. Black or white cloth napkins were matched accordingly, and a small stool was placed next to my girlfriend to hold her purse. Our main server, Jason, was particularly knowledgeable about food and wine. His service went even beyond what you'd expect at this price point.
Amid this pampering came our next two courses. Rare seared yellowfin tuna rested on sunchoke purée, accented with local blueberries, cured tomatoes, and saffron citronette. The filet mignon was cooked sous vide to a perfect 130 degrees then sliced before being brought to the table. Accompanied by crispy new potatoes (golden and purple), balsamic glazed sweet onions, and horseradish crème fraîche, the beef was extremely tender and flavorful. All of the flavors on the plate were delightful, but I could've eaten the steak alone and been happy.
For dessert, Venable really took a chance, creating green tomato sorbet with basil short bread and balsamic caramel tomatoes. The presentation of the dish itself was beautiful. Small round pieces of short bread were topped with a couple of oval-shaped scoops of very light green sorbet — which tasted just like green tomatoes — and dark round tomatoes soaked in caramel. Combined into a single bite, all the components made for an excellent dish, and it was definitely sweet enough to be categorized as a dessert.
Those who don't want to splurge on the tasting menu have other options. There's a three-course "Dining at Dusk" menu for $49 from 6-7 p.m. from Tuesday to Thursday and from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
On our second visit, we explored the other part of the menu. This time, we sat in the lounge, which you walk through to get to the dining room. This room still has the plush furniture and dark wood, but there's a variety of standard two-top tables, coffee tables, and booths. It feels more like a place where you'd have high tea.
Everything that you can order in the dining room is served in the lounge, with the addition of a small sushi menu. We started with three pieces of sashimi ($6) and beef carpaccio ($13) with a long, skinny log of creamy herbed goat cheese, arugula, small pieces of crostini, and orange wedges. Both were spectacular.
With our appetizers we sipped on some crafty cocktails. I had the excellent Sweetgrass Sour ($14), consisting of Woodford Reserve, local honey, housemade pineapple vinegar, and fresh rosemary in a highball glass.
From the entrées, I ordered a 6 oz. petite strip loin ($31) with a side of Benton's bacon tots ($9), and my date ordered sushi. The blue roll contained spicy crab, cream cheese, pickled jalapeños, and blue cheese and was wrapped in blue-colored rice then topped with slices of peach. It's a creative roll, but I only recommend it to those who love blue cheese, as it overpowers the rest of the roll.
After enjoying that exceptional steak on my first visit, my expectations were high for the strip loin cooked using more traditional methods of grilling and broiling. I ordered it medium-rare, but I cut into a barely pink center. The server apologized and took it back to the kitchen while I ate my tots. Eight minutes later a new hunk of beef was in front of me, cooked to a perfect medium-rare.
We ended the night with the Strawberry Napoleon: strawberry white chocolate mousse stacked between thin, crispy pastry, strawberry jam, lavender crème fraîche sherbet, and fresh strawberries. I was full, but could not resist. It was fresh, light, and delicious.
Though the food was exceptional in both the dining room and lounge, both experiences were quite different. There were more servers available in the dining room, so we received much more attention. In the lounge, we had to ask for bread, whereas in the dining room the bread was served right when we ordered our drinks. In the dining room we were presented with an amuse bouche, but that was not part of our lounge experience, even though a nearby table was enjoying one.
Medium-well steak aside, my experiences at the Ocean Room have been quite enjoyable. I'm happy to see that Venable is settling in nicely. The dishes he prepared for the tasting menu were nothing short of amazing. The meal comes with a hefty price tag, but the overall experience is one that is hard to top. Would I accept a meal at the Ocean Room as the last meal before I die? Yes, but I'd make sure to do it right. Dress up, enjoy the drive, watch the sunset, get a table in the dining room, and go all out. It's an experience to savor.