After the Boathouse on East Bay closed in early 2009, the big brick building on the corner of East Bay and Chapel sat empty for almost two years. But now it's back, recreated as the Rice Market. Richard Stoney, who as part of Crew Carolina was one of the Boathouse's owners, has teamed with a new set of partners in a new venture. Another Boathouse alum, Executive Chef Charles Arena, who long headed the kitchen out at Breach Inlet on Isle of Palms, has come back downtown, too.
The stated theme of the Rice Market is "a tribute to the city of Charleston and one of her greatest benefactors — the rice trade," which is somewhat misleading. Charleston's fortunes were certainly made on the rice trade, but it was an outbound-only trade focused on a single variety — Carolina Gold. The Rice Market offers a sweeping variety of rice from around the world. Old Lowcountry rice classics like okra gumbo and pirleau (a.k.a. purloo, prioleau) are featured on the menu, but so are rice dishes from every other corner of the globe.
Stoney and team have given the old Boathouse location a thorough overhaul, and inside it's bold and brightly colored. A curved wall rises at an angle along one side of the room, hiding the service passage behind it and breaking up the angularity of the big, wide room with its high ceilings and exposed rafters. The furniture is an eclectic assemblage of stylish tables and chairs of all types, from the high-backed red-and-yellow seats at the bar's community tables to the big black-and-red-capped booths and banquettes in the main dining area.
On one wall hang rice baskets from Vietnam. Above the sake bar just inside the front door looms cypress rice trunks, a reproduction of what was once used to control the water levels in Lowcountry rice fields. Gnarled tangles of aged driftwood and half-moon wooden lattices adorn the walls and ceiling. This mix of old and new styles fits the whole fusion vibe of the place, and there's not only a huge outdoor patio but also one of the best assets a downtown restaurant can have: its own ample parking lot.
The appetizer menu, like the decor, reflects that globe-trotting spirit and has so many intriguing choices it's hard to settle on just one or two. There's a trio of satays with cardamom duck, crispy shrimp, and chipotle-spiced grilled beef ($10), and a selection of raw items like tuna or salmon crudo ($11 and $10, respectively) and a "sushi pizza" ($12) with raw tuna and spicy shrimp sauce atop a tempura fried rice cake crust. And then there's the Stone ($10), marinated hanger steak that's sliced thin and brought to your table raw along with a round, black, blazingly-hot rock on which you cook the beef yourself.
The braised short ribs ($12) arrive on a broad white plate over a fried rice pancake with two fried quail eggs atop and an arc of yellowish sauce around the side. The beef is tender and flavorful, and the tiny egg with its slightly runny yolk goes perfectly with it, though what the rice pancake gains for novelty it gives back for being dull and a little too watery.
The shrimp and crab sausage ($12) is another off-the-beaten path choice, and it's exactly what it sounds like: a link of sausage made from shrimp and crab. It's sliced into discs and served with a scattering of plain and fried housemade pickles and a ramekin of mango mustard. The sausage has an unusually smooth, consistent texture with a lot of shrimp flavor, and the tangy zip from the pickles and mustard really brightens things nicely.
The entrée menu is broken into four sections: meat, poultry, seafood, and noodles. All but the noodles are served with some sort of rice — everything from Carolina Gold in the Southern Cajun jambalaya ($20) to the coconut jasmine that accompanies the grilled salmon ($22). There's also a "build your own bowl" feature where you choose among five varieties of rice (plus farro, too) and add toppings like cheese, duck confit, shrimp, and short ribs.
Like the rice choices, the entrées span the globe with an eclectic mix of styles and with equally mixed results on the execution.
Three big pan-roasted scallops ($26) are layered over a pile of small grain black rice with a few stalks of grilled asparagus alongside and long strands of thyme draped over the top. The scallops are thick and crispy brown around the edges, but the most notable part of the dish is the black rice, which has a wonderfully firm but chewy texture and a creamy, exotic flavor that shines through the heavy soaking of salty butter in which it's served.
Much closer to home are the flavors of the fried chicken with Hoppin' John and red eye gravy ($19). The Hoppin' John is pretty good: moist and only mildly spiced. The big boneless chicken breasts served over the top, however, are encased in batter that is too heavy and greasy and overloaded with a blast of herbs.
The adventurousness extends even to the desserts. The "almond joy" bar slips a little rice onto the dessert menu with a sweet mixture of rice, coconut, and almonds rolled into a bar and enrobed in chocolate. It does indeed taste reminiscent of an Almond Joy bar, but thicker and creamier. It's served with tasty strips of candied ginger and a strangely rich and savory green tea mousse. A similar playfulness is brought to the milk and cookies, a grown-up twist on the old classic that includes two dense, rich chocolate cookies paired with a stemmed glass of "chocolate milk" that's actually Godiva chocolate blended with Bailey's and topped with a swirl of whipped cream.
All told, though not everything comes off perfectly, I have to give the Rice Market big points for its willingness to take risks. Opening a restaurant where every entrée is served with some sort of rice is a brave move in and of itself. Within that rice-based theme, Chef Arena steps up with some pretty daring combinations. It's fusion food, but a different type of fusion, one doesn't just lump together the same safe combinations of once-exotic but now well-known international flavors. And that alone is worth a little attention.