RESTAURANT REVIEW: Charleston Grill 

Immaculate revival

Charleston Grill
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées: $20 and up
Downtown
224 King St.
577-4522
Dinner

Many ways exist to enjoy the magnificence of the new and improved Charleston Grill, but perhaps the most excellent one involves nuzzling down into a plush sofa amid the dark-paneled walls and cool jazz. The sounds of the Quentin Baxter Ensemble float like a London fog across the dining room, out into the hallway, and down the hall, where the expensive boutiques let those cutting through the lobby of Charleston Place know that this palace was built for those who can drop some bank on a Gucci purse. But sitting on the new sofas in the Charleston Grill will set you back only a couple bucks for a stiff drink and, in the comfortable dusk of the bar area, no one will know whether your shoulder bag was purchased down the hall or not.

Charleston Grill has always run with the best, and as fancy as all that might have been, rubbing elbows with the city's power elite as they tossed back $600 bottles of wine certainly made it seem like a special occasion. This is the place you went for your anniversary or birthday or the day you got out of prison for some kind of lucrative white collar crime. Such haphazard visitations left the average Tuesday night dining room full of rich tourists with a smattering of deep-pocketed local devotees. After years of such monotony, the place that brought fine dining as we know it to the peninsula, that witnessed the popularization of Lowcountry cuisine under the command of the venerable Louis Osteen and courted the first of many high-profile chefs into town in Bob Waggoner, presented a stale vibe. It was an old saltine cracker slipped between your sofa cushions.

So, like a low-down dirty sinner at a country church revival, Charleston Grill was reborn, shut down for the full month of February this winter and afforded a rejuvenating treatment every bit as dramatic as the spa services de-wrinkling socialites in the hotel's penthouse spa. Under the watchful eye of general manager Mickey Bakst, every aspect of the restaurant received careful reconsideration, from the staid old menu to the frumpy Victorian furniture — a tremendous undertaking involving considerable risk and a fat bankroll. With its new, less tailored manner and casual, impromptu menu, Charleston Grill will become the preeminent stop for showgoers, beatniks, modern jazz freaks, and the multitudes in jeans and flip-flops — for they're all welcome these days.

The Grill sets new standards in approachable service and, regrettably, price. This is still no place for early-bird bargain hunters, but the changes make it easier to come to Charleston Grill for more than a formal meal fit for princes and kings. The dining room, in sheens of silver and white, is not a finished masterpiece but a budding accomplishment, malleable and undetermined. It shimmers with a lightness, the billowing fabric lifts your gaze and draws it through the glass wall opposite the bar. You could spend hours pondering the swaying plants in the interior courtyard. For all its improvement, the bar still awaits some furniture, so special that it's still tied up half a world away in some shipping container between here and Indonesia — the place will get even better over the summer.

The new menu looks as diverse as the new clientele. In a place known for tradition, it's refreshing to see a focus on innovation. Charleston Grill sometimes succumbs to the Lowcountry fad, offering "Redneck Caviar" with its catfish, but the new format branches out. Selections divided by style, rather than course, are interwoven with the exotic and the familiar. Lush, Pure, Southern, and Cosmopolitan categories mark the zones of the menu and provide a representative taste of the season and the current proclivities of the kitchen. The menu enumerates the courses in a terse, staccato voice, luxuries bounding across the pages like fireflies on a hot summer night: ramps, foie gras, blood orange, pomegranate molasses, saffron, dates, crosnes. They signify the opulence that Charleston Grill bestows on its guests and embrace the varied flavors of Waggoner's cuisine.

If you close your eyes, the whole experience might seem strangely familiar. Waggoner's style still reverberates with highly reduced sauces and intricate juxtapositions. But the overwhelmingly narrow notions of French-Lowcountry fusion (which rightly belongs to the original Huguenots rather than any 20th century chefs) have migrated to other parts of the globe. As if taking a page from Eric Ripert and Michael Ruhlman's newest book, A Return to Cooking, Waggoner's food has redefined itself in multiple geographies, and this is its genius.

You can mix and match the menu. A "Mediterranean Fish Soup" ($10), filed under the Cosmopolitan quarter of the menu, filled with the earthy aniseed aroma of fennel bulbs can be followed by a Roasted Baby Beet Salad ($13 — look under Lush), or "Chilled Maine Lobster" ($17), served "Pure," with only the clean astringency of lemon oil and a smattering of crisp greens veiled with a sheen of chervil vinaigrette to get in the way of simple shellfish bliss. The lobster is rich and deeply satisfying without being overbearing.

If there's a drawback to such a menu arrangement, it's in the awkwardness of ordering more than two courses, since it's divided into only "Appetizers" and "Entrees." Of course, aspiring gluttons will have no trouble springing for two or three appetizers before devouring such innovative fare as the "Colorado Lamb Chops" ($39). The size alone makes you wonder if they didn't come from a small cow, but one taste is pure heaven (for what it's worth, they should also have a "pure heaven" category), dry aged and brawny, the chops smack of a full flavor rarely experienced in the world of mass-produced grain finished lamb. Like the incredibly reduced demi-glace that naps the meat, the few white asparagus spears lining the side of the dish are good, but forgettable when matched against the quality of the meat itself. The sauce is salty and detracting and makes one wonder if all that reduction was really appropriate for something labeled "Pure," but you'll eat the whole thing with relish and wish for more.

Perhaps the finest dish I have ever tasted, the Hawaaian Kampachi ($30) is so good that only a few bites from my companion's plate made me a believer. The Kampachi, which is really just farm-raised amberjack, devoid of the parasites that litter large wild specimens, came mounted on a pile of jasmine rice infused with the sweet tang of dates, small shrimp, coconut, and lime leaves. Expertly paired with a Grand Cru Gewürztraminer by sommelier Rick Rubel, it delivered one of those rare moments of bliss, of complete harmony among food, place, and wine that make all other shortcomings inconsequential. The sweetness of the broth, the aromatics of the rice, and the crispy sear of the fish wove an exotic tapestry of flavor that is close to perfection. Perhaps the fish gets a bit lost in the assertive mix of pan-Asian flavors, but it is a dish that will last the ages — a pairing of food and wine that makes the hard work and turmoil required to change the old place around worth every trial and tribulation, one that every serious diner in Charleston should rush out to try. It pushes Charleston Grill beyond the realm of regional cuisine and into a cosmopolitan one.

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As Spoleto blankets the town, the new Charleston Grill opens its doors wide with an approachable, nonchalant elegance where everyone feels welcome, bellying up for a glass of wine, tapping to the rambling beats of Quentin Baxter, or dropping $48 on a ribeye for a bejeweled sweetheart.

I saw two little old ladies dressed to the nines, bedecked with fur and pearls and occupying one of the niches in the bar. They picked among a couple of plates, and I wondered what these two octogenarians must think of their pork chops, cracklings, mashed potatoes, and pepper gravy residing in the same restaurant as my tuna and hamachi sashimi splayed out with pomegranate molasses, lemongrass oil, little purple Peruvian potato chips, and black and orange sea salt. They smiled at Quentin, raised a toast, and laughed heartily into the night.

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