Eight years on, The Macintosh is gliding down a smooth, well-defined path 

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click to enlarge Braised Rabbit served with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes and creamy ricotta salata is as good as it was eight years ago

Ruta Smith

Braised Rabbit served with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes and creamy ricotta salata is as good as it was eight years ago

The Macintosh on King Street just celebrated its eighth birthday. In the restaurant world, that's not nearly long enough to qualify as a classic, but it's plenty of time for a place to slip into a rut and be forgotten amid the buzzy newcomers that keep appearing on the scene.

Indeed, not much seemed to change at The Macintosh in its first 8 years — at least not until this past June. That's when it was announced that founding chef Jeremiah Bacon was stepping into a more general role as executive chef for all of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group's 20-odd restaurants, seven of which are here in Charleston. Taking over the kitchen at The Macintosh was Stuart Rogers, previously executive chef at Oak Steakhouse in Atlanta.

The press at the time predicted gradual change, a few new dishes easing in among the old crowd favorites. So I waited until the end of summer to stop in and check out the results.

"I know one thing," my wife said as we scanned the appetizer menu during my first visit. "We won't be getting the fish bologna sliders."

Fish bologna? I thought. What's the new guy thinking? Weird sounding stuff like this is the kind of thing that drives old regulars out the door. So, of course, I had to order the sliders ($10).

It turns out they are absolutely delicious. Tucked inside each soft toasted roll is a thick-sliced disk of fish sausage with deep, rich flavor, accented by a smear of tart pickled pepper tartar sauce. They even won over my wife. "Sort of country, but sophisticated," she concluded.

I discovered later that the fish bologna preceded Rogers' tenure in the kitchen. In fact, it wasn't easy to guess which were the new dishes and which were more tenured. The pork schnitzel ($27), for instance, fits perfectly in the restaurant's long-running mode of flavor-intensifying preparations. The pork is pounded thin before being lightly breaded, fried, and plated with compressed peaches beneath a canopy of watercress. At the bottom of the plate, sorghum-pork jus adds an unexpected, but welcome dose of dark sweetness.

click to enlarge Triggerfish (pictured) and Smoked Pork Sugo represent the macintosh’s balance between lush flavors and brighter, lighter ones - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Triggerfish (pictured) and Smoked Pork Sugo represent the macintosh’s balance between lush flavors and brighter, lighter ones

Just a few days after my first visit, the restaurant switched over to a "Happy 8th Birthday" menu that interspersed a slate of the restaurant's "classics" with several brand new dishes, helpfully underlined so you could identify them. So I went back to give it a try. Just two days after that visit, word came that Rogers and The Macintosh were parting ways, and Bacon was back on the line as chef until they found a replacement. I gotta work on my timing.

I spoke with Bacon briefly by phone, and he reiterated his intention to return quickly to being what he calls "third-base coach" and allowing the next generation of leaders to emerge from the kitchen. As of this writing, that same "birthday" lineup is still in rotation, and its dishes seem less the product of a single individual as of a team sharing a common sensibility.

Among the new: six chilled local shrimp ($14) ringing a flat red bowl amid a thin, cloudy pool of tigre de leche (the thin, citrusy broth used in ceviche). The shrimp's cool, fresh bite is accented with bursts of sweetness from red grapes and mint — a surprising and brilliant combination. In the same vein, a single crisp fried oyster and hints of bittersweet tarragon augment the smooth, creamy corn bisque ($10).

Alongside the newcomers, old fan favorites stack up well. The rabbit appetizer ($14) is served in the same indented, flying saucer-like dish it debuted in eight years ago, and it's still superb. Layers of tender braised rabbit await above a rich brown broth and a hidden potato cake that crumbles into the liquid as you cut it. The dark richness is balanced by the sweetness and acid of slow-roasted cherry tomatoes and white, creamy shards of shaved ricotta salata.

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Amid these rolling waves of flavor, not every element clicks. A uniform crosshatch of brown grill marks adds pleasant char to the clean, sweet flavor of a triggerfish filet ($30). But the fish is served over a succotash that's little more than the sum of its parts — firm corn kernels and limas tossed with crisp slices of green bean — and a pale orange smear of carrot mousseline melts away to almost nothingness.

But such rare exceptions only underscore how brilliant the other combinations are. The smoked pork sugo ($27) starts with shoulder cooked 12 hours on a Big Green Egg. The components of the finished dish — shreds of tender, smoky pork, thin folds of pappardelle, a dollop of whipped mascarpone — melt with each bite, and bits of roasted tomato add perfect sweet, acidic pops.

The texture of the ricotta gnudi ($14) couldn't be any better. It's light and delicate, almost fluffy but still chewy. When topped with a sticky-sweet red onion agrodolce and drizzled with red wine jus, the result is a surprisingly hearty plate.

Some form of grilled ribeye deckle ($44) has been on the menu since day one. It's currently being served with an autumn ensemble of creamy brown butter potatoes, firm roasted carrots, and a delicious garnish of salty crisp-fried Brussels sprout leaves. The thin red wine gastrique drizzled around the plate adds a sweet veneer, but the steak's salty, beefy bite muscles right through it.

For me, the best bite of all is the street corn salad ($13), which goes in a totally opposite direction from the hearty gnudi and deckle. Kernels of grilled corn are tossed with sweet red lunchbox peppers, pickled red onions, and nubs of feta. The first bite is sharply acidic and bright, and each subsequent one brings a new, unexpected note — the salty crunch of popcorn, a spicy spark of watercress.

click to enlarge Smoked Pork Sugo - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Smoked Pork Sugo

That tension between light and heavy — lush, rich flavors followed by bright, clean ones — has been present ever since Steve Palmer, the managing partner of Indigo Road, lured Bacon away from the now-shuttered Carolina's to become executive chef at Oak Steakhouse. Part of the deal was the promise of an additional restaurant that the chef could shape from the ground up. Indigo Road led the migration of fine dining to the then-struggling retail district of Upper King, launching O-ku (flashy, high end sushi) in 2010, the Cocktail Club (craft cocktails) in July 2011, and, right after that, The Macintosh.

It was among the first of the bold new ventures that followed in the wake of Husk and proved that what was happening in Charleston was bigger than just Sean Brock and his Southern obsessions. It was a shared culinary philosophy that blended a passion for fresh, local ingredients with the focus and discipline of a classical kitchen. It put the food front and center, trading the luxurious trappings of "fancy restaurants" for more rustic decor and a more informal style of service.

In my first review of The Macintosh, published a few months after it opened in 2011, I characterized it as "elegant, stylish, and strongly focused on flavor." I declared the setting — rusty gears adorning old brick walls, exposed aluminum ducts, tables topped with reclaimed flooring — the perfect match for the food. It seemed very energetic and forward-looking.

But what about today? Dining beneath the Edison bulbs in 2019, I find myself wondering whether the decor will soon feel as outdated as the burgundy velvet-lined booths of the Perdita's Room did back when Jeremiah Bacon was leading the kitchen at the old Carolina's. But I have no idea whether a makeover is in order or if a few years from now that rustic aesthetic will age into a classic style.

On the culinary front, there's no ambiguity. Far from being stuck in a rut, The Macintosh is gliding down a smooth, well-defined path. The mix of old favorite dishes with new creations keeps things moving forward, and every plate seems vibrant and relevant today.

Maintaining that continuity seems key as Bacon tries to step back from the day to day and hand the reins to the next generation. It's the essential step for a top-notch restaurant to become a classic one.

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