An old concept with a new chef

Entrees: $15-$20
Downtown, 171 East Bay St.
Lunch and Dinner

There may be no finer place to spend a warm spring morning than the lower reaches of the peninsula around East Bay Street. The warm air invites placid walks along the Battery and Waterfront Park, little kids splishing and splashing in the public fountain, lovers mingling at the end of the pier — they all number among the blossoms that intimate the first signs of spring, and the restaurant named Blossom also reemerged this spring, with a new chef and a fresh menu of seafood specialties and old standards.

They're not the only shop offering decent fare along this stretch. A typical afternoon or evening visit presents a variety of possibilities. One can duck in for a quick pint at The Griffon, a glass of bubbly and some cold raw oysters at Pearlz, or an expertly chosen flight of serious wine at Social. Sometimes we prefer to simply graze among the shops, but often we find ourselves finally sequestered among the blooms at Blossom, in a quiet garden patio seat or nuzzled into a plush booth among the warm electric blanket of 100 flickering bulbs. It's a nice space, still familiar and inviting, the open kitchen and wood-burning pizza oven a reminder that Blossom was something of a local pioneer in features now so common as to seem unremarkable.

To update such a stalwart is an intimidating process — one bestowed on Adam Close, the new head chef. Such things are a delicate balance. The will to change, innovate, redesign, and otherwise "improve" the space must be measured against the need to retain the character, and loyal clientele, that made you special in the first place — and a number of restaurants in town currently face the same dilemma.

On its face, Blossom looks much the same. Small plates open the menu, featuring among the requisite crab cakes, tuna tartare, and pan-seared scallops, a delectable dish of "Buttermilk Fried Calamari" ($10). It is almost perfect — a huge serving of baby squid, tentacles and all thrown in there. They are tiny ringlets of crunch, but light and overwhelmingly tender — it's missing only a lemon wedge.

One would think that following with the "Beer-Battered Carolina Shrimp" ($9) would only increase the satisfaction, but they veer strangely onto a different path. The batter is thick and doughy, not all that unusual for a beer-batter, but when dipped into the grilled pineapple salsa and tomato marmalade that accompany it, the shrimp seems rather lost. One has to wonder where they are at all, buried beneath the pile, and whether such a weak showing of shrimp properly showcases the perception of quality ascribed to "local" product.

Entrées tell a similar tale. The fish selections are beautifully prepared. Dishes like the "Pan-Braised Snapper" ($27), the "Oak Roasted Atlantic Salmon" ($24), and the "Cracked Pepper Seared Swordfish" ($25) showcase near-flawless execution. With the exception of a few lentils that tasted of uncooked wine, each dish features creative garniture pairings and quality product.

The salmon may be slathered in delicious smoked tomato butter and come with a delicious stack of sautéed green beans, new potatoes tossed in rosemary, and roasted shallots, but it is the swordfish that is most spectacular. Not dry, as many swordfish steaks can be, the entrée features a great crust and comes perched atop a plate of green French lentils cooked in a red wine reduction. Even the pesky acid bite of raw wine, probably an isolated error in execution, didn't detract from its taste.

Where Blossom seems most inept is in those "older" preparations that predate the chef. Old favorites, like the "Crab Raviolis" ($19), fail to measure up to the standards set by the rest of the menu. Thick and chewy, the pasta might as well be from a frozen plastic package picked up in bulk at your local warehouse store. And although the sweet corn cream sauce and various mushroom and spinach flavors seem like a well-constructed combination, they coalesce on the plate into a gloopy, gargantuan mess, with little appeal. I'm not sure whose favorites they might be, but don't count me as a fan.

That really is the problem with all of the aging restaurants that helped build the Charleston scene. As new places hit the market, offering a range of new flavors and attitudes, the old guard must adapt, or risk monotony in the pursuit of pleasing their fanbase. Perhaps there is room for a few old Charleston "throw-backs" that showcase the classic food of the scene, but only so much oxygen can exist at the top of that pile. If the more established chefs of the city are smart, they will take a lesson from newcomers like Adam Close and get some of their food fresh off the boat.




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