Restaurant review: The Grocery
Fired by wood, powered by the seasons
By | Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Cuisine: Modern Global
Category: Neighborhood Favorite
Location: 4 Cannon St.
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-?Saturday 5 p.m.-until, brunch Saturday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Costs: Appetizers $4-$15, entrees $15-$29; communal platters MP; sides $7-$8.
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Wheelchair ?Accessible: Yes
Bar: Full-service bar; specialty cocktail menu $8-$10
Other: Private dining area, changing menu based on the season and market availability, thegrocerycharleston.com, Facebook, Twitter.
The eat street of downtown Charleston continues its march north. In December, chef and owner Kevin Johnson opened The Grocery in the former Altman Furniture warehouse at King and Cannon streets.
Johnson and architect David Thompson foraged the neighborhood for almost a year looking for the right space. They found a blue ribbon location: a space fertile with just the right urban edge and nicely positioned for venting the big, wood-fired oven that would fuel the dream Johnson probably has been cultivating since his earliest work at Slightly North of Broad with executive chef Frank Lee. Johnson went on to work at the Inn at Little Washington with Patrick O'Connell, Anson Restaurant and REV Foods.
This champion of the seasons was ready, in his own words, to “feature an ingredient-driven sustainable cuisine with Mediterranean and Southern influences.” His restaurant features a clever conceit: jars of pickles, preserves, conserves and vegetables flanking the entry to the open kitchen and all accessible by a rolling library ladder.
A horizontal run of a lounge area complete with banquettes and small, round tables ends in the cozy bar. The restaurant proper has a nice mix of booths, banquettes and tables and a “showroom” with seating for 22 doubles as a private dining room with bucolic sliding barn doors for privacy.
Edison bulbs and drum shades bathe the room in a warm spectrum of illumination, and Capers Cauthen's reclaimed wood tables bear witness to Johnson as a steward in more than food. His little agro-restaurant is an homage to homegrown and hospitality.
The menu is ordered according to “snacks” — companion foods to beverages; “bites” — appetizers; “tastes” — small plates; “plates” — traditional entree portions; and “table” — community dishes designed for family-style service. Seasonal sides and desserts complete the offerings.
The kitchen does not restrict itself when it comes to the global pantry, and Johnson and his staff mash it up with porchetta di testa and gremolata from Italy, chickpeas and harissa from Northern Africa, romesco sauce from Spain, salsa verde from Mexico, and soubise and cassoulet from France.
Lamb is treated to a ham cure, and ham is seasoned pastrami-style. Surf and turf reveals as seared scallops and pork belly ($19). The flavors of deviled eggs season a sauce. Tagliatelle with pancetta, pecorino and a soft egg is the kitchen's take on Rome's spaghetti carbonara ($15).
Johnson has cultivated relationships with the farmers, fishermen and women, ranchers and dairies that provide The Grocery with high-quality ingredients that are transformed into delicious dishes of humble origin. Look for Keegan-Filion, Border Springs and Painted Hills to identify the poultry and meats. Expect to see regional ingredients such as grits, sunchokes and greens come and go with the seasons.
Not only does The Grocery stock its larder with high-quality, house-made ingredients, but it also has staffed the restaurant with patient, well-informed servers.
The heart of the restaurant is the hearth, a wood-fired oven. Kudos to the staff for embracing a Pleistocene cooking method in this modern age of Roto-Vaps, Paco-Jets and immersion circulators.
We began with “lam ham” ($11), lamb in the style of ham, and it was delicious. Pecans, pickled grapes, glazed pecans and feta cheese played out in a culinary concert to make for a tasty dish. An order of roasted oysters ($13) mulched with greens and topped with toasted breadcrumbs played out the coastal flavors of the sea and the herbaceous notes of the earth.
The swordfish ($25) with oyster mushroom farro, onion jus and crisped and wilted Brussels sprout leaves spoke to the freshness of all of the ingredients.
Only the pork chop ($28) disappointed. Underseasoned and toothsome, its spring onion bread pudding layered with long strands of green onions and the undercooked broccoli raab made for the only misfirings.
Craft beers and a nicely paired wine list complement the menu.
Desserts range from a Southern banana trifle to all-American S'Mores, Mexican churros (the most popular) and Italian panna cotta with strawberries, mint and sorghum-balsamic swirls. The bread is baked in house and is crusty and well-fermented and served warm with triangles of sweet, churned butter.
When homegrown and hospitality show up on the same plate, you know you are in for good eats.