The crescendo of the small plates menu at Warehouse is an Asian-inflected noodle dish so elaborate that it strains the category at its seams.
Cuisine: Sophisticated bar food with a sense of humor
representative dish: Fresh, Lowcountry-spiced pork rinds with pimiento cheese whiz
Address: 45 1/2 Spring St.
Bar: Full service
Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun. Kitchen closes at 11 p.m.
Food: 3 1/2
Service: 2 1/2
Costs: Bar snacks, $5.50-6; grilled cheese, $9; small plates, $9.50-$11; desserts, $6-$6.50
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Other: Happy Hour runs all day Sunday, and from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays.
What our stars mean:
5 stars: Exceptional; sets a standard for dining excellence.
4 stars: Superior; worth a trip beyond your neighborhood or culinary comfort zone.
3 stars: Solid example of this type of dining.
2 stars: Adequate if you’re in the neighborhood or seeking this type of dining.
1 star: Generally disappointing dining experience.
What our $ signs mean:
One $: $5 to $15
Two $$: $15-$25
Three $$$: $25-$50
Four $$$$: $50 +
Chef Eva Keilty’s Thai duck bowl features erratically pulled patches of deeply savory duck leg piled atop a heap of rice noodles, slippery from a soak in Japanese vinaigrette. The tumble of meat, starch and a peanut-rich red curry sauce is cupped in leaves of Bibb lettuce so green and crisp that nobody needs to check the blackboard to verify its local provenance.
On a recent night, though, the kitchen ran out of duck drumsticks. Or maybe there was a delivery mix-up. Whatever happened, Keilty was short a starring player. The Ted’s Butcherblock vet was forced to choose between calling off the dish and calling up an understudy.
Keilty went with the latter, remaking the bowl with beef. “It’s really good,” a bartender squealed, conveying an enthusiasm that suggested the chef might actually prefer the challenges posed by missing ingredients, an untested ownership team and an evolving customer base to the predictability of a restaurant where the duck always shows up on time.
That’s not to say Warehouse is unpolished. From the concrete floor to the long, shared central table to the exposed ceiling beams, the Spring Street space is appropriately tricked out with all the hallmarks of contemporary industrial design. Guests who have a full meal in mind may find themselves perched around a vintage bank safe, a few strides from a claw-footed pool table. Service is as thought out as the decor, with staffers and bartenders adept at handling a crowd that skews young and noisy on the weekends.
Yet lurking on the menu is a kind of mischievous glee you might recognize from movies where teenagers get hold of their parents’ car keys. An undercurrent of playful exploration runs beneath the potato skins with boiled peanuts, house-made chorizo grilled cheese, quinoa tabbouleh and a gutsy deviled egg with fillings that change by the day.
“A warehouse could be anything to anyone,” co-owner James Groetzinger recently explained to a pair of patrons curious about the 2-month-old restaurant’s backstory. He and Joey Rinaldi, experienced restaurant managers who grew up together in Hilton Head, didn’t want to lock the restaurant into a predetermined identity by choosing a name linked to a specific cuisine.
And, as reported by food blog Eater, the restaurant initially didn’t want to serve ambitious dishes either. It contracted with Keilty to concoct a few bar snacks, thinking college students, MUSC docs and lawyers who just passed the bar would be most riveted by beer cocktails, an affordable wine list and fruity large-format drinks mixed for sharing. Now there are meat boards, cheese boards, grilled cheese sandwiches, side dishes and desserts, in addition to the lineup of seven small plates.
Warehouse is still foremost a neighborhood bar, but the depth and excellence of its food offerings surely helps explain why the restaurant’s home page twice reminds visitors that reservations aren’t accepted.
Is there such a thing as a backhanded complaint? Because if there’s a flaw with what’s emerging from Keilty’s kitchen, it’s the difficulty of composing a coherent meal from the kaleidoscopic of flavors she’s assembled. Each dish is so confidently and inventively seasoned that it’s ill-suited for receding into the background of an extensive, multi-item order.
Fortunately, that’s a problem easily avoided. Don’t arrange for your road bike club to wind up a 75-mile ride on Warehouse’s front stoop. Instead, visit when you’re in the mood for finger food and a glass of wine. There are specialty cocktails on Warehouse’s bar list, including a dirty martini muddied with caper berry brine and a shandy finished with St. Germain elderflower liqueur, but the drinks’ flavors tend to be blurred and imbalanced.
Scattered disappointments crop up on the food menu, too. The chicken wings, wearing loose-fitting jackets of skin, were much too sweet. An added punch of heat would have given the accompanying buttermilk-ramp dressing more to do.
Currently, the plate’s showstopper is a magnificent crisped square of corn pudding, rich with spot-on summer sugars.
The stoplight splotches of dips that populate the spread trio — edamame burdened with truffle oil; garlicky hummus; and romesco, the Spanish pepper sauce that has lately become so trendy that it’ll probably soon become a nail polish shade — are functional.
The pallid pita triangles and burned white toast provided for swiping are decidedly less so.
Warehouse sources bread from nearby Brown’s Court Bakery, so it ought to be stellar. And yet bread problems abound. While the mild, pasty house bread, invariably sliced thick, might partner well with watercress and cream cheese (or peanut butter and marshmallow fluff, depending on your white bread associations), it can’t stand up to the earthiness of brie, sauteed mushrooms and red wine on an otherwise robust cheese sandwich. It’s also outclassed by the terrific pork rillettes and pistachio pate, served with honeyed nuts and slivers of highly competent pickles.
Still, no bread’s needed for the best entry on the meat tray: A tender wedge of outrageously good “lambstrami,” red as boiled corned beef and glimmering with fat. The spicing’s forthright, but it doesn’t obscure the qualities of lamb that earned it a standing invitation to holiday dinners. Lamb reappears in meatballs tucked into a bowl stocked with perfectly prepared field peas and garnished with a thin tzatziki sauce.
Pork rinds are another notable meat achievement. The neatly curled, tan oblongs of skin are served while still crackling, like writhing shrimp at a sushi bar, supplying tangible evidence of the kitchen’s emphasis on freshness. Topped with a firm tubular scrawl of sharp pimiento cheese, the rinds’ seasoning reads as sweet, so the gaudily puffed snack comes across as a porky breakfast cereal: a Cinnamon Toast Crunch for carnivores.
Beyond meat, there are the accomplished deviled eggs, filled on one visit with Thai shrimp salad and, on another visit, with mustardy yolks, fried oysters and chow chow. As both renditions made clear, egg whites here are receptacles for innovation.
While there’s just one vegetarian small plate, it’s a doozy: A roti, lavished with kale and fried garbanzo beans, then dressed with a saffron-cured egg yolk. The softness of the underlying bread and crunch of the greens and beans conspire toward textural glory.
And loitering alongside the Thai duck bowl is a slice of watermelon, drizzled with peanut sauce. It’s surprisingly rare to encounter a sauced watermelon: Even though the fruit’s a natural counterbalance to heat, it’s most commonly plated with feta or chevre, or dipped into chocolate. The Warehouse crew, though, is ready to try just about anything. Judging from the results thus far, I don’t know who’d try to stop them.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560 or email@example.com.