1440 Ben Sawyer Blvd.
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($7-$23)
Serving: Lunch & Dinner
Barbara Jean's is an import from St. Simons Island, Ga., where the Barta family launched their first "Easy Southern Dining" restaurant in 1998. The Mt. Pleasant franchise is the seventh to open along the Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina coasts, bringing Barbara Jean Barta's signature crab cakes and home-style cooking to the Lowcountry.
The menu offers a range of southern mainstays, such as meatloaf ($8.99), chicken fried steak ($9.99), and turkey and dressing ($9.99), but the marquee items are the seafood dishes. It's not quite a meat-and-three, but close: all the entrées come with two sides and a selection of bread. The specialties of the house are two coastal favorites: she-crab soup and crab cakes.
First, the soup. It's a brassy move to bring a Georgia version of she-crab to the city that invented the stuff. But Barbara Jean's recipe ($3.99 cup/$6.99 bowl) holds its own. It has a thinner, more bisque-like texture than your typical Lowcountry she-crab, and there doesn't seem to be any of the sweetness of sherry. It's a spicy soup, with a generous dose of red pepper and lots of crab meat. It may not be enough to make a Charlestonian swear off crab roe and sherry for good, but it's a good cup of soup.
If the she-crab soup is less sweet than one would expect, the rest of the food more than makes up for it.
Barbara Jean's serves two varieties of fried shrimp — buttermilk battered and coconut ($12.99 for 8, $14.99 for 10). The buttermilk variety are so thickly battered that they look tubular, while the coconut ones are downright prickly from the big shreds of coconut sticking out in all directions. Deep fried a dark brown, the coconut shrimp are so sweet that they are almost dessert-like — and if that's not enough, there's an accompanying dipping sauce that's even sweeter. Somewhere amid the doughy buttermilk batter and saccharine coconut is some shrimp meat, but it's hard to detect with overwhelmed taste buds.
On the Coastal Platter ($22.99), your choice of shrimp is teamed with fried cod and a crab cake. The cod is as forgettable as the shrimp, too thickly battered and then fried much too brown. The crab cakes are quite the opposite. Touted as "Eastern Shore" style, they are made from backfin meat loosely bound with no bread crumb filler and no gloppy batter on the outside. Beneath a seared, golden-brown crust, the crab is moist, light, and delicious and needs nothing more than a squeeze of lemon over the top.
The crab cakes are the highlight of Barbara Jean's menu. They actually go best not on their own but on a crab cake sandwich ($9.99). The moist crab strikes just the right balance with the soft Kaiser bun and the accompanying lettuce, tomato, and pickle. The resulting combination is delicious.
Like the seafood, the side items are uneven at best. Han's Ambrosia Salad is a blast from the not-so-distant past, evoking church family night suppers with its mix of coconut, oranges, pineapples, and marshmallows that blend together into a glob of gooey sweetness. The red beans and rice, with chunks of spicy sausage and green peppers and onion, are tasty, but the mac and cheese is bland and unremarkable. The coleslaw is cut into long, thin shreds that look promising, but they're swimming in an awful lot of mayonnaise.
The basket of bread that comes with the meals — including whole wheat dinner rolls, sweet jalapeño cornbread, and a gingery pumpkin bread — win points for novelty, though they're all very sweet and better for nibbling on while waiting for the food to arrive than actually being eaten with dinner.
With vibrant yellow colors and big windows on all sides, Barbara Jean's has a bright interior that's matched by the warm, attentive service. The restaurant is definitely kid-friendly, and for the grown-ups there's a full bar and several beers on tap. There's no skimping on portions: the salads are huge, soft drinks and tea are served in Big Gulp-sized tumblers, and even the items on the kid's menu come with two sides.
It's easy to see how Barbara Jean's became a hit with vacationers and locals alike at beach towns like Amelia Island and Ponte Vedra. Ultimately, though, the food falls short. Southern cooking has always been characterized by deep frying and lots of sugar, but even when you take that into account, Barbara Jean's lays it on too heavy. Doughy batters, excessive frying, and too much sweetness: it's taking the accessible parts of country cooking and overplaying them, at the expense of the natural flavors of the vegetables and seafood.
Much of this could be attributed to the challenge of taking a successful family-run restaurant and trying to replicate it through franchising. The original Barbara Jean's on St. Simon's has received glowing reviews from periodicals as diverse as Southern Living and the London Daily Telegraph. But the formula doesn't translate well in the Mt. Pleasant incarnation, and there's no shortage of better local options for fresh seafood and country cooking.