At Social, owner Brad Ball and his new chef Jesse Sutton have set out to tell simple stories with a glass of wine, a plate of food, and their combined vision. The question for the average diner is whether the stories they are trying to tell come through clearly. A good storyteller captivates, builds suspense, surprises, and ultimately delights. Of course, not everyone can tell the same story with the same effect. Over the course of several visits to Social, I have to say I found the overall tale quite compelling: full of romance, mystery, and adventure.
Since it opened in 2007, Social has been a hot spot on East Bay, winning numerous awards and attracting clientele ranging from raucous bachelorette parties to serious students of the grape. Ball, a native of Charleston and certified sommelier, supports artisanal winemakers, promotes Old World varietals, and is passionate about sustainable growing and letting terroir shine. He's even started his own wine label, La Wine Agency, and is bottling a variety of affordable, drinkable wines including La Bubbly, La Pinot, and La Chard. With the help of Sutton, who gained fine dining experience at places like Commander's Palace in New Orleans and Tristan, the two have transformed the menu into a serious study of food and wine.
The setting here is quite attractive with some dramatic elements. To the right of the hostess stand, a low divider separates the large bar from the main dining room. A chandelier made of La Bubbly bottles illuminates the area, and the walls are hung with local art and studded with dozens of glowing candles. A few tables and booths in an elevated part of the dining room offer a nice view of the kitchen. The wine cellar is just past the bar, holding 4,000 bottles, most of which are Old World wines.
Every dish on the menu presents an opportunity to take the story in a different direction. Will you go off and run with the bulls through old world Spain or will you quietly meditate on the balance of flavors in Southeast Asia? Each dish is meant to be shared and is brought to the table as soon as the kitchen has it ready. We started with the snack section. First up: jasmine rice balls ($7). Three bite-sized nuggets are fried and sit in a canoe-shaped dish, each resting in a small puddle of red curry sauce. Every bite revealed tender rice and subtle coconut flavor. We followed with crispy shrimp spring rolls ($7.50). The striking presentation — two rolls are cut in half at an angle and propped against one another, anchored by a bowl of sweet sesame-ginger dipping sauce — is overshadowed by the crisp exterior and the succulent shrimp filling. The seasonal bruschetta ($7) showcases the bounty of spring. Creamy whipped chevre is spread across three crostini and topped with vibrant English peas and tiny golden Honshimeji mushrooms. These carefully crafted savory bites were fanned out on a bed of fresh greens in the middle of a large white plate — another brilliant presentation.
The next chapter was quite meaty as we moved from snacks to the separate charcuterie menu, which offers five meats and five cheeses, some imported from Europe and some made in-house. Selections are presented on a plate garnished with nuts, mustard, greens, and strategically placed drops of balsamic reduction with toasted bread served on the side. Thin, curled shavings of speck ($7) are smoky and salty with a hint of juniper berry — a fine example of this smoked Italian prosciutto delicacy. The duck rillettes ($6), chicken liver pâté ($5), and fresh mozzarella ($5) are all made in-house. The sweet, milky flavor of the mozzarella is accented with the peppery olive oil and small drops of balsamic reduction, and then garnished with seasoned bread crumbs.
After the snacks, we perused the wine list. Given the 4,000-bottle cellar, it's a weighty tome. The long bottle selection is augmented with separate "by the glass" lists, one red and one white, both of which are segmented into flight options available in 2.5-oz. or 5-oz. pours. Since one important aspect of Social's story is expertly pairing wine with food those lists are as important as the main menu, which is divided into chapters for garden, sea, and pasture. Each dish has a wine recommendation.
From the garden section, we ordered the beets, which came in eight large, thin slices, garnished with toasted hazelnuts, watercress, and droplets of vincotto, which is very similar to balsamic reduction ($9). The suggested pairing is the Chenin Blanc flight ($14), a full-bodied, fruit forward grape variety, which goes exceptionally well with the golden beets. A great dish but pale compared to the vivid Mepkin Abbey mushrooms ($12), which are plated with a light and unforgettable mushroom coulis smear, accented by a scarlet beurre rouge sauce just waiting for the golden yolk of the poached egg on top to ooze into the mix. The earthy mushrooms go well with light to medium-bodied pinot noirs.
The local fresh catch at the time of our visit was tile fish with picholine olives, wood-roasted scallions, and fingerling potatoes ($16). Three small cuts of fish were seared until crisp, flaky, and tender and placed atop buttery potatoes garnished with chives and slivers of scallions on top. The sea scallops ($17) were seared to perfection, and the flat-iron steak ($17) with a seasoned crust was cooked equally well. The pork cheek confit ($14) was tender and toothsome. Suggested pairings are the Dry Riesling flight ($15), the Manthers Red flight ($16), and the Gypsy Rhone flight ($15), respectively. The only disappointment was the Darjeeling tea duck ($18), which was overcooked.
While the focus is on the wine at Social, they do have a few craft beers on tap. The chicken thigh roulade ($14) would go quite well with a pale ale, in addition to the suggested flight of light-bodied reds. The tender, crunchy-skinned chicken is cut into medallions and lined up on a bed of colorful ratatouille. Two brush strokes of parsley coulis accent the plate and the chicken, once again producing visual delight.
While watching the cooks at work, we were impressed by the large wood-burning Rosito Bisani oven from Naples, Italy. The pizzas that come out of it are the stuff of fantasy. The bianco ($14) is topped with fennel, brie, chopped green apple, and caramelized onions, the crust thin and slightly charred at the edge. I was partial to the coq au vin pie ($15), which is adorned with tender braised chicken, bacon, mushrooms, red onion, and creamy gruyere sauce. It's scrumptious.
The quality of food and wine are the clear heroes of the story at Social, but a villain lurks in the service. During multiple visits, the hostess either showed no enthusiasm, stomped to the table, or slammed a stack of menus on the table. Meanwhile, the server knowledge is uneven. On a recent visit my dining partner had a different menu than I did, and the server was not 100 percent certain which was correct. At least she smiled, which is more than the hostess did.
On Sunday afternoon, the narrative unfolds beautifully. For brunch, we were greeted at the door with a smile, the blood orange mimosas ($5) were flawless, and the food was incredible. Crispy pork belly perched on two slices of toasted baguette is crowned with plump poached eggs and creamy hollandaise. On the side are stone-ground grits and a medley of roasted carrots and peas ($16). The biscuits and gravy come with a confit of pork cheeks and a fried egg ($16). There's even a pizza with bacon, scrambled eggs, and brie ($15).
And Social knows how to end a story with a flourish. We went for the almond-coffee tiramisu ($7) with a glass of madeira ($6/$12), which made for one very happy ending.