You'll have to forgive us for not knowing the Amen Street of the past. It's a hidden alley, obscured by the march of time and relegated only to old plats and history books. It is said the street was so named because from its path one could hear the "amens" spilling forth from the pews of St. Philip's and the Methodist Meeting house, and the appropriation of such history will surely prove a genius move once wagonloads of tourists begin hitting the doors this spring, fresh from a carriage tour that includes that colorful description. Today the street signs read Cumberland as you approach the newest little seafood house in Charleston.
This type of spin usually spells trouble for a critic, and I admit that my expectations were low — given that the space once housed a tenant that served pretty tasteless seafood to a touristy crowd. Lower East Bay isn't exactly known for inventive upstarts, but even a Unitarian can find a welcome seat on Amen Street these days, because the Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar is undoubtedly the best new restaurant of the last year.
You arrive to a tinkling of glasses and silverware. People converse at the bar and larger tables roil with laughter in the back. Amen Street was built to be a meeting place. The space is open, the service informal, and the food first rate.
The place oozes class. Dark wood and tile look as if they were lifted from the Boston waterfront, and waiters shuffle to and fro with crisp white towels and pewter platters. A long bar fronts the place with a guy shucking raw seafood at the helm.
Everyone notices the chandeliers. They're creatively designed, a rotund iron frame fitted with a blanket of oyster shells that have been linked together and hung so as to make a roughly curved, parabolic belly underneath. Light spills from between the shells; my wife now wants one for our home.
Amen Street serves classics: a dozen cold oysters at varying market price, or a pretty good crab cake ($11.95) paired with a fresh green salad, sliced tomato, and delicate herb vinaigrette. This is simple food that can be hard to prepare, in the sense that cheap ingredients and cut corners will be as noticeable as those beautiful chandeliers overhead.
I was disappointed with the she-crab soup ($4.95/$6.95), which was more like a thick roux than a delicate bisque. It tasted mostly of flour, uncooked. It screamed out for salt and should have been a centerpiece of Amen's cuisine instead of a forgettable afterthought. And the scallop crudo, for all its various merits, seemed too fussy, rather out of place at $15.95 for a tiny plate, awkward with its little dollops of lumpfish roe dyed black, even if it's a delicious and outstanding dish. There are some ethnic influences on the menu, but they seem misplaced, so we went with the classics, because the food should match the drapes, and we were not disappointed.
In fact, I'm overjoyed. I can't wait to return. I can't wait to send everyone I know down to Amen Street for seafood — locals who constantly want to know where "the" place is to eat, and out-of-towners who ceaselessly want to know where to get great seafood downtown. I have my ready answer.
Amen Street will be impossible to get into this spring. It will be jammed to the gills with people eating the fried calamari ($8.50), which as far as standard Charleston calamari goes could be from Mars. They serve it as thick meaty planks, not cheap rings. They're more like squid French fries than the rubbery bar staple with its ubiquitous cocktail sauce. And everyone in town will be copying the delicious shrimp corndogs. They taste like they sound, with a sweetened batter surrounding a trio of spit-jacked boiled shrimp. They'll disappear so fast that the mustard and cornichon on the side won't even be touched.
But the main draw will undoubtedly become the fried platters ($18.95-$19.95), stacked to the gills with oysters, shrimp, flounder, or a combination thereof. The seafood is fresh, same for the hot oil it's cooked in, and the batter couldn't be improved — not too thick or bready, not quite a Japanese tempura, a bit of cornmeal flavor with a hot crunch that reveals the salty morsels beyond. It represents, without a doubt, the best plate of fried seafood on the peninsula.
You can also score an herb-grilled fish (market price). It's done up simply and gracefully, served with some asparagus and a little tomato and herb dressing, showing off the local catch for what it is.
If you're not stuffed after all of that, then the entire dessert menu can be sampled for $10.95. It's enough to share — a passable Key lime pie, rich chocolate mousse, and out-of-season strawberry shortcake rounding out the bunch.
One can look wide and high through the streets of the Holy City and not find many decent seafood joints. Most of what's available could rightfully be dismissed as tourist traps, grease pits, or both. Outside of a couple of decent raw bars, and a handful of scattered fish houses, it's been hard to find any place dedicated to excellent fried flounder or fussing over piles of crispy oysters between downtown and Bowen's Island for some time now. The need for culinary quality and some diversity amongst Charleston's seafood specialists has been readily apparent. If you've been praying for a great new place to belly up with classic seafood, Amen Street probably has a pew with your name on it.