The flourishing little restaurant row on North Charleston's East Montague Avenue has added a new player: Cork Neighborhood Bistro. Owner Tradd Ashley Gibbs, a third-generation North Charlestonian, is dedicated to the Park Circle area and has created a restaurant that aspires to offer "downtown appeal" that Olde Village residents can enjoy without venturing too far from home.
The restored storefront, with its narrow brick front and high, wood-beamed ceilings, definitely has the feel of a downtown restaurant. The white-clothed tables and combination of dark red and yellow walls inside continue the theme. At lunchtime, the room — with just two narrow windows flanking the front door — is dark and cool, a nice retreat from the hustle of the noontime streets.
On the menu front, Cork keeps it simple. The lunch selection is just two soups, three salads, five sandwiches, and a "daily tart," along with a few daily specials.
The Croque Monsieur ($8) is an excellent sandwich: a stack of Black Forest ham and gruyere cheese laid between thick slices of good white bread with a layer of bechamel sauce on top. The whole thing is broiled until the top is crispy and brown and the insides warm and slightly gooey. It's the kind of sandwich that could became a regular lunchtime favorite for folks who work nearby.
The chicken salad pita ($7) has big chunks of roasted chicken along with walnuts and celery in a creamy dressing. It's not as striking as the Croque Monsieur, since the pita itself doesn't stand out nearly as much as the artisanal white bread, but it's still a good sandwich.
For side dishes, there are just a few choices: kettle chips, pasta salad, potato salad, or fresh fruit. I thought the creamy white potato salad was a bit on the bland side, but the pasta salad, with its light, tangy-but-not-too-tangy dressing, was better. In a nice touch, Cork serves RC Cola, Cheerwine, and Grape and Orange Nehi in old-school longneck bottles. Soft drinks just somehow taste better in longneck glass bottles.
Cork was originally open just for lunch. They toyed with a short-lived breakfast service a few months ago, then shifted gears and started opening for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights instead. The evening menu keeps it basic, too: a repeat of a few of the soups, salads, and sandwiches from the lunch selection along with four appetizers and four entrées.
Chef Sean Wren's menu changes regularly, with a focus on whatever's fresh and local, and the additional dinner items get you a little closer to downtown fare — and downtown prices, too. The appetizers include an "artisan cheese board" ($10) with a rotating array of cheeses, steamed mussels in a wine, garlic, and lemon butter sauce ($12), and a pickled shrimp cocktail ($9). The oyster mushroom ricotta ravioli appetizer ($8) has four squares of firm, toothy pasta filled with creamy ricotta and dark, rich mushrooms from Mepkin Abbey. These are topped with a slightly spicy tomato basil cream sauce laced with a little white truffle oil. It's a well-balanced combination: just enough ricotta inside to make things creamy, and a sauce that's delicate and light and doesn't overwhelm the earthy mushrooms.
Recent entrées have included braised short ribs with mashed potatoes and collards ($17.50) and a big hand-cut ribeye with roasted fingerlings and asparagus ($22). More keeping with the neighborhood-restaurant feel is a comfort food dish like lobster pot pie ($14).
The pan-seared Atlantic salmon ($19) is served atop what the menu terms a white bean succotash, but it's really more of a vegetable medley with chunks of zucchini, yellow squash, red peppers, limas, yellow corn kernels, and some white beans, too. The salmon filet is broad and fairly thin, nicely browned on top but properly medium in middle. The best part is the heirloom tomato vinaigrette that decorates the vegetables — a sharp, bright addition that leaves you wanting more.
The long, heavy wooden bar that lines the left half of the narrow dining room is just one of the many interior features of Cork that was "repurposed" from another location, which helps give the room an older, more established feel. It offers a full line of beer, wine, and liquor. The beer line-up is one of the more unusual in town. There's a rotating list of specialty brews grouped by theme, such as upscale Canadian beers like Unibroue's Apple-Ephemere and Maudite. At the same time there's the Beer of our Fathers menu ("Enjoy the beer your dad used to love"), which offers up baseball-watching classics like Old Milwaukee, Ballantine Ale, Dixie Lager, and Genessee Cream Ale and suggests we may be on the brink of a serious anti-craft beer backlash.
Cork's "eclectic bistro" format fits nicely on the funky three blocks of Montague Avenue that have become the center of dining in North Charleston. Owner Gibbs has announced plans for extending dinner service to more nights as well as some intriguing ideas like an outdoor patio with a grilling section for the warmer spring weather. Cork is still experimenting with its full format and offerings, but as a lunchtime spot it seems to have settled into a good rhythm, and its dinner menu follows through on the promise of good bistro fare. Cork seems well on its way to becoming a neighborhood fixture.