I thought about a lot of things during my drive out to Angel Oak Restaurant. I planned out my schedule for the rest of the year, I weighed the pros and cons of each presidential candidate, I pondered the meaning of life. Most importantly, I kept wondering: "How much longer?" In reality, Angel Oak Restaurant is just seven miles away from the amazing Angel Oak tree. It's in a small cottage not far past Johns Island's Main Road.
Out front, there's a small patio with four black-wire tables and chairs, each sheltered by its own white umbrella. The patio is surrounded by planter boxes filled with greens and flowers and a string of small round lights dangles above.
Inside, the shabby chic décor is busy: White beadboard wainscoting is topped with a double chair rail, filled in with Dutch-tile-inspired fabric. The upper part of the wall is adorned with an eclectic mishmash of mirrors and local artwork. Wooden tables are paired with a mix of old and modern wooden chairs. A set of distressed doors create a barrier that separates the server station from the dining room. There's no bar, though a small yet decent selection of bottled craft beer and wine is offered.
The primary focus of the menu is familiar comfort food, though there are a few dishes that veer from this aesthetic. The use of local ingredients is immediately apparent: beef from Legare Farms, bread from Saffron bakery, grits from Geechie Boy, and fresh fruit and vegetables from Limehouse produce. It seems the owners have a good relationship with their purveyors, as Thomas Legare was at the restaurant during one of my visits. I ordered the country fried steak ($16), which is made with his beef. The beef was tender and the seasoning in the breading was on point. The two curled pieces of steak sat on a piped bed of whipped potatoes topped with an ample portion of light brown herbed sawmill gravy. To the side: roasted corn on the cob sprinkled with some thyme and pepper. Everything about the dish was spot on.
There are four snacks on the menu, each priced at three bucks, a great value. Fluffy house-made ricotta comes in a small ramekin sitting on a black slate with local honey and toast points. Pimento cheese is presented in the same fashion, though without the honey. It's thick and creamy with a whole lot of zest from the pimentos. The use of extra pimento gives the spread a dark orange color. I'm glad it's served in small portions, otherwise I wouldn't have had room for my entrée.
One snack that didn't quite do it for me were the fried green tomatoes, which are served with house-made ranch dressing. The cornmeal crust had the crunch but it was bland and lacked seasoning. A second order on another visit confirmed my first impression. Even though I detected a little salt, the crust was flat and flavorless. The ranch dressing made it a little better, but some spice in the batter would go a long way.
The fried chicken ($17) had a similar problem. The breading on the chicken is very pale and also lacked seasoning. It was also a bit soggy. Local honey drizzled on top of the chicken adds some sweetness. The light breading lets the honey shine, but it doesn't work for me. Here in the South, I want a breading that's extra crispy and packed with flavor. The chicken is sided with a generous portion of macaroni and cheese gratin that's extra creamy and cheesy and a bowl of collard greens that could use a little more vinegar. In fact, our server asked us if we would like a side of vinegar to go with our greens — yes please.
Fried green tomatoes and fried chicken aside, there's a lot of good food at Angel Oak, like a seasonal overstuffed ravioli. Overstuffed is an understatement. The three house-made ravioli are massive. Fillings change with the season, and the current rendition is butternut squash with sage brown butter, toasted walnuts, and goat cheese ($21). Inside each raviolo is a simple puree of butternut squash seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper. I really enjoyed the dish. Letting the squash lead without the usual spice army of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice was a pleasant surprise. Topped with a little brown butter, oil, sage and garlic interlaced with toasted walnuts and pieces of goat cheese, this dish is a clear winner. It's comfort food without overdoing it.
An appetizer of specialty macaroni and cheese changes periodically — what was once lobster mac is now piggy mac. It should be shared or ordered as an entrée, as it's quite filling. When served, you are warned not to touch the super hot ceramic pot holding the cheesy goodness. Inside, large noodles swim in an extra creamy sea of mornay with succulent pieces of pulled pork hidden under the top layer of gruyere and parmesan ($12). It's a sinful dish, one that will send you praying for forgiveness, but you can't help but listen to that little guy on your shoulder telling you to dive in and eat it.
On the lighter side, venturing toward the more eclectic part of the menu, is rare seared tuna ($12). The tuna is encrusted with sesame seeds, seared and sliced, then topped with a spicy orange mirin (similar to rice wine, but lower alcohol content) pepper sauce and long strips of crispy fried wontons. To the side is a dab of wasabi, soy sauce, pickled red onions, and chopsticks. The dish seemed out of place in this down-home setting, but it was executed well and worked. And definitely try the beignets. Chef Jay Kees brings his experience from NOLA to the table with these fried, fluffy fritters doused in brown sugar, served with warm chocolate.
I must say, during my drive to the restaurant I also asked myself if the drive would be worth it. Much to my surprise it was. While the Angel Oak tree is typically a one-visit deal, Angel Oak the restaurant deserves multiple visits.