There was a time when one felt compelled to make special dispensations when dining out on the beach islands. No one really expected to find food on Sullivan's Island or Isle of Palms that could hold a candle to what was served in the snazzy joints downtown. It was victory enough if you could enjoy a passable upscale meal and a good glass of wine on a porch in the warm ocean breeze.
No longer. Over the past 18 months, the bar for fine dining on the islands has been raised quite high as, one by one, older establishments have closed their doors and new incarnations have taken their places, offering a more contemporary atmosphere and a more ambitious mode of cooking.
As I've visited each of these new spots, I've walked away feeling encouraged. The arrival of The Obstinate Daughter, which took over the old Atlanticville on Sullivan's earlier this year, now makes the beach transformation complete. The style of food is right in line with the stuff being dished out in downtown Charleston, and the quality is every bit up there as well.
The restaurant's curious name comes from a London political cartoon created after William Moultrie repulsed the first British assault on Charleston during the Revolutionary War. It depicts "Miss Carolina Sullivan, one of the obstinate daughters of America." At first, the name doesn't seem to fit, since from the moment you step in the front door the restaurant seems bright and cheery. But it doesn't take long for the daughter's willfulness to show through — a firm determination to do things her own way, even in the midst of a tourist-driven beach market.
The menu, for instance, isn't grouped by appetizers and entrees. Instead, the left side of the laminated page lists just "Plates": 17 dishes of various sizes arranged by price, starting with Geechie fries with salsa rosa ($5) and ranging up to the seared local catch with farro and boiled peanut-kale pesto ($18). The right side offers a half dozen pasta choices followed by seven pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven. There's no steak or fried green tomatoes to be found.
The asparagus crudo ($9) is essentially a flat, irregular green disc liberally sprinkled with wisps of parmesan and encircled with a bright yellow crudo olive oil. That disc is composed of thin spears of fresh, tender asparagus that have been chopped into tiny round bits that are then tossed with diced red chiles and whole pine nuts. It's a wonderfully cool, luxurious dish that will have you uttering an audible "wow" upon the first bite.
There are many such "wow" moments to be had during the meal, especially if you take The Obstinate Daughter up on her tapas-like format and order lots of small plates for your table to share.
A lone empanada ($6) arrives in a white bowl lined with a tan sheet of waxed paper. Fried first and then baked, the pastry is ruddy brown with a great dense texture. Inside is a smooth blend of minced Carolina gold rice, Sea Island peas, fontal cheese, and housemade chorizo, accented by a scattering of chopped mint. Basically, it's a savory Hoppin' John tucked inside an empanada, a brilliant fusion of the local and the exotic.
The Lowcountry shrimp roll ($14) starts with a big slice of soft Texas-toast-like bread that's well-buttered and toasted on either side until dark brown around the edges. It's split down the middle and filled with a mixture of boiled shrimp and herbs in a creamy white dressing, and each bite is wonderfully rich and delicious.
The roll is accompanied by a stack of Geechie fries, which can be ordered stand alone with salsa rosa as a separate plate, too ($5). Those fries go where common fried grits cake can't: creamy polenta that is somehow shaped and fried into long, thin strips that end up a little skinnier than your typical steak fries. Beneath the superbly crisp crust, the cornmeal center is still moist and soft, a spot-on pairing for the layered textures of the shrimp roll.
Even the largest plates really aren't belly-stuffing entrees. Perhaps the most substantial is the gnocchi ($17), which are made with ricotta and goat cheese, giving them a wonderful texture that's fluffy and chewy at the same time. They're topped with a fantastic short rib ragu, the beef shredding into intensely flavorful strands amid a pool of reddish orange tomato-tinged jus.
The only stumble amid the parade of impressive plates comes with the local catch ($18), which was snapper the night I tried it, though it's hard to put a finger on exactly what's missing. The silky texture of the fish is just right, and the accompanying farro quite pleasant too, especially because of the big fragrant parsley leaves mixed in among the grains. Perhaps it's the excessive butteriness of the golden brown sear atop the filet, or maybe it's the fact that the boiled peanut-kale pesto turns out to be just pesto with whole peanuts tossed in, but the whole just doesn't quite come together.
But that's all waved away when the desserts arrive. A quartet of fried pies ($6) have a brown, flaky crust filled with an oozing dose of melted chocolate. In a nice Southern twist, the crème brûlée ($7) is laced with bourbon and topped with a layer of toasted pecans, perfect complements to the rich custard.
The beverage menu is as stubbornly focused as the food offering. The slate of wines are all from Southern Italy. All six of the drafts are from local breweries, and the entire bottled selection is from South Carolina. None of them are lite, and none hail from St. Louis. There's a short list of signature cocktails, too, and the William Moultrie — a smooth, crisp blend of local High Wire Hat Trick Botanical Gin with cucumber, key lime, grapefruit, and basil that's served on top — is a perfectly refreshing way to kick off a beach meal.
This worthy lineup of food and drink is served in a setting that's been totally transformed since the old Atlanticville days. The front porch has been enclosed and incorporated into the main room, and the kitchen has been opened up, too — stainless steel gleaming behind a white tile counter. The formerly dim, cramped rooms are now a single airy, open space. Light gray weathered planks cover the walls and ceilings, accented by lots of pale blue on long cloth curtains, the backs of the high-top chairs, and the tile backsplash behind the service bar. It makes for a light, cheery, and casual environment, one that's well matched to the bright, delicate dishes that are served inside.
All this probably shouldn't be too surprising since The Obstinate Daughter is the handiwork of Jacques Larson, a sort of culinary missionary. Five years ago, he turned his back on downtown and headed out to the farmlands of Johns Island, where he opened Wild Olive and applied his Northern Italian techniques to the fresh produce being grown around him. Now he's taken that sensibility out to the beach islands and is working to win new converts to a fresher, more inventive way of dining.
The Obstinate Daughter may be stubborn in its ways, but the delightful combination of light, refreshing plates — the asparagus crudo, a simple blend of fava and peas — with a little more luxurious fare — buttery shrimp rolls, ricotta-laced gnocchi with tender short rib — seems just the right formula to round out a revitalized beach dining scene.