Brett McKee, best known for the sumptuous, big-ticket luxury of Oak Steakhouse downtown, has always had a place in his heart for comfort food. Back in 2008, he added a "smaller portions, smaller prices" menu at Oak that includes homey favorites like eggplant parmesan and fried chicken. McKee, along with partner Steve Palmer, has now channeled that passion into 17 North Roadside Kitchen. As the name suggests, the restaurant is up north of Mt. Pleasant on U.S. 17, in the spot formerly occupied by the short-lived Oink Barbecue, and it blends the comfort and familiarity of a roadside diner with the upscale flair and farm-to-table aesthetic of a downtown fine-dining establishment.
There's something comforting about starting off a meal with a couple of deviled eggs, and the deviled egg plate ($6) offers three different pairs: two traditional, two topped with duck confit, and two with smoked salmon. The traditional eggs are as good as granny's and by themselves would make a fine starter. The other two varieties gussy things up a bit, with mixed success. Duck confit — one of the richest, most complex foods — sounds like a brilliant thing to put atop a deviled egg, but the result is underwhelming. The duck adds a nice bite, but its flavor gets lost in the vinegary, spice-laden deviled egg yolk. The smoked salmon is much better, since its smoky flavor stands out in proper contrast against the zippy egg yolk, successfully taking an old comfort food and bringing it up a level or two.
And that's my general reaction to 17 North as a whole. It's an ambitious mix of comfort food and upscale dining, but it doesn't deliver consistently on that blend.
Besides the deviled eggs, the appetizer menu offers other intriguing high-meets-low combinations, like fried chicken livers with creamed Carolina Gold Rice and veal demi-glace ($8). The blue crab fritters ($10) come in four golfball-sized portions that are fried crispy brown and served over beautiful swirls of red tomato basil relish and white horseradish cream. The fritters themselves are pretty mild, but they are studded with tasty hunks of white crab, and the delicious tomato basil and horseradish cream sauces give it a nice boost — so nice, in fact, that we ran out of sauce before we finished all the fritters.
The Bread Basket ($5) has two big hunks of bacon-scallion cornbread and two cheddar cheese buttermilk biscuits plus a ramekin of whipped honey butter. The cornbread is of the sweet variety and, despite the bacon and scallions, is about the equal of your typical meat-and-three, but the cheese biscuits are a cut above — crispy, chewy, and darn-near perfect, especially with their grease-soaked, crisp edges.
Keeping with the homestyle theme, the entrée selection doesn't have anything your meat-and-potatoes father-in-law wouldn't recognize: a ribeye steak, baked ziti with meatballs, and boneless buttermilk fried chicken. McKee seems to have retained the barbecue smoker from Oink, and pulled pork ($13) is available with a choice of sides that includes mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, braised greens, and sweet potato puree.
The entrées have familiar names, but they're stacked taller than anything you'd find at a more basic roadside joint. Take the scallop risotto that was on the specials list during my last visit. The four scallops are arranged around a generous pyramid of mushroom risotto, and the whole thing is topped with a lofty pile of thin, twisty fried carrot strands. The scallops are beyond fault. I've tried too many times in my life to describe properly cooked scallops, and the best I can say is buttery and tender but still chewy — if you've had good scallops you know what I mean. 17 North's are cooked perfectly, and the mushroom risotto is done well, too — creamy and rich with a nutty crunch, which I thought a bit too firm, but my dinner companion thought was just right. That big pile of carrot swirls adds a showy splash of orange and a lot of height to the plate but little else. The caramelized sugar sweetness doesn't go well with the scallops and simply isn't needed.
The braised short ribs ($15) are big — at least three inches tall — and they're well-braised with plenty of fork–tender gelatinous goodness. To make them even taller, they're perched atop a half-ton of fluffy mashed potatoes. The volume is more than enough to satisfy the "value" part of the 17 North theme, but the potatoes are unfortunately plain and pedestrian. One would prefer half the potatoes and double the butter to make a proper accompaniment for the rich beef. Like that on the scallops, the garnish on the short ribs — a sprinkling of diced carrots and celery — adds color but works against the flavor of the dish. The carrots and celery still have a considerable crunch to them, and that texture and the sweetness they impart come as unpleasant interruptions to an otherwise soft, creamy dish.
In striving for a casual-but-nice aesthetic, 17 North gets it right in the décor department. The ambience is elegant but mellow, particularly at night when the lights are low and the room sparkles from the tiny pinpoint ceiling lights and the candles on the tabletop. It's a warm, inviting room made warmer by a big fireplace in the center, and, though it can be a bit crowded and noisy when the restaurant's full, I find it just the right atmosphere for a casual, relaxed dinner with friends.
There's also a big patio out back with a wood-burning fire pit and a standing supply of marshmallows and chocolate for any patrons who feel an urge to make s'mores. It's a bit chilly for outdoor eating these days, but when spring comes it should make for great outdoor dining.
For all this attention to detail, there are still a few spots where 17 North falls on the wrong side of that tricky high-low split. The flatware, for example, is truly flat — the kind you would find at a diner or cafeteria buffet line and quite inadequate for carving up a three-inch-thick short rib. Despite the stated goal of down-home prices, a bit of peninsular accounting seems to have crept in, with deviled eggs at a buck a piece and a five dollar charge for a basket of bread that, while a step up in quality, is what you would get for free with your meal at any local meat-and-three.
The formula at 17 North doesn't seem to have quite gelled yet, but there's enough promise there for Mt. Pleasant diners to give it a shot. The patio in the back overlooks a big garden plot that in the spring will provide the restaurant with fresh veggies, which will give them the shortest farm-to-table journey in the city. Once that garden starts producing, it will be interesting to see how the menu evolves. For now, as the consistently-full gravel parking lot attests, the big, homestyle favorites with uptown touches seem to have found a welcome reception in Mt. P.