There's no way to talk about the Charleston Harbor Fish House without starting with the setting, which is nothing short of stunning. Located on the grounds of the Charleston Harbor Resort on the tip of Patriots Point, the restaurant offers panoramic views of the harbor that sweep from the Ravenel Bridge down across the Battery and all the way out to Fort Sumter.
Inside, the large dining room gleams with a mix of rough-hewn elegance and upscale style. Pale blue walls accented with clean white trim extend way up to a lofty ceiling with exposed beams, giving the room an open, airy feel. Rough plank floors and brick columns are offset by leather-capped booths and brown woven-back chairs, while dozens of tall, broad windows maximize the incredible harbor views. The vista is even better from the Bridge Bar up on the rooftop, where you can sit under broad blue umbrellas and sip a cocktail at sunset.
That view is the most compelling reason to check out Charleston Fish House. On the food front, the offering straddles the uneasy boundary between crowd-pleasing cooking and more upscale fine dining.
The menu pitches a big tent, with enough options to satisfy even picky in-laws, including vegetarians and the gluten-freebies. There are pastas and soups and salads plus a raw bar and a slate of fried seafood platters. For that cranky uncle who eats only red meat, there's the "Land & Sky" offering. The "sky" part had me scanning the clouds overhead for high-flying chickens, since that's the only bird on it, in the form of grilled chicken over a rice cake ($20) and fried chicken and waffles ($22).
Most of the dishes are competent if workmanlike. The she-crab soup ($7), for instance, needs a bit of salt but once adjusted makes for a pleasant bowl, rich and flavorful with little gritty bits from the crab roe. The crab dip ($11) is cool, creamy, and smooth, though I found myself wishing we had soft triangles of pita or plain old crackers instead of the extra-crisp fried pita chips that come alongside for dipping.
The steamed mussels ($13) with their garlic, white wine, and lemon sauce hit it straight down the middle, and paired with a tall cone of matchstick-thin fries can make for a delicious light meal. As coconut shrimp ($11) goes, the Fish House's version is pretty good, but it's still coconut shrimp where the richly-flavored shrimp suffers beneath excess sweetness. Two dipping sauces come on the plate, and the sweet orange one only compounds the saccharine blast of the coconut batter, but, curiously, the heat of smoked jalapeño tomatillo salsa beats back the sweetness and leaves a fried shrimp appetizer that is rather enjoyable.
The "Rivers & Oceans" entrées include the requisite shrimp and grits ($24) and crab cakes (also $24), which have a nice crisp sear to the outside but an interior that registers a little high on the gooey scale. The Fish House Steam Pot ($30) tosses in a few snow crab legs and PEI mussels with local clams, shrimp, and fish.
The Market Board lets the kitchen get a little creative with specials that incorporate fresh-caught local fish, like roasted snapper with grilled eggplant and purple fingerlings or roasted grouper over shrimp gnocchi. A few regular dishes, like the oven-roasted scallops ($28), show a more fine dining flair too. The oven-roasting gives the scallops a much darker complexion than your typical pan-seared variety, but inside they're cooked with just the right silky richness. The lemon-thyme vinaigrette, bacon, and tomatoes combine to form a pool of broth at the bottom of the bowl that has beautifully sharp, smoky notes. Unfortunately, the Hoppin' John risotto has just a few black-eyed peas sprinkled throughout it, and the rice has too much nutty crunch, dragging down what would otherwise be a fine dish.
The fried seafood platters prove more reliable ($24 for choice of two, $26 for three). The shrimp, oysters, and scallops are coated in a light, powdery batter and cooked spot-on. The slate of side dishes include seasonal vegetables (a cool and tasty tomato salad the night I tried it) along with creamy thick-grained grits and mac and cheese made with pasta shells and a smooth, oddly peach-colored cheese sauce.
Did I mention it will run you $26 for the triple combo? At the risk of sounding like a cheap uncle, I do have to dwell on the menu prices. Apart from the burger and a couple of vegetarian pasta dishes, the entrée figures all begin with a "2," and the nightly specials take you well into the upper 30s. The Steakhouse Burger is served on a brioche roll with truffle fries, and you'll pay a steakhouse rate ($18) for the privilege. A dinner at the Fish House is going to have a big-night-out bill at the end, and one wishes the food rose to the same level.
But, good grief, is the view something! I suspect that for many the view will be enough to tip the balance, and it makes the Charleston Fish House a great place to take out-of-town guests for a dinner they'll remember and you'll probably forget. Especially if you can get them to pick up the check.