I was curious when I first heard that the Neighborhood Dining Group, the owners of Husk and McCrady's, were converting an old single house on Calhoun Street into a raw bar and seafood restaurant. There's no shortage of places in Charleston where one can drop a small fortune on gleaming towers of pristine raw bivalves and poached shrimp and lobster on ice. Did we really need another one?
Plenty of things are indeed served on ice at Delaney, whose menu is grouped not by size or main ingredient but by relative coldness: "On Ice," "Cold," and "Not Cold." There are oysters ($2.75 to $3 each) on ice, of course, and five out of the six varieties hail from the Carolinas, including Sea Clouds from Wadmalaw and briny Lowcountry Cups from the ACE Basin.
You can go high on the hog with the caviar service, with offerings ranging from Tennessee Paddlefish for $45 an ounce to Belgian Golden Ossetra for $125. But for a more modest sample of caviar's richness you can also opt for a caviar puff ($8), a walnut-sized pastry orb with a scoop taken out of the top and filled with an eighth of an ounce of dark gray paddlefish roe. It delivers a wonderful bite, the salty, earthiness bold against the thick, buttery pastry with a few accents from crisp strips of potato and chopped chives.
Speaking of chives, you might think you ordered a whole bowl of them when the fish dip arrives ($14), for the small blue cocotte is completely blanketed in a thick green layer. But such concerns are easily brushed aside, revealing a smooth, creamy dip that's pale pink in color and absolutely delicious.
I'll admit to being sort of obsessed with the "everything crackers" that ring the bowl. Long strips of dark brown benne-seed crackers seem de rigueur these days for any ambitious Charleston restaurant serving a dip, but Delaney's comes with what appear to be standard commodity saltines — until you bite into them. They are surprisingly light and crisp, and the sprinkling of "everything spice" thankfully doesn't punch you in the mouth with dried garlic and onion.
Our server let slip what should be, in my book, a closely guarded trade secret: they're just ordinary saltines, but they're buttered and spiced then dehydrated, imparting a splendid delicateness to what would otherwise be a boring cracker.
The terms "delicate" and "delicacy" can be applied to almost all of Delaney's fare. The blue crab claws ($12) err on the side of volume, with some 20 of the little lollipops piled on a tray of ice. The spicy dusting of Aleppo pepper and the accompanying green mojo sauce tromp right over whatever sweetness may be left in the dark, rather mushy claw meat.
Opt instead for the ceviche ($14), which is deftly bright in flavor as well as color. Chunks of cool white fish — red snapper the night I tried it — await alongside a creamy, white pool of leche de tigre, sharply accented by thinly sliced red onions and peppers and bright green cilantro. Bits of celery and a few crisp corn nuts add pops of texture to a beautifully assembled plate.
This is not your typical raw bar fare. Executive chef Shamil Velazquez, previously the sous at Husk Greenville, spent months fine-tuning the menu, sampling the catch of suppliers up and down the Carolina coast and experimenting with a range of preparations.
My two favorites are the seafood chowder ($8 cup/$14 bowl) and the kombu-poached lobster ($21). The former is almost deconstructed, with a couple of clams and mussels in the shell along with a large poached shrimp and a flawless peach-hued scallop, all tossed together and riding high above a pool of creamy, flavorful broth flecked with bits of onion and droplets of orange shrimp oil. Quarter-inch pieces of potato and strips of fennel and celery root add heft, while a couple of sea beans give a flash of green color to an artfully arranged bowl.
The lobster could be deemed deconstructed, too. The meat is removed from the shell and poached in kombu, then cut into one-inch chunks and arranged back inside one half of the shell along with tiny orbs of tangy Asian pear, a sprinkling of ground peanuts, and green Thai basil leaves. It's a colorful combination that delivers bursts of unexpected flavor with each bite.
What do these two plates have in common? Each takes apart the pure, intense flavors of an old standard — cold-poached lobster, seafood chowder — and reassembles them with a few clever twists (but not too many) into a dish that really impresses. They're creative but balanced preparations, and everything seems thought through in great detail.
The same can be said of the wine selection, which, befitting an all-seafood menu, hews to the dry and crisp but has plenty of novelty. There's a slate of Champagnes and other bruts and a small but diverse selection of whites and rosés. A golden-hued Koslovic Malvasia Istriana ($14 a glass), from Croatia, dry with a little apple and lemon, is a great match for briny Carolina oysters. All four reds are served chilled, and it works. The acidity and soft fruit of a cool, ruby red Ploussard (Désiré Petit, $16) is excellent alongside the richness of the lobster and chowder.
The decor is well thought out, too: casual but very stylish, all blues, grays, and whites. Sturdy cardstock menus and coasters are adorned with the restaurant's stylized logo, which features the house itself. Indeed, the restaurant seems to unfold organically from the virtues and limitations of that compact 1830s-era structure.
You enter the single house from the lower porch, step through a solid white door into an entryway with white walls and old hardwood floors. To the left is a small room with a gleaming white marble bar and six tan stools with woven wicker seats. Up a narrow wooden staircase awaits two smallish dining rooms filled with light from the high windows, and beyond them is the long second story piazza with a row of two-tops with wicker chairs. This time of year, as the sun sets and a cool breeze ripples through the palms, it's a splendid perch for an elegant but casually paced meal.
It's a 15-minute walk from Husk to Delaney Oyster House, but the two restaurants are miles apart in character. There's no brown liquor on the shelves behind Delaney's bar, just rows of vodkas, gins, and colorful liqueurs. No landlubbers like country ham or steaks slip in among the surf, either. With the exception of two salads and blistered shishito peppers, everything on the menu was pulled from the sea.
But I still see a commonality in spirit between the two restaurants. Each has a strong sense of place, established by the physical setting as well as the regional ingredients used in the kitchens. Upon that foundation, culinary technique draws out and enhances the natural flavors on the plate, and everything is finished off with precise visual style.
Blue rimmed stoneware plates and thick white-and-blue striped napkins adorn the light brown tabletops. Each oyster comes with a little printed white slip affixed to a woven bamboo cocktail pick, the variety's name written in by hand. Those little details matter, and they make Delaney Oyster House an exciting new arrival on the Charleston dining scene.