Last summer, longtime downtown favorite Joseph's Restaurant closed its doors after 14 years in business. Not long after, its prime spot at the corner of Meeting and Queen was snapped up by the Charleston Hospitality Group, the company behind Tabulli Grill, Market Street Saloon, and Toast, and renamed it Eli's Table.
Joseph's battered but familiar green awning has been replaced with a hanging sign with the crisp, elegant Eli's logo. The interior has been totally overhauled, too. New hardwoods replaced the old tile floor; an enclosed patio has been added to the back, and a small four-stool bar has been installed just inside the front door. Overall, it has a fresh, contemporary feel.
The new owners decided to keep one big thing unchanged: the daytime menu. Almost all of the old Joseph's breakfast and lunch items are still there: omelets, pancakes, and Benedicts at breakfast and salads, sandwiches, and wraps at lunch. Longtime Charleston chef and restaurateur Brett McKee was tapped to help Eli's add dinner service, and it was later announced that McKee was stepping into the role of corporate chef for all of Charleston Hospitality Group, where he will be working on the menus for Toast, Tabulli Grill, and Whisk Bakery.
So how does this old/new hybrid work in practice?
The breakfast dishes seem right in line with my memory of Joseph's. The pancakes ($6.50) are light, fluffy, and as wide as the plate they're served on, while the sweet beignets ($5.95) are fried golden brown and given a generous dusting of powdered sugar. The basic cheddar cheese omelet ($7.99) is big and light and the cheese appealingly gooey, and there are more adventurous fillings, too, like crab, plum tomatoes, and ricotta ($10.95) and spicy sausage with peppers and onions ($8.75). Particularly satisfying is the traditional eggs Benedict with Canadian bacon, poached eggs, and hollandaise atop a toasted English muffin ($8.50). The bright yellow yolks are properly runny, the hollandaise fluffy and tangy. The accompanying breakfast potatoes, cooked with a scattering of onions and red peppers until they are a deep golden brown, are a fine companion for the Benedict's runny yolks.
The lunchtime menu will also be familiar to old-timers, with the filet and brie on a toasted English muffin ($10.95), the pita pizza with pesto and artichoke hearts ($8.95), and the BST (bacon, salmon, and tomato) on grilled sourdough ($9.50).
When my grilled shrimp sandwich ($9.25) arrived, my first impression was that it seemed sort of plain, just plump grilled shrimp with shreds of romaine lettuce lightly tossed in a pale orange remoulade and slipped between two slices of grilled sourdough. But each bite grew on me — the smooth shrimp, the creamy sauce, the crisp bite of the lettuce — and by the end I concluded that there's a lot of virtue in keeping things simple.
There's one obvious and rather inexplicable change to the menu, though. Where before Joseph's items had just a prosaic description ("Black Forest Ham and Swiss Cheese Omelet"), now they have been christened with people's names ("the John Marshall Omelet"). I tried hard to come up with a theme to link all the people together. At first I thought it was an American Revolution thing, playing on Charleston's colonial heritage: the Abigail Adams Omelet, the Crispus Attucks Fried Po Boy, and the somewhat obscure Fillipo Mazzei penne pasta.
But then there's the John C. Calhoun Roast Beef Wrap, the Mark Twain Omelet, and the Susan B. Anthony Benedict, too. The best linkage I could come up with was "notable dead people from American history." And I won't even mention the almost gross negligence in the naming of the "Daniel Boone Benedict." It's topped with Canadian bacon, not country ham, and really just demands to be dubbed the "Benedict Arnold."
It was in protest that I ordered my sandwich as "the grilled shrimp."
"Do you mean the Mercy Warren?" the waiter responded.
"Yes," I sighed. "The Mercy Warren."
Apart from names, the only real weakness during the day is the service, which can be a bit haphazard, with harried waiters and long waits for refills and checks. It's the kind of thing you easily look past in a low-key brunch spot, but as I finished my coffee and looked around the room — the cheery yellow walls, the casual brown tables with basic white china, the large oval trays on folding stands brimming with pancakes and eggs — I couldn't help wondering how that informal vibe would translate at night.
Better than I expected, as it turns out. White cloths and wine glasses appear on the dining room tables, and the service is elevated a few notches.
The dinner menu offers a fairly familiar selection of modern bistro fare. McKee calls it "American cuisine," linking it to his roots growing up in the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn and emphasizing good comfort food at a reasonable price. And that means appetizers like grilled calamari ($10), a lump crab cake ($12), and PEI mussels ($10), and entrées like roasted lemon chicken ($16), a grilled pork chop ($18.50), and, of course, chicken parmesan ($16).
Among the more intriguing appetizers are the beef carpaccio ($12) and the gorgonzola fondue ($10). The menu advertises "shaved black truffles" on the carpaccio, but instead of the big leaf-like flakes I was expecting, I could see only thin slivers looking every bit like sautéed mushrooms. There's plenty of strong truffle flavor, though, overlaying the mildness of the thin-sliced rare beef. The fondue ($10) is a pale, creamy mixture in a small brown pot, the gorgonzola bite cut with milder cheeses. The pot is encircled by an array of dipping items. The sliced green apples and heavily charred crostini are inoffensive, and while one feels a bit of bravado dipping thick, crisp slices of bacon straight into a pot of melted cheese, it's the potatoes — long, thick wedges fried a crispy golden brown — that are the best match for the creamy fondue. Both carpaccio and fondue make for competent if not remarkable appetizers.
More impressive are the entrées. The osso bucco ($24) is a flashback from McKee's tenure at Oak Steakhouse. It's an impressive presentation, a thick but tender veal shank served over a huge mound of asiago- and sage-laced polenta. It's topped with a tasty brown reduction, and a tiny silver spoon planted dramatically in the bone's hole is ready for scooping out the rich, oleaginous marrow.
The striped bass ($23.50) presents two pan-seared filets resting on a layer of roasted fingerlings and flanked by four littleneck clams in their shells. The fresh bass has a clean, watery flavor, and the clam broth surrounding the potatoes is pleasantly rich and salty, though the clams themselves might be a tad too firm and chewy.
McKee has added a trio of vegetarian and vegan entrées, including an intriguing "cauliflower steak" ($14) — an inch-thick slice taken from a big head of cauliflower, pan seared golden brown and served over tomato basil purée and topped with a scoop of fried eggplant caponata. For dessert, the ramekin of warm mixed berry cobbler ($7) with a melting scoop of ice cream on top is a nice way to round out a big filling meal.
All told, Eli's Table indeed seems like two different restaurants rolled together. The breakfast and lunch selection is just the type of solid, hearty fare that's well-suited for a relaxed Charleston morning, and with sister restaurant Toast just one block up the street, the Charleston Hospitality Group seems well on its way to cornering the market on the Meeting Street vacation brunch.
Meanwhile, the dinnertime persona steps firmly into the upscale category, though not quite to the level of some of the more noted fine-dining spots around the corner on Queen and farther north up Meeting. But McKee fans who felt his upscale comfort food at 17 North struck just the right balance will likely find much to enjoy sitting down to his new menu at Eli's Table.