There simply aren't enough unique, locally owned restaurants out on James Island, making the arrival of Heart Woodfire Kitchen welcome news. It opened back in December in the space just off of Folly Road that was formerly occupied by the Daily Dose.
Those familiar with the Daily Dose's eclectic hippie-meets-tiki-bar setting will hardly recognize the place. The big dining area is now roomy and rather sparse: high ceilings, red concrete floors, sleek aluminum chairs, and cinderblock walls painted a muted green. The industrial vibe is softened by rustic details like a pair of antique sideboards that flank the doorway and hand-drawn vegetables on canvas, tacked onto wooden slats.
But the most notable new features are visible as soon as you enter the front door. Directly ahead is an open kitchen with a massive yellow ceramic oven, orange flames lapping from the small pile of wood coals. Beside it is a combination grill and rotisserie, also wood-fired, with whole chickens turning on a big metal spit above the flames.
Those flames touch just about every dish served on the small but intriguing menu, from the grilled chicken wings with harissa sauce ($10) to the roasted tomatoes on the blackened catfish sandwich ($9).
The grilled "speidie" skewers are a great way to get started. A coil of housemade sausage ($5) is speared on a wooden skewer and lightly grilled. Slightly smoky and crispy from the grill, it's topped with a sweet, tangy mustard-based barbecue sauce that's a perfect match. Equally delicious are the chunks of fontina wrapped in prosciutto (two for $6), which are grilled until the prosciutto is slightly charred and the cheese inside is gooey and creamy. The skewers are paired with a little salad that offers a fine counterpoint to the warm meats — a blend of mesclun, radishes, and cool, firm wheatberries (whole kernels of wheat) that eat almost like field peas.
The pork chili verde ($4) is impressive, too. Small bits of pork are tucked into a hearty, flavorful broth with little bits of green chiles and carrots, and a sprinkle of cheddar and a dollop of sour cream add a nice richness.
The entrée selections include a half-dozen sandwiches and a few larger plates, like grilled triggerfish with fennel and radishes ($17) and grilled flank steak with chimichurri sauce ($20). The double-pattied cheeseburger ($12) is towering, and it's topped with grilled onions and zucchini pickles, too.
The big flames of the rotisserie are the real draw, and they're applied to whole chickens and Berkshire pork shoulders. The pork ($16) is served with an apple-celery salsa verde and the chicken ($8 for a leg and thigh, $10 for breast, $16 for a whole chicken) with a small pile of dressed mesclun. With both, you get a choice from a selection of tempting sides like creamed mustard greens, sweet potato chips, and roasted veggies with farro.
The chicken has a smooth, firm texture and flame-crisped skin. Unlike a barbecue pit, which infuses meat with a heavy smoky flavor that's front and center, the rotisserie imparts a mellower smokiness that lurks in the background and adds depth. I found myself trying to avoid the pool of mustard sauce that lay beneath the chicken, not because there was anything wrong with the sweet, tangy sauce but simply because the splendid chicken doesn't need anything additional.
The wood-fired oven also turns out baked flatbreads, which are topped pizza-style with such things as prosciutto and ricotta or barbecue chicken and sweet potatoes ($10 each). The barbecue chicken flatbread has a little tangy barbecue sauce as a base and fontina cheese as a topping, but it's missing something, like a little more cheese or perhaps some sour cream to give it more body. The charred onions on top are charred virtually to a crisp and distract with their heavy flavor.
Like the onions, the Brussels sprouts on the side menu offer a cautionary tale of taking the wood-firing a little too far. I was excited to see them — a brilliant winter vegetable that's enjoying a turn in the spotlight — but the end result was too charred and butter-drenched. The smoke overwhelmed the sprouts rather than drawing out their naturally rich, meaty flavor.
But the hearty vegetable stew ($11) makes up for any missteps. Chunks of winter vegetables — potato, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash — are roasted together in the wood-fired oven, then merged into a thick tomato broth. At serving time, the stew gets one more turn in the oven for finishing, then it's ladled into a white bowl with a scoop of rice and a couple of dollops of lemon-tinged yogurt, which, when stirred into the broth, adds a silky, rich counterpoint to the slightly smoky vegetables. Here the Brussels sprouts really shine, hearty and delightful amid Moroccan-inspired accents like sweet dried apricots and crunchy almonds.
All this food is accompanied by a short list of wines and a beer selection that includes local entries from Westbrook and Holy City. There's an impressive slate of cocktails too, with touches like the spice-infused bourbon in the Kentucky Cup and cranberry-infused syrup in the cranberry mojito.
One of the pleasures of dining in Charleston in recent years has been watching our top downtown chefs move beyond simply keeping up with national culinary trends. Nowadays they're shaping them. Housemade sausages and pickles, craft cocktails with house-infused bourbon, seasonal vegetables cooked in a wood-fired oven: They're all the hallmarks of a new local style.
As other local restaurateurs try to follow in their wake, it's curious to see how that influence plays out. Some seem to be just hitching a short ride on the bandwagon, adding a few superficial trappings to gussy up an otherwise unremarkable offering. Heart Woodfire Kitchen represents the more encouraging approach, one that takes the movement to heart and builds an entire restaurant around it while adding an individual interpretation and style.
I, for one, am thrilled to see wood-fired ovens expanding beyond the domain of a few hardcore downtown chefs and specialty pizzerias. It's a nod back to an earlier era and makes for more interesting and flavorful dining, and it makes Heart Woodfire Kitchen well worth checking out.