I really wish I could have written a straightforward review of the Ordinary, but it wasn't in the cards. I thought perhaps I could sneak in with a couple of friends during the Saturday night rush, but Brooks Reitz, the general manager, identified me within seven seconds of my stepping through the front door and came over to say hi.
But that's OK. Plenty of others can dine there anonymously and record unbiased assessments. I'm more interested in exploring the Ordinary as a concept, for I think it is a harbinger of something new and important in the Charleston dining world.
When I first heard last February that FIG's Mike Lata and Adam Nemirow were going to open a new restaurant on Upper King Street, their announced concept — an oyster hall — left me surprised and a little disappointed. It seemed too limited in scope. The genre is tightly associated with the urban northeast, not the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and it seemed a format in which Lata's prodigious cooking skills wouldn't get much use.
I should have had more faith. As it turns out, the Ordinary is a dramatic validation of the power of limits. I gave Mike Lata a ring afterward to talk about it, and he confirmed that although the classic oyster hall concept erects a very tight fence within which to operate, there's something freeing about it.
"The one thing about FIG that was always difficult was when people asked, 'What kind of restaurant are you?'" Lata told me. "We would say 'farm-to-table', but people really don't know what that means."
Calling yourself a seafood restaurant immediately puts you in a known category, and the oyster bar subgenre defines it even more tightly. It also provides a powerful organizing theme: the sea.
All of the wines on Nemirow's list are from coastal regions, and he carefully selected them to complement briny oysters and rich shellfish. Brooks Reitz did something similar with cocktails, compiling a small selection built around rum, which ties in perfectly with both the restaurant's nautical theme and Charleston's drinking history. This is encapsulated in the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, a sultry blend of Mount Gay rum, velvet falernum, cointreau, and lime that is both the restaurant's signature drink and the unofficial cocktail of the Charleston Bermuda Race.
The name the Ordinary comes from the old British term for a tavern that served a regular meal to its guests at a fixed price, and the venture is the culmination of the years Lata spent at FIG cultivating relationships with local suppliers. "We were uniquely poised to do something like this," Lata says, highlighting those who catch the ocean's bounty, like Mark Marhefka and Kimberly Carroll, as well as local wholesalers like Crosby's and Lowcountry Seafood. Vegetables play a key supporting role, too, even if they are more in the background than they are at FIG. Lata has tapped his carefully developed network of local farmers who have learned over the years how to produce to his high standards. "Put them all under one roof," Lata says, "and you've got a story to tell."
Each plate that arrives at your table is a chapter in that story, and Lata hopes diners will experience it at their own pace. "We wanted people to eat a little bit, see how they felt, then eat a little bit more and see how they felt," Lata says.
The "cold" section tends toward small bites with intense and wide-ranging flavors. The yellowfin tuna crudo ($14) is a study in simplicity and purity: four squares of thinly sliced fish, gorgeously rosy in color, topped with a slice of crisp, earthy sunchoke and a single jalapeño ring that adds heat. A bowl of pickled shrimp ($14) brims with savory flavors from onion and herbs, while the pickle adds a subtle but not too tangy bite with notes of cumin and coriander.
The "hot" menu might contain blue crab fritters ($14), barbecued white shrimp ($15), or oyster sliders ($5 each). I didn't have high hopes for the latter, since slapping pulled pork or a crab cake on a mini-roll is second nature for line cooks at all sorts of fern bars, but the Ordinary's sliders rise way above the run of the mill.
A lightly breaded fried oyster is sandwiched inside a Hawaiian roll made by Brown's Court Bakery that's toasted dark brown. The first bite delivers a stunning slap of intense flavor. The rolls have a soft texture with pleasing crispness around their toasted edges, lending sweet pineapple notes to the chewy oysters. Pickled cabbage and carrots combined with Sriracha and fish sauce add layers of complex sweet-spicy flavor. It's so much more than you expect from a mere slider, and the flavors take it in a totally unexpected but thrilling direction.
The heart of the menu, of course, is the raw bar selection. For Lata, it's an avenue for exploring what he calls "merroir," since all the oysters are the same C. virginica species but vary widely in size and flavor based solely on the particular waters where they grow. The Ordinary focuses on small-scale, boutique oyster companies, and on any night the selection will include a few local varieties, like Capers Blades from Clammer Dave and Otter Islands gathered wild from the ACE Basin by St. Jude Farms. There are others from farther off, too, like Waquoit Bays from Massachusetts or St. Annes from Nova Scotia.
But the raw bar selection goes beyond just oysters. The blue crab Louis ($15) is a cool delight, with big shreds of crab dressed in a tangy orangey dressing. The plate that really wowed my table bore Nantucket Bay scallops ($12) dressed with blood orange, fennel, and an assortment of veggies. In a world where scallops are almost uniformly seared golden brown and paired with some sort of smoky pork, such a simple, clean preparation is a refreshing change of pace.
The scallops reflect Lata's urge to steer away from the pork-centric style that has dominated high-Southern dining in recent years. "Seafood has been sort of forgotten in the wake of pork," he says. "How much charcuterie and pork fat do you really need?"
Vegetables benefit from that sensibility, too, like the long cooked greens ($7). Seven different greens — including spinach, kale, mustard, and flat leaf parsley — are chopped small and cooked until superbly tender and condensed down almost to a paste. For flavor, Lata avoided the more obvious down-home Southern route. "How do you differentiate yourself from ham hocks or potlikker?" he asks. The answer: use spices like cardamom, cumin, and ginger, and add a pound of mint along with the other greens. The resulting bowl has an exotic and surprisingly floral fragrance that pairs beautifully with the silky smooth greens.
Even with the larger "mains," Lata isn't playing it safe. A skate wing ($20) is lightly-fried and served on the bone alongside a pool of orange harissa-laced mayo and a kimchi that's really more of a coleslaw, delicately pickled and not at all pungent. Use the side of the fork, not the tines, we were advised, to gently slip the meat away from the fan of long, thin bones inside. It worked beautifully, leaving long white strips of fish that were superbly tender and delicate.
I was particularly impressed by the trigger schnitzel ($21), in which the filets are pounded flat, lightly breaded, and pan-fried. The preparation gives a now-familiar local fish a very different texture: not delicate and flaky like a pan-seared filet but pleasingly firm with a deep, rich flavor. They're dressed in a tangy sauce and accompanied by cauliflower florets and roasted sunchokes that look like tiny potatoes but are more tender and earthy in flavor.
Roll it all together and you have the quintessential Lowcountry oyster bar, a restaurant rooted in Charleston but not constrained by it. "We use anything we can get out of Charleston at a point in time," Lata says, "and juxtapose it with the East Coast to give a frame of reference."
I think that marks an important step forward for dining in our city, and I've not had a restaurant meal in at least a year that compares to the experience at the Ordinary. That is due mostly to the food, but the atmosphere matters, too. The setting — a thoroughly overhauled building that once housed a bank — is splendid on a grand scale. A cavernous ceiling rises 22 feet above the dining room floor, and high round-topped windows dominate the front wall. A long bar runs the length of the room along the right side, and in the back is a gleaming white tile and stainless steel oyster bar, the old bank vault door serving as a portal between it and the kitchen.
It's a high-energy space and, at the peak of a busy Saturday night, very loud, too. That's by design. "What separates us from FIG," Lata says, "is not how we view ourselves professionally but the different setting and style. I wanted it to be a fun, bustling place. It has to have a lot of energy." At the same time, he notes, he wanted to bring the same attention to detail in the kitchen and the same high level of service that gained such praise for his first restaurant.
The Ordinary is a work in progress, and the team is still shaking out the kinks. But I think it's a logical next step in the progression of Charleston dining, a tantalizing suggestion of what may lie ahead. More and more chefs are internalizing the legacy of our distinctive regional cuisine as well as more recent lardcore lessons about why pristine ingredients and traditional techniques matter. Now they're taking them in entirely new directions and putting their own intensely personal spin on things.
You won't find an oyster bar like the Ordinary anywhere but Charleston. And that, in my book, is something worth celebrating.