- Leslie McKellar
- A dazzling first course starts the fun at Chef Tim McCusker's innovative Mt. Pleasant restaurant
A Culinary Art Company
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd.
Eating buffalo frog's legs requires a delicate touch, especially when they drip with the piquant essence of wild berries and explode with nuclear fruit flavors. Getting your mind around them is the least of the challenge. Hot frog juice running down your arms only begins to introduce one of the most creative menus in the entire Charleston area.
A kitchen dishing outrageously creative food in the midst of an ordinary Mt. Pleasant strip mall sandwiched between the steaming bowls of Pho Bac, A.C.'s beer-soaked bar grub, and Americanized ethnicity at La Ha? Call it merely a revelation and you would be ignoring the rest of the show. One couldn't put together a more unique experience in a loaded-down clown car at the Cirque de Soleil in Vegas. In an act more reminiscent of an Electric Kool-Aid acid test than a fancy Chucktown tapas bar, Chef Tim McCusker leaves you with a lasting impression, a surreal circus of a meal, an animated demonstration that blows the doors off the clown car and leaves your taste buds wagging in cotton-candy delight.
Bright backlights effuse from every direction; sparkles well up from unusual surfaces. Mellow worldbeats envelop the long common table set for a crowd. Three booths line the port wall, illuminated aquariums literally serving as the tables. Beneath your plate lies your own personal ocean, waves of refraction twinkling and bending the clear cube of the fishbowl. The cool bubbling of the tank blends effortlessly into the background, a gurgling sea of relaxation. Your dinner could be swimming within -- one glance at the menu or the wildly inventive chef bounding through the dining room carrying a bottle of champagne and a worn meat cleaver will convince you of that. As long as you haven't watched Finding Nemo in the last two weeks, it's an exciting notion.
An abrupt explosion sends the neck of the champagne bottle, cork and all, careening across the room, a bank shot across the bow revealing an amused audience and a round of bubbles for the house. It seems the few other patrons in the joint want a demonstration of French champagne sabering, which the swordless McCusker deftly delivers, but only after a gun-shy diner has failed. What a start to a memorable meal.
Ordering comes easy; the seasonal menu consists of four small pieces of paper nonchalantly stapled together and the top of an old wine crate that offers eight selections by the glass and a few more well-selected bottles. You won't find it on the menu, but ask for a "tasting" and McCusker begins sending out dishes, personally chosen and prepared (he's the only guy back there in the kitchen). His wife (she's the only one out front) only wants to know when you're stuffed, and because you inevitably will not resist going overboard, she checks back often with yet another fascinating dish. It's a somewhat dangerous proposition, at least for the timid. Certain dishes invite audience participation. The Coconut Prawns ($14) can require you to crack your own coconuts in the dining room, McCusker egging you on to the delight of the crowd as you struggle to bash the hairy orb in two without maiming yourself. Juice runs down your hands, through a kitchen towel and into a hotel pan below. Who knows what these things will become? As the dishes roll out, they illustrate a deliciously fresh, exciting, and downright fun take on food and dining.
A tall martini ($9) floats effortlessly above the little neon fishes that swim past your knees, finding its way to the table as the first of the chef's tasting, but this is no ordinary quaff. Wrinkled orbs of smoked grape tomatoes wallow with cubes of soft, house-made mozzarella that have absorbed the mellow acid tang of the smoky tomatoes. Tangled broccoli sprouts perch above it all, perfectly fresh, countering a balsamic gelée below. In a normal place, such frolicking fare would be followed with the seriousness of a rich steak, perhaps a few black truffles hiding in an earthy sauce, or even a redolent bowl of fresh tagliatelle dripping with one of those ragús of wild game that seem to be popping up on lots of menus lately -- but not here.
Next up is pizza. Pizza with salmon on it, cured with the rich perfume of lavender and the woodsy resin of juniper -- it tastes as if you have just napped in a wildflower field carved from a primeval evergreen forest, probably somewhere in Armenia, Bulgaria, or the Persian East, judging from the candied walnuts that crunch profusely alongside a crackling crust. The additional presence of fresh, fat figs stuffed with a biting gorgonzola is almost enough to drive one off the edge for good.
But this is no pizza joint. Pizza joints, even those with cured fish pizza, don't throw down a couple of ostrich loin steaks ($15), seared to a beautiful rosy rare, topped with a melting pile of butternut purée, and surrounded by wisps of juniper-espresso sauce and shavings of bitter chocolate. It sounds weird and whimsical, more colorful and diverse than an American Idol audition in downtown San Francisco, but the tastes overwhelm all doubt. McCusker's flavors blend seamlessly. Perhaps those intimately familiar with South Pacific and Asian flavors would be more adept at deconstructing the origins and combinations, but to the uninitiated diner, the fusions are pure bliss, original in their very uncommon way, served with a side of gusto and zero pretension. He rocks tiny lamb chops with a mint-cilantro gremolada and a saffron crème fraîche ($13). Crawfish ($8) go east, spanked with a sweet soy reduction and more crème fraîche, this time sharpened with the bite of wasabi -- all of this in substantial volume and none breaking 15 bucks.
This can come only from a true restaurateur, a man whose palpably pregnant wife works alongside him. He's a bouncy, bubbling, smile machine with a toddler strapped to his back in a cloth rig. If she's anything like her dad, she'll end up in a very successful career in the food service industry. The McCuskers run this thing and their catering company as a family, more interested in the food than the profit margin -- and because this creates true happiness for them, it will do so for you. You'll lick the plates. You'll mop them with pieces of bread and purse your lips for one more chance at the fleeting flavors that just passed your tongue. You'll gnaw the bones until only nubs remain. You'll be picking frog meat from your teeth for days. Then you'll be back for more.