3140 Maybank Hwy. Johns Island
Lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch (Closed Mon.)
If you want to know what Johns Island is going to look like after the I-526 extension comes barreling through, just head over to the Fat Hen, an upscale bistro packed with islanders with a taste for good food. But if urban sprawl means exceptionally staffed, adventurous restaurants like the Hen popping up all over the place, then I'd vote for bigger roads any day of the week, if only we could figure out a way to spare the land from the ravages of soccer mom hell. Of course, that's an impossible dream, and the Fat Hen is just the glorious beginning of a future wave of sprawling suburbs. For now, the drive is still exceptionally beautiful, and Fat Hen is the best thing going from here to Kiawah (notwithstanding that other Gallic darling, Chez Fish) with an all-star cast, superb cuisine, and a comfortable take that any Francophile redneck was born to love.
There's no stuffiness at the Hen. They've left the downtown haut monde behind and focused on the flavor, albeit with an overwrought "country French" shtick. The Hen supplanted the very capable St. Johns Island Café, improving the space with a much-needed facelift. Like the future landscape of Johns Island, what was once a homey, amateurish effort has been polished into an atmosphere that displays a down-home take on Lowcountry French bistro with the mock authenticity of an Epcot Center display. Animal silhouettes line the walls with their French monikers written below. The chickens all over the place could easily be leftovers from the former fowl paradise, Marie Laveau's. At the Fat Hen, you drink from Mason jars and wipe your mug with a rough dishcloth that comes wrapped around cheap flatware, and it's fun, because it's different, and the laid-back atmosphere makes eating the superb food all the more enjoyable.
Rue de Jean progenitor Chef Fred Neuville stole some of the best chefs in town to stock his brigade, including the up-and-coming Colin Flynn, whose stint at Six Tables across town cemented him as a future tour de force. None of this name-dropping talent would matter if it didn't come through in the food, and the Fat Hen delivers.
An appetizer, simply called "oysters" ($8.25), might be the best thing we tasted. It was great the day after they opened, and it's still great today — a sloppy mess of a plate, true country, with a rich cream gravy full of country ham lardoons and the earthy backbeat of sautéed wild mushrooms spilling over thinly-sliced, grilled bread rusks. Big plump oysters ride atop the whole thing, just cooked, their insides quivering and the edges just curled enough to lap up the cream like a cat's tongue. It is a pure expression of the French countryside.
Steamed mussels ($9.95/13.95) come in regional shades, steeped in aioli, gone South in a basil and garlic pistou (better known by its Italian variation, pesto), or drowned in beer and shallots, Brittany style. They are well done, but if you've been to Rue de Jean in the last six years, then you already know all about the mussels. More unexpected are the grilled barbecue scallops ($9.95), wrapped in bacon and anointed with a pomegranate barbecue sauce. Combined with a bracing herb salad backed by the anise taint of raw fennel, the combination offers a peek at the considerable creative skill at work behind the kitchen doors.
The entrée selection is equally fine. Braised meats, such as the lamb shank ($19.95) and the short rib ($18.95) are not to be missed. They literally melt from the bone; you could eat them with a spoon. A demi-glace reduction envelops them in carnal glory, the richness assuaged only by the homespun mashed potatoes clinging alongside. What kind of vegetable comes with such farmhouse splendor? Wilted spinach, of course.
If you have to pick one dish, however, I suggest the seared grouper ($18.95), whose mélange of wild mushrooms, tomatoes, and butter beans lolling in a garlicky butter sauce is the perfect complement. The fish flakes with a beautiful golden brown crust just holding it together — a local catch spared from the fryer, rescued by the infusion of quality culinary technique, and pushed to another level.
And that really is what Fat Hen is all about. Sure, they have a fried seafood selection at the bottom of the menu, a seeming nod to the greasy bellies of St. John's past, but it's an afterthought, a menu for the kiddies, the less sophisticated. They have clearly banked on a more affluent future, one that will appreciate the fine value of a well-chosen wine list (which they possess), a niçoise salad at Sunday brunch, and the corny throwback of drinking from a mason jar while dishing out 20 bucks for fish soup. But it all works. The parking lot is already full. And for a place as "red" as John's Island, they sure do love the French.