Morgan Creek Grill
80 41st Ave.
Isle of Palms
Entrée Prices: Expensive ($14-$27)
Serving: Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch
Dining out on Charleston's islands can be tricky. There are plenty of beachside bar and grills where you can wash down a burger or fish taco with a good cold beer. The options are fewer if you are looking for something a little more upscale.
Morgan Creek Grill at the Isle of Palms Marina tries to fit both categories, offering two restaurants in one. The upper deck is more your classic beach bar, with live music and a fairly standard selection of pub grub like jalapeño poppers, buffalo wings, and burgers. The inside dining room is harder to pin down, for it straddles the line between high-volume line cooking and fine dining and doesn't seem quite able to decide what it wants to be.
The filet beef bites ($10) are sort of an updated beef stroganoff, with blue cheese instead of sour cream. The mushroom and herb sauce is rich with the essence of the simmered tenderloin. Roasted red potatoes come on the side, making it more a mini-entrée than a traditional starter, but it's probably the best of the appetizer selection.
The Prince Edward Island mussels ($8) are served in a spicy Thai-inspired broth that is tasty enough in its own right, but the mound of julienned carrots, onions, and peppers strewn over the top of the shells simply get in the way of a dish that really doesn't need extra help. The seared sea scallops ($10) are half-dollar sized and have a good brown sear, but — perhaps because they are a little too small and cook through too quickly — they are missing that delicate, buttery texture that you get in really great scallops. The horseradish aioli that crisscrosses the plate is delicious, but the fried fennel strips that come alongside the scallops are baffling. They look like battered, deep-fried onions, but the fennel has a much stiffer crunch and a surprisingly bland flavor — leaving you disappointed that they weren't indeed fried onions.
The "fresh catch" was highlighted by our server each time we dined, though it's not clear if that's because it's highly recommended or just complicated. This is basically a build-your-own-entrée feature: choose your fish, your cooking method, a sauce, and then two sides (everything from grits to Thai coconut rice).
When it comes to the entrées actually designed by the folks in the kitchen, the results are mixed at best, teetering on that boundary between good upscale food and dull mass-market fare.
The potato-wrapped salmon ($20) is a big slab of fish covered with potato sliced so paper-thin that you barely notice it's there — and that includes when you eat it. The salmon itself is mild and tender, and it's served over a big bed of salty wilted spinach along with shaved fennel (yes, fennel, again) and a "lemon-caper brown butter" that seems less a sauce than just melted butter poured over the top of everything.
The grilled filet mignon ($27) is soft and tender, but its flavorful peppercorn sauce helps push it over the line and make it an enjoyable dish.
In the right hands, a saltimbocca (whether veal, chicken, or pork) can be an exquisite exercise in simplicity: thin-sliced meat sautéed quickly and blended perfectly with a thin layer of top-quality prosciutto and a few savory sage leaves. In the wrong hands, it can be smothered in a thick blanket of diced cheap prosciutto and drowned in so much mozzarella cheese that all subtlety is lost and it becomes a sort of Italian chicken cordon bleu. The version at Morgan Creek Grill ($18), unfortunately, is in the latter category.
The seafood cioppino ($26) combines most of the seafood available in the appetizers and other entrées into a single dish. These include salmon, shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, and "calamari" (hasn't this stuff reached broad enough acceptance in America to go back to calling it squid without freaking everyone out?). The seafood is all pretty good, and it's served in a nice broth made with white wine, roasted tomatoes, and — you guessed it! — fennel.
With its carpeted floor, light-brown paneled walls, and white-painted room, there's a definite throwback feel to Morgan Creek's dining room. The large windows give a lovely view of the big cabin cruisers tied up in the marina slips and the Intracoastal Waterway beyond. For an hour or so at dusk, when the sun is low and casting golden orange rays across the water, it's an almost magical view.
On weekends, though, the dining room is crowded, busy, and very, very loud, dispelling whatever peacefulness the sunset view might inspire. During a weekend evening visit, the service was painfully slow and disjointed, including incorrect orders and a solid 15-minute lapse where appetizer plates and drink glasses sat empty on the table and brought the whole evening to an awkward, grinding halt. The experience was better on a weeknight, when things weren't so harried and loud, but not exceptionally so.
Ultimately one is left wondering, "What kind of restaurant is this?" The white tablecloths, the ambitious menu, and the entrée prices reaching well over 20 bucks all suggest fine dining. The entrée execution, the build-your-own-dinner combinations, and the service say family restaurant — as do the white tablecloths, when you look a little closer and discover they appear to be vinyl. The view at sunset can't be beat, but for waterfront dining you're probably better off keeping the dollars in the single digits and having a burger on the upper deck.