Ocean Room at the Sanctuary
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrees: $30 and up
Serving dinner daily
Warm lights twinkle through the crooked oak trees as you make your way along the dark road to a late Ocean Room reservation at The Sanctuary, Kiawah's stunning five-diamond resort. The towering hotel glistens through the draped moss and smoking chimneys promise a warm welcome. Inside, guests gather around the big fireplaces, crackling with conversation that reverberates across the great hall embellished with ornate moldings, fine rugs, and crystal chandeliers. Up one set of stairs, which spill down like a wooden waterfall, iron gates wrought with marsh grass and herons guard the darkened bar and allow a glimpse of the inner realm.
Beyond lies the Ocean Room, a culinary sanctuary where you can indulge in $100 lumps of caviar and wines that would deplete the average American's monthly income. It's a theater in the round that promises to showcase the South's most celebrated fare. You come here precisely for such a purpose, decked in your finest threads, jacket required — never a casual meal. Even the wealthy, those for whom a $40 spice-rubbed yellowfin tuna steak with braised pork cheeks doesn't elicit the slightest gasp, must adhere to the elaborate protocols of such an adventure. Black napkins appear for dark pants. Waiters hover attentively at the ready. And the show begins.
The menu overflows with enticing options: butter-roasted poussins with bacon, bacon-wrapped loins of smoked pork, and day-boat scallops dusted with five-spice powder and served alongside sage and sweet potato gnocchi. The five-course fall tasting menu ($95) explores lobster paired with abalone mushrooms, glazed Kurobuta pork bellies with salsify and burdock root, and elk steaks shipped in from the Rocky Mountains.
A wine "list" as long as a Dostoyevsky novel skews toward bottles costing hundreds of dollars, while pairings for the tasting menu come at an almost 75 percent premium. But no one makes it this far in need of money — on the contrary, the crowd seems to spend with abandon, and such cost comes with high expectation. The ability to consistently deliver on those promises remains the test at such lofty heights — and with all the pomp and pageantry, one expects rigorous attention to details.
If there are problems at the Ocean Room, they do not reside in the procurement department. The menus swoon under the weight of rare delicacies — the aforementioned Osetra caviar, all manner of exotic fungi, a liberal smattering of foie gras, and little dollops of Epoisses de Bourgogne among the pumpkin soufflé, a cheese that Avondale cheesemonger Manoli Davani praises as the best in the world.
New chef Kevin Ives, who took over for the much accomplished Chris Brandt this fall, attempts to weave this tapestry of flavors into a coherent whole and in large measure succeeds. The flavors are bold, challenging even, the combinations intellectual, the composition invigorating and passionate — and for everything that it is, it decidedly lacks poise and elegance. Among the rampant display of technique, color, and juxtaposition, Ives loses some of the simplicity that would bring balance and restraint into the plate.
The "Salade Lyonnaise" ($20) perches a gently poached egg atop a writhing tangle of frisee, the richness of confit duck and a foie gras hollandaise layered among the crisp leaves, but you would never know the goose or duck liver was there. The subtleties are lost among a mouthful of richness, muddied explosions of flavor more inclined to speak to a great artisanal beer than a $500 bottle of vintage red Burgundy. The coriander-crusted swordfish ($38) suffers the same fate. Overcooked and over-seasoned, it's a voluptuous mash-up of pumpkin, sweet corn, lentils, lobster, dates, coconut, red wine, and Indian spices. One dish fails altogether: the porcini mushroom and black truffle ravioli ($35) comes with a duck and foie gras Bolognese sauce and gets saddled with the sweet kiss of roasted cippolini onions, overwhelming the subtlety of the liver and the delicacy of the truffles.
At half the price, in a less ambitious setting, such dishes would deserve higher praise, for they are indeed delicious, but for all the accolades bestowed upon the Ocean Room in the past, something has slipped. On our visit, the service was impeccable. Dishes arrived promptly and details were well attended. Could the panning that the front of the house received from our friends at The Post and Courier two days prior have tightened things up a bit? For all its grandeur, the Ocean Room seems to have encountered some rocky seas.
Perhaps a reevaluation is in order over there, a look at the operations and transition to a new kitchen staff, because when attention must be paid, it should not come from the diner's wallet. Nevertheless, what the P&C called the best restaurant in the city less than two years ago deserves more than a couple of cursory glances. We plan to save our pennies and give it another look in the months to come.