The Glass Onion
1219 Savannah Hwy., West Ashley
Entrées: Moderate ($6-$14)
Lunch & Dinner (Mon.-Fri.), Brunch (Sat.)
It's always a treat to find a new restaurant that under-promises and over-delivers. The Glass Onion on Savannah Highway is just that sort of place. The proprietors describe their offering as "midscale comfort food" and "soulful food." I would describe it as good, honest cooking. And that's something this town needs more of.
The décor is hardly upscale. The Glass Onion took over the old building in West Ashley that used to be the Book Exchange (which moved a few doors down). The old cinder-block walls have been painted a fresh cream color and the ceiling covered with corkboard. The chairs and tables in the dining area are basic brown wood, and each table top is covered with a large sheet of brown paper for a tablecloth. The bathroom is painted a color that can only be described as Play-Doh blue. But this isn't the type of place you come to for the décor. It's the food that matters.
The menu for the day is chalked upon a big blackboard next to the front counter. A few core entrées are always there, but the other selections rotate daily, following what's fresh and in season. You can start things off with a spicy deviled egg or two for 75 cents a pop. Or, go for a basket of hand-cut French fries with béarnaise sauce for dipping ($3). The béarnaise is a little heavy on the tarragon, but it beats the heck out of ketchup. The fries are just right, and they'll tide you over nicely while you wait for the rest of your food.
You do need to be a little choosy, for not all items on the menu are equal. And that's the danger of a place like The Glass Onion. When your dining companion orders something as out-of-this-world-tasty as the Anson Mills grits and you get the white beans and rice (both $2 a la carte), your selection pales in comparison. The white beans and rice are not bad, per se, but they are rather plain and a little too overburdened with tomatoes and green peppers. The grits, on the other hand, are so pure and thick and flavorful that you'll find yourself shamelessly horsetrading to try to get another bite.
The pork and sausage gumbo ($8/big, $5/little) is also superb: smoky with a thick, hearty broth and just the right kick of spice. I would assume there's a roux underlying everything to make it so rich and solid, but unlike a lot of gumbos you can't taste it. The pork gumbo is a special that shows up from time to time, while a chicken and sausage version (same price) is a regular menu fixture. Something about the smoky pork must work better with the rest of the ingredients, for the chicken version isn't quite as flavorful and has an underlying grainy note that's just a little off. So watch for that pork special to reappear.
On the entrées, the more unusual items are the ones to try. One of the best of the recent specials is the shrimp pilau with Benton bacon and spring peas over rice ($14). Rice was the foundation of Lowcountry cuisine for more than 200 years, but it's rare to find it in Charleston today outside of an Indian restaurant or the steam table at a barbecue buffet. The Glass Onion actually serves a pilau, the epitome of classic Charleston cooking. The Benton's bacon, which hails from Allan Benton's legendary smokehouse in Madisonville, Tenn., takes it to another level, adding a layer of dark smokiness to the chewy rice and fresh local shrimp. Another winning special is — or, perhaps more accurately, was — the fried softshell crab ($14). When the waitress brought it to my table, she assured me it was absolutely the last one of the season. Fried up crispy and light on the outside, it had a tender, sweet explosion of flavor inside — a perfect way to say farewell to spring.
If these specials don't appear on the daily menu board (and that softshell crab better not until 2009!), you can hardly do better than the braised pork shank with grits and greens ($13), which is part of the regular line-up. The big shank is impressive for its size alone, and the meat is slow-cooked till tender and falling off the bone. It's served with plenty of braising sauce alongside a generous scoop of those creamy Anson Mills grits and a pile of tender greens that have a great apple-vinegar zip. The meat, grits, and greens work perfectly together, and fortunately they reheat well, too, since the entrée is plenty big enough for two meals.
The Glass Onion is what you get when three Southerners who love good food join forces. Charles Vincent and Sarah O'Kelley met in New Orleans while working the line at Emeril's Delmonico. They ended up in Charleston following Hurricane Katrina, and Vincent found work at FIG, where Chris Stewart was sous chef. (Editor's note: Sarah O'Kelley has been an occasional contributor to the City Paper.) All three were raised in the South. All three share a commitment to traditional slow cooking and fresh local ingredients.
The Glass Onion is not the best restaurant to take business clients or out-of-town guests you want to impress. It's more the kind of spot you want to keep to yourself, that favorite little place around the corner where you drop in regularly for a hearty, honest meal. In fact, you probably shouldn't tell anybody about it at all. The last time I visited was an ordinary Tuesday night and the parking lot had only a single empty space left. It was not even seven o'clock and they had already sold out of the pork shank, the catfish, and the bread pudding. If too many more people find out about this place it's just going to get worse. So, let's keep this one to ourselves, shall we?