The Lettered Olive
5757 Palm Blvd.
Isle of Palms (inside Wild Dunes)
Entrée Prices: Expensive ($17-$36)
Serving: Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner
"I'm really going to do it this time," I told my wife as we scanned the menu at the Lettered Olive out at the Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms. "I'm not going to order an entrée. Just appetizers. Three appetizers."
"You can't do that," she said. "You're writing a review. You have to do a regular meal."
I harrumphed and debated, as usual, and ended up caving, as usual.
But I was right.
The Lettered Olive, named after the state of South Carolina's official seashell, is the latest venture at Wild Dunes.
The dining room is stylish and impressive, with lots of attention paid to the little details. The ceiling fans are brightly polished copper. The square tables have a stainless steel center with a light wood border, and the napkins are real cloth and come rolled in hammered metal napkin rings. As you work your way through the meal, there's a constant flow of intriguing glassware and serving dishes: cocktail glasses shaped like angular pears, ceviche served in a modified martini glass with sharply sloping sides and a little nubbin of a stem. The bread — tasty sweet biscuits and a rustic boule with herbs and olives — is brought out in a big copper bowl with two wooden handles. It's accompanied by a thin white tray with three small compartments holding house-made pimiento cheese, pesto in olive oil, and a chili-honey butter, all of which are delightful.
I took the waitress's recommendation and ordered a strawberry basil mojito because it sounded unusual, and it was — in the very best sense of the word. The basil adds a spicier edge than the traditional mint and blends perfectly with the sweet strawberries.
The evening was off to a good start. Time for appetizers.
I've been growing increasingly weary of entrées. They're anticlimactic — the portions too big, the preparations too ordinary. They always come with side items that are either clichéd (how many more mounds of mashed potatoes do you want to eat?) or just don't quite complement the meat. Appetizers, on the other hand — or starters, or small plates — are where the action is. They let chefs flex their culinary muscles and try inventive preparations with a small portion of relatively expensive ingredients. Most people choose their entrée first and build the rest of their meal around that. These days, I make a beeline straight to the appetizer section.
The Lettered Olive doesn't disappoint. The Mussels in Frites ($11) are fresh and briny, and the savory garlic, tomato, and herb broth is delicious enough to keep you diving back into that copper bowl for more bread for sopping. Add style points for the presentation of the frites, which come in a little clay flower pot lined with white paper. The tropical tequila ceviche ($14) is a light, refreshing starter with shrimp, scallops, and squid in a citrusy tomato marinade — and more style points for the two plantain chips and the sharp green leaves garnishing the glass in a big V. If these aren't enough to tempt you, there are also beef short ribs ($10) with a peach barbecue sauce and a nice version of shrimp and grits ($12) with the parmesan-flavored grits cooked into a triangular cake. The seared ahi tuna ($14) with five spice slaw and mango chutney is a treat, but for sheer variety you have to applaud the grilled shrimp cocktail tasting ($14), which provides not one but three varieties of grilled shrimp — Cajun, tropical, and island-style — on a single plate.
The soup of the day ($6) is good, too. On my last visit it was the prosaically-named Italian meat and vegetable, a blend of ground beef, sausage, and vegetables in a thick tomato broth that was surprisingly chili-like yet tasty and quite filling.
Things were racing along nicely at this point, but once the entrées arrived the meal spun off into the ditch.
I imagine it's pretty difficult to create the menu for an upscale restaurant at a large beach resort. You have to cater to a broad range of customers, some of whom just want to grab a quick bite and others who are trying to have a fancy night out. You've got families with kids in tow, retired couples counting every nickel, and big parties of empty nesters just beginning to enjoy the good life. And, you have to do breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night since you're serving double duty as the hotel's restaurant and bar. So, you offer a half-dozen sandwiches and a dozen salads along with pizza (dressed up as "oak-fired flatbreads") and more serious appetizers and entrées. I suppose you have to have some entrées.
The Lettered Olive serves theirs with a house salad or a cup of soup along with a choice of two sides, and the portions are very generous. The formula seems designed to satisfy the value-conscious vacationer, but the culinary-minded would trade the large portions for a little more quality. The pork loin with cider-braised apples ($25) delivers three thick slices of roasted pork with apple slices strewn unceremoniously over the top. The whole thing is covered with a pool of brown barbecue sauce that clashes with the sweetness of the apples and doesn't do wonders for the pork, either.
The leg of lamb with minted Vidalia onion chutney ($26) is given a similar treatment: three thick slices coated with a sauce that's best described as a brown gravy. The gravy itself is tasty enough — I found myself dunking my roasted potatoes into it — but it's too mild to offset the strong flavor of the leg of lamb, and doesn't really go with the chutney.
The choice of two sides makes you think choice is overrated. The oven-roasted new potatoes and the candied sweet potatoes are acceptable, if a little dull. The "Best Ever Mac and Cheese" is misnamed — just big noodles in a limpid sauce with a notably off taste. The asparagus and corn succotash pulls off the remarkable feat of being both over-spiced and bland.
The plates were inexplicably decorated with a pinch of leaf lettuce with a half a tomato slice on top, which has to win some sort of award for lamest garnish ever — though, I suppose, a confused tourist might consider it a bonus salad.
But enough about the entrées. Nobody orders entrées any more. If you're out on IOP with a friend and want a tasty meal, tell the guard at the Wild Dunes gate that you're going to the Lettered Olive. He'll let you in, no questions asked. Have a strawberry basil mojito and order half a dozen appetizers. You won't be disappointed.