The Library at Vendue
19 Vendue Range
Entrée prices: Expensive ($20-$28)
Serving: Dinner Tues.-Sat.
The sheer number of restaurants in our tiny little town makes it easy to be overlooked, even if you have great food, but the little dining room of the Vendue Inn seems particularly ignored. They've labored for years in there, turning out fare that was equal to or better than some of the more touted throwbacks just around the corner.
But thousands of people flock every year to lower East Bay, trudging among the well known darlings of the restaurant scene, and the chefs in those kitchens tromp down Vendue Range late into the night grabbing beers and shots of Grand Marnier at The Griffon. They pass right by the little room with a view, which never seems to be full with eager diners. But with the addition of new Executive Chef Sara Carter, a rare female-at-the-helm, the place deserves a fresh look.
If you blink going through the front door on your way to the Rooftop Bar, you could miss the entrance to the downstairs dining room. Half the city knows the path to the upstairs bar all too well. It was the first of the rooftop bars, so original as to be universally recognized simply as "The Rooftop" all across town. But before the elevator that takes revelers to the top, you pass a somewhat plain, unmarked door opening to the small dining room.
It's a cozy place and shows a lot of potential. The wood is old. Big windows frame views of the Vendue Range as it falls toward Waterfront Park. A warm, welcoming feel pervades the place, and Chef Carter's menu offers classic southern food. It is well executed and positioned for the Inn's standard clientele. But you won't find many locals at the tables, and that's a shame, because the locally-inspired dishes deserve attention.
The Library celebrates the Lowcountry and its food in a good way. They serve a great selection of standards — from the obligatory shrimp and grits ($20) to a brown-butter roasted chicken breast ($20) — making it a safe place to take the in-laws from out of town, or to find a quiet corner with a special date.
Creative appetizers headline the menu, such as the calamari two-ways ($10), showcasing the kitchen's talent. Some of the squid come crispy and fried, others sautéed. A spicy rouille and a Thai-style dipping sauce complement the tender little things very well. The crab cake ($11) tops a crispy croquette filled with warm, creamy risotto, full of herbs and a perfect match for the rich foil of the well-prepared crab cake.
Salads also satisfy, with smatterings of local greens, corn, peaches, and heirloom tomatoes throughout the board. One could do a lot worse on East Bay Street than the heirloom tomatoes and local greens ($10). It features big, meaty, quality tomatoes — our server insisted that they were "over 100 years old," but let's hope she meant the variety. They looked fresh to me, and the mustard seed vinaigrette complemented them well.
Innovative entrées show no fall-off. Even the steak is thoughtfully prepared, a butcher's cut, "Rioja Grilled" (which we assumed means marinated in the red wine), and served with mashed potatoes laced with shallots and chives, slightly charred asparagus, and a crispy hat of fried onions. But if you're looking for richness, then look no further than the cornmeal-crusted scallops ($24), featuring three monster mollusks, crackling in their corny crust and perched above the same herbed risotto, but more of it, with extra cream, thick and redolent, the scallops almost raw in the center. I ate one, my partner a half, and I struggled to down another bite, it was so rich.
All this adds up to a place most should want to try, but the Library has work to do still. The wine list was nonexistent. The server read the offerings and knew nothing about them or their qualities, and all the friendliness in the world doesn't make up for a lack of execution — which we found a general theme across the entire front of the house. That lack of focus shows up in the little things, cheap glassware and wine served much too warm to enjoy, tables that teetered like ships blown in a strong gale, and a general folksiness much too annoying for so romantic a spot.
There's certainly room for improvement, but with a few tweaks, The Library could rival the best of the block.