Old Village Post House
101 Pitt St.
I find the emergence of corporate restaurants in the fine dining arena a bit perplexing. One wonders what effects, what absorbent trends, commercial pressures can bring to the practice of a craft that, at its finest, rests in the capable hands of a master craftsman shaping his or her apprentices and journeymen — themselves eager to produce a masterpiece and achieve rank. Ventures like the Maverick Southern Kitchens (which owns three other area establishments besides The Post House), able to divide cash flow across multiple locations, would seem to ease the financial pressures that accompany a new restaurant, or a sudden shift of an existing kitchen's hierarchy. But might that same corporate structure rob the chef of a certain stylistic freedom, what the French might term élan, and so stifle the creative innovation that has driven the art of cuisine throughout the ages? One can begin to discern such an arrangement's advantages and pitfalls while dining at The Old Village Post House.
The place has always been good. We have enjoyed the quiet ambiance for years, sinking into those supple leather chairs with a cold glass of white wine, the muted interior and white linens striking relaxed composure all around us. The rooms breathe in long, rhythmic themes, very different from more frenetic downtown digs. The food has been no less impressive. The Post House, tucked quietly behind the raucous Shem Creek, always delivered some of the most thoughtful seafood preparations east of the Cooper River. It still does.
The Maverick guys hire good staff, and Chef Tim Armstrong, competently grasping the helm, improved an already excellent menu. Flavors dance throughout a thoroughly Lowcountry menu, playfully interwoven with contemporary ethnic flare: "Crispy Fried Oysters" ($9.50) perched beside "Sea Scallop Ceviche" ($8.50), "Post House Fish Tacos" ($7.95), and "Carpaccio of Beef Tenderloin" ($9.50) sharing the lunchtime spotlight with the customary shrimp and grits. Anyone can throw out a mirage of intriguing ingredient combinations, but Armstrong proves his points with expert preparations that showcase a competent grasp of how the freshest local ingredients, which populate the menu, should be treated.
Appetizers, like the "Roasted Beet Salad" ($6.95), redefine what simple ingredients should become in the hands of a master chef. Glistening jewels of roasted beets tumble over green beans so fresh, so lightly blanched, that they taste more of the earth than the beets themselves. Fresh goat cheese rounds the composition, punctured only by the sharp acidity of the sherry vinaigrette. Fresh slices of ripe tomatoes, topped with local onions, blue cheese, and basil constitute the "Tomato Salad" ($6.50), its freshness bursting through the muted drizzle of a balsamic reduction. Cheese plates, smoked salmon, crab cakes, and it's just the first course.
Main dishes attest to the skill of the kitchen. "Grilled Sea Scallops" ($21.95) surprise the diner, arriving as a dinner salad, a pile of pristine arugula interspersed with peaches and prosciutto, perfectly seared scallops patrolling the edge of the plate. The "Seared Sea Bass" ($18.95) comes with a golden brown crust, so crispy and unctuous one might mistake it for fish skin. It sits atop a pungent mustard sauce, surrounded by fresh asparagus and carrots, a summertime feast. The food here is good, it's insanely seasonal, and it speaks to everything the Post House should become.
The food of Chef Armstrong achieves the top levels of cuisine in the city; capable servers are attentive, with a thorough knowledge of the food and wine. On the surface, the place looks to be an excellent, well-run establishment; close examination reveals chinks in the armor of the Post House — shortcomings pointing toward corporate control and its propensity to squeeze profits. An excellent wine list, thoughtfully combined, suffers from multiple problems in service. Red wine comes out warm, sloshing in at 80 or 90 degrees rather than the mid-60s, where most red wines should be served, whites are frigidly cold (not all that bad in August) — but can the powerful Maverick Group not afford a proper wine cellar? Truly deplorable glasses leave expensive wines to languor in cheap goblets with fat rims and a top heavy feel. Ratty, distressed silverware has seen its better days. These traits would be perfectly at home in a corner bistro, but The Post House now aspires to be more. Its prices and the food behind them speak to a much higher level of performance. Give Chef Armstrong what he needs to perform at the pinnacle, even if costs a bit more. With his skill and trust in his vision, the return will be ten-fold.