The last time I ate at Red Drum was in 2015, when Eric Doksa and I sat at the bar and plucked fried shrimp from a tall cone lined with white paper. We were engaged in a foolhardy quest to sample and rank all the fried shrimp in Charleston. We managed to hit 30 places. Red Drum's came out on top.
They're just as good today. Beneath light, crisp batter, the tender shrimp ($18) has that rich, briny bite you only get when they're fresh from the sea. They're served in the same conical basket, crafted from a spiral of thick stainless steel wire, and with the same citrus-laced cocktail sauce and spicy remoulade.
There are plenty of other small, tasty bites, like crispy duck wings ($12) with a sweet, spicy glaze of ancho-laced honey and a sprinkling of benne seeds over the top. The salmon dip ($9) is more a patty than a dip, but its delicate smoky flavor is superb.
The heart and soul of chef/owner Ben Berryhill's kitchen remains his custom wood-fired grill and the quail and sausage entrée ($32) — which wowed me when I reviewed Red Drum back in 2011 — is still the quintessential Red Drum plate. It neatly encapsulates the restaurant's South-by-Southwest theme, blending local Southern ingredients (South Carolina quail) with the flavors of Berryhill's native Texas (venison sausage from Broken Arrow Ranch). The deboned quail is dark and delicious, with a touch of crisp char from that wood-fired grill, and the savory sausage offers a nice contrast to the creamy gooeyness of the cheese grits over which they're layered.
The grill turns out some impressive burgers and steaks, too. The first bite of the 16 oz. New York strip ($48) explodes with luxurious smoky flavor, and so does the wood-grilled BBQ bacon burger ($16), its beefy punch accented by crisp, fatty bacon.
Those bold flavors carry through to the rest of the menu, and there's at least one strong element on every plate. On too many, unfortunately, there's also a blemish or two. The scallops ($31) have a perfect silky texture and lovely brown sear, but they're layered over a bed of corn salsa that, despite bits of shrimp and poblano, seems pallid. Tender salmon ($29) gets a pleasing dose of smoke from the grill, but the accompanying corn pudding, served tamale-like in a corn husk wrapper, seems overly sweet and bland. It doesn't get much help from the vegetal flavors of the green chili butter sauce served in a little stainless steel pitcher.
But when the flavors click, they really click. Berryhill was an early pioneer of buying whole, line-caught fish fresh from local docks, and the rotating "market catch" does double duty. A larger filet portion — grouper on my first visit — is seared golden brown and enrobed in a thick, tarragon-laced beurre blanc. A forkful from the center of the filet, where the pristine white meat is thick and brimming with delicate flavor, was one of the best bites of the night.
The rest of the fish gets incorporated into the daily ceviche ($16), which sparkles with the brightest flavors from the Southwestern palette. Bits of red pepper and jalapeno give pops of sweetness and heat, and nuggets of avocado add big creamy bursts. The appetizer is served in a tall glass with thick sloping sides, a sort of ceviche parfait, but the shape is highly functional. The scraps of tender white fish get better the farther down into the glass you dip your spoon, as they soak up more and more of the tangy citrus.
Admittedly, my latest visits left me a bit puzzled. Eight years ago, a dinner at Red Drum was a wowing experience — a restaurant out ahead of the pack and firing on all cylinders. This time around things feel more mixed, and I'm not sure how to best categorize the experience.
The valet parking and entree prices, which run from $22 for enchiladas to $54 for the bone-in ribeye, are squarely in the big night out category, but the fare on the plate straddles fine dining — hefty steaks, delicate fish in buttery sauces — and comfort food — the workmanlike green beans and mashed potatoes that come alongside.
You enter through the bar, which is always hopping, and the din of the revelers carries over into the dining room. That room feels a bit dated now. It would be unfair to call the color scheme monochromatic, for its shades range from beige to light brown. The tabletops are devoid of cloth or even butcher paper, and what gets placed upon the bare wood — paper menus rubberbanded to boards, basic white plates and bowls, sauce in stainless steel ramekins — seems overly spartan.
The tables are squeezed in a bit too tight, too. Repeated bumping of chairbacks by servers and passing patrons joggles one's mind away from the food, and long pauses to wait for drinks or desserts stutter the pace of the meal. But once those desserts arrive, they are elegant and delicious: sticky, sweet caramel toffee cake and little domes of raspberry cheesecake ($8) crisscrossed with white chocolate streaks.
The contrasts puzzled me until I recalled the restaurant's original name: "Red Drum Gastropub." Berryhill dropped "gastropub" a few years back during a rebranding, but I think the offering remains true to the term: a neighborhood bar where, instead of the usual chicken wings and nachos, patrons can order restaurant-quality meals.
The concept made sense a decade ago, when the gap between Restaurant Row high cuisine and humble bar munchies was yawningly vast. But since then, our bars and casual restaurants have steadily upped their food games while fine dining restaurants have steadily loosened in formality, slimming down their wine lists and letting burgers sneak onto their menus. There's not much room left in the middle.
In a sense, Charleston dining has finally caught up with Red Drum and perhaps even outpaced it. A wood-fired grill used to be an unexpected novelty, as did serving ultra-fresh local fish. Now those are just table stakes. The bright, bold flavors of the Southwest — citrus, chiles, cilantro — once seemed thrillingly exotic but have now become familiar and routine.
But those fried shrimp and ceviche — you couldn't ask for better bar snacks — and a grilled burger might just hit the spot when you're not up for a big night downtown.