Back at the beginning of this year, Sermet's Corner closed its doors temporarily for an overhaul. As they tend to do, the renovations stretched well past the planned six weeks, but when the restaurant reopened, it not only had a new name — Sermet's Downtown — but a completely different interior and vibe.
The track lighting, hanging plants, and most of the colorful funky paintings that gave the old spot its eclectic, bohemian feel are now gone. The kitchen, once open to the room and filling the whole downstairs with the sharp aroma of grilling food, is now enclosed. White cloths cover the formerly bare tables, and the chairs are draped in fabric, too. Old exposed brick walls are softened by elegant floor-length curtains that adorn the tall windows. The subtle new colors are all grays, creams, and tans, and soft jazz hums in the background. A room that once seemed bustling and energetic is now calmer, more relaxed, and rather formal.
The restaurant also has a new owner: John David Madison, who recently transformed the old Vickery's Beaufain Street location into the year-old Leaf Café. Longtime owner Sermet Aslan has stayed onboard as executive chef, though he's spending more time these days out at Sermet's Courtyard, his venture on Daniel Island.
Despite all the changes, the menu remains essentially unaltered, and that means the same hearty dishes with bold Mediterranean flavors that Sermet's fans have long loved. It also provides a rare laboratory for testing the effect that setting can have upon a meal.
The old favorites from the starters menu are still there, like PEI mussels in a lemon-curry cream ($12) and sautéed calamari ($11) tossed with the bright flavors of capers, pesto, orange zest, and fennel. Three deep violet slabs of quick-seared tuna ($12) are served over a layer of grilled pineapple, and the candy-sweet fruit contrasts nicely with the prickly za'atar — a blend of Middle Eastern herbs and sesame seed — that encrusts the tuna.
The shrimp appetizer ($12) is a delicious assemblage of flavors. Half a dozen sautéed shrimp are tossed with a generous amount of bacon, scallions, and red peri-peri peppers in a marsala-thyme cream sauce and served over a wedge of fried polenta with crumbles of queso fresco sprinkled on top. It's a blend of rich, creamy notes with a sharp pop from the peppers that will leave you reaching for a slice of crusty bread to mop up the last drop of sauce.
The entrées continue Sermet's formula of bold and hearty flavors, like sautéed chicken with bacon, mushroom, and Granny Smith apples over butternut squash ravioli ($19) and a sweet tea-brined pork chop with sautéed cabbage and maple rosemary butter ($25). One of the most substantial plates is the boneless short ribs, which are braised until they're meltingly tender then served over a "risotto" of couscous laced with mushrooms and scallions and topped with a savory chipotle and plum reduction. The rich sauce is a fine complement to the well-peppered beef, and the tender orbs of couscous have a subtle touch of sweetness and spice. It's a solid dish and, at $28, an expensive one. The renovation was accompanied by an upgrade in prices, and where all the entrées once ducked just beneath that psychologically significant $20 line, more than half now play up in the big-ticket range.
The seafood linguini ($23) offers shrimp, mussels, and calamari sautéed with shaved fennel and chorizo in a Sambuca-laced tomato sauce. My dining companion and I both agreed that the seafood and pasta were tender and tasty but that the whole was somehow lacking — the tomato sauce, despite the licorice-splash of fennel and Sambuca, was too flat and unassuming, and just four slivers of chorizo were not enough to spice things up. Later, I realized that I had written about the exact same dish a year or so ago, back before the remodel, and at the time judged it much brighter and more flavorful. Perhaps it just hadn't been prepared quite the same this time around, but I suspect it has more to do with the interplay between a restaurant's atmosphere and the experience of the meal. There were two main differences that I could see. First, the pasta dish is now served in a much more elegant, fine-dining type atmosphere. And second, its $23 price tag is pretty steep (for comparison, the same dish is still just $16 out on Daniel Island at Sermet's Courtyard).
Do the decor and the prices give us subconscious signals, setting our expectations at a higher level? Perhaps. My companion's conclusion this time around was simply, "It's missing something." Neither she nor I could put a finger on what it was. Maybe it was just whatever the $7 was supposed to cover, but after the intensely flavorful appetizers, it was a bit of a let down.
Some have reacted negatively to the interior updates at Sermet's, saying they make the room come off disconcertingly like a wedding venue. But I found the new space to be a comfortable, enjoyable setting for a meal. The service was friendly, polite, and professional, a proper match for the new, more upscale setting.
But is the setting the right match for the food? The restaurant's cooking definitely remains admirable. The best dishes have a caravan of different flavors going on at the same time, but they manage to come together into a satisfying whole. Still, they don't quite reach the level of fine dining that you'll find in our more noted downtown restaurants, though with updated decor and pricing, Sermet's seems to be trying to ease up into that league
There is one ace in the hole yet to be played. As of this writing, renovations were nearing completion on the upstairs portion of the building, which will open soon as a jazz bar called The Mezz. Noted drummer Quentin Baxter is the venue's musical director, and it should prove a prime stage for local jazz musicians. That may be the deciding factor in whether the figurative move from the Corner to Downtown was an upgrade or simply an overhaul.