Frank Lee can cook. His open kitchen at SNOB routinely produces stellar food that is integrally linked to the Lowcountry, utilizing both local ingredients and timeworn traditions native to our region. Through the years, Lee and his staff — including Russ Moore, chef de cuisine for the past two years — have shepherded the restaurant through a successful run from a pioneering visionary of the new Charleston cuisine to a patriarchal stalwart and legendary classic that never goes out of style.
This starts with service and ends with food. Arriving at 6:30 on a Thursday evening, a half an hour late, the restaurant is absolutely packed. It takes three minutes for the hostess to find a table. That kind of gracious service defines the Charleston ideal, and it flows throughout an experience at SNOB. Wine is properly poured, dishes come out at a regular speed, the business of the restaurant moves ahead in strict fashion regardless of the size of the crowd, which, due to its popularity with the tourists and locals, often appears sizable. And as the cheekiness of the name implies, all of this occurs without the pomp and pretense normally reserved for locations so close to Broad Street itself.
Here in an old brick warehouse that once served the sailing fleets of the port, people come to experience SNOB's inventive take on Lowcountry cuisine, a playful mix of old and new, native and foreign, all centered around the staples of the region. It's the kind of worldly menu that I imagine the cosmopolitan Charlestonians of antebellum times would appreciate. One finds old standbys juxtaposed next to popular dishes from afar, reinterpreted into the Lowcountry context. If there is a knock on the menu, it could be called somewhat cliché, but the solid execution and sometimes subtle wit folded in makes it all work.
Appetizers like the beef carpaccio ($10) provide for perfect interpretations of classic dishes forged from local ingredients, and popular favorites, like the cornmeal- and tasso-stuffed quail breasts ($13) served with the legs fried and surrounded by a port wine reduction, could be considered budding classics themselves. Simple, creative, and satisfying.
But perhaps the most interesting dishes at SNOB can be found on the seasonal menu and in weekly specials, where the kitchen's creativity with local produce can fully shine — things like local king mackerel ($21), pan seared and floated atop a pile of creamy yellow grits (which, of course, Lee describes as polenta) and a thick tomato caper sauce. The polenta and sauce are almost a dish unto themselves, the fish a tasty accoutrement that compliments the briny capers. The parallels to Lowcountry dishes based on the same cornmeal staple point to a subtle understanding of culinary connections that help define SNOB's approach to food.
But not everything exhibits classic flavor combinations. He pairs seared flounder with a sweet potato and oyster mushroom "hash" for $23 and stuffs fresh squash blossoms, just in season, with a super-rich crab forcemeat, capturing a seasonality that few other restaurants in town approach.
Yet, in many ways, the menu reads as comfort food, a pleasing ode to the meat-and-potatoes Southerner. There is a hearty Charleston okra stew ($8.75) full of perfectly cooked oysters, just curled at the edges, and plump shrimp swimming in a fragrant tomato broth scented with the fat of cured pork. The okra is lightly cooked, rendering it vegetal and crisp; the whole medley is so good that I would never dream of eating at SNOB without ordering a bowl.
Tuesday night is prime rib night, when they roast a local, grass-fed rib of beef and offer generous slabs for $26. They come with a homestyle potato gratin, some steamed pole beans, and a little tin of horseradish sauce. Tossed down with a good beer, the beef dinner may be the most satisfying Tuesday night plate in town.
That would be the theme to sum up SNOB: supremely satisfying. It's place where you can eat up and dress down, where the help is attentive and professional but doesn't demand your attention, where the act of eating doesn't have to be so much thought about rather than merely enjoyed — and perhaps that's the measure of a classic restaurant, one that will continue to stand the test of time. They have a formula for success that includes enough creative innovation to make each return fresh and enough classic style to keep you looking forward to your favorite Tuesday night steak dinner, four seasons out of the year.