Two Boroughs Larder is a curious egg, one that's a little hard to get your hands around at first. Is it a grocery, a restaurant, a deli, a craft beer bar?
The answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes. And it's also a place that couldn't have existed in Charleston even five years ago.
The two boroughs of the title are Cannonborough and Elliotborough, which it straddles on Coming Street just two blocks off of King. The setting is humble and stylish at the same time, and the emphasis is squarely on the food: fresh, high-quality ingredients, with much of the fare — from rice cakes and buckwheat noodles to kimchi and scrapple — made in house, or much of the rest from local producers.
The rotating menu offers an eclectic array of small and large plates ("starters" and "mains," respectively), plus a mix-and-match selection of charcuterie and cheeses and an assortment of sandwiches and salads.
The cumin-scented lamb belly ($12) starter is remarkable: a thick, fatty slab served over a generous portion of baked Sea Island red peas with a small pile of finely minced red onion on one side and a spoonful of white labne (Greek yogurt) on the other. The lamb is rich and sensuous, steeped with a strong but not overwhelming cumin flavor, and the red peas really make the dish: They're dense and meaty, with smoky bursts of flavor from lardons hidden away inside. The yogurt and red onion offer perfectly balanced punctuation, alternatively sharp and cool.
Also impressive is the local shrimp starter ($12). Half a dozen sautéed shrimp are dusted in spices and come arranged in a round stack with a dramatic assemblage of green pea shoots and thinly shaved radishes, squash, and sweet lipstick peppers piled on top. The shrimp have a bit of a mushy texture around the edges, but the splendidly clean watery taste of ultra-fresh shrimp shines right through.
Over in the "Mains" section, the larger plates offer intriguing, ambitious combinations. The Larder's unusual take on chicken and rice ($22) is delightful. The leg confit (made from local Ashley Farms chicken) is crispy on the outside and tender and succulent inside, and it's served over a big square of nutty "toasted rice" with cauliflower florets roasted until crisp and brown around the edges. Mixed in somewhere are bits of pumpkin and spices, which blend with the savory confit and imbue the whole thing with the dark flavors of autumn.
This is serious foodie fare, and many of the touches — meats tending toward unusual fatty cuts, shrimp served with heads on — require an adventurous palate. Recent entrées on the regularly shifting menu have included braised beef tongue ($20) and a roasted pork platter ($26) with a big slab of belly and crispy head torchon.
Most of the dishes have local down-home flavors, but some wandering international twists can be seen in creations like the Szechuan oxtail ($11) with red chiles, ginger, scallions, and peanuts and the spicy pork-infused "bowl-of-noodle" ($9), to which you can add everything from sesame greens to housemade kimchi.
Some items stray perhaps a bit too far from the home turf. The thakkali curry ($17) pairs a scoop of Carolina Gold Rice with a scoop of chickpeas in a bowl that has a couple of folded pieces of housemade roti balanced rather awkwardly on the rim. It's an ambitious dish with a lot of exotic Indian flavors — the little ramekin of minty green chutney is particularly cool and pleasing — but the textures are all wrong. The Carolina Gold Rice is so dry the grains are almost crunchy, the tomato curry chickpeas a little too thick, and the roti a little too dense and rubbery.
But this is the exception to the rule, and the handmade, eat local, and don't-be-scared-of-a-little-pork-fat aesthetic extends even to breakfast. On weekday mornings, you can grab a take-out cup of good coffee and a breakfast sandwich neatly wrapped in white paper. On Saturdays, the menu shifts to a brunch format with a smaller selection of sandwiches and lunch-sized entrées like mussels and "loaded fingerlings" topped with bacon, peperonata, and hot sausage gravy.
There's really no better way to start off the morning than with a fresh scrapple sandwich ($6). The housemade scrapple, a specialty from the Pennsylvania area of the country, is a thin, dark patty of compressed shreds of mystery meat, spicy and crispy around the edges, layered along with an over-easy farm egg and cheddar cheese inside a round, toasted hard roll. Upon the first bite the golden runny yolk of the egg gushes into the savory scrapple and merges perfectly with the chewy roll.
For the fainter of heart, there are also versions of the sandwich with peperonata and some wonderfully smoky Nueske's bacon (both $5). The coffee, from local roaster King Bean, is top-notch, too.
Two Boroughs Larder's owners, Heather and Josh Keeler, took a two-story building that used to house two shops — an old barbershop and a convenience store — and merged them. The result is an unusual U-shaped room built around a sort of awkward central section that houses the exterior staircase. On the left side is a long bar (featuring dozens of small-batch beers) and a few tables made from rough-hewn boards. Around the U on the right is a big community table and a wall of shelves stocked with bright yellow cookware, stylish, all-natural soaps, and bottles of wine and vinegar. You order takeout at the counter in the back, where a lighted case displays artisan sausages and big wheels and wedges of cheese.
I must admit some mixed feelings about the interior. It's definitely stylish: a blend of rusticity and modernity, with a lot of exposed brick and reclaimed wood. There are some nice touches, like the brown paper bags stamped with the restaurant's sharp, stylized logo and the shelving made with old lumber and shiny silver pipes.
But sometimes it's a little too stylish and cool for its own good. Operating the door to the bathroom (cutely labeled "loo") might throw you at first, since it's a pocket door that slides sideways with the help of a hanging metal counterweight. Inside, the sink mirror is hung so low you have to stoop over to see anything higher than your belly.
And then there are the chairs. Their sleek, modernistic silver metal looks great against the rustic wood tables, but they are lightweight, clanky, and uncomfortable. If you're just grabbing a quick meatball grinder for lunch that isn't such a big deal, but when you're plunking down a hundred bucks for a dinner for two with appetizers, entrees, and wine, it seems a bit incongruous to eat it in a close environment with uncomfortable chairs.
But after mulling it over for a while, I've decided that these quibbles don't really matter, and for a single reason: the food is just so damn good. No, it's not a place for a romantic dinner for two or to wow clients in from out of town, and keep your sister-in-law who eats only chicken fingers and your lactose intolerant aunt the hell away from there. No, it's the kind of place you sneak away to by yourself for a little self-indulgence or to share a casual conversation with a good friend who really enjoys good food.
Did I mention they make their own scrapple?