We don't lack for fancy eateries. You could say that Charleston specializes in such venues. But even in a city of fine dining, The Ocean Room stands out.
I'm always slightly confused when visiting, and not just because GenXers like myself can hardly squeeze their self image into this elaborate set piece straight out of The Great Gatsby. It's a revelatory experience driving out to the hotel, jetting through the live oaks of Johns Island, passing through the numerous gates and ritualized portals, finally reaching the inner sanctum. We always look out of place, and we know it as soon as we pass through the filigree of the wrought iron that guards the front door.
I once took my 4-year-old with me. One look into the opulent dining room — and at the stiff manning the big wood lectern fronting the house — told me that I should just ask to sit in the bar area. In fact, I almost always sit in the bar. I've eaten a $140 ribeye for two while lounging by the fireplace, and it's a fine place to dine, a place where you can feel comfortable without a sport coat crested with your family coat of arms. Where the waiter won't glare at you when your kid uses the little foot stool that they bring for your wife's purse as an impromptu trampoline. There's a nice view out of the windows and a cozy spot for two, even if the tables are a bit small for eating a full meal.
We sat there last time we ventured out that way, because no one would answer the phone, and I left a message. As my luck would have it, they didn't have the reservation when we finally arrived. It's probably a good idea to leave your telephone number when you call these things in, but I admit a little disappointment when the stone-faced woman informed me that they were "totally committed" for the evening. After all, it is a long drive to this wonderland. The waitress explained that they had 145 covers walking in on a Thursday night, but even when they "found" us a seat five minutes later, I decided that my fate is in the bar; I like the view.
In a way, Nathan Thurston's menu mirrors this experience. There are the steaks, and they are marvelous, front and center. The dry-aged MiBek Farms ribeye is the best steak of my life, so far. It's also the most expensive. It is lavish, ostentatious, and worth every penny — just like the main dining room — but the lesser known side of the Ocean Room also deserves a look. Eating expensive steaks in the bar seems to flaunt the makeup of the Ocean Room itself, because the place is primarily about conspicuous consumption. It's a steakhouse to end all steakhouses, not really a place to dine on a smallish table without even a cloth, which seems sacrosanct. Such tables work best with the real gems of the menu, enjoyed these days from the lesser menu, an early bird special for only 50 bucks a head. My BFF of a deal.
They call it "Dining at Dusk," clearly a tasteful overture to blue-haired old ladies not interested in meat offerings of prehistoric proportions or being called "early birds." It is the daintier side of this place, the anima of robust steakhouse fare, and the best way to see Thurston's considerable talents for yourself — because steaks are good, but they're not all that hard to cook; the work is in producing the cow.
One bite of the sweet spring pea soup, however, could bring you to your knees. Thurston composes shreds of braised short-rib in the bottom of the bowl, instructing the servers to pour the pea soup tableside. The fresh essence of the peas alone could make the dish, but little bits of white chocolate tinted with mint accompany the meat, small bursts of creativity that make the dish sing.
He plates up perfect greens from Rosebank Farms just down the road with little more than a brief spritz of white balsamic, some blanched almonds, a few lumps of creamy camembert, and perfectly ripe strawberries, halved, straight from the fields of Ambrose Farms. And there is an excellent Ceaser salad, if you must indulge in the mythic traditions of the Brooklyn steakhouse.
The entrée selections also shine. A sous vide Wagyu top sirloin with asparagus, potatoes, and a traditional red wine sauce headlines, and the spring beet risotto is interesting, if slightly weird. For all its springtime goodness, the beets don't translate into the rice very well, and the "horseradish-beet foam" seems like a bad idea from two years ago.
Savvy diners will opt for the local wreckfish, perfectly crusted and flaking apart atop a pile of green farro grains from Anson Mills. It's surrounded by fresh baby clams sourced from Folly Beach and tiny grilled spring onions. A hint of citrus rounds the plate, one of the year's best dishes by far.
Dessert brings more Ambrose strawberries, paired with rhubarb and basil ice cream, which is so good, I've already earmarked half of my next pesto batch for a re-creation.
Of course, all of this is available on the regular menu, along with those steaks, and a celebratory dinner at the Ocean Room is nothing to be scoffed at. They serve a $75 tasting menu featuring prime tenderloin and braised pork belly, which probably deserves a try, but the knock on the Sanctuary has always been it's expense, including the long drive from town and back. For the early bird, you can get out (relatively) cheap and be back in town before the rooster crows. I took a peek in the dining room when we left. There were eight other takers and 10 at the bar.