There was a changing of the guard at Anson Restaurant earlier this year when Jeremy Holst took over the kitchen from Kevin Johnson, who had been the restaurant's chef since 2003. Holst brings with him an impressive pedigree, including a degree from the Culinary Institute of America as well as stints at well-respected restaurants in town (Woodlands Resort, Six Tables) and, most recently, the Troutdale Dining Room in Bristol, Tenn.
In other words, Anson fans need not worry. The restaurant has been around long enough now to be considered a downtown institution, and the early indications are that any changes brought on by the new chef will be evolutionary and not revolutionary.
And that's how it should be for a place like Anson, which has long made its mark by preparing classic Lowcountry cuisine with a contemporary fine dining sensibility. For three centuries, Southern cooking has been anchored by pork and corn, augmented here on the coast with plenty of fish fresh from the ocean. Anson's menu reflects this heritage. Pork and corn (especially grits) provide the foundation, and okra, field peas, and greens are prominent accompaniments. Carolina Gold rice makes an appearance, too, in Hoppin' John ($3.50 for a side) and the pork gumbo ($8). And that's not likely to change anytime soon.
Anson's take on shrimp and grits ($9) is one of my favorite versions around town. It helps that they are made with the restaurant's own house-ground grits, which have a hearty, bright corn flavor that you can only get from grinding it fresh. Unlike most local versions, which tend toward thick, heavy gravies, Anson's shrimp and grits are finished with a very thin sauce made from roasted tomatoes and house-cured bacon. In the resulting blend of complex flavors, the shrimp themselves are almost an afterthought, outshone by the sweet tomato sauce and those exquisitely creamy, smoke-tinged grits.
There are plenty of more contemporary flavors, too. The scallops ($12), for example, are seared a deep golden brown and accompanied by slices of avocado and grapefruit along with sauteed sweet onions and a citrus vinaigrette. The dense, toothy texture of the scallops are offset perfectly by the smooth, soft avocado, and the sweet, sharp notes of the grapefruit and citrus blend with the scallops' rich saltiness to make for a delicate, light, but still satisfying appetizer.
Anson's respect for culinary tradition includes maintaining both the heritage of Lowcountry ingredients and its own long-standing signature dishes. The she-crab soup ($7) — served with a dose of sherry on the side — is widely acknowledged to be one of the city's best. The whole flounder ($28), fried crispy brown on the outside and tender on the inside, with its apricot-shallot sauce, is a local favorite. Even the old-school iceberg wedge ($8) and Caesar salad ($8) — though not particularly Southern in origin — maintain the long, respectable tradition of solid fine dining.
But, at the same time, Anson is forward looking and ambitious in its cuisine. While other restaurants wear their farm-to-table ideology ostentatiously on their sleeves, Anson quietly maintains a deep-rooted make-it-in-house philosophy, and there's some serious salting, smoking, and curing going on back in the kitchen. They cure their own bacon, for example, and make their pancetta and andouille in-house. And it's one of the few restaurants anywhere that has its own grist mill.
The Anson crew starts with dried organic corn and runs it between the whirling stone wheels of the electric-powered mill. The crushed corn is sifted to remove the skin and then put though a series of progressively finer screens to separate first the grits and then the coarse cornmeal for polenta, leaving behind the finely ground corn meal that's used for batters (like for the "cornmeal-dusted" fried okra ($7) and cornbread). And they've been doing it this way for more than a decade, starting back when most chefs were still looking to Europe for inspiration rather than to their own local history.
One newer preparation at Anson is the one usually used with triggerfish ($25) but often substituted with a similarly mild white fish (it was halibut the night I tried it) when trigger isn't available. The fish alone is superb — a 4-by-4 inch rectangle, well-seared and sautéed — and it's served with a succulent light red tomato broth that absolutely makes the dish. There's a dollop of heirloom tomato jam on top of the fish, which has a nice sweetness but doesn't really add much, and it's accompanied by a lobster succotash that has a scant amount of corn and lobster and plenty of lima beans that are, unfortunately, rather firm to the bite. Some people may like their limas that way, but in deference to the long Southern tradition, I would prefer them cooked until, if not outright soft, at least tender. But the fish and tomato sauce alone are an excellent combination and make the dish a success.
One item Holst has experimented with in recent months is the crispy pork shoulder ($26), which runs frequently as a special. The preparation was already in use before Holst joined the restaurant, but he's started smoking the shoulders first and taking more of a barbecue approach to the seasoning. The slow-smoked shoulder, which comes from Walterboro's Keegan-Filion Farm, is shredded fine, pressed overnight between two hotel pans, and cut into rectangles for a final searing before serving. The resulting slab is dark and extra crispy on the outside while still brimming with enough fat to keep it succulent and sinfully delicious beneath the exterior. If there's anything at all wrong with this pork it's that there's just too darn much of it — as rich and heavy as it is, the big cube is far more than an ordinary human can eat.
In a classic pork-and-corn combo, the crispy pork is served over those delightful house-ground grits, and, as if wasn't not enough, a couple of new potatoes are spread around it almost like a garnish. Don't ignore those potatoes; they're actually the best thing on the plate. Upon inquiry, we learned that the little red orbs are roasted confit-style in duck fat and seasoned with garlic and thyme. You pop the tender little potato in your mouth, and the first chew is pleasant but nothing spectacular. Then suddenly the rich smoothness takes hold and you notice a subtle, lurking flavor from the thyme. My dining companion, despite a dozen years of devoted marriage, refused to share more than a tiny forkful and threatened violence if I tried to sneak a second taste. I can't say I blame her.
And that's what a meal at Anson is like: elegant, traditional food with plenty of new quirks and surprises to keep things interesting. Add to it attentive, knowledgeable service that puts you at ease, and it's a solid bet for an enjoyable, memorable night out.
Holst says he's been intentionally taking things slow, making gradual adjustments to the menu. Now that summer is approaching and a lot of new vegetables are available from local growers, expect to see the changes pick up a little. He's been working on a version of pork and beans that is slow-cooked for 12 hours in a bourbon-laced sauce, as well as a new fried green tomato appetizer and a summer bean salad with fresh beans from Joseph Fields Farms.
Tucked away on a side street off the Market, it's easy to forget about Anson, especially since it doesn't get as much fanfare as some of the splashier newcomers on the Charleston scene. But each time I visit, I'm reminded that Anson remains one of the best places to sample the fine dining style that's unique to our city. With Jeremy Holst now running the kitchen and slowly making his imprint on the menu, expect to see the restaurant continuing to ease its way forward as culinary trends evolve while remaining firmly rooted in the traditions of Southern cooking and fine cuisine.