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With a new chef, Social Restaurant + Wine Bar is finding its focus

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The second page of Social's "List of Delicious Vino" begins with a quote:

"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone.
When I have company I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty."

—Lily Bollinger

It's an insight into Social's endearing quirkiness and owner Brad Ball's love of wine. Social calls itself the "pre-eminent wine bar of Charleston," with a "stunning 4,000 bottle display cellar" serving "modern American cuisine with an authentic wood-burning oven as its focal point."

Truth be told, you're more likely to focus on Social's young and good-looking staff than its wine cellar or wood-burning oven, which is unremarkably tucked behind a thick piece of cloudy Plexiglas that separates the kitchen from the dining room. But increasingly these days you'll find focus in the food, which, with a new chef on board, is tasting very, very good.

Social is the creation of Ball, a native Charlestonian with an impressive food and wine resumé: his family has owned a handful of restaurants in town including Poogan's Porch; he's done kitchen stints at Jean-Georges and Momofuku in New York; and he's a certified sommelier. Ball opened Social in 2007 as the wine bar trend was expanding (along with a bubbling economy) in cities like D.C. and New York but not, as Ball noticed, in Charleston. His timing was mixed, and even Ball admits that it's been a roller coaster of a ride. But in February of this year, Ball and new manager Zach Smith brought on Chef Doug Svec to nudge the food quality up in relation to the wine. Since then, as Smith rightly says, Social is firing on all cylinders.

But first the wine. Social's wine list remains one of the most accessible and interesting in town. Both by the glass (available in 2.5-ounce tastes, 5-ounce pours, and flights of three 2.5-ounce pours) and the bottle, the list has a lighthearted, user-friendly feel, punctuated by exclamations like, "We love Red Burgundies!" and descriptors like, "Think sunbathing on the Riviera." The varietals tend to come from cooler climates where they develop a nice acidity — and therefore balance — pairing well with all kinds of food. There are plenty of crisp whites and, yes, fruity red Burgundies to choose from.

Food wise, Social is still modern and American, offering classic, casual, and even playful dishes with fused Asian and European flavors and French technique, all wrapped up in the tradition of a Spanish tapas bar. In disclaimer-like fashion, the menu reminds diners that all plates are small, meant to be shared, and may come to the table at any time. The left side of the menu offers decidedly happy-hourish "nibbles," mostly holdovers from the original menu. There's also a happy hour menu, along with 5-ounce glasses of house red and white wine, domestic and draft beer and premium well liquor — all for just $3 a pop. The Thai Shrimp Spring Rolls ($7.50) are dramatically cut on the bias, and while not as crunchy-crispy as I would have preferred, they have bold, complex Asian flavors — ginger, sesame, scallion, and soy. It's a good spring roll.

The margarita pizza is only $3 at happy hour, and at that price it's a winner: rich mozzarella cheese, sweet/tart tomato sauce, a sprinkle of diced fresh tomato for brightness, and just the right number of fresh torn basil leaves. The crust has very good flavor, and the hot wood-burning oven makes it nice and crisp and slightly charred on the edges. But if you like your pizza very crispy on the bottom in the Italian (read, Italy) style (especially if it's generously cheesed), you might be a little disappointed. If you go for a soft, New York-style crust, you'll be happy.

Arguably the best things on the left side of the menu (though not marked down for happy hour) are the sliders. They're a great balance of what Social seems to want to be: whimsical, nostalgic, and comforting all at the same time. The slider trio ($14) is a good way to try all three. The meatball version is simple goodness: one of the best meatballs you've ever had draped in marinara, fresh basil, and housemade mozzarella and set inside a cushy white mini bun. The Asian Braised Pork Shoulder slider with roasted pineapple and pickled shallot is a condensed version of a classic flavor combination that just works: rich and fall-apart tender pork balanced by sweet roasted pineapple and sour pickled shallot in the same soft bun. What's not to like? The ground Kobe beef slider is a study in decadence: notoriously fatty and rich Kobe beef topped with an egg, scallion aioli, crispy shallots, and Tillamook cheddar cheese. You almost need a running start to get through this one. All the sliders come with nicely crisp Yukon Gold potato chips.

On the right side of the menu, Social's salads, small plates, and large plates seem more reflective of Svec's influence — and better suited for a full dinner. Smith says that Social wants to be nationally known along with Charleston's best, and all indications are that the potential is there. The Blackbird Farms heirloom tomato salad with fennel panzanella, house ricotta, and tomato gelee is a well-seasoned and thoughtful celebration of the tomato. It's a dish that makes you wish Social did more with vegetables. The tempura fried shrimp with basil and roasted red pepper sauce is also a winner, bursting with a surprisingly whole encapsulated basil leaf that adds another dimension to simple Asian-style fried shrimp. Wash it down with a boldly firm, tart glass of white Burgundy or Gruner Veltliner and you'll be set.

As far as large plates go, the pan-roasted local wahoo ($17) is a standout. Fresh as can be, skillfully seared until barely translucent in the center to maintain the essence of the fish, and served in a lobster broth beside crispy yucca pieces, melon, and fresh herbs, this is the kind of ingredient-focused cooking that could help Social get the attention it wants. The hangar steak ($17), also skillfully seasoned and cooked and thinly sliced for sharing, is set on decadently meaty tasting roasted fingerling potatoes with a grilled scallion aioli and an ample quantity of fresh tart green apple matchsticks — a play on contrast that shows off Svec's taste and sensibility.

If you can manage it, Social offers an aptly abbreviated selection of desserts including a very, very rich triple chocolate mousse made with dark chocolate, peanut butter and white chocolate caramel, Oreo crumbles, and peanut brittle. Whew. Or maybe you'd prefer a digestive glass of port and a cheese plate to share.

For all of Social's quirks — the outdated modern urban design, the oddly shaped and sized plates, the menu prose that can offer more insight into the food and wine than the wait staff — at the end of the meal, I was happily surprised by the obvious skill and creativity of Chef Svec's cooking and Ball's taste in wine.

Social is evolving at an exciting time to eat out in Charleston. Here, you have options, and you get the feel that while in transition the folks at Social have options, too. And as tempting as it might be to follow the trend toward manipulated food and foams, for my taste, I'd rather see Social focus on the basics as Svec does and embrace the enduring tradition that's played out for hundreds of years in the overflowing tapas bars of Spain, American style.

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