HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — If Robert Irvine claims to have a restaurant in a South Carolina resort town, you can definitely believe it.
The celebrity chef's resume ran afoul of the facts as he was preparing to open a two-stage restaurant-lounge complex in downtown St. Petersburg in 2008. He briefly lost his Food Network show and, coincidentally or otherwise, the project at 400 Beach Drive NE was scrapped.
But shortly thereafter, Irvine, whose celebrity status in the states is built on his show Dinner: Impossible — which he got based on a culinary career in Britain that has been the subject of debate — quietly opened a two-stage restaurant-lounge complex about 400 miles north of St. Petersburg on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
If Ooze and Schmooze, the working names of the St. Petersburg venues, had people scratching their heads over an obtusely high-concept naming convention, he solved that here, going remarkably low concept. The restaurant: Eat! The lounge: Drink!
So, let's work under the easy-to-reach assumption that Eat! and Drink! is the concept we lost out on. What are we missing?
We walked in on an out-of-season Tuesday night without a reservation and were told that a table in Eat! would require a two-hour wait, a good sign, to be sure. But the host told us that the full menu was available in Drink! and we could sit immediately. So we ate(!) at Drink!
We picked five of the nearly two dozen items offered as tapas. The duck confit spring roll was a favorite, with plenty of shredded leg and some crisp vegetables wrapped and fried, then plated with a cilantro-mint soy sauce — yum — and an apple-cranberry glaze that was good, but not too different from a standard duck sauce. The other standout was the fried green tomato, a regional standard that is riffed here with feta, brown butter and balsamic vinegar replacing the traditional creamy condiments. We also tried the house-made potato chips, the Carolina shrimp and the seared chicken sliders. All were good, though the sliders could have used a little texture and a more assertive cheese than Havarti.
Our entrees, came to the table with a significant Wow! factor. The fennel-brined pork chop and the cold-smoked center loin of rib eye were generous chunks of protein. The double chop was on top of roasted sweet potatoes and an apple chutney that screamed fall with sage and cinnamon. The meat was incredibly tender, requiring a knife only because it was 2 inches thick. It wasn't cooked evenly, but it all tasted good. The highlight of the perfectly cooked rib eye was the tasso red-eye gravy. The pork and the beef each had some imperfection in the marbling, but not so much to be disappointing.
The two desserts we tried were hit and miss. The hit: sweet potato bread pudding with Tabasco ice cream. We ordered this solely on the basis that it came with Tabasco ice cream. And while it was probably misnamed — it tasted more like Red Hots — the ice cream was nicely spicy and played well with the pudding and its boozy sauce. The miss: peanut butter and jelly pie. It was a chocolate-peanut butter pie, and not a particularly good one, with a grape jelly sauce painted on the plate.
There are two questions to ask to measure what we lost out on here.
First, would this be the best restaurant — or at least one of the best — in the bay area?
Not the best. But it would be worth discussing for the top 10.
Second, and this one is trickier, is it better than the restaurant that ended up in the space for which it was destined? After Irvine abandoned the effort, it became 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House.
The best assessment is probably that they are comparable. The food at Eat! might be a little better than 400 Beach, while 400 Beach gets a distinct nod in ambience. Irvine's menu encouraged more sampling and sharing, which is always nice. And Irvine does cooking classes in Hilton Head, which would no doubt go over well with his fans here.
So, did we lose out? It's a nice place, but ultimately, having it here probably would not have drastically altered the bay area dining scene. Don't drive seven hours to Hilton Head to try it. But if you're there anyway, it's worth stopping in.
Times copy editor Jim Webster is an amateur caterer and culinary tourist. He can be reached at [email protected]