When you pull up to Pier 41 restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, it’s not the Atlantic Ocean or even Shem Creek that greets you. Rather, a wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tubeman all but shouts “Ahoy!” Set in a strip mall on Highway 41, the outdoor ambiance puts new meaning in curb appeal as ‘Pier’ is presumably in homage to the restaurant’s seafood focus where Asian fusion abounds.
But before we get into all that, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about the monster Bloody Mary ($35). If you want a cocktail that’s also a meal, that’s also your entire recommended annual serving of horseradish, this is the one. Weighing in at 20 ounces, it’s got Dixie pepper vodka and enough Armoracia rusticana to choke a horse. But the murky beverage also comes with a delightful spread, all perched on top: four fried oysters, three chilled shrimp, and a giant king crab leg. It’s the kind of thing that makes adjoining tables order what she’s having. The best part is the food is solid: The oysters are crisp, yet juicy, and the peel-and-eat shrimp are paired with pepperoncini, an unexpectedly agreeable sweet foil. And did I mention the king crab leg? You had me at king crab leg.
Pier 41 is a casual place with a pub feel. In fact, as you walk in, you are immediately just a few feet from the large, L-shaped bar. As The Killers played a little too loudly overhead, my waitress had a “Who the hell makes a reservation at a bar?” — type reaction after I mentioned I called ahead and made a, um, reservation.
Reservations are not allowed, however, for the insanely popular happy hour. What sounds like hyperbole can be backed up by fact: $1 oysters and $1 champagne from 4-6 p.m. every day they’re open, including Friday and Saturday nights. The defense rests. And the defense apologizes for likely making the line even worse.
But is Pier 41 worth it at full price?
For the most part, yes, so long as you stick to the kitchen’s strengths, chief among them the raw bar. Depending upon your own tastes, all of the uncooked or largely unadorned seafood offerings are sure bets. The ceviche ($9), however, was a miss. Typically marked by the bright, fresh flavors of lime and jalapeño, this version is vinegar-dominant and chockablock with Napa cabbage. Maybe it’s to add to the sense of bulk, but I’d rather have a small portion of creative ceviche than a generous helping of pickled shrimp slaw.
On the other hand, the edamame ($6) is decadent with fried garlic, chili, and sesame oil. Sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, my dining companion became so possessive, he actually growled when I reached for the bowl.
I also enjoyed the mussels ($10), wherein a fragrant Thai-style red curry coconut broth contains the charming addition of boiled peanuts. I would have liked to sop some up, but the single, half-slice of oily, grilled bread would not comply. They eat baguettes in Vietnam. Can we get some of those?
The same plea applies to the steam pot ($19), quite arguably the most successful thing on the menu. The seductive dashi broth works as a flavorful umami foil to the six shrimp, six clams, and delicate flounder, along with roughly a dozen mussels and some bok choy. Again, the excellent broth begs to be savored, but is served with rock-hard slices of toast. Smuggle in your own baguettes if you must.
Service at Pier 41 is occasionally spotty — on one visit, it appeared there was only one waitress covering the whole place — but always so friendly and accommodating it was hard to fault them. Still, if you’re on a timeline it may be worth it to share that upfront.
My busy waitress raved about the house-made potstickers ($8). Here, a dense pork filling is contained within a light, crisply fried wonton skin. A tad ho-hum, they suddenly sparkle when paired with just a bite of the punchy kimchi. Get me a bowl of that.
Less appealing was the shrimp fried rice ($15). Boasting an Exxon Valdez level of oil, this greasy, garlic-forward concoction features peas, carrots, and celery. Garnished with fried onions, it’s not an offering you see much outside Asian restaurants. Sadly, and despite the use of Charleston Gold Rice, it’s a ballsy move that asks more questions than it answers. Like why go there if it isn’t superlative? The good news is it wouldn’t take much: Dial back the oil and stir in some of that kimchi. Done and done.
I probably should have realized that the lobster fried rice mac and cheese ($16) was a redux of the above, but I think I read the word ‘lobster’ and the rest of the words just sort of blurred. This dish finds peas and carrots mingling with rice, macaroni, and cheese. Crisp bits of pickled celery add bright, unexpected crunch and the heavy-handed sesame oil application — not usually a flavor I enjoy in large doses — brings a strong, nutty element that works here. It’s homey — like something you’d crave while fighting a head cold — but the unexpected Asian elements keep it from becoming too Cracker Barrel-esque.
Even the fried seafood ($17) platter offers a taste of the Far East, as the accompanying fries are tossed in sesame oil. Sesame oil is kind of a recurring theme, and that’s not always a welcome thing. Meanwhile, the five shrimp, four oysters, and two small flounder fillets are lightly battered and fairly predictable. That stated, the reliable standards are elevated by the accompanying lemony tartar and bright, refreshing ginger cocktail sauce. The light, sour Napa cabbage slaw adds further dimension. Although I’ll be asking for sesame-oil free fries in the future, this is still one of better Asian/Southern/Seafood fusion dishes.
Pier 41’s happy hour’s popularity is certainly in part thanks to the price point, but it’s not just the deals that beckon. It’s the wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tubeman, and the superlative raw bar offerings. The Asian/Southern fusion thing shows real promise of working, but still has some kinks in the system. Dial back the sesame oil and spread that kimchi around, however, and I’ll dock at this pier again.
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