In December 2012, a historic King Street bank building found new life as an upscale oyster hall. The Ordinary — second child of Adam Nemirow and chef Mike Lata — opened with soaring 22-foot ceilings, the promise of locally sourced seafood, and lots of buzz.
Today such concepts are a dime a dozen (on the half-shell, please). Thanks to folks like Lata and farmers like Clammer Dave Belanger, one of The Ordinary’s first steady purveyors, the demand for pristine shellfish and sustainable fruits de mer has skyrocketed. There’s Darling Oyster Bar down the street, Nico Oysters + Seafood across the river, Rappahannock on upper East Bay, and Neighborhood Dining Group’s latest stunner Delaney Oyster House, set up in a single house on Calhoun Street.
But The Ordinary was the first of its kind, and, I would argue, still the best.
The restaurant was apparently named for old-school English taverns that serve a daily, fixed-price meal at a particular time. While that isn’t really a thing at this particular namesake, the menu is reliably seasonal, local, and seafood-heavy. So, after seven years and three chefs de cuisine, how is The Ordinary holding up? Seven year itch, be damned. If this were a drinking game, it would revolve around how many times I wanted — but resisted — using the word “extraordinary.”
As always, the space itself is flawless. Airy and elegant, Nine Inch Nails playing overhead keeps things from feeling too frou-frou. While regularly packed and filled with an upbeat ambiance, the high ceilings diffuse the jovial noise to a pleasant buzz. Filled with wood features, natural marble, and green leather seats, the earthy elements lend a grounded feel to the lofty space. Service is equally impeccable, with relaxed, one-dish-at-a-time pacing rarely seen in today’s turn-and-burn restaurants. Each new plate seems to arrive just as you begin to wish for it.
Along with six daily varieties of raw oysters on the half shell, the house-smoked oysters ($18) are not to be missed. Presented in an oil and vinegar-filled preserve jar and spiked with slices of crisp pickled celery, the six oysters are so gently smoked that they are still raw. As a result, each is tender and juicy, the delicate hint of ocean flavor touched with woodsy smoke.
Served with fancied-up saltines (brushed with butter and Old Bay), rich, cold creme fraiche, and vibrant hot sauce, the combination is outstanding: cool, crisp, and smoky all at once. “I just want to eat these, and nothing but these, for the rest of my life,” sighed my dining companion.
Prepared as a crudo, the five slices of wahoo ($18) are firm and sweet. Topped with tart ponzu, crisp Asian pear, and cilantro-infused oil, the mild, firm fish contrasts with the crunch of flaky salt crystals and nutty toasted sesame seeds. Fresh, light, impeccably balanced, these are the sorts of dishes that exemplify The Ordinary’s notable strengths.
Less so the broccolini ($12). While its unimaginable tenderness implies acts of wizardry, the magic is lost in the seasoning. Overwhelmed by a powerfully tart, lemon-heavy bagna cauda, the flavor of the four beautifully cooked stalks couldn’t be discerned over the staggeringly citrusy sauce.
The crispy oyster slider ($6 each) does exactly what it says on the tin. Part banh mi, part po boy, all the deliciousness, the star is a pillowy soft, homemade Hawaiian roll. Inside, the hot fried oysters are topped with fresh cilantro and shredded carrots, with house-made Sriracha adding a touch of fire to the finish.
The baked stuffed lobster ($38), the regular Friday night special, has strong Betty Crocker vibes. Straight out of the 1950s, the mix of shrimp, scallops, and presumably lobster is stuffed back into the shell and topped with buttery breadcrumbs. While not terrible, it’s pedestrian and, well, ordinary.
In contrast, the roasted wreckfish ($34) is delightful. Well seasoned, with a crisp, buttery sear, the inner flesh is moist and tender. Paired with creamy mushroom polenta and snappy cauliflower florets, it’s the kind of plate that has made The Ordinary a popular draw over the years.
Yes, it’s pricey and the portions can border on precious. Your billfold will rumble from hunger upon exit. There’s talk of a recession up ahead, but The Ordinary will hear none of it. They’re taking those crispy oysters to the bank.
There’s every reason to believe that The Ordinary will persist for seven more. Granted, not every dish is extra-remarkable, but those that are are well worth the price of admission to gastroecstasy. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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