I used to insist on taking out-of-town guests to Slightly North of Broad (SNOB) for their first taste of Charleston cuisine. It wasn’t that I thought it the city’s single best restaurant — in a dining town like Charleston how could you choose just one? Instead, it was a great place to establish a baseline and sample the mode of New Southern dining that put Charleston on the international culinary map.
But much has changed in recent years. Hall Management Group (owner of Halls Chophouse) bought SNOB and its three sister restaurants from Maverick Southern Kitchens in 2015. Founding chef Frank Lee stepped down the following year after helming the kitchen since 1993. The city’s dining scene is undergoing a generational change, as fashions shift, new hotels sprout seemingly on every corner, and many of our most noted chefs decamp to other places.
It was time to revisit SNOB and see how it was holding up amidst the winds of change.
The dining room feels unchanged, upscale but not too modern, hardwood floors with large carpets, bold reds and yellows, French country fixtures hanging from the ceiling. Our evening got a nudge in the right direction by a basket of warm sliced baguette and toasted cornbread squares — the latter with a nice crumb, a touch of sweetness, but not at all cakelike. Then the quail arrived and closed the deal.
It’s a splendid appetizer: a whole Carolina quail stuffed with dirty rice ($16), the first bite delivering a “wow”-inducing burst of richness. Every component works. The crisp saltiness of the skin is accented by a tangy sorghum glaze, and the stuffing’s Carolina Gold brown rice has a wonderful nutty texture. The bird is perched upon a tangled bed of buttery blanched kale, and a few spears of sliced pickled okra provide a nice acidic accent.
SNOB was making charcuterie back when it was still a strange French word. Their plate ($15) remains a must for starting off the evening, with hearty country pate, cool pork rillettes infused with savory herbs, and, best of all, smooth, lush chicken liver mousse.
The shrimp and grits ($28) are Chef Lee’s recipe, and the New Bedford scallops with tomato ham hock broth ($34) ring familiar notes, too. Another long-time standby, the BBQ Tuna ($34), remains impressive. Seared medium-rare, the soft, silky tuna contrasts beautifully with the delicate, crisp batter of the fried oysters that rest on top. The tart yellow “mustard Q” sauce swirled around the plate adds a welcome local touch.
But executive chef Russ Moore and his kitchen team still mix it up, and there’s a generous slate of daily specials, like a duck confit appetizer ($14). Our server called it a salad and, since it’s served over a big bed of greens, she might be right, but it’s the kind of salad I can get behind.
The duck leg is served whole, coated in a sweet honey glaze, and it has a dark, chewy texture. Delivering such a rich morsel atop a pile of mesclun might render the green stuff an afterthought, but not when it’s dressed in bright Champagne vinaigrette and laced with tiny blueberries, blue cheese nubbins, and toasted pistachios.
Sliced tenderloin and ribs get equal billing on the Heritage Farm pork duo ($32), but the tenderloin carries the show. Cold smoked then grilled and sliced into medallions, it has a delightful smokiness beneath each tender bite. The braised-then-grilled ribs are blander and more chewy, and seem a bit player, and the mound of Sea Island red peas struck me as overly sweet and baked bean-like — the evening’s only real off-note. But that was compensated for by spears of grilled okra with a pleasing dose of char.
The desserts finish strong. The apple pie ($10) has a gooey filling of sour cream and sliced apples topped with cinnamon-tinged crumbles of walnut streusel. In a final and fitting local touch, the dark chocolate and creamy custard of the pot de creme ($9) gets a big kiss of Bulls Bay sea salt sprinkled over the top.
The food still impresses at SNOB, but this shouldn’t be a surprise. Moore started on the line in 2008 and succeeded Lee as exec chef in 2016, providing continuity in the kitchen and — equally important — in the relationships with local suppliers.
SNOB was doing the locavore thing before it was saddled with that regrettable term. The daily specials highlight treasures like swordfish brought in by the boats down in Rockville, oyster mushrooms from the monks at Mepkin Abbey, and squash blossoms from Kennerty Farm, stuffed with fresh-caught shrimp. The foundational ingredients of the Charleston larder — okra, grits, Carolina Gold rice, red peas, shrimp, quail — still anchor the regular menu, and it doesn’t feel stuffy or passé.
There’s more to a dining experience than what arrives on the plate, and SNOB holds up well there, too. Tall windows fill the room with a golden orange glow at sundown — the perfect ambiance for an opening cocktail, the selection of which is conveniently listed right there on the dinner menu between the entrees and the medium plates.
Upscale restaurants are supposed to make you feel special, to create an illusion of luxury and hospitality. That artistry extends well beyond the kitchen and the talents of the chef, all the way to the design of the chairs and the words of the person who greets you at the door. Now more than a quarter of a century into its long run, SNOB still hits all those buttons for me, and I can continue to recommend it with confidence as the ideal place to kick-off a weekend of Lowcountry dining.