From the minute you walk in, it feels like Gentry Bar & Room is grappling with dissociative identity disorder. Is it a sports bar? Is it an upscale restaurant? Is it a rock concert? A man staring at one of the many television screens suddenly screams out in a calamitous manner, while a dainty dish is served to a nearby table.
Hard to pin down, it’s simultaneously all three, with a deafening rock soundtrack that feels particularly jarring when you’re the only customer there for lunch. The menu is relatively approachable, however, with a focus on fancified Southern classics. At the same time, the traditional Gullah influences anticipated from celebrated Chef Marvin Woods feel more or less absent.
The hot deviled crab dip ($14) is puzzling. First off, “dip” isn’t really the term I’d use. More like a single Maryland crab cake smashed into a cast iron pan and charred on the bottom. Made with celery and red bell pepper, it’s stiff and greasy with a spicy cayenne finish. Dwarfed by three unnecessary slices of crostini, it’s pricey for what it is, and the pile of toast on top isn’t really fooling anyone. If you really do want to serve this thing as a dip, here’s a tip: Mayo.
The Gentry Bourbon Cured Salmon ($13) is beautifully presented and garnished with a thinly sliced, fried potato “hay.” It adds nice texture and a welcome contrast against the fresh fish. The salmon itself is lovely to look at, but absolutely drowning in sesame oil. Although ginger, brown sugar, and red pepper flakes — not to mention bourbon — are mentioned on the menu, the only flavor that showed up to the party was sesame oil, the boorish boob no one can get rid of. Add some lemon, crank up the bourbon, grate more ginger — just please put down the sesame oil. Please.
In contrast, the hanger steak salad ($17) was an unexpected pleasure. Fresh mesclun greens are coated in a refreshingly light, lemony blue cheese dressing and topped with fried onion crisps. The diminutive serving of hanger steak was a little underseasoned, but perfectly cooked to order. Steak salads are often an exercise in excess, but this interpretation offers some welcome self-discipline.
My affable waitress recommended the Wire to Wire cocktail ($12). Made with Cathead vodka, Lillet Blanc, and lemon, the seasonal fruit — peach, in this case — elevates it from fairly typical ‘vodka lemonade’ country. Flamboyantly garnished with a wilted piece of basil, I took this as a sign I hadn’t been recognized as a local critic.
That said, the Across the Board ($14) is enjoyable. A gussied up gin and tonic, it comes on smooth and balanced, but ends with a bitter Cynar finish.
Gentry’s service is friendly, but slow-paced. Some of the trouble stems from the bar, where my waiter was forced to linger for five minutes in an attempt to collect a single glass of wine. There’s also a bit of ‘nothing to do’ syndrome, where staff collects in a corner, languidly chatting amongst themselves for a long ass time.
When they eventually returned, both servers recommended the Awendaw 10-mile boil ($28) and in such glowing, Red Lobster-esque terms as a “seafood lover’s dream.” A riff on Lowcountry boil and the most expensive item on the menu, it was a little surprising when the Lilliputian-sized bowl arrived. Garnished with a thin piece of what tastes like/appears to be a flattened, over-grilled hot dog bun, my notes refer to this concoction as “super meh.” Four shrimp, three clams, and three mussels, along with a chunk of tilefish and a quarter of a piece of fresh corn languish is what is essentially an andouille sausage broth. The tiny bits of cubed sausage on the bottom of the bowl bring some heat, but in the end and despite the small portion, I pushed the plate away after a few bites. Don’t bother.
Those craving the fruits of the sea would be better served by the sauteed wreckfish ($26). Intensely savory, it’s reminiscent of Asian preparations cooked in miso. The heirloom red rice smoked herring pilau is unusual, toothy and heavily imbued with smoke flavor. It’s a little out of proportion to the slightly overcooked fish, but not enough to detract. A scattering of fresh tomatoes on top bring some lightness to what is, all told, an interesting dish, not necessarily in a bad way.
The veal burger ($14) is at once a delight and a disappointment. A bold and unusual choice for burger meat, as you take a bite, you realize the perfectly cooked patty is inexplicably chockablock with red pappadew peppers. More like a meatball than a burger, the aggressive pepper flavor runs away with the show. Accompanied by some horseradish-laced slaw and homemade sweet potato chips, there’s clear potential here with a little more restraint.
Completely immodest and proud of it, the crispy chicken ($17) is a wanton, lustful interpretation of the ultimate Southern classic.
“That is huge. That has hormones,” my dining companion exclaimed, and the battered, fried jumbo-size half-chicken is not only substantial, but not to be missed. Greasy as all hell, yet light and crisp, this is probably something you should experience just once a year, like Christmas. But if you sneak in a little extra merriment in July or Santa Claus in March, who could really blame you? I didn’t really get the escabeche-style garnish, but my theory is the flaming hot pickled carrots and jalapeños are meant to destroy any lingering evidence your taste buds have of the exceptional fried chicken, lest you develop an unhealthy obsession and start stalking the chef.
I don’t really drink bourbon — it turns me into Courtney Love — but friends tell me the Gentry’s signature bourbon flights are a fun way to wile away the afternoon. Pair that with some of the crispy chicken, and you’ve got good reason to make your way to Gentry Bar & Room. Otherwise, this is a concept that feels unfocused and overpriced, and if the seafood lover in me wants to hear a grown man shriek at a television set, I’ll just head to a sports bar instead.