On a recent spring evening, I headed out to Johns Island, enjoying the drive down picturesque Maybank Highway. I was on my way to review the Golden Cup, a restaurant I was not familiar with. Its name offered few hints as to what kind of place it was (coffee shop? Chinese buffet?), but anticipation was high, and I brought some friends along who were up for an adventure. Sadly, our hopes for finding a hidden jewel seemed crushed when we arrived at an old shopping plaza in the middle of a clearing. The Golden Cup, located smack dab in the center of the strip, had a “For Lease” sign in the window and nothing but a ladder inside. Time to ad-lib. Luckily, on our way back to town, we came across Wild Olive. Hungry and knowing the City Paper hadn’t reviewed the place in more than two years, we decided to stop in and see what the esteemed Jacques Larson has been up to. So, instead of finding a hidden gem on Johns Island, we were lucky enough to stumble across the sparkling diamond of Johns Island cuisine.
The restaurant sits under a group of giant live oak trees, one with a rustic chandelier hanging from a branch just over the driveway. There’s a nice garden near the main entrance, and the smell of fresh bread and pasta lingers in the air. A wall lined with empty wine bottles, signed and dated by happy customers, sits behind the hostess stand. To the left, there’s a bar area with a large community table. On the right, there’s a dining room that’s a bit quieter, with a direct view of the kitchen.
The bar offers a handful of martinis, creative cocktails, and beers, but what’s encouraging is the wine list, with pricing catering to everyone. There are 20 glasses of wine ranging from $5-$12 and a list of bottles from $23-$90.
The dining room near the kitchen showcases framed pictures of local produce and nearby farms like Legare and Ambrose. The ever-changing menu trumpets the use of fresh, local ingredients. A perfect spring starter on that first visit was the crostini topped with tangy Johns Island goat cheese, slivers of fresh radish and summer squash, drizzled with a light and vibrant lemon vinaigrette ($10). Another excellent choice was the steamed “Clammer Dave” clams in a broth worthy of slurping straight from the bowl. The grilled ciabatta that came with the dish was barely enough to sop up the semi-spicy lemon-caper zupetta ($14), but there was plenty of fresh baked bread in the complimentary basket to soak up the last drops.
I could go on and on about the antipasti selection, like risotto fritters stuffed with sausage, spinach, parmesan, and mozzarella ($8) or the tender charred octopus bursting with flavor resting on a salad of roasted red pepper panzanella, onion, capers, parsley, and cucumber ($14), but we must save room for the entrées.
On that first fortuitous visit, the server informed us that while the menu changes frequently, the veal scallopine ($24) is such a popular entrée that it makes the cut just about every time. I had to try it. A large piece of flattened veal came swimming in a pool of savory marsala sauce with peas and Mepkin Abbey mushrooms next to a mound of creamy mashed potatoes. The dish was simply divine, and the group agreed it was the pick of the night. Another winner was the tender braised short ribs with a fontina-stuffed risotto cake, toasted pine nut gremolata with a semi-thick sugo sauce.
Each dish was carefully inspected by Executive Chef Jacques Larson himself. On a follow-up visit, we were seated with a direct view of the kitchen, where Larson stood outside the window, expediting and ensuring every dish was prepared and presented to his standards. From time to time he would turn around and inspect the dining room, taking note of which tables had been waiting too long and who was smiling after taking that first bite of pasta.
I’m hoping he saw my face when I took the first bite of bucatini with ramps, pangrattato, and pecorino ($9/$16), as it was sublime. The strong, buttery garlic flavor of the ramps, a wild onion with a notoriously short season, balanced well with the sharp and salty pecorino while the large bread crumbs, or pangratatto, added a nice crunch to the dish. Luckily, everyone at the table shared the pasta, so nobody had to feel bad about smelling like a garlic press.
Most of the pasta dishes are offered in two sizes. During each visit, we settled for the smaller portion to share, which worked out well. The Tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($9/$16) is a classic rendition of the hearty Italian staple, while the angolotti is a meat trifecta, stuffed with ground pork and chicken and tossed in tomato- and veal-based sugo ($10/$18). The pasta was fresh and cooked perfectly during each visit, which shows the craftsmanship of Chef Larson and his team.
After stumbling upon my first dinner at Wild Olive, I can’t help but think what I would’ve missed had the Golden Cup been open. I’ll never know what that restaurant might have been like, if it was indeed a hidden gem worth championing, but I do know that Jacques Larson is doing something special at Wild Olive. The use of fresh, local ingredients and the dedication and execution that go into each dish is a beautiful thing, even when you have to wait an hour and a half for a table on a Tuesday. There’s a reason this place is packed every night of the week. Maybe the Golden Cup was a gimmick to get me out to Wild Olive, and if so, I consider myself lucky.