As soon as I took my first bite of the barbecue pork belly, I realized it had been far too long since I had visited High Cotton. The brown charred bits from the grill gave a big burst of salty texture to the smooth, smoky pork, then accents of tart citrus emerged followed by the tangy sweetness of barbecue sauce. This, I thought, is a really good dish.
High Cotton has been serving pork belly for years, long before it became the cool foodie thing. It was once topped with a fresh local farm egg in a decadent play on bacon and eggs. This new version ($13) takes a different route, pairing it with a delightful salad of supremed orange and grapefruit segments and thin-sliced pickled watermelon rind and a generous swirl of good old-fashioned South Carolina-style mustard-based barbecue sauce. It’s simple and unexpected with a refreshing local touch.
These new twists are the handiwork of Executive Chef Joe Palma. Back in May, Palma left his gig as chef de cuisine at Eric Ripert’s Westend Bistro at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C. to come down to Charleston and take over as the executive chef at High Cotton. In many ways, it was a homecoming. Palma’s a College of Charleston alum, and he worked as a line cook under Chef Frank Lee at Slightly North of Broad, High Cotton’s sister restaurant on the other side of East Bay.
Palma brings home an impressive French-centric resume, which includes stints under Yannick Cam at D.C.’s La Paradou and under Ripert at Le Bernardin. Now settled in at High Cotton, he just rolled out a new summer menu and put his own spin on the offerings. The restaurant’s longtime fans need not worry, though, for the alterations are more evolution than revolution, retaining the core structure and central themes of the menu while adding compelling new accents of complex, surprising flavors.
The meat-centric selection remains, including the big center-cut steaks and chops from the charbroiler. There’s still a top-notch charcuterie plate ($15), with its ever changing array of housemade sausages, pâtés, and rilletes, and a hefty bone-in pork chop ($29) still anchors the entrées, though now it’s smoked and served with a rutabaga and beet salad and truffle fries.
The summer-themed appetizers include a cool yellow tomato gazpacho ($4 cup, $6 bowl) and McClellanville clams with lemon aioli and marinière sauce. The scallop ceviche ($12) has thin slices of silky scallops fanned across the plate, and they’re decorated with diced tomato, green onions, and tiny sea beans that have a firm bite and the sharp salinity of the sea. The drizzle of curry oil over the top adds an unexpected but welcome flavor against the coolness of the scallops.
The entrées continue that theme of unexpected but intriguing flavors. Sautéed grouper and crushed butterbeans ($29) are accented with mint and saffron, while housemade pappardelle ($26) is tossed with braised greens, pulled pork belly, and a smoky potlikker.
The local snapper ($28) is seared until golden brown and crispy on top. It’s served with four open clams and a splendidly fragrant fennel and clam broth. In the center of the bowl is a big round spoon-bread dumpling, which sounds great in theory but unfortunately comes off a little mushy in practice and doesn’t really go with the rest of the dish.
There are no such imperfections with the rabbit loin ($28). It’s stuffed with sausage and wrapped in bacon, and the very first bite explodes with rich smokiness. Each successive bite brings more flavors, from the bits of almond and cherry tucked inside the sausage stuffing to the intense flavor of the coriander-laced jus that encircles the plate. The two slices of loin are layered over superbly creamy pimento cheese grits. A trio of long, ultra-thin roasted carrots and little grains of pickled mustard seed sprinkled around the edges round out a delightful dish.
One of the most encouraging things about High Cotton is the way it brings not just Southern accents but uniquely Lowcountry touches to its cuisine. Local fish and veggies are there, of course, and the farmers and fishermen are called out by name on the menu, but it goes beyond that. A splash of Madeira brightens the Charleston Cocktail. The chicken al mattone ($25) is served over Hoppin’ John, and Carolina peaches star on their own salad ($10). The mustard-based barbecue sauce on the pork belly is perfect touch, elevating the appetizer beyond a New Southern stereotype and making it something you’re not likely to find outside of South Carolina.
The culinary execution is matched by the rest of the experience at High Cotton. The dining room, with lots of dark wood and high windows looking out onto East Bay Street, is elegant but comfortable, with a bit of an old club feel. The service is properly professional and attentive but never intrusive. During my last visit, as I have on each preceding one, I walked out of the dining room with that soothing feeling of, “Wow. That was a really great meal.” And this time I vowed to not wait so long to come back.
Sometimes amid the noise of the brash and new we forget the comfortable old reliables. With a new chef at the helm continuing what is now growing into a long tradition of distinctively local fine dining, High Cotton remains a sure bet for an elegant but exciting big night out.