American/Eclectic — Upscale
Dinner and Late Night
188 E. Bay St.
Social is a splendid space. The inside of the former Charleston Chops space has been transformed into a modern spectacle of crisp lines and glowing surfaces, providing a perfect backdrop for the beautiful people to gather among swirling electronic beats to eat fine food and drink serious wine. The bar space ebbs and flows with the movement of the herd, and dining here is subject to the crowd’s proclivities. One night it’s got the feel of an impromptu dance club and then it quells to a quiet seat on a lonely Tuesday night, with only the glow of the television and misting rain outside to accompany the tourists chattering at the bar.
The enterprise seems committed to this changing flow. Unsuccessful dishes like the tartare, an uninspired chunk of insipid beef, quickly vanish from the menu, replaced with more exacting fare. As if a laboratory for what the young will eat and how they will eat it, the offerings throb with the energy of experimental variation. Does one start with the “Nibbles”? “Appetizers”? Or perhaps a selection from “Salads” then a pizza, which come in “Classic” and “Contemporary” versions?
Social appeals more to the networked community of the MySpace generation — to the endless sharing and mixing of culture — than the staid conventions of those who take the old app-salad-entrée-dessert approach to dining. While you can still sit down and eat a traditional meal, attempting as much will quickly date you.
The reason is the bar. On a happening night, perhaps a “Fashion Week” after-party, the place rumbles like a post-modern locomotive, swarming with twentysomethings holding flutes of bubbly and plates of “Truffled Risotto Balls” ($6). The separate bar area explodes into the more formalized dining section. Sit down in the back or on the overlooking balcony and you are surrounded by the cacophony of small-scale private parties, impromptu groups braying with youthful exuberance, crazed chefs from across town knocking back shots of Jägermeister after a slammed Saturday night shift, obnoxious fraternity drunks chanting some anthem of machismo, and decent, if exorbitantly priced, plates of food like the “Bacon Basted Cod” ($18.50) or the “Diver Harvested Scallops” ($25).
The cod is quality, perched atop vibrant, beautiful, abstract slices of zucchini and yellow squash, concentric circles of color evocative of a late Kandinsky or a blurred snapshot of that stomach-turning Mad Hatter teacup ride at Disney World. The fish is bathed in a soft brown butter and basil vinaigrette, but cooked unevenly, the exterior a bit limpid, lacking a flavorful dark sear, the interior just acceptably south of overcooked.
The scallops showcase the playful inventiveness of the chef, fat beauties with a dark crust, sailing in a boat-shaped skiff of a dish on waves of risotto with butter-melted leeks and a crimson Zinfandel reduction. The dish sings with flavors that can make a restaurant, a dish that people will come back for, but no one can justify dropping $25 when it comes with overcooked, tough shellfish and tired, mushy risotto resembling a 19th-century rice porridge.
The hipsters and fashionistas, participating in rather than ogling the spectacle, slouch among the tables and stools, passing a plate of briny mussels ($9.50) among themselves. The mussels, bathed in the mysterious North African Maghrebi funk of the merguez sausage, and the sweet tang of citrus and curry, are excellent. The sausage yields the tingling flavors of chili-laced harissa paste in perfect proportion to the very fresh, plump mussels. They come perfectly cooked and embody the best of what Social has to offer.
“Lazily-Cooked Beef Short Ribs” ($10.50) seem to be a popular grazing item, a bit tough for braised beef, the sauce too thin and the weirdest cannelloni ever to grace a menu in Charleston languishing beneath — full of duck confit, caramelized onions, a poor interpretation of fresh pasta wrapped about, and some kind of acidic kick that could jump-start a car, but a nice experiment to try tweaking (I would also suggest that they train their servers not to ask how one likes it cooked). If it evolved, I’d try it again, and that willingness to change is really the beauty of the place — it will evolve in response to the people attracted there.
Social is as much a bar as a restaurant, and when it’s a bar it’s loud, obnoxious, overflowing with oversexed singles and sometimes sub-prime food at exorbitant prices. But perhaps that’s when you should pull up a chair and order from the 17 featured flights of wines from the extensive, and highly visible, cellar. They offer over 50 wines by the 5-ounce “glass” and 2.5-ounce “taste,” utilizing a fancy temperature-controlled preservation system. Two complaints: The regular servers know next to nothing about the juice, its provenance, or attributes of what’s in the glass, and for restaurateurs obviously in a committed relationship with great wine (not a single selection I had was anything less than amazing) they should serve them at the proper temperature. As hot as Charleston may get in the warm months, serving expensive whites so cold that they rim the exterior of the glass with condensation and threaten to glisten with crystallized tartaric acid is bad form, and forces a thirsty oenophile to wait exasperatingly for it to warm up.
Perhaps the safest bet is a $6 glass of Nero d’Avola from Cusumano and a pepperoni pizza ($11), which may be a bit top heavy to be perfectly authentic, but can be consumed standing up, rubbing elbows, shouted over, and shared — because that’s really what being Social is all about.