James Island is in desperate need of restaurants to accommodate the growing suburb. How do I know? Currently the market on the island is so dry that residents are willing to overlook subpar cuisine in favor of an inexpensive night out at a place within their neighborhood. Factoring in the cost of the food, parking, and the time it takes to sit in traffic, it’s no wonder James Islanders aren’t willing to make the trek downtown on a random weeknight. And therein lies Sermet’s Southernterranean Cuisine-Bar strategy. They are barely as good as they need to be to attract an audience.
Luring guests in to its large, spacious interior and open patio, the casual bistro serves Southern dishes with a Mediterranean flair, or Southernterranean food, as owner Sermet Aslan has dubbed it. An odd term, sure, but I figured that since Sermet’s has been a staple in Charleston for many years — first on King Street, then Daniel Island — it couldn’t be that bad. And it wasn’t. Sermet’s food is fine. Not excellent and not awful. Just fine.
“The shrimp and polenta is one of my favorites. The flavors in it are just so unique I’ve never had a dish like that before,” my waitress gushed of the shrimp polenta ($18). The first bite reminded me of something familiar, yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then it hit me. The sauce was the exact same flavor as Papa John’s pizza sauce. And after my first bite, I couldn’t erase the taste from my palate.
Hand pulled mozzarella ($10) was on the bland side and inoffensive. The texture of the cheese was slightly dry but had a decent bite that was complemented by basil oil. The balsamic reduction was quite good and livened up the mozzarella with a necessary syrupy consistency.
The charred romaine salad ($12) with watermelon radishes, cured olives, a pickled egg, and white anchovies in a citrus-tarragon vinaigrette sounded intriguing but in re-reading the list of ingredients it’s now apparent to me where this dish went wrong. Does egg need to be pickled and then plopped alongside a grilled head of lettuce? Do white anchovies work with a citrus vinaigrette? Any number of these things could have been omitted and it would have made the overworked salad better.
Fortunately, the salad was the only dish that stood out as a true bust. The sautéed calamari ($11) fared better though it leaned too heavily on the citrus element. I find that orange zest generally needs only a few pinches to make an impact on a dish, and while the calamari smelled delicious, the first bite tasted like I was eating a sautéed orange rind. The squid itself was very tender, and I appreciated the choice to take a departure from the typical pairing of lemon with fennel and capers, but the point could have been made while using less citrus.
The seared scallops ($24) were touted as Sermet’s signature dish. Perched atop she-crab saffron risotto, the bivalves were obviously seasoned separately from the rice. They were so salty that I was grateful that there were only three of them. It’s a shame because the scallops were cooked with care, not too dry and still tender in the middle but suffered the misfortune of being seasoned with a heavy hand. The risotto, conversely, was not salted enough and still possessed the telltale crunch of being under-cooked.
Fresh herb-crusted eggplant ($17) is clearly designed to attract the vegetarians who still want a robust dinner and it did not disappoint. This was my favorite of the bunch. Plated like a sizable portion of lasagna, the basil queso crema sauce was the best part of the dish. The reason the eggplant worked so well was because the fresh herbs, cheese, and tomato sauce were relatively un-fussed with.
My final entrée was the grilled pork tenderloin ($19). Potato-parsnip purée, sautéed kale, and pancetta-porcini cream all sounded delicious especially with a piece of grilled pork. When it arrived, it looked very promising, the tenderloin sliced along the bias with beautiful marbling throughout the meat. It was cooked to a perfectly medium pink, giving the meat the potential to have so much flavor. Unfortunately, the only flavor that I could taste was the smoky grill grates that the meat was cooked on. The first bite wasn’t so bad, but after forkful number three I was perfectly fine with foregoing the meat to pick at the purée.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to invent or reinvent a whole cuisine, the food needs to taste good.
My first trip to Sermet’s on James Island had me thinking that it was me and not everyone else. While I was having dinner — waiting for nearly 45 minutes for a table on a Thursday — I wondered, is the food secretly good and I just don’t understand it? Or am I right and everyone else just doesn’t get that the food is mediocre?
Upon reflection, I’ve realized that the food is just fine and that’s actually fine. It’s inexpensive, you don’t need to make a reservation, there’s plenty of parking, the menu has good variety, and there is not really a whole lot else to choose from in the area. Sermet’s Southernterranean Cuisine-Bar doesn’t need to be the best restaurant in Charleston, it just needs to be an OK restaurant in an area with limited dining options, a feat that they achieve. In an area where everyone strives to be the best, the most memorable, the most delicious in order to stand out, I suppose there is something appealing about just being comfortable.