It was a quiet night as I sat tucked into a booth, listening to a bar customer talk about the duck heart appetizer — if you can get past the whole chewing on duck heart thing, he said, it’s delicious — when the drink landed on the table before me. I’d watched the bartender muddle the mint in a shaker, adding fresh pineapple juice, a dash of lime, and then the kicker — Leblon Cachaça, a Brazilian rum made from sugar cane instead of molasses, and Chartreuse, a deep, herbal liquor made by Carthusian monks since the mid-1700s. A vigorous shake, and the Quite Smashed cocktail was poured over a rounded block of ice, chipped to fit my glass to order. The result was delightful — refreshing and sweet yet herbaceous, and with the block ice, it doesn’t melt quickly, preserving the constitution of the drink.
Inside the restaurant, the walls are painted a muted gray and ceiling-height shelves display the many varieties of rare liquors, while a massive butcherblock table provides communal seating. If you don’t like to share, don’t worry — there are four large booths and a few small tables scattered throughout the space as well, as long as you get there first. The bar is a cozy place to sidle up, with room for no more than six to eight people, but it’s a great place to sit if you’re looking for a front row seat to the mixology in action.
Locals will remember that the Charleston fine dining classic Robert’s was housed for 34 years where the Gin Joint now stands, and that’s no hapless accident. Owners Joe and MariElena Raya worked there; MariElena is Robert Dickson’s daughter, and the duo took over the lease when Dickson retired this past summer, opening their doors in mid-August.
Priced at $10, the cocktails at the Gin Joint are expensive, but the fresh ingredients and high quality warrant it. Besides, you’re not just getting a drink; you’re getting an education. Joe is a Culinary Institute of America-trained beverage expert who teaches at the Art Institute of Charleston, and the vision behind the Gin Joint is to serve pre-Prohibition-era drinks that work in concert with MariElena’s classically trained French technique in the kitchen.
As a city that appreciates history, Charleston is the perfect location for a venture like the Gin Joint. When Prohibition hit America in the 1920s and liquor was forced underground for 13 years, strange things happened to American mixology as organized crime took control of alcoholic beverage distribution. The Gin Joint seeks to resurrect and pay homage to the historic art of the American cocktail. But a challenge for the bar/restaurant could be that it straddles two worlds. It’s not designed to be a dinner spot, at least not in the way that any one item you order could satisfy your hunger; cocktails are what make the world turn here. And it’s not a cheap place to “pre-game” before a night out on the town. To survive and thrive, the Gin Joint will depend on the downtown business crowd for post-work cocktails and a light snack, the couple out for a date, foodies and beverage geeks, tourists, and folks looking for a light bite and a nightcap.
Food-wise, the concept of “simple food with a twist” (as described by MariElena) makes the Gin Joint intriguing, but there are still some kinks to work out. Most disappointingly, there were more than 11 items on the online menu (including grilled octopus, Wagyu beef jerky, and a truffle-poached egg) that weren’t available on a recent visit. The menu, in fact, was quite pared down.
The Buffalo-style duck hearts ($8) were preserved a la confít, doused in Frank’s Red Hot then breaded and pan sautéed. Accompanied by a stack of paper-thin celery and radish shaves with crumbles of good blue cheese, the buffalo flavor was non-existent, and they were a bit more rubbery than I had anticipated. The “Faux” Gras snack served up triangles of chicken liver mousse with delicate pickled champagne grapes accompanied by brioche, but while the mousse had a hearty depth of flavor, it was overly salted. However, their soft pretzels ($7) are right on the money. Handmade and golden brown, they’re lightly brushed with butter, dusted with coarse salt, and served with a Sriracha cheese dipping sauce. Two come per order, but they’re so good you’ll want an order all to yourself. And food is served right up to closing, which makes it a great place for a late-night snack.
The Gin Joint strives to serve local whenever possible, with menu items made in-house daily. The Hen in a Pot is indisputably one of the best items on the menu. It’s served in a miniature Le Creuset pot, a golden drumstick of Cornish game hen resting in creamy mirepoix gravy. The meat falls off the bone, and yes, the chunks of hen are accompanied by wee dumplings that, while a little underseasoned, are determinedly adorable. (Of course, you can make the case that the $16 price tag is anything but cute.) Then there’s the Giant Stuffed Meatball, which is quintessential comfort food. Made with pork, beef, and veal and stuffed with seasoned ricotta cheese, it rests in a savory homemade sauce filled with hunks of tomato and thinly sliced garlic, which can be sopped up with crusty French bread. The Berkshire Hotdog is a hulking piece of house-made pork sausage filled with delicate black truffle and served on a brioche-like bun (with a scattering of caramelized onions and a tiny glass jar of pickled beets, asparagus, and cauliflower). It’s filling enough that two people could split one of those with a light appetizer and call it a night.
If you’re a chocolate lover, you might be tempted by the Salted Peanut Butter Bar ($5), and you wouldn’t be sorry. Velvety and so dense it’s difficult to work your fork into, the chocolate is baked on top of a gooey layer of peanut butter and caramel dough, but what makes the dessert special is a layer of chocolate pop rocks that tickle your tongue long after you’ve taken the last bite. Sadly, in my most recent visit, the chocolate pop rocks I’d been bragging to my buddies about failed to pop, bearing a closer resemblance to soggy chocolate Rice Crispies.
After dinner I ordered the Violet Fizz. Illustrating the alchemy that can be achieved by a perfect cocktail, just drinking it made me feel pretty. Clean, fresh, floral, and fun, the drink contains house-made Crème de Violette liquor (made from macerated imported French candied violet petals, sweetener, and gin), Bombay Sapphire, lemon juice, egg white, and a little soda water. It was frothy and delicate all at once and entirely worth savoring.
The Gin Joint’s intimate atmosphere makes you want to become a regular, and the rotating light and dark beer selections (Bell’s Oberon Light and Allagash Black respectively) as well as the three red, three white, and three sparkling wines by the glass that are offered are sure to provide a beverage for everyone. And drinks like the Quite Smashed and the Violet Fizz illustrate the mastery involved in the venture. The food is honest yet exciting, and I for one hope to swing by to learn a little something about both food and drink in days to come.