Nothing says “Southern” like a Mason jar, and Heirloom Eats is doing its part to keep the glassmakers afloat. Its big centerpiece, a chandelier hanging in the dining room, is hard not to notice. The bulbs are housed inside bluish and white Mason jars, and they’re suspended by their cords from an old door that is in turn suspended from the ceiling. More reclaimed doors and windows, old paint half-stripped, hang above the plate glass windows. The decorations are clever, and they establish a stylish but down-home feel, a sort of hip Southern nostalgia.
But it’s really just a veneer. Yes, the walls are now painted in earthy greens and browns, and an eight-stool bar has taken the place of the old steam table buffet, but it’s still the same L-shaped dining room with rows of booths that, until not too long ago, housed the Palmetto Pig, a modest family barbecue joint.
The Palmetto Pig’s owners decided to close their doors and transform the space into Heirloom Eats. It’s still a Southern restaurant, but a much more up-to-date and self-conscious one.
Instead of appetizers, there are “sharing” items and “put-ups” that offer a canonical selection of new-New South preparations, like okra fries with garlic aioli ($7), red pepper jam over soft cheese ($5.50), and “Southern caviar” black-eyed pea dip ($5.50).
Mason glassware figures prominently in the menu as well as the decor. The pimento cheese ($5.50) is served in a squat little jar, as are the pork rilletes ($6.50). Both are pretty good — the pimento cheese is a creamy but very savory variety, with a sharp onion bite, and the pork rilletes are cool and smooth. Apart from the little smear of tangy brown mustard that accompanied the rilletes, the presentation of the two was identical: a little jar in the center of a round white plate with a pile of lightly dressed mesclun, some triangles of warm pita bread, and long, wavy sesame crackers arranged around it.
Those sesame-crusted crackers should be banned permanently from dip platters (and, unfortunately, I seem to come across more and more these days), for the strong flavor of the toasted sesame seeds stomps all over whatever they’re dipped in. The warm pita is better, mild and inoffensive and just fine for spreading with both the cheese and the pork.
I really like the “SoCo” chips ($3.50), a blend of sweet potatoes and russet potatoes sliced super thin and fried until crisp and airy. The “Heirloom” pickled vegetables ($3.50) are served standing upright in — you guessed it — a small Mason jar filled with pickle brine. The “Heirloom” part, I must assume, refers to the restaurant’s name, not the vegetables themselves, since the selection — green beans, strips of red and bell pepper, garlic cloves, cauliflower — seem no different than what you’d find in your nearby supermarket produce section, not some long-lost heirloom varieties from ancient gardens. But they’re crisp, and the pickle is passable, if perhaps a bit on the tart side and without any darkness or complexity to the flavors.
The entrée choices are quite tempting when you first pick up the menu, offering a range of any number of things that could be good. There’s sweet tea-smoked chicken with red pepper glaze ($9.50), short ribs with black pepper dumplings, parsnips, and goat cheese cream ($15), and a farro “perlau” with butternut squash, sweet potato, and charred onions ($9.95).
Unfortunately, the end result is often less compelling than the menu descriptions. The fried catfish ($14) itself is quite good: tender and juicy beneath its crispy cornmeal crust. But it’s served over an “heirloom bean ragout” made of butter beans and limas that vary in color and size but are united in their blandness, despite the chunks of carrot and the reddish sauce in which they’re mingled. Even blander is the pile of plain Carolina Gold Rice underneath, evidence that just using Carolina Gold alone isn’t enough.
And so it goes with many of the other entrées: a few good elements to each, but always something amiss and a general shortage of flavor. The Wadmalaw chicken ($11) tosses chunks of chicken, andouille sausage, and tasso in a bechamel sauce over a huge serving of grits. The sausages and red pepper strips do little to liven up the sauce, and the fluffy grits need something more to boost their flavor. Those same creamy grits are employed in the requisite shrimp and grits ($12), a variation made with a bright orange cream sauce that’s billed as a “spiced tomato ragout.” The shrimp are plump and tasty, but there’s too much of the mild, creamy sauce, and the little disks of dry sausage and tart bites from occasional slivers of pickled green peppers don’t really add anything.
There’s just something consistently missing — no tinge of smoke or tang of citrus, nor the fragrance of fresh herbs like chervil or tarragon, all the elements that distinguish the heirloom, hyper-local cooking that Charleston’s most famous chefs have gotten national recognition for over the past few years.
That said, we did stumble upon some very tasty items on the menu. The pulled pork barbecue, a popular holdover from the Palmetto Pig menu, is juicy and smoky with a nice yellowish mustard sauce. The fried chicken is superb — juicy and crispy and salty and everything you could ask for. They’re both served meat-and-two style ($9.50), with a choice of familiar sides like mac and cheese, cole slaw, and collard greens. These seem like the true heirlooms on the menu, relics of a simpler time when families could go out for an occasional restaurant meal without needing lardons or charred onions or any sort of aioli.
The setting and service don’t do much to improve the experience. The Mason jar lamps and the quiet blues on the sound system set a fine mood, but the booths are dreadfully uncomfortable, and the service can best be described as friendly but distracted. On multiple visits, tedious gaps of waiting for drinks to be refilled or orders to be taken were made even longer by the wait for entrées to arrive.
Today’s market is a tough one for independent restaurateurs, especially those in that tricky middle ground between fast casual chains and expensive fine dining. Mt. Pleasant, in particular, has seen far more than its fair share of sit-down barbecue restaurants and homey meat-and-twos open and close within the past few years. Perhaps there’s a way to improve the formula and draw in the crowds, but donning the trendy trappings of “heirloom” ingredients and local-centricity doesn’t seem the like way to do it. Even if you do put it in a Mason jar.