If you’ve ever been to the historic South Carolina city of Charleston, one of the world’s top tourist destinations according travel authorities like Travel + Leisure, you know know that this pretty little town offers a huge number of bars and restaurants, many offering Southern cuisine. Enter Gentry Cocktails & Comfort Food Bar, a new concept that combines artisan spirits and authentic Lowcountry dishes with the ambiance and friendliness of a neighborhood sports bar.
Newly opened on King Street in April 2017, the Gentry is a valuable addition to a bustling neighborhood already popular with both tourists and residents. The building’s old brick walls and long wooden bar offer historic ambience, while its large flat screen TVs acknowledge our media-obsessed culture. The comfortable tables and booths encourage folks to stay a while and enjoy not only the Gentry’s own artisan bourbon, but also snacks, salads, sandwiches and entire dinners cooked by Executive Chef, cookbook author, and television celebrity Marvin Woods, one of the South’s most renowned chefs.
The Gentry began with the mission of creating really good bourbon and they’ve done that with a straight-shooting, almost smoky spirit that goes down smoothly. For bourbon lovers, they offer several flights, featuring both small artisanal bourbons/whiskeys and larger, well-known brands.
They decided to open a bar, headed by talented mixologist, Olin Cramer, who loves making classic cocktails like the Moultrie Old Fashioned with a creative twist. “I like to start with classic cocktails and, keeping the original ratios, experiment with different ingredients to see what I can create,” he says.
Cramer’s Moultrie Old Fashioned, perhaps the Gentry’s most well-known cocktail, uses Gentry artisan bourbon, Angostura, and simple syrup combined with toasted orange pecans and peach bitters. (Despite Georgia’s effective ad campaign as the peach state, South Carolina is the #1 producer of peaches). The result is a smooth yet complex Old Fashioned with sweet, nutty orange and pecan notes.
This capable mixologist is equally creative with alcohol-free mocktails. I requested “something cool, fruity, sparkly and non-alcoholic.” The result was a delectable drink combining grapefruit juice, basil, and a local lemon honey soda that was totally refreshing.
Lowcountry Dishes Upfront
Thanks to the talents of Chef Woods, food at Gentry is as satisfying as its beverages. Woods comes with an impressive background. He was trained in classical French cooking. However, in the early 1990s, while working at an upscale Southwestern restaurant in New York City, he realized there was more to food than sauce-heavy French dishes. “A light came on for me,” he says. He realized there were other ways like marinades and pickling to infuse flavor into foods. “I didn’t want to cook French dishes anymore. I wanted to explore and experiment.”
His experience led him to “re-discover” traditional Lowcountry dishes using in-season, regional ingredients. It was Southern cooking with a healthy twist. He began Lowcountry cooking at the Café Beulah’s and led to his cookbooks, Home Plate Cooking and then Lowcountry Cooking. He became host of the popular television show, “Home Plate,” which focused on healthy Southern cooking. The show ran for four years, attracted more than 7.2 million viewers, and was nominated for an Emmy.
“You can’t talk about American cooking without talking about Black Lowcountry food,” Woods said. “My mission is to educate people about Black contributions to American food. I make Gullah-style dishes with spices from Africa using the history of the South and ingredients grown here. ” (Gullah is the name for both the language and culture of Blacks who came to South Carolina, Georgia, and the Sea Islands from Africa.)
During the Obama administration, Woods was one of eight chefs invited to cook at the President’s first state dinner. His healthy Southern food credentials came to the attention of Mrs. Obama and her campaign to improve American diets. He was chosen as the first chef to kick off Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! cooking series. “I was asked to create a week’s menu of healthy dishes for a family of four spending $80 or less,” he recalled. “I looked at how people could maximize their dollars and where they could buy ingredients at places like Walmart and big box stores. I started with healthy and inexpensive ingredients like turkey, tomatoes, and farro, one of my favorite grains. I made dishes like turkey soup, marinara sauce with faro, and turkey chili and turkey meatloaf.”
A group of us came to Gentry for a tasting menu curated by Chef Woods. It included dishes from his Salads, This and That (snacks), and his Keep It Simple (larger ala carte dishes) menus.
We began our tasting with the bar’s signature deviled eggs, Fields farm brown eggs, hardcooked and filled with yellow yolks seasoned with spicy mustard sitting atop Romesco sauce. I enjoyed the unusual addition of Romesco sauce, but all of us felt the cooked yolks were a bit dry and the texture was too grainy. For my taste, this dish would benefit from some mayonnaise for moisture and whipping the yolks to more satiny texture.
The sautéed Wreck fish, which came next, isn’t on the current Gentry menu, but it certainly deserves to be. Wreck fish is a white fish that can grow to 200 pounds and it gets its name from hanging around shipwrecks. The fish, which is meaty and muscular, was uber-moist and perfectly seasoned. It was served with heirloom red rice with edamame, onions, garlic, and smoked herring, a dish Chef Marvin called “a spin on a traditional Gullah dish.” The heirloom rice is grown on nearby Sapelo Island by Anson Mills, a company dedicated to cultivating ancient grains and legumes. The result was chewy, moist, and satisfyingly complex.
Next came another heirloom legume, the rice pea, which Chef made into a cold salad with tomato, wild asparagus, and pieces of bacon atop spicy arugula. The creamy, chewy rice peas, which have a lovely, smooth-round mouthfeel, blended beautifully with the sweetness of the tomatoes and the smokiness of the bacon and the arugula gave the salad a fresh, peppery punch.
Deviled Hot Crab Dip is another Gentry favorite. It comes as a rectangular iron dish filled with shreds of blue crab with several thin slices of toasted artisan white bread. While we liked the flavor of the crab, all of us agreed the dish wasn’t really a dip at all and both the crab and the toast were dry. We’d have liked to see some kind of binder like cream cheese or sour cream to moisten the crab and perhaps some olive oil added to the toast.
When Chef began delivering items from his Keep It Simple entrée menu, the dishes really came together for us and had us shouting, “Fabulous!” Chef Woods brought a large dish of four cheese mac and cheese. Parmesan, smoked Gouda, and sharp and medium cheddars combined into world-class macaroni and cheese that was both creamy and deeply flavored.
Fried chicken was next and it was some of the best I’ve eaten. Chef Woods uses only fresh (never frozen) local chicken that he salt brines for 24 hours. Then he coats it with seasoned self-rising flour and fries it super-crispy. Just before serving, he splashes the chicken with white vinegar and tops it with house-pickled peppers for a bit of zing. The results are moist, crispy chicken that’ll have you licking your fingers and smacking your lips in delight.
Chef also brought collard greens with ham hocks. Unlike most greens, these weren’t over-cooked. In fact, the collards still had plenty of tooth and a nice smokiness from the pork.
We were happily stuffed by the time the Bourbon bread pudding arrived as a sweet end-note. Served warm, this rich dessert comes with a chunky blackberry sauce, a scattering of fresh sliced strawberries, and whipped cream all atop a buttery-rich caramel sauce. Despite our groans of being over-fed, this dish was so delicious we hungrily scooped up the creamy, sweet goodness. Now I just pray Chef will share the recipe with me. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor