In the realm of Charleston fine dining there are many contenders for the throne of Best Restaurant. Ask your five closest friends, and you're likely to get five different answers. Ask Travel + Leisure, AAA, Forbes, Andrew Harper, or Wine Spectator, and you'll receive one answer: The Dinning Room at Woodlands Inn.
I have been surprised at how often in Charleston I hear "Where is that?" about The Woodlands. Situated in a sprawling Neo-Georgian home in the heart of Summerville, The Woodlands oozes southern plantation charm. If you do not have a SUV, I suggest not taking the main entrance off Parson's Road; take the back entrance. The lack of paving can do a number on your car. My other piece of advice is to use the valet. Those boys work much harder than your average valet, the five dollars isn't going to kill you, and I was once a Woodlands valet many years ago.
There have been minor changes to the Dinning Room over the years, including the addition of a small casual dining area known as The Pines. That being said, gentlemen, please wear a jacket. By the time you can afford to dine at The Woodlands, or Grill 225, or Peninsula Grill you should own at least two suits and a sports coat. This would be an occasion to wear one of those.
The service is impeccable. There really is nothing more to say on that end. You will love the service. The change from world class sommelier Stephane Peltier to the current sommelier, whose name I never did catch, may not be seamless, but you will still be in knowledgable hands. As far as the fare offered by new executive Chef Andrew Chadwick, expect fresh and local. He has gone so far as to plant his own garden on the estate to help provide a more sustainable menu than in the days when Chef Ken Verdinski ran the kitchen.
For starters, The Girl chose the Lobster Bisque with Lobster Salad and Herb Jellies off the 3 for $30 menu. The presentation is beautiful with the lobster salad and log of herb jellies in the plate, then the lobster bisque poured over the top. The bisque was light and creamy and handled with a deft hand. The herb jellies frankly scared The Girl, as it was a rectangular log of dark green jelly. While an interesting technique, overall it added very little to the soup as it was too firm to blend in and was overpowered when in the spoon with the bisque. I went with the Grilled Octopus with Pesto, Marinated Feta Cheese, Olive Oil Poached Tomatoes, and Meyer Lemon ($18). Two large tentacles of octopus were grilled just to the point of being done, avoiding the chewy mess that it can become. The pesto was pretty, but added little flavor. The Meyer lemon, when topping the octopus, gave a citrus tang that verged on the effervescent. Both starters showed great technique and were a delight to eat despite some needless additions to the dishes.
On to the entrees, The Girl went with the Heirloom Pork, Roasted Root Vegetables, in a Cider Reduction. My complaint with this dish was portion size. It was TOO DAMN BIG!!! This turned out to be a double cut pork chop, Frenched, over a large pile of root vegetables. This seared club 'o pork makes a statement, loud and proud, that The Woodlands is no dainty food destination. The crust Chef Chadiwick achieves is crisp without being chewy, the meat delicate and juicy. What a winner of a dish.
For my main, I chose an herb stuffed Sole with fennel ($28). The fish was delightfully mild, sweet and buttery, though the large fennel bulbs made the plate look unbalanced.
After our trip to Grill 225 it was no surprise that The Girl went with the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta, with Smoked Chocolate Mousse, and Raspberries. The panna cotta itself was amazingly light and creamy, and when you mix it with the smoked chocolate, you are blown away by the depth and richness of flavor achieved. I caution you to not eat the chocolate by itself. It tastes remarkably like licking the inside of your grill lid. I chose the Passion Fruit Creme Brulee with Banana chips and Candied Mangos ($10). The Passion Fruit flavor comes out of left field, taking a French classic on a tropical vacation. The most surprising part was how well the smoked chocolate from The Girl's dish worked with my creme brulee.
The Dinning Room at The Woodlands is a premier destination for a special occasion. The standards of service and the classic surroundings take you to another time and another place. There may be some small cases of showcasing technique over need, but the plates are beautiful, the food stunning, the service perfect. It's hard not to compare The Woodlands today with the days of Ken Verdinski, but that would be unfair to Chef Chadwick. Walking out with my arm wrapped around The Girl, our stomaches happily full, I couldn't help thinking this was a great evening.
Overall: 21 out of 25 A taste of elegance at an elegantly large price
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