QUICK TAKE: The Darling Oyster Bar, Charleston
Exciting menu, good professional service, some improvements could help, but I will return.
by Andrew Chalk
With so many seafood restaurants, the competition in that sector of the Charleston market is white hot. It makes it hard for a tourist to choose how to use their limited pot of eating time. The Darling Oyster Bar has lots of great reviews and, on that basis, we chose it for one evening meal on our visit to town. Despite the name, the menu is broad lowcountry seafood so look at this as the fist of two reviews in which the oysters are in the other part.
Strengths on the menu are the Baked Crab Dip ($19) appetizer, a crabby, creamy, delight with tortilla chips for dipping. The Blue Crab Tagliatelle ($28) with superb al dente housemade pasta, in rich, and weighty alfredo sauce. It was delicious as such, but was supposed to feature blue crab as a marquee ingredient and in our example that was almost MIA. Too little of it. That one minor change would make this a great dish.
Good, but not legendary, were Crab Cakes ($18) as a hot appetizer.
More structurally challenged was the Shrimp and Grits ($25). Recall, I am searching the planet for the best example, and the current champion is fellow Charleston restaurant Swamp Fox (just up the street, as it happens). Darling’s example, unfortunately, comes off as a poor comparison. The grits are much more coarsely cut. I preferred the fine ‘polenta grind’ of the Adluh Mills grits at Swamp Fox. The tasso ham at Swamp Fox over Darling’s country ham, likewise. The most important difference was the comparison between the exotic lobster gravy of the champ with the thin sauté reduction of the challenger. An oddity were the red pepper slices, almost raw, that seemed a mistake compared with the softened, malleable, green pepper strips in the Swamp Fox version. There were also nearly raw onion slices in the Darling example. They would be so much more likable if soft-cooked in oil. Otherwise, omit them. The plump shrimp on top of the grits layer were excellent. The Brussels sprouts did not work as whole vegetables. The sautéed preparation was good, but I would have copied Dean Fearing: pull apart the leaves and sprinkle them over the top of the dish. Save the cores for a stew.
Verdict: Darling’s shrimp and grits comes in third, behind Boudro’s in second.
We were too full for dessert so I can’t comment on them, other than to note they are mainstream indulgent favorites and popular with the clientele.
In all other areas, Darling’s is strong. Wine is very reasonably priced. I had a Muscadet for $8 and a Picpoul for $11. Service was efficient and professional from Rob, our waiter. Front of house immediately answered when we called and explained we would be 10 minutes late due to traffic (hurricane Ian was the talk of the airwaves) and readily held our table.
The happy Wednesday crowd filled Darling’s, testifying to its long-term permanence. And I should say something about the quality of the menu. Usually, after you select for your first meal at a restaurant, the remaining choices are less desired. At Darling’s there are a lot of dishes I would be just as enthusiastic to try as the ones I have described. And I would certainly return.
FTC disclosure: I paid my own way and dined anonymously.