I just got back from a week-long family trip to South Carolina's Kiawah Island, which is just 15 miles southeast of Charleston. I've often heard that Charleston is home to some of the best restaurants in the country, although I've never been able to verify that claim for myself during previous visits to the city because my family does not contain the most adventurous eaters. In the past, I've always been restricted to eating at the tourist-y seafood spots such as Charleston Crab House and A.W. Shucks. Not bad places to eat, necessarily, but not too adventurous, either.
This year, though, my family and I were planning to celebrate a milestone birthday for my mom (21, if anyone wants to know), so I insisted that we not go to the Charleston equivalent of Red Lobster for the occassion. My sister, who stresses out easily, requested that I not book us a reservation in the downtown area, which restricted me a bit. Nevertheless, I did manage to find a highly rated little eatery right on Johns Island called The Fat Hen. It seemed like just the kind of place I was looking for. Not too laid back, but not at all formal. The menu on their website showed off a variety of fairly traditional dishes that wouldn't scare the pickier eaters, but with a certain, as the French (and Dr. Evil) say, I-don't-know-what.
We were not disappointed! From the moment we showed up (a few minutes early, I might add) for our reservation, we felt at home. The restaurant is cozy with the look of a house - complete with a screened-in front porch. We were immediately greeted by the friendly staff and shown to our table where we were served sweet tea in Ball jars. Because it was my mom's special day, the chef came out to wish her a happy birthday and to tell her to save room for dessert, which was quite a nice touch. Our waiter was fantastic, explaining each item on the menu and even telling us where the locally grown produce had originated. He was personable and knowledgable about the cuisine, and really seemed to be enjoying his job. He even brought out a plate of various citrus fruits for my 11-month-old niece so we could all laugh at her as she had her first taste of a fresh lemon.
As for the food, everything I tried was delicious, although some dishes were better than others (obviously). Luckily, I made nothing but good choices. I started with the fried green tomatoes with goat cheese, pepper relish, and tomato jam. I've had fried green tomatoes before and never been crazy about them, but, being in the South, I thought I'd give them another try. And, boy, am I glad I did! I could have eaten a huge plate of these as my meal! The tomatoes were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside with a great falvor, and the goat cheese added a nice richness to the dish. They were even a little spicy (thanks to the peppers), which I loved. Delicious. My father raved about his sautéed oysters as well, even sopping up all of the sauce with a piece of bread. And my mom, quite the French onion soup connoisseur, gave the soup a big thumb's up.
For my main, I chose the flounder nicoise, which was quite good as well. It was served with fresh herbs, capers, olives, and tomatoes all over a bed of bacon cheese grits. How can you go wrong with those ingredients! The salty capers paired with the well-cooked flounder really made my night. Because I was so into my own dish, I didn't really try many of the other mains, but everyone at the table gave their dishes high marks. Probably the least satisfied was my sister, who ordered the scallop gratineee. She was really wanting to taste the scallops, I think, instead of the heavy mushroom cream sauce that coated the dish. To be fair, the waiter has warned her that the dish was one of his least favorites and that it was not really a scallop-lover's dish. She said it was good, but she would have preferred a lighter meal. She was warned!
For dessert, the family opted to order three dishes and pass them around. The chef sent my mom a slice of humingbird cake with a lit candle in it, so that was one. We chose profiteroles and a warm berry crumble as our other two. I had never had hummingbird cake (which is basically a layer cake full of chopped pecans, crushed pineapple, and mashed bananas) before, so I was interested to try that. It was not my favorite, to be honest. It seemed like something my grandma would bake, which certainly isn't bad, but not blow-your-mind exciting. My dad loved the profiteroles (his choice for dessert), extolling the virtues of their chocolate cream filling, but I am just not a big fan of the little pastries. My favorite desert, by far, was the berry crumble. It was chock full of fresh, locally harvested berries and was served with a scoop of house-made ice cream. Yum. I considered ordering another crumble just for myself, but thought better of it.
All in all, we had a wonderful evening. In fact, my mom said it was one of her best birthdays in years. Best of all, the bill was not as high as I was expecting. I'd say I got off pretty easily, actually! Next time I'm in Charleston or visiting Kiawah Island, I will definitely return to the Fat Hen. I need some more of those fried green tomatoes....