The Japanese have a concept known as beginner’s mind: when you do something, you should approach the task as if you were doing it for the first time. This attitude encourages energy and attention to detail, combats the fatigue of repetition, and results in a job well done.
Beginner’s mind tends to be in short supply in the West, and for that reason restaurants over 20 years old are generally not good bets. The physical plant is usually fraying, and staff attitudes run the gamut from boredom and disinterest to full-blown entitlement. Magnolias in Charleston is an exception to that rule.
Magnolias is located at 185 East Bay Street, in the heart of the city’s historic downtown. Horse-drawn carriages lumber down the street, and the occasional traveling jazz band traverses the sidewalk. When it opened in 1990, Magnolias was the forerunner of the culinary explosion that was to take place in Charleston over the next few decades. It remains as exciting and innovative today. The interior is elegant and crisp, with starched white cloths covering a mix of free-standing tables and banquettes. As soon as you step inside, you know you’re in good hands.
The menu is a graceful and upscale rendition of Lowcountry cuisine. Appetizers span a range from house made pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes to hickory smoked pork belly and a Down South Egg roll stuffed with collard greens, chicken and Tasso ham. Standout entrees include a spectacular Cedar Planked Salmon, juicy and smoky, presented with a dramatic cascade of artichoke hearts, shaved fennel, chopped egg and green beans. Everyone in Charleston serves shrimp and grits, but the version here is both delicate and soothing: sea scallops and sautéed shrimp are placed over a bowl of creamy white grits in a lobster sauce studded with fresh spinach. While ham and bacon do appear in a number of dishes, those ingredients can be omitted on request.
Service is friendly, accommodating and relaxed: the staff knows they have a good product backing them up, so their graciousness stems from the knowledge that you are bound to leave happy. The wine list is a collection of small-batch gems from California and France, well-matched to the menu. Who could ask for more?
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books. for more information, go to amazon.com.