Nate Whiting had a tall order the day he signed up to helm the kitchen at 492 King Street. And it wasn’t only because of the culinary competition—fierce enough in that district to turn small mistakes into fatal ones. No, it was also due to the fact that he’d need to compete with the building itself as much as the neighbors. But that’s what happens when you turn an architect as accomplished and artistic as Reggie Gibson loose on a centuries-old hulk that, in most other cases, would constitute a tear-down.
Near the entry, heavy steel gates guarding the restaurant’s patio take the shape of an old city map grid—or a Mondrian painting of sorts in silhouette. Just inside, checkered leather and wood line the central causeway that skirts a long community table on its way to an open kitchen, where Whiting and his crew perform nightly to the delight of patrons perched like theatergoers along its edge.
It’s rare when a restaurant’s design might outshine its food, but by the time you make your way through the dining room, past the kitchen, onto the chic, heated patio, and back around to the inside bar that lies just starboard of the entrance, it becomes evident that this show includes more than one hit number.
I choose a seat at the kitchen counter and begin perusing Whiting’s (mostly) small-plate menu. I find it serviceable, even if a bit muddled and imprecise. Like the architecture, 492’s menu is a compendium of textures and themes, intent on evoking the historic as much as the modern. In the dishes’ execution, however, these leitmotivs seem precariously balanced at best—the occasional plate arrives thoroughly off-kilter.
So it is that offerings from the “Fields & Garden” section can juxtapose deliciously tender kale braised in a tomato broth with preserved lemon against a molecular transfiguration of sweet potato custard, hazelnuts, halved cherries, “coffee crumbles,” and freshly torn sage. Without some sort of foam though, the latter simply doesn’t do justice to the clashing and outmoded cookery it represents. That’s not to say the plates don’t overflow with delicious flavors. The chicken liver parfait is divine, even if the presentation, piped onto thin brioche like pink Cheez Wiz, needs a new refrain.
Just as the dishes’ preparations shift among stylistic trends, the flavor profiles and regional influences also lack a particular focus. For example, what are we to make of a menu that contains a perfect ragù dressing al dente strozzapreti; a Geechie Boy grit loaf; broccoli spiked with garlic, sesame, and goat cheese; and a “shrimp dumpling” as malformed as the bitingly acidic vegetables that accompany it? Is this sort of postmodern fusion the culinary future of Charleston?
Probably not. Yet I’ll still frequent 492. I’ll fork through as many of the delicious, braised beef short ribs as possible, plated atop a velvety white-bean puree that I predict will soon surpass the pommes aligot trend. The seared scallops—served with a gentle pairing of radish, onion, and a peppery arugula salad—can brighten any drab Tuesday.
There are also hidden gems to be found. The roasted strawberry profiteroles that Whiting trots out as an amuse-bouche should headline the appetizers. The affogato coffee dessert, served with a crispy waffle, represents as perfect an end to a meal as it does a beginning. And the Jimmy Red Corn grits, while rustic and less cosmopolitan than the trendy surrounds, pack enough rosemary, black truffle, and crispy fried ricotta to qualify as a genuine display of decadence.
Four Ninety-Two could survive on its sheer beauty for a long time. The crowds at the outdoor bar prove it holds a lucrative appeal. And lukewarm reception of the menu should be measured, because Whiting does create some extraordinary food. The opportunity for growth is in focus: render what’s important, and let
Occam’s razor do the rest. Accomplish such a feat, and 492 will possess a culinary identity as well-crafted as the building in which it resides.
Kitchen History: Before 492 opened, Nate Whiting was the executive chef of Tristan.
The Draw: One of the most beautiful dining spaces within the Upper King corridor
The Drawback: Small portions can mean deceptively lean plates.
Don’t Miss: The beef short rib
Price: $6-$19Price: $6-$19