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There was a time when a carnivorous predilection for sausages, charcuterie, and the best fried chicken livers in the Lowcountry meant a trip to East Bay Street and passage through the timeworn brick arches of venerable old chophouse High Cotton.
It opened in 1999 as a brassy Southern steakhouse, full of brick and leather, but delicate in the way it looked out upon the town. The full length of the large street-side windows are as striking in a twinkling evening drizzle as a Sunday morning’s bright blue sky. High Cotton and Maverick Southern Kitchens’ other flagship, Slightly North of Broad, anchor the end of a street that made Charleston the envy of Southern food towns.
New chef Joe Palma seems intent on changing things up. Even though he came of age in an older Charleston and cut his teeth—like predecessor Anthony Gray before him—under the guidance of SNOB’s Frank Lee across the street, his circuitous path to the helm led through stints with luminary French chefs Eric Ripert and Yannick Cam. In this respect, the intricate simplicity of Mr. Palma’s “Le Bernardin” style significantly bends the trajectory of the restaurant he now leads, but his influence may be producing some of the best food to ever leave the kitchen.
As the old tune goes, it’s the fish that are jumpin’ when the cotton is high. The steaks “from the charbroiler” are almost an afterthought now while the “chef specialties” soar. The scallop ceviche is as delicately flavored as any; Palma turns a few medallions of the bivalve into a symphony, lightly dressed with a citrus emulsion and adorned with unusual bursts of baby fennel, dill pollen, the salty crunch of sea beans, and small jeweled dollops of Australian finger lime. Raw oysters get a wintry bite of pine cucumber, shiso lemon, and ginger. This is a man who gently grills scallops and serves them with the tiniest of fingerling sweet potatoes and grapefruit, plates a roasted flounder over eggplant agrodolce, and naps swordfish and caponata with a smoked tomato emulsion. His touch is light, his flavors intricately balanced, and the dining room service superb.
Sunday brunch is a must and best begun with a cocktail they call the “Smoky Rose,” full of bourbon and bite, before you are led to a table along those large bright windows, kids in tow—because the affordable children’s menu is as stellar as the adults’. There are “donut holes” with sorghum syrup and spiced pecans and a plate of fried oysters to pass around the table. These things excite the waitstaff. They’ll plug the “chicken and waffles” not for novelty, but because the pounded chicken cutlet wrapped around an anise-tinted pocket of breakfast sausage and then deep-fried must be tasted. There are no cowboy steaks on Sunday, but huge burgers two inches thick, slathered with pimiento cheese and served with the best French fries you’ll find anywhere downtown. The crab cake Benedict, full of pure lump crabmeat, could satisfy a native of Maryland.
Being the old stalwart that it is, High Cotton has collected a reputation over the years—for the cloistered bar room with good jazz in the corner, for impeccable service, and the even keel of a menu with enough range to satisfy a varied array of tastes. But chef Palma’s considerable talent needs a showcase and a tasting menu. His world is not derived of pork fat and bourbon. It’s disciplined service and finite execution, perfect technique from a fellow who never went to culinary school. They should focus on less in order to make High Cotton more. That might leave the steak lovers looking around for other places to find a big slab of dry-aged beef, but with chef Palma’s considerable skill at the helm, High Cotton may have finer seas to sail.
The Draw: Chef Joe Palma’s intricate seafood should not be missed.
The Drawbacks: Old favorites could use some refreshing.
Don’t Miss: Chicken and waffles at Sunday brunch
Price: $26 to $31
199 East Bay St.