Hilton Head Island (HHI) report on dining.
Sunday: Lunch. We drove down from Chapel Hill, and stopped in Bluffton to eat at the Oakatie Ale House. The French Onion soup was a split decision: one vote for better than that at served at Outback, the other vote said not quite as good as that. Crab-Corn Chowder was decent, but didn’t qualify as “chow’da”, i.e., on my list as “the real thing”. Frozen french fries, frozen pre-battered thick onion rings, and frozen pre-battered “Grouper Fillets”, all good quality. The food was plentiful, was satisfying after 5 hours on the Highway, but given what was over the bridge on HHI waiting for us was not by any means competitive. Drive the extra few miles and get on the island to eat something better than what you can get in the better chain restaurants.
Dinner. After checking in at the Westin, and a bit of last minute research, we had the concierge set up reservations for us at Aqua. N.B.: Eventually we had the concierges set up all our reservations, something I’d rather do in a resort area where I’m new.
Technically there is a “view” at Aqua of the Atlantic Ocean, but the restaurant is set back in a cove of buildings, kinda at the base of a U. As light failed us, we weren’t close enough to continue to appreciate the ocean itself. However, there is a nice garden outside the windows, and the interior is sufficiently interesting all on its own. The bartender scored big with a 10K mojito which I watched him carefully muddle for several minutes. Service was good, and the owner scored big with us by recommending several other restaurants during our stay, not only to us, but to other folks as well. Later I checked: this gentlemen is not affiliated with the people he recommended, and is known for recommending good places regardless of the competition.
Their version of French onion soup was quite good, definitely in the fine restaurant class of soups. We also had the she-crab soup, which tasted very close to what I recall as authentic as a child, when there was always she-crab roe in the soup. For entrees we had ahi tuna – seared on the outside, sushi on the inside, with snow peas & wild rice; and scallops in madras red curry sauce & rice. Both were fresh, high quality preparations with a nice eye to plating. The piece of fish and the scallops were arguably the best quality we had all week, and the madras red curry complimented the scallops rather than overpowered them. We had chocolate ribbon whiskey cake for dessert: a small rich dense chocolate cake surrounded by an edging of white/milk chocolate candy ribboning. Wines by the glass throughout the meal, the moscato d’Asti was refreshing.
Breakfast at Flamingo. While I was chatting with one of the concierges, the subject of donuts came up, and I was instantly referred to Flamingo, which is a donut shop at breakfast, and a Mediterranean restaurant later in the day. The hook here is that they aren’t sitting in cases waiting for you, they cook them when you order, by specification. Honestly, the plains were my favorite donut, our other favorite was the honey-dipped. Some of the glazes weren’t my thing, and I tend to like simple things done right. I haven’t had a real honeybun like that in 40 years. Please note that we are both krispy kreme over dunkin’ donuts type folks.
Lunch: Sea Shack positions itself as the old style concrete-blocks-on-a-slab kind of no-frills down-by-the-docks seafood joint that used to be so prevalent on the coasts of the Carolinas, which is so rare nowadays. The aim here is totally fresh fish, classically from floppin’ on the deck of the fishing trawler that morning. No such thing exists on HHI anymore, but the sea shack is probably the closest, which is fairly interesting considering that it is a part of the HHI signage & development regulations. The guy behind the register looks and acts like an Irish take-no-prisoners seinfield-soup-nazi. The fish & shellfish are fresh and tasty and cooked right. One of us got the scallops po’boy – just get scallops and forget the bread part. In fact, don’t get anything but fish & shellfish, though the hushpuppies are of that type that some folks tend to like. The other of us got the “shack attack” platter with flounder as the fish. This was an enjoyable place worth revisiting.
I wish to digress for a moment. I asked about “local fresh fish” everywhere we went. I asked customers, chefs & other restaurant workers, concierges, etc. “local fresh fish” is extinct in this area, or nearly so, and I am beginning to worry that it may be elsewhere as well. Nearly all seafood appears to be from farms, or shipped in from just about anywhere but “right here”, and except for some wahoo was really not in evidence. Where are the blue crabs, the local shellfish, the puppy drum, red drum, blue fish, croakers, flounder, Spanish mackerel, pompano, striped bass, spot, etc? They don’t exist as a commercial industry anymore, apparently. I was informed twice that “nobody eats blue fish” and once that “folks don’t eat drum or red fish” (they will however eat the chum called tilapia everywhere). Whatever has happened to the industry, it is at best a pitiful remnant of what it was even 25 years ago. And don’t get me started on how we’ve destroyed our beach/shore ecologies.
Dinner: Old Fort Pub had the best service we encountered all week. Admittedly, except for Redfish and Crazy Crab, the service was easily 90+ everywhere we went, but Old Fort aced the exam and the extra credit. Our salad was split into two plates, napkins were folded, the bottled water appeared to refill glasses as if by sleight of hand, anyone getting up to go to a bathroom was instantly intercepted and escorted that way, we were shown to the widow’s walk above the building for a nighttime view – the list goes on. The food was what one would expect of the price range of the places at which we had dinner this week, with some extra touches.
We had parsley & lavender butter with our bread. Shrimp bisque and oyster stew were good representations of those two dishes, and the Caesar salad was a decent execution of what is often a predictable salad. Admittedly, my standard of Caesar salad is based against El Rey Sol’s unbeatable Caesar salad in Ensenada, Baja Mexico, so I rarely find one that I will admit is more than decent (adequate, acceptable, are other words I often use).
Entrees were Rack of Lamb (rare) served with mashed taters, pearl onions and artichoke hearts in a reduction sauce; and grilled shrimp with garnellini (rather much like penne) pasta. We had Pecan pie & truffles for dessert. The Amuse bouche was smoked salmon. All of this was professionally prepared and good to eat, even a decent value, but the highlight of the evening was the service. The bartender here was again amazing, serving a pear vodka & lemon essence thing in a martini glass with a stick of rosemary, as well as a great traditional martini. Wines by the glass, including a Dr. Loosen that wasn’t even on the list (another service touch).
Breakfast at Signe’s. Breakfast at Signe’s could be as memorable in its own way as Breakfast at Tiffanys. The food here certainly must be the best breakfast / bakery food on the Island. We tried stuff that included a breakfast polenta, key lime bread pudding, several toasts, patty sausages, fresh fruit, and Italian roast coffee (the default and only choice). I could have eaten there every day, easily. Don’t miss this if you get up for breakfast. Really. Double-check the hours here when you go so you make it.
Lunch. Take out at French Bakery. The plum tart and the peach soufflé were delicate and accurate representations of what a French bakery should have. Alas, the rest of the place was no better than an Au Bon Pain. Sandwiches were chicken salad and ham and cheese. Don’t get me wrong, the food was acceptable across the board, but if you’re a trend-hunting picky slightly-upturned-nose chowhounder why spend the time?
Dinner at CQ’s was yet another success. Owned by the same folks at Old Fort Pub (and I think like 3 other restaurants on the island), but a different experience. Our hostess, Lette, was grand (ahem, she was also one of our concierge’s at the Westin, but really, she was grand). The chef was the pick of the litter this week, his attention to ingredients, detail, . . . well, Eric was the equivalent of the service we had at Old Fort. The bartender was another E-ticket fellow, our third in a row – we shared similar tastes in Gin (Hendricks) and wines by the glass recommended by him fit our palates.
The amuse bouche was fresh salmon executed delicately and perfectly. We had heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, microbasil, and a balsamic reduction of some sort that was amazing, which is surprising considering that the heirloom beets with chevre mousse was better. Entrees were an encrusted halibut and a steak au poivre with pomme frits & haricots verte, all done with style and grace and the final arbiter: taste.
Dessert was fantastic bananas foster ice cream and the only flawed note in what was otherwise a great fugue: the chocolate caramel layer cake wasn’t up to the rest of it. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
The wine list here and at Old Fort were good wine lists if and only if you are very fond of high priced California wines. There are certainly some interesting California wines here, but the prices are high, imho, for what you get. We stayed with wines by the glass.
Breakfast at the Westin. Not bad, but not noteworthy. In fact, the few things we tried at the Westin were all either “not noteworthy” or were mediocre, up to and including their bartending service. When you order an After-Eight cocktail you shouldn’t a) have to explain what it is, and b) get back a triple shot of liquer that they charge you for at 3x a shot of liqueur. If it was me, I’d redesign their whole food & beverage service from the ground up to the match the accommodations & setting.
Lunch. Sunset Grill. All the reviews mention not to worry about driving into the RV park, so we will too. The restaurant is over some offices for the marina / yacht club / RV park, parking is crowded and poorly implemented. The restaurant is however, great, particularly for lunch. The view of the inlet is excellent, atmosphere is nice gray cypress fish house, bar is pleasant. Service was a bit curt as if they couldn’t wait to close up and get out. It should be noted that the hours are 11:30 to 1:30 for lunch and if you walk in at 1:25 like another couple did, expect to be told “we are no longer serving, but have a few things left over”.
However “brisk” the service, the food by chef Hugh was excellent. We had the scallops salad, and an oyster po’boy with their own handmade potato chips. The bloody marys probably really are the best on the island, and everyone eating there was in that pleasant state of murmur because they’re too busy scarfing down the food. The sign on the door said “reservations required for dinner”.
Dinner at Michael Anthony’s. As noted elsewhere, this restaurant may be the best on the island. Not the place I’d expect to find a top of the line Italian restaurant, but that’s me. The wine list here is the only integrated high quality wine list with good prices that I found on the island, and there is some excellent stuff on here if you know what you’re looking at, i.e., Chateau Simard at $50 a bottle. Nonetheless, we wanted to see how they did with their “flights of wine” – 3 pours per flight. An excellent implementation, with eight separate sets of 3 wines by the 2 oz pour, with a dessert flight as well. I would have preferred that the dessert flight not be listed only on the dessert menu. Service was good, not outstanding but good solid service.
Food was an acceptable Caesar salad, easily the least one I had all week, which is weird because this is an Italian Restaurant, and it was truly the only weak link this evening. There was an amusing “amuse bruchetta”. Gnocchi in a tomato cream sauce was outstanding, both the gnocchi themselves and the sauce. The tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce was superior. Entrees were veal saltimbocca, fork tender; and veal rolled in spinach served in a reduction sauce with potatoes. Panna cotta and a small chocolate “soufflé” reminiscent of Fearrington House’s larger chocolate soufflé were both excellent desserts. Alas there was no cannoli, one of my benchmarks of the quality of anything Italian, but we were informed that if you let them know when you make reservations that there is a possibility that the chef can accommodate you. Next time I’ll try.
Breakfast was leftovers from Michael Antony’s.
Lunch at Redfish in the rain. If it’s not raining, eat outside. The interior was crowded and shoved in amongst retail store stuff, most particularly wine store stuff. We rolled our eyes at the corking fee for wines you bought there, while seated surrounded by customers looking through the retail shelves. The service was uninformed, the bartending service was as bad as at the Westin – I mean really, how many bartenders don’t know how to make a manhattan? Neither bartenderlike person apparently knew the difference between a single barrel bourbon, single-malt scotch, or other varieties of that brown liquid in the alcohol bottles; I was informed twice while asking that “McCallan’s” (The Macallan, 12 year) was bourbon. Had I not insisted that it was in fact not bourbon, it would have been used to make my manhattan. We ordered a glass of Nebbiolo and were brought a glass of sauvignon blanc. Need I say more?
Ok, so the atmosphere, uncheck, the service, uncheck, what’s the food? The food was good. We had soup and sandwiches: Cuban black bean soup was nicely prepared. Cheesesteak and the Cuban sandwich were both good sandwiches executed with good ingredients, and the Jicama slaw was very well done and great tasting. The fries were frozen and average. Lastly, the dessert “liquid chocolate cake” was darn near as good as that at Michael Antony’s, in fact, I briefly wondered if it was the same maker. A real surprise here. We wouldn’t make any real effort to force our way back there, given that there are upwards of 250 restaurants on the island, but the experience was overall positive – made possible by the good food.
Dinner at the Sage Room. We had been told by several people – “eat at the chef’s table if you can when you make your reservations”. No one thought to say that this isn’t a table, it’s a bar. So point #1 for the service there, because when we showed up and flinched, our hostess found a table for us created by a “no-show” in a room that eventually looked sold out, and our places at the bar disappeared quickly. The chef’s bar cum table, btw, faces the 4? Cooks, and open flames and was actually hot. After being seated at a nice corner table, we proceeded.
This restaurant is at the back of a strip mall, where you would think you were going around back to make deliveries. Unfortunately, the interior doesn’t disabuse you of this notion, it was decorated in a style one might expect of a run down rural county country club which hasn’t been redone since the 70s. The service was good, but not quite up to the other dinner places we ate. The atmosphere wasn’t quite up to the other places either.
We had a crab cake appetizer, snowpeas in a martini glass in a pineapple-soy reduction sauce, and a scallops & shrimp special on mixed greens. The snowpeas were A#1 excellent, the crab cake was of that southern coastal variety that I prefer to Maryland style, and the scallops & shrimp were nicely done but uninspired when compared to other places we ate for dinner this week.
Entrée #1 was a filet mignon “house fillet” with grilled rosemary shrimp and whipped potatoes – the steak was cooked “medium well” and the technical skill shown by the delivery of this chubby piece of meat done “medium well” was nice to see. Entrée #2 was lamb chops in rack with braised lamb shanks. The braised lamb shanks were falling off the bone shreddable tender and were fabulous. The “medium” lamb chops were also perfectly medium and very flavorful, a bit more “lamby” or gamy than most lamb I get nowadays, which was nice. Dessert was a carmelized strawberries over angel food cake with grand marnier, which was a blatant disappointment and which was comped when we mentioned it.
If you think of this place as a “grilled” establishment, my estimation of it goes up to “oh very nice, go back”. If you think of this place as a “fine dining” establishment, my estimation goes down to “almost but not quite”, especially in comparison to CQs, Old Fort, Aqua, and Michael Antony’s.
Lunch at Crazy Crab. We were heading off the Island, and stopped at one of the two Crazy Crab’s, the one near the bridge. This is a seafood restaurant you could imagine in Kansas as easily as the salt march on which it borders. Mahi-mahi??? was the “local fresh fish” of the day, oh give me a break. We had a broiled platter, and once I was informed that I could not have flounder in the fried platter combination, and that nothing other than flounder and mahi-mahi and tilapia was on the day’s menu, I picked fried scallops & flounder for my “half & half” platter. French fries were frozen, hushpuppies were strictly out of a box of hush puppy mix, and the steamed vegetables were literally tasteless. If I wanted sides like this, I’d stay at home and go to Allen & Sons BBQ.
I’m in a restaurant called “crazy crab” which claims to have “local seafood”. Again, Mahi-mahi?? And look, flash-frozen Alaskan king crab legs and “pasteurized” “fresh” oysters don’t count as “local” or “fresh”.
Go back to Bluffton and eat at the Oakatie if you can’t find better than this on the island. Seriously, with 250 restaurants, I don’t know why this one has survived except that apparently many tourists just don’t know any better, and/or think that places like Golden Corral were the ultimate accomplishment of the 20th century.
After this episode we were relieved to get home last night and go out to Fiesta Grill to shake it from our palates.
In Summary, We had a grand time, and ate a lot of really good food at some very nice places. We hope this report is useful to you in your planning for trips to HHI.
Best Service: Old Fort
Best Chef: CQs
Best overall experiences (split decision):
1) Aqua & CQs
2) Aqua & Michael Antony's
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