Fat Hen, Charleston - review
I know it has been open for some time, but tonight was my first experience (of what I'm sure will be many) at the Fat Hen.
Choosing restaurants for my family can be difficult. My parents don't like "loud" restaurants. My dad doesn't like pasta, ethnic cuisine, or small plates, and could care less about a wine list. My sister has eaten at a greater variety of restaurants throughout the country and world than I could dream of trying. However, in this case, I accomplished the unthinkable - a dinner where every person left with a smile on his face.
Tonight's dinner may be one of the best meals I've had in Charleston in the last four years. For the first course, the table enjoyed fried green tomatoes, BBQ scallops, seared tuna, and crab soup. No one shared a bite of their appetizer, so I can only guess they were as fantastic as mine. The crab soup had large pieces of crab and a creaminess that managed to be luxurious without being overly heavy.
The menu offers a wide range of entrees to choose from, as well as a few specials. We selected the lamb shank, the escolar (a special for the evening), the grouper, and the short rib. Each dish was fantastic, right down to the last butter bean. As for mine, I'll only say this - Earlier today, I stated in a survey that the short rib at Al di La was my favorite dish. If only I had waited until after dinner, as that dish is trumped by the short rib at Fat Hen. My plate was cleaner than my dad's in the end!
Unfortunately, we were too full to attempt a dessert for each person - so we shared a lemon tart, which was a nice end to the evening. However, given a bigger stomach, I'll be coming back for the chocolate bread pudding.
The service was great. Our waitress was well versed in the menu and obviously passionate about the food. The only blemish was in the delivery of drinks. One member of the party asked for a second glass of wine at arrival of the entrees but did not receive it until she was nearly finished with the course. Also, water glasses were only refilled once throughout the meal. We would have liked to see the runners offering refills on drinks more often. Otherwise, the timing of food was perfect. The atmosphere was lively and warm, and we had time to enjoy a leisurely dinner, without feeling as if we were being rushed or waiting for anything.
I'll have to give it another try (we'll be trying it for lunch when my other sister comes down for Christmas), but if the next meal measures up to this one, Fat Hen will become a new member of my Top Five list!
I have to tell you, the wife and I finally got out to see what all the fuss was about over the Fat Hen, and we were completely underwhelmed. The host stand was staffed by three surly sour-faced women who seemed annoyed by the fact we wanted to eat. At 6 pm on a Saturday, we were asked to wait without explanation for a few minutes with a nearly-empty dining room. The room is designed with no seating or even an out-of-the-way place to stand while you stand, watching three - count 'em, three - hostesses avoid your gaze and stack menus. Finally led to a 2-top in the middle of the room, we had to ask to be seated at one of the half-dozen empty wall-side tables instead.
Our server seemed unable to care less about us. He wearily ran the through the specials with difficulty, dropped our drinks on the table and disappeared for ten minutes. Cook times for appetizers was just short of 20 minutes, in a half-full restaurant on the first turn of the night. Which gave us plenty of time to chew the room-temperature hunk of unremarkable bread.
We went with five apps shared for the two of us, and they were good at the very best. The oysters and 'country ham' Jeff Allen and Deidre Schipani have separately raved about was fine but hardly praise-worthy - nice oysters in a cream sauce with some ham dice; the snails were likewise nothing special - a plate with five smallish snails, a few toast rounds and a puddle of garlic butter for six bucks. The onion tart came across more like an open-faced pita sandwich than anything else, lacking in salt and nothing more than mediocre puff pastry with a few underseasoned carmelized onions with some rather undercooked lardons, not enough creme fraiche and a good-enough batch of greens on top.
We had high hopes for the charcuterie plate but found it to be nothing more than a nice enough mousse, a stringy coarse country forcemeat, an adequate slice of smoked salmon (if they are doing this in-house, they are wasting their time), some more of those toast rounds and a bunch of red grapes, all on a plate that looked as if it were arranged by a third-grader. Ho-hum. We admittedly liked the bbq duck, although the grits were as underseasoned as all the local critics have mentioned in each of their reviews almost a year ago.
Service was slow. We sat with empty water and beverage glasses several times ("Oooh! Mason jars? How caaaampy!" "Empty ones, at that!"). We finished with a cheese plate, after asking about the provenance of each of the selections (so that the pregnant member of the party could avoid raw-milk cheeses, something we hate to do, but are supposed to do). Our server was completely clueless about what we were talking about, and when we flagged down an additional server for help, he said, "Oh, everything is pasteurized milk."
Aside: I've spent a couple of years as a cheesemonger in Charleston, and I can assure you, that statement is very hard to believe. Yes, I know importation of raw-milk cheese was not legal until recently, but we used to get all sorts of the stuff when I was selling cheese (in Charleston, and nearly 10 years ago) including many raw-milk items not specifically ordered as such. You can't assume, especially with the soft, ripened stinky kinds we like to order in restaurants. I personally don't see what the big deal about pregnancy and raw cheeses is, but she does, and that's all that matters, right?
The plate was fine, although the runner who served it was unable to name two of the three cheeses on the plate, and the third was an oozy, ripened no-brainer.
The table was cleared, our server quickly mumbled something about dessert, we passed, paid our check, and headed out. No employee noticed we were leaving.
Our ride home was spent in mild disbelief. Not particularly inexpensive, nor expensive. Nothing at all that made us consider coming back to eat. Uninteresting dining room. A front-of-house staff that ranged from borderline-incompetent to indifferent to unfriendly. There's equal or better country-French to be had several places in Chas without the 'novelty' of driving half an hour. Early reviews last summer indicated how effervescent, professional, earnest the fantastic front-of-house (and back-) staff was - I guess those folks have moved on, because we encountered none of them on our (only) visit to the Fat Hen.
Having awakened this morning and read all the press I can find about the place, it seems we missed out on the shank or maybe the coq au vin, but I don't think it's worth the trouble or the experience - I can stew a chicken or braise a shank at home, and with better company.
Don't believe the hype. Go to La Fourchette or Coco's or G & M or.... instead.
Yeah, we had a similar experience. Had reservations for Sunday brunch and then had to wait 15 minutes for our table when there appeared to be plenty available. We didn't even get a table - we ended up getting seated at the long table in the back, which is apparently for "shared seating" - not really what we had in mind when we made the reservations, but we were willing to take it after the wait. Our waitress acted and looked worn out and didn't have much patience. The food was okay at best and took forever. No one really raved about what was served and I think we were all pretty glad to get out of there - the chairs were very uncomfortable and the waitress was elusive most of the time. The French Onion soup was about the only thing anyone said more than two words about - it was pretty good, not as good as some I have had - but I was pleased. My husband had the short rib gratin - the presentation was such that I said "what is that?" when it was served. It was heaped in a bowl with such non-care that it honestly looked like the dog's dinner. Not very appetizing and not a large portion. He said it tasted okay, but he would not get it again. That's fine because we definitely won't be trying it again. It is so far out in the boonies (relatively speaking) that I was sure the hype would be justified since I can't imagine folks driving from Charleston for this. I would sum it up as a disappointingly strange experience.
I absolutely LOVE the Fat Hen. I am in Charleston every 2-4 weeks and only recently discovered this. It is rare that my boyfriend and I will make the trek out of downtown to eat (walk to the garage, get the car out, re-park it when coming home, etc). For the Fat Hen, I will gladly go to John's Island...easily one of my favorite 5 restaurants of all time, especially for the price. My favorite appetizers are the BBQ scallops with their AMAZING BBQ pomegranate sauce and the steamed mussels. I don't like tomatoes in any form but sauce, but even I love the fried green tomatoes. It's hard to try new things here because you get addicted to them all!
For entrees, I highly recommend the salmon bernaise, lamb shank, and most of the specials. If you get there late it is assured that many of the specials will be gone. Also try the haricots verts, they are just as good as in the French countryside. For deserts, they often offer a chocolate dessert anda bread budding that are superb.
I'm really trying to get out more when I'm in Charleston, but it is very hard with some great addictive places like The Fat Hen. We often go with a party of 6 or more and the service is superb. I will warn you of their signature drink, although I can't remember the name of it. It has champagne and several liquors in it and is so strong the waitstaff has never seen anyone have more than one, and it is rare that people even finish it.
Be prepared to think that you've missed it on the way out. It is quite a while on a weird road and in the dark we almost turned around several times. We have been frequent patrons of Rue de Jean in the past few years and have found a similar experience in food quality now that the former chef and his wife have opened Fat Hen. They are committed to buying local as well, which in my mind is always a positive. If only I could eat here once every 2 weeks I would be so much happier.
We went to The Fat Hen on a family vacation after reading the rave reviews online. I called to make reservations & was told they did not take them. We arrived to a PACKED restaurant only to find out they do indeed take reservations. Anyway, after a bit of a wait we were seated ...the restaurant was packed to the gills, to the point that it was so loud & noisy, i couldn't converse with my husband across the table .... (and we're used to talking over 3 loud kids). Our server was among the worst I've ever had .... uninterested, elusive to the point of rudeness. Water glasses not refilled, food literally dumped on the table for us to pass around, no inquiries as to how the meal was, etc. The food, quite in opposition to the service & atmosphere, was fabulous. The scallop appetizer was tasty, the shrimp & crab with hoppin' johns was fabulous .... even the food from the kids menu was terrific. Everything was priced very well. Unfortunately, the service was so bad that my husband did not want to give it another try that week.