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Bricks & Barrels off to a shaky (pricey) start

Catering to a similar clientele as The Block — reviewed here last week — Bricks & Barrels, behind Appalachian Power Park, also promises top-quality food and service enjoyed in an elegant atmosphere.

Sometimes it hits that mark, sometimes it misses by a mile. But you’ll pay for it either way.

Entrees run as high as $46 (half of the 14 choices are more than $30) and that doesn’t include side dishes or add-ons. With appetizers approaching $20 and soup at $11, Bricks & Barrels is easily one of Charleston’s most expensive restaurants.

That alone wouldn’t be a problem if the food and service were worth it. But for every stellar dish I’ve had, there was another that wasn’t very good. And for every top-notch server I’ve had, there was another person or incident that really soured my view.

I also take in public comments to help shape my reviews and most, I’m afraid, haven’t been very favorable. The consensus seems to be Bricks & Barrels is a work in progress — but there’s a lot of work to be done. That’s a pretty fair assessment, although I have noticed some improvements of late.

So first, the good.

With exposed brick walls and duct work, a bar made from wine crates, booths set back inside giant wine “barrels” and glass-topped wine barrels forming other tables, Bricks & Barrels offers one of the coolest restaurant atmospheres in town. It’s warm, cozy and inviting, with the vibe of a contemporary Manhattan hot spot.

I love the space.

The menu, while not terribly creative, is reminiscent of a fine steakhouse offering a limited selection of classic appetizers (like Crab Louie Napoleon, spicy tuna tartare, Oysters Rockefeller), salads (chopped, Caesar, wedge, Caprese), beef (filet, porterhouse, ribeye, pork chops, lamb) and seafood dishes (salmon, red snapper and diver scallops among them). Sides include garlic mashed red potatoes, five-cheese macaroni, Parmesan risotto, creamed corn and grilled asparagus.

The “Steak on Steak” appetizer is fantastic. Featuring two perfectly cooked petite filet medallions atop thick slices of Beefsteak tomatoes drizzled with balsamic reduction, this is one of the best things on the menu.

The Chilean sea bass came highly recommended — an endorsement I’ll pass along. The large wedge of flaky white fish topped with mango salsa was cooked to moist, flavorful perfection. (If I make it back, I’ll likely try the lamb chops, tabbouleh-stuffed eggplant or Mediterranean heirloom chicken braised with capers, figs and olives.)

I followed that first-class bass with the restaurant’s signature (and soon-to-be famous) “Chocolate Brick” dessert. Easily enough to share, the large hollow dark chocolate brick was filled with rich flavored cream and fresh berries. So good.

And the server I had on this visit was one of the friendliest and most conscientious I’ve had in any Charleston restaurant.

Now, the not-so-good.

On every visit I’ve asked what the best, most popular items on the menu are and every waiter, without fail, has told me the lobster-stuffed shrimp. So I finally gave in — and was thoroughly disappointed. Maybe it was just the cook who prepared mine that evening, but the two jumbo prawns were so overcooked and tough I could barely get a knife through them. The lobster filling with tarragon hollandaise was pretty heavy-handed, too.

The spinach salad tossed in pomegranate vinaigrette with bleu cheese, caramelized red onion, pears and fried pancetta didn’t pack much of a punch. A tarter dressing, tangier blue cheese or crispier pancetta, instead of soft cubes, would’ve done wonders. The roasted Brussels sprouts I added to my entree, although prepared just as I like them with toasty brown edges, were so salty I couldn’t eat them.

And then there are the service/management issues.

I was sitting at the bar one day where many servers had congregated to complain about their schedules, with one mincing no words about how she felt she had been treated. Right in front of me.

Another day, two servers got into an argument at the bar, which led to an impromptu staff meeting where several aired their grievances to a manager. Right in front of me.

On another occasion, I watched the bartender and a waitress continue to try to fix a “bad batch” of the night’s special sangria by haphazardly adding one thing after another, with no recipe or plan whatsoever. They finally gave up and started serving it anyway. Right in front of me.

I know these things happen at most restaurants, just usually in the kitchen or another back room away from customers.

Bricks & Barrels, take note. I had stopped in to enjoy a beer and forget about the day’s drama, not witness more of it.

And did I mention the prices? I’m afraid Bricks & Barrels is setting itself up to be only a “special occasion” type of restaurant, but that’s a risky proposition in Charleston’s fickle restaurant environment. In a battle of places like The Chop House vs. Laury’s (when it reopens) vs. Bricks & Barrels, I don’t know that this newcomer will be able to hang.

But I hope the place keeps evolving, to prove me wrong.

I hear they’ve recently added Happy Hour drink specials, so I hope similarly priced food specials will follow.

I’ve also started to see daily features posted on Facebook, which could add needed excitement to the menu. (One recent offering, pistachio and almond-crusted salmon with avocado cilantro butter and homemade slaw, looked pretty appealing.)

That’s a start. With a more diversely priced menu, occasional specials and stronger front-of-house management, this ballpark area restaurant could really catch on.

IF YOU GO

Bricks & Barrels is located at 1214 Smith St., Charleston. Hours are 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 4 p.m. to midnight Friday-Saturday. For more information or reservations, call 681-265-9222 or visit www.bricksnbarrels.com.

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So in the battle of the Bs — The Block vs. Bricks & Barrels — who comes out on top?

Although The Block has suffered from inconsistent food and service, those problems are relatively easy to address. The owners know what they’re doing, so I have faith they’ll work out these kinks. The place already has a lot of public support and the restaurant’s prime downtown location is visible enough to keep it top-of-mind after the newness starts to fade.

My verdict? The Block will not only survive, but thrive.

As for Bricks & Barrels, I’m worried. Nothing will keep folks away more than inconsistent food and service — combined with high prices — and the folks running the show here don’t have as much restaurant experience. Public sentiment is mixed and although the space is great, the restaurant’s tucked-away location may be a downside in the long run.

My verdict? Bricks & Barrels is teetering over a barrel and only time will tell where it lands. But if you’re dying to check it out, I’d try sooner rather than later, just in case.

Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Gazette-Mail. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by e-mail at dailymailfoodguy@aol.com. You can also follow him on Facebook and Pinterest as “DailyMail FoodGuy,” on Twitter as “DMFoodGuy” and read his blog at blogs.charlestondailymail/foodguy.

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