Note: I was an invited guest of 5Church, but was not otherwise paid or compensated for writing this post. Thanks to 5Church and Lou Hammond Associates for inviting me!
We spent an all-too-brief 24 hours in Charleston last month, but we had a good reason. Originally, we’d planned to reunite with our family for a belated Christmas/New Year’s celebration. Then, just as everyone started heading down South, my youngest sister went into labor and delivered a healthy baby boy the day after Christmas. He was five weeks early, but so far he seems to have made up for his unexpected early arrival by being super adorable and chunking up pretty quickly. We ended up spending the majority of our holiday in Charlotte, North Carolina, getting to know the newest addition to our clan.
On the one evening we had in Charleston, my dad graciously agreed to watch the kids so that we could hit up 5Church, a new addition to the Market Street area downtown. Market Street, if you’ve never been to Charleston, is a hub of tourist activity. There’s an open air souvenir market and small food hall, and at nights the streets fill with college students and other 20-somethings looking for a rowdy good time at one of the many bars lining the street. For oldies like me who were a part of that scene oh, I don’t know, a decade or more ago, you might remember 5Church as being the old Mad River Brewing Company. Yep, that place. The place where you drank yards of beer and left your dignity behind. (Not that I’m proclaiming innocence at all, either).
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Gloriously, the new 5Church doesn’t look anything like the old Mad River Brewing Company. Inside, the atmosphere has a hallowed, almost haunting feeling, with exposed beams and the entire text of Sun Tzu’s Art of War hand-inscribed on the ceiling. We dined late on a Monday evening, so the restaurant was understandably empty. Nevertheless, I could easily see how this cavernous space could easily absorb a crowd. It seemed like 5Church is a fitting name, even though the restaurant originally gets its moniker from its address in its original Charlotte, North Carolina location.
As for the menu, I liked seeing classic Charleston touches to its New American-centric menu, with local oysters, fish and grits woven throughout the dishes. Main courses seem to cover all the bases, from roasted lamb ($29) to seared sea scallops ($31). From the layout of the menu, though, it’s abundantly clear that you should, first and foremost, consider 5Church a place to get a good steak. But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk about the appetizers.
We tried the tuna tartare ($13.50), the crab cake ($15), the broiled local oysters ($13) and a chickpea salad snack ($4). The tuna tartare was visually stunning, with chunks of bright red ahi tuna arranged neatly in a mix of jicama, mint, scotch bonnet peppers and topped with a quail egg yolk. The tuna was surrounded by toasted pine nuts and crisp triangles of toast. I liked all of the textural contrasts in this dish, from the crisply cold tuna to the crunchy jicama and pine nuts to the kick of the peppers. The tiny quail egg yolk, a nod to an essential component of steak tartare, was a nice creamy addition to the tartare as well. The crab cake, while deliciously full of lump crab meat, was good, although I feel like I may have had this crab cake before at many a fine dining restaurant in Charleston. It’s good, but not noteworthy for the first-time visitor to 5Church.
The broiled local oysters, on the other hand, are totally noteworthy. Actually, let me stop and say this: if it’s ONE reason you stop by 5Church, it’s for this dish. At $13 for 2 oysters, it’s not a cheap dish, nor will it be a filling one, but still. I think it’s worth it. The oysters are broiled with a dollop of Anson Mills grits, topped with a quail egg yolk and garnished with freshly shaved truffles and Bulls Bay red marsh salt. It’s everything Charleston should be in one, ridiculously tasty bite. I think I may have eaten oysters in every way possible in Charleston, and I have to say that — besides raw with a cold beer on the back of boat — this is one of my favorite prepared versions. Stop by, order a beer at the bar, and get yourself these broiled oysters. Close your eyes while you’re eating them, and I swear you’ll learn everything you’d ever need to know about the Holy City in that one bite.
After those oysters, I needed a minute, but the wait staff, ever brisk and friendly in their service, had already moved on. The Prime “60 Second” NY Strip Steak arrived at our table, a vibrantly red piece of meat that looked like someone had turned my steak inside out, with the medium-rare that I’d ordered on the outside of the steak and a thick, righteously caramelized crust on the bottom. Our server explained that 5Church’s steaks are “painted” in rendered beef fat before they’re seared on the grill, which gives the exterior an extra-crunchy crust (side note: the kitchen calls this rendered fat the “Bob Ross” after the acclaimed painting instructor from PBS. I found this fact delightful). The “60 Second” steak gets its name from the fact that it’s only ever seared on one side, instead of flipped for an even sear on both sides. The meat is continuously cooked on that side until the rest of the steak reaches a medium rare temperature, giving the diner more of the juicy, warm red center that’s so coveted in a steak experience. I loved this method, but I think it only works because of the extra juicy, extra crispy crust that the “Bob Ross” gave to the meat. If you’re only getting one side of crust on your steak, that crust has to be outstanding. Luckily, in 5Church’s case, it was.
And no, we didn’t skip dessert, even though by this time I was so full of steak and blissed out on my oyster experience that I could barely eat anything else. The clear standout was the pretzel bar ($8), a sweet/savory chocolate bar with crunchy wafers reminiscent of a Kit-Kat bar. The other desserts we tried were the lemongrass frozen mousse ($8) and the red velvet cake ($8). I liked that the desserts were colorful, with playful notes like the use of lemony Fruity Pebbles cereal to accompany the lemongrass mousse and a beet chip that topped the red velvet cake, but there was a lot going on each of the plates. Plus, the pretzel bar was so outstanding that I had a hard time focusing.
In the end, I liked the atmosphere and several of the dishes at 5Church enough that I’d stray from the well-trodden path of fine dining establishments lining upper King Street and East Bay and make a repeat visit to 5Church. Like I said before, those broiled oysters are reason enough, but if you’re hungry, grab yourself that 60 Second NY Strip. You won’t be sorry.
5Church | Charleston, SC