According to the Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, the dynamic duo responsible for some of the best restaurants in Memphis, Sean Brock, famed chef of Husk in Charleston, was—at least in 2015—not the best chef in the South. Ok. They didn’t say that per se, but the quick glance they shot each other when I blabbered on about wanting to eat Brock’s food did. They knew Sean, had cooked side by side with him, probably got whiskey blind with him at James Beard Award parties. And most importantly, like all chefs who swim in the celebrity pool, they’d probably eaten plenty of his food.
According to other respectable voices in the upper ranks too, Brock was becoming a face to be etched into the gastronomic Mount Rushmore. Tony Bourdain, who in 2015 deemed Sean Brock the “most important American chef practicing today”, spoke about him with a reverence he reserved for chefs like Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller. Sporting a worn baseball cap emblazoned with ‘Make Cornbread Not War” on it, Sean Brock was the new South personified. He lacked pretense, cared about farmers and spoke simple like a redneck. At a time when southern food was gaining prominence, he became the “it” chef.
“If you want the best food in the South, you gotta go to Fig or The Ordinary in Charleston. Mike Lata is the best cook in the South, hands down,” Hudman said. Ticer tacitly agreed. Turning from potential employers (I was interviewing for the chef job at Hog and Hominy) to fanboys, the pair then ran down a list of favorite Lata dishes like giddy teenage girls discussing Ariana Grande. From that moment on, making the pilgrimage to Lata-land was the North Star on our culinary travel constellation.
Walking around Charleston in the pandemic summer of 2020, one got the impression that—although risk was everywhere—food snobs were going to have their “space potatoes,” beet panna cotta and “tastings of six East Coast oysters” come hell, high-water or hospital visit. While it’s true that most restaurants in town weren’t at usual summer capacity, there were still plenty of long lines spilling into the cobblestone streets waiting to score socially distanced tables.
We were in Charleston for a week. It’s a testament to The Ordinary’s reputation that we were squeezed into the only available slot—an eight-thirty reservation—on our last night in town. Having rendered every other chef-driven restaurant on our two month long culinary odyssey half-empty, COVID-19 bounced off The Ordinary’s reservation book like an overcooked shrimp.
Located in an old bank building, Mike Lata’s The Ordinary celebrates Charleston’s “merroir”, a tongue in cheek mashup of “marine” and “terroir”. The Ordinary, in other words, is Mike Lata’s ode to the amazing seafood central to the low country. And sweet Jesus, did he get it right. At the end of our two-and-a-half-hour meal, I had a new hero.
I’ll start this unsolicited review off by saying Kristin and I are harsh. We judge everything with a critical palate and eye. From cocktails, to sauces, to entrée temperatures, if what we put in our mouths isn’t perfect, we go back and forth about how, whatever it is, could be improved. If I’m paying 29 bucks for a fluke crudo with smoked air and peanut slaw, damn right I’m going to be vocal if things don’t measure up to the hype. Fair or not, we try to hold ourselves to the same standards when we cook in a restaurant, so criticism is a natural extension of our work. We will be the first to tell you, we almost never get it right ourselves. So, whatever I say, write, don’t say should be taken with a grain of salt.
Sometimes however—and it’s rare—a restaurant will bowl a perfect game, pitch a no-hitter, put out food and drink so transcendent it goes beyond criticism. I’m talking a one in a hundred experience here. Typically, when we dine out there’s at least one dish that misses the mark on seasoning, acidity or flavor. That’s why our experience at The Ordinary stands out as The Benchmark. Every bite from beginning to end, every cocktail, every word uttered from our attentive server was, to put it bluntly, perfection.
Heeding the advice of our bubbly attendant, we opted to start things off with the Oyster Sliders with nuoc cham and Fresno mayonnaise on a Hawaiian roll. Marrying heritage and cheffy wizardry, the two shiny sweet rolls filled with pickled vegetables, homemade sriracha mayo, crunchy oysters placed before us were the arguably the best oyster preparation we’d had as a couple. This may seem like a toss off, but I’m comparing this slider to the Cochon’s epic Wood-Grilled Oysters with Chili-Garlic Butter, a dish so complex and packed with good memories that knocking it off Mount Olympus seemed (previously) like blasphemy.
Next, we devoured a ubiquitous sounding smoked fish rillettes with pickled vegetables and house made saltines. A starter that has more often than not left me feeling disappointed, The Ordinary’s version caused my eyes to water with joy. The fish was pureed to a mousse, enriched with crème fraiche and spiked with lemon. Simple. And the saltines? They made us smile in their purposeful imperfection. There was no way anyone could say that those misshapen little almost-squares came from a box.
I can’t come up a superlative to describe our next course. The two preceding dishes were exemplary, perfect, etc., but Mike Lata’s basic sounding New Orleans-Style BBQ White Shrimp, KY Worcestershire on Sourdough stole my heart. Perfectly seared low country shrimp bathed in a Worcestershire butter perched atop a crispy bruschetta of house-made sourdough bread fired on all cylinders. A masterful balance of acidity, salinity, freshness, texture, richness, creativity, reverence, I still feel remiss trying to describe the dish. After scarfing down the nirvana on top, we moaned our way through the butter-soaked bread. I could have, full, eaten ten more helpings. If you go, and God I’d love to have friends to commiserate with, you MUST get this dish. You will have climbed to the top of culinary Everest with the best chef in the South as your Sherpa and will evangelize, proselytize and prioritize until you’re back in that loud but elegant bank with your friends. The dish is that magnificent.
Not to be overshadowed, Lata’s Seafood Campechana with Lemongrass Ketchup, Lime Juice, Avocado and Cilantro was also a mind-numbing stunner. Arriving on our table in a familiar square white bowl, the freshest seafood on the planet co-mingled with a red sauce so tasty and flecked with massive chucks of avocado that they caused me to involuntarily reverberate in my seat. A play on the always delicious Mexican seafood cocktail, The Ordinary’s rose far above in balance and presentation.
Are you ready to book a reservation yet? Or maybe call bullshit? Just wait. I still have to describe dessert. Full and emotional we ordered the Carolina Gold Rice Pudding with Coconut and Blueberry Compote. Prior to our meal at The Ordinary, I’d never had a good rice pudding. But I knew Mike Lata’s would change that. And it did. Kristin was a little more circumspect, finding it less interesting that the rest of the meal, but for me, a devout hater, I was converted. Again, it was the technical aspects that I found the big draw. It was rich without being cloying, light, balanced and the flavors all melded into a sum greater than its constituent parts.
We capped the night off with Sercial, Rare Wine Company’s “Charleston” Madeira, effusive, drooling praise and headed out into the humid, palm tree lined streets like we’d just met The God of Food. In my decades of eating in nice restaurants, Charleston’s The Ordinary set a new mark of excellence.
And I can’t wait to go back.