My childhood memories of summer always included barbecue. It was a way of life at the “Jersey Shore.” And, barbecue still remains one of my great sensory stimulators. Of course, it wasn’t until I moved to South Carolina that I learned that barbecue is, in fact, a noun, not a verb. So, these days I must clarify … when I want barbecue it means I want to hear burgers and ‘dogs sizzling on the grill. I want to see smoke and flames. I want to smell a little grizzle burning on the grill grates.
Luckily I am not the only one who feels this way. Enter Hilton Head native and Executive Chef, Charles Pejeau. He had cooked in some pretty sweet kitchens (including the Inn at Palmetto Bluff) before he “took the gamble” and jumped on board with his partners at CharBar Co. (located in Park Plaza, just before the entrance to Sea Pines). And, it was a tough decision to make the leap, he says. “The first thing they tell you in culinary school is not to open a restaurant in a space that has seen a lot of restaurant turnover.” But, that is exactly what he and his partners did, about ten months ago, and it looks like the gamble is paying off. “You know what I love about Charles is that this is more than a job to him; it’s a way of life. You can see it in the way he approaches his food and the flavors he produces; this is a labor of love,” says Brandon Carter, Executive Chef, Palmetto Bluff.
To tell the story accurately, it was only fair that I taste-test my way through the menu to ensure accuracy. In fairness to my spouse, he came with me. Even before I ate anything I was wooed by the wall of vinyl. As in vintage musical discs baring labels that tout the likes of Crystal Gayle, Carly Simon, Your Favorite Christmas Carols, and the North Carolina State College Symphonic Band, among the 179 (yes, we counted). I was also secretly digging the framed Michael Jackson album cover across the way. Coincidentally, that had been the inspiration for one of my pre-teen birthday parties. (True story. Sadly.)
Large booths and ample bar space make it easy to settle in and make a night of it. Here, many a reveler enjoys happy hour (every day 4 -7 p.m.). An outdoor bar and seating area play host to the live music that plays five to six nights a week. I hadn’t even had anything to eat yet, and I was a happy camper.
As we perused the menu, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they have local brew, River Dog, on tap. We started testing the IPA, and we were on our way. For the good of this piece and my loyal readers, it only seemed appropriate that we try some of the starters, so that I could give you a true picture of what the menu has to offer. Alas, we couldn’t come to consensus (on purpose), so we chose CharBar Cheese Fries and Buttermilk Chicken Wings. The cheese fries are hand-cut, fried to perfection – crisp on the outside and soft in the center – and topped with cheddar, pimento, huge (I mean huge!) chunks of bacon, chives and a spicy ranch dressing. I probably don’t need to elaborate further, but I’ll tell you that these fries are why Idaho potato farmers become potato farmers. But, I don’t want to hurt the wings’ feelings; frankly, they are pretty special on their own. Chef says they are simply battered in buttermilk, and dredged in flour with seasoning, but I’d swear there is a secret ingredient in there. They come out searing hot, in a good way. You know these were made to order: the chicken is smoking, and the plate is not. They sit next to a cool side of rosemary honey pepper vinegar. I wasn’t sure about the vinegar, but it was a surprisingly perfect complement. Cool. Crisp. Quite clever, actually.
Knowing I was on a mission to burger bliss, I saved room and packed up the extra starters to go. The “signatures” on the menu include a Portobello veggie option, a grilled chicken melt and a buttermilk chicken BLT. But, all I was thinking was “where is the beef?” Well, it hails from local farms in North and South Carolina where cows are corn-fed. Pejeau and team grind fresh beef every day. Every day. And, now I know why, but I am getting ahead of myself.
We opted for the “build your own burger” options and proceeded to pick our protein (beef, veggie or shrimp), cheese, fixings and bun (of which, there are six options.) Even though I had heard from a good source (the photographer of this piece, who I guess was snacking on the job) that the shrimp burger was amazing, I was there for the beef. I went old-school with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, extra pickles, on a sourdough bun, with a side of slaw (because I hadn’t had enough “sides” yet …) To say that this burger was juicy would be an understatement. This was drip-down-your-arms juicy. So much so that I was halfway through before I realized I hadn’t even put on any ketchup; it didn’t need it! According to Pejeau, “The burgers are so moist because they grind fresh every day.” Juicy tidbit indeed.
My dad always said that a good Italian restaurant can be judged on bread alone. I agree. I also believe that every other restaurant can be judged on its cole slaw. (I’m weird.) And, CharBar’s was spot on. Mayonnaise-based, but with enough vinegar to remind you that you’re in the south. Just how I like it.
My hubby went for the beef too and added cheddar and crispy potatoes (thin slivers of potato, fried). For the bun, he chose a pretzel roll. Yup, a pretzel roll. Now, you know I ripped a piece of that baby off immediately. And, it was soft, and warm, and everything a New York street vendor pretzel is not. I had a momentary vision of just ordering the bun with a side of spicy mustard, and I may have to do just that on my next trip.
We had had quite a bit to eat at this point, but bless our waiter’s heart; Adam must be used to folks over-indulging. He didn’t even flinch when we toyed with the idea of dessert. I had planned that if I had any room left in my belly, I would be gunning for the house-made ice cream sandwiches: a trio of homemade cookies stuffed with ice cream (and inspired by Palmetto Bluff Pastry Chef, Ashley Cope), and made to order. But alas, I gathered my wits about me and simply ordered a “kids’” root beer float, to go. The “adult” versions are spiked with Absolut Vanilla, and the menu tempts you with double chocolate, grasshopper and Island vanilla options. Next time.
Adam’s final recommendation was a nap. He hadn’t steered us wrong yet. Well played, my friend, well played.
Written by Courtney Hampson