We had just devoured the last bite of Pavlova (more about that later) and were ready for a little exercise when executive chef Josh Keeler stepped away from the exhibition kitchen and appeared at our table, offering to take us on a tour of 492.
Keeler had spent the past couple of hours ushering us through a multicourse sampling of some of the restaurant’s signature dishes, happy to field questions and recommend options. My partner and I had dined in the more intimate rear dining area, ensconced in whimsical wing chairs straight from Alice in Wonderland. The front of the eatery is made up of three sections: a line of banquettes, long community tables and a swanky bar with views of King and Mary streets. The renovation of the original 19th-century property in the popular Upper King Street district was the work of Reggie Gibson Architects. It blends historical elements with clean, contemporary finishes, such as starburst lighting, leather seating and a cool gray/oxblood color palette. Natural wood plank walls and stoneware dishes add a warm, rustic vibe.
“The entire project took almost three and a half years—from initial concept to finding the right property, then the designing and planning for a historical renovation and expansion,” says Dave Bucks, director of operations for Relish Restaurant Group.
Outside we found a lush courtyard, perfect for dining alfresco to live music on Thursdays and Sundays. “This is our happy place,” Keeler tells us as he leads the way through the courtyard and into a narrow space behind the restaurant. “We all enjoy taking a break and coming outside to pull a few weeds,” he adds with a smile. Wide flats and tall hydroponic vats burst with several types of basil, chrysanthemum and lettuce plants, which fill the urban farm.
The second floor of the eatery provides additional seating and venues for private entertaining. Here we saw many of the building’s original architectural elements— beautiful double French doors, hardwood beams and exposed brick. A rooftop patio expands the dining area and affords breathtaking views of the Holy City.
It’s been less than a year since Keeler— former Two Boroughs Larder owner and three-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast award— joined the team at 492 and brought to the mix the “big view,” a hands-on approach that comes with having owned your own restaurant. “We felt Josh, with his strong focus on local sourcing, was a good fit for our concept,” explains Bucks.
After Keeler’s arrival 492’s menu underwent a complete restructuring. The chef has taken a contemporary American approach to classic fare, reinventing the menu to make it more casual and approachable. There are also more entrée-size dishes.
The Pennsylvania native earned his degree at the New England Culinary Institute, where he discovered his passion for farm to table.
“In Vermont, it’s a way of life,” notes Keeler. “You buy eggs from your neighbors. You know where a vegetable is from, how it was grown.”
Keeler’s focus on the integrity of ingredients led to his discovery of heirloom products, which he found to have “a better flavor profile.”
“I started to look for Lowcountry staples, like colonialera benne seed,” he adds, with a tip of the hat to Sean Brock of Husk, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill. “They’re the ones who introduced heirloom products to us in the first place.”
Keeler says the kitchen staff works closely with farmers and fishers to anticipate when their products will be available. With this knowledge they can design their dishes at least two weeks ahead.
“This allows us to fully embrace the ingredient as it comes into season,” Keeler notes.
Our culinary tour started with a raw course of sashimi tuna and Wagyu beef tartare—tiny bites of flavorful meat brightened with citrus and fresh coriander. A spring pea soup followed. It was light and sweet, full of crunchy pea pods and garnished with some of the shrimp Keeler enjoys picking up himself from the Shem Creek Geechie dock in nearby Mount Pleasant.
Small plates and refreshing salads were next. Tender grilled squid had a smoky, charred flavor and a toothsome bite. New potatoes had the characteristic crunchy thin skin of never-cellared young spuds. They were served with a delicious cheddar fondue.
A bracing watercress salad was finished with baby marigold blossoms from the kitchen garden. Meyer lemon, heirloom benne seed and a dusting of cured egg yolk delivered great depth of flavor to a dish simply called “lettuces.”
A stew of ocean-fresh flounder, shrimp, mussels and clams was crave-worthy. The rich broth was flavored with sweet juices extracted from local tomatoes and peppers, a dash of wine, and a touch of heat and herbs.
We finished with an almond blueberry Pavlova: a heavenly cloud of crunchy meringue crowned with fresh fruit, white chocolate and slivered almonds. This perfectly executed dish, one you rarely see in Charleston, was the perfect final bite to an amazing meal.
Our culinary tour at 492 provided a refreshing take on menu classics—one we will return for, and soon.
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer and marketing consultant.