East Meets West

BY WENDY SWAT SNYDER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

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Our Lowcountry winters provide just enough chill to make me crave a rich cassoulet while consumed in a cozy banquette with a friend or two. Who doesn’t love the homey comfort of chicken and dumplings—braised slowly into heartwarming heaven and served bistro style? Union Provisions fills the bill, combining laid-back West Coast chic and time-honored techniques to bring guests an American spin on the traditional French brasserie.

The eatery’s name references Union Street—one of San Francisco’s favorite playgrounds for shopping and dining, and itself a mix of Victorian and contemporary chic. The provisions stores of the past inspired the rest of the name and drove the choice of a historic property, which had suffered from years of disuse, for the new Upper King Street restaurant’s home.

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Because the building had the feeling of a corner store, which is what it had been in its last incarnation, the owners—one a South Carolina native and the other from San Francisco—say the property was a natural choice. It was “what they were going for.” The year-and-a-half-long restoration unearthed the bones of a 1920s bank replete with elaborate cornices, pediments, crown moldings, glazed brick and coffered ceilings. The start-up team was able to repurpose most of these original elements.

“As the space developed, it grew more beautiful,” recalls general manager Trevor Stephens, who is a recent transplant from New York City, where he ran En, a Japanese brasserie in the West Village.

The property also lent itself naturally to the owners’ vision of a cross-coastal eatery. “There’s a certain San Francisco vibe to the place,” observes Stephens. He adds that it’s the type of place where you can have a really nice meal, but at the same time, it’s comfortable and convivial—great for a date night.

Inside the restaurant, original brick walls and beams pay homage to century-old roots. Reclaimed heart pine is now a triple wine rack in the bar. In the hall behind the wine case, hang the original bank doors. White tile throughout the dining areas faithfully replicates brasserie-style flooring.

The owners point out that the renovation was “very grass roots”—every person on the project was local. Charleston-based Thompson Young Design led the architectural team. Restorer Lance Dillon worked on the original plaster ceilings.

A West Coast vibe is also present in the kitchen, where executive chef Chari Skinner’s experience with diverse cuisines influences every dish. A native of upstate New York, Skinner left her comfort zone at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, D.C., to take on the sous chef role at the five-star luxury resort, The Lodge at Koele, on the island of Lanai, Hawaii.

“There’s a huge Asian influence in Hawaii,” notes Skinner. “My exposure to that ties into the San Francisco connection of one of the owners.”

There, she learned to appreciate the balance between island life and local cuisine and parlayed that understanding into a unique dining experience for guests. She brought that aesthetic to Union Provisions, working closely with local farmers and fishermen as she helped develop the direction of the kitchen.

“It was really exciting for me,” she says, recalling the camaraderie of the start-up team. “I was able to influence kitchen operations from the ground up. It builds and disciplines you.”

Skinner’s style and seasonality are showcased in the restaurant’s winter menu with additions that reflect the Lowcountry harvest. Union Provisions participates in the Southern Foodways Alliance and sources products from Blackbird Farms, St. Jude’s Farm (the snapper) and GrowFood Carolina.

“I love using colors that pop—we eat with our eyes,” notes Skinner. “What we do in the kitchen is a craft. We strive to celebrate what’s fresh and local, and make food taste amazing, not unrecognizable.”

My recent meal here started with the crunch of a shared bowl of lightly fried, whole chickpeas—a simple but unique snack that was addictive. Also habit-forming was a shared dish involving shishito peppers and sweet chorizo sausage.

A warm steamer basket filled with plump pot stickers followed: The tender dumplings are stuffed with rich duck confit and finished with scallion and sweet chili sauce. Also offered is a dumpling filled with handchopped local shrimp and shrimp mousse. The char siu pork steamed bun is a signature dish and a San Francisco classic.

Next out was tomato tartare—the kitchen’s answer to a request for meat-and dairyfree dishes for the vegan among us. Finely chopped bits of fresh tomato were molded to mimic the shape and color of steak tartare. The plate also offered wild arugula, sunchoke chips and haricot verts dressed with an agave and sherry vinaigrette.

From the listing of mains came another West Coast classic: cioppino, a deep bowl brimming with local clams, shrimp, white fish and scallops. Redolent with the spicy earthiness of a chorizo-laden tomato sauce, it was accompanied by crunchy crostini for soaking up the gravy.

“We didn’t want to limit ourselves,” notes Skinner, “so we have expanded the menu to include entrée items along with the shared dishes. The options are endless—we play with the smaller sized portions and unique items.”

The seasonal fish is a pan-seared snapper from local waters served with frenched local beans, leeks and a spiced citrus fumet.

The popular rabbit trio is a combination of prosciutto-wrapped loin, frenched rabbit ribs and braised rabbit leg. It’s served on a roasted sweet potato mash with sautéed Swiss chard and a muscadine grape reduction.

The pasta offering is a carbonara dish flavored with a duck bacon preparation of boneless thigh meat that’s been salt-cured and smoked for two hours.

On the horizon for the eatery is more expansion: Union Provisions is planning a soon-to-come daily lunch menu.

“It’s been great being in Charleston,” observes Skinner. “The city has so much energy based around food—it’s always a topic of conversation.”

Needless to say, Charlestonians stand ready, fork in hand, to sample something new!

Wendy Swat Snyder is a freelance writer and public relations consultant based in Charleston. Email Wendy at wendyswatsnyder@gmail.com.