A WINNING CONCEPT

BY WENDY SWAT SNYDER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

In Charleston, the competition for hearts and stomachs is fierce. The Holy City has been attracting national attention and culinary talent ever since Hurricane Hugo ushered in a renaissance that raised the bar for Southern food throughout the region. New restaurants with a fresh take on classic Lowcountry dishes began to appear. Leading the way was Magnolias, opened by Hospitality Management Group, Inc. (HMGI) in 1990. Blossom followed three years later.

This year, as Blossom turned a spry 25, HMGI owner T.J. Parsell unveiled a new oyster bar room and updated the interior to celebrate the eatery’s successful reign on East Bay Street’s bustling restaurant row. It’s an achievement he doesn’t take for granted.

“The competition in this city is so tough,” says Parsell. “You don’t get a lot of chances with diners. It may sound simple, but you have to consistently impress them with good food and good service, every time they visit.”

Executive chef Adam Close agrees. “You can’t rest on your laurels. I pay a lot of attention to what is going on inside Blossom and at other restaurants. I try to offer our diners what the other guys don’t. You have to cook what people want, not what you want to cook.”

A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Close began his culinary career at the age of 15 working as a dishwasher. He moved up to the Magnolias kitchen while attending Johnson & Wales University when the culinary school was based in Charleston. After graduation, he headed to Atlanta where he worked under chef Gary Donlick at the renowned Pano’s and Paul’s, honing his skills at the old-school continental-style eatery.

Close returned to HMGI in 2006, this time as executive chef at Blossom, where the menu was beginning to pivot away from its original Mediterranean-style concept, which offered mainly wood-fired craft pizzas and pasta dishes from an exhibition kitchen, to seafood.

“When I joined Blossom my background in Italian cooking was a good fit during the transition to seafood,” explains Close. “We wanted to make sure committing to seafood was the right choice.”

Today, seafood dominates a menu that features top-selling dishes such as mahimahi— pan roasted and perched atop a bed of “purloo,” a Charleston classic. Close likens it to a creamy Italian risotto garnished with butter-poached shrimp and tomato butter.

“The mahi-mahi has been on the menu since I started,” he says. “It’s light, easy to eat and readily available.” He says most of Blossom’s seafood is purchased from local vendors Crosby’s Seafood and Lowcountry Shellfish, Inc.

The oyster bar followed naturally on the success of the seafood concept, adding a new dimension to Blossom that solidifies its identity and gives diners another unique dining experience.

“We thought it was important to have a part of the restaurant dedicated to the concept,” says Parsell.

Housed in a former dining area adjacent to the foyer, the intimate, stylish room draws on Blossom’s Mediterranean origins, incorporating dark marble, tile and deepsea blues—all visible through large windows that front East Bay Street. This, according to Parsell, puts the oyster bar “front and center.”

“We wanted the oyster bar to have its own identity,” explains Charleston architect David Thompson, whose firm was charged with the design of the room.

In the main dining area, Thompson’s team redesigned the lighting for the expansive space and its soaring beamed ceilings. They added decorative mirrors to walls, privacy screens on the banquettes and fresh paint throughout.

When I visited with a friend on a recent spring evening, we found just the right balance of attentiveness and privacy. We started with tuna poke from the raw bar—a bright dish of fresh crudo tossed in a seaweed salad and flavored with a hint of sesame oil, all of which we scooped from plate to mouth on house-made corn chips.

We couldn’t resist a bowl of steamed middleneck clams, also from the raw bar menu. Bite-size and sweet, they arrived floating in a delicious broth of white wine, garlic butter and bacon. The selection of raw oysters varies with availability. During our visit the menu featured Long Island Bluepoints, New Brunswick Beausoleils, Prince Edward Island Pink Moons and Broad River Blades, briny favorites from Beaufort, South Carolina.

From the list of daily specials we chose broiled sea scallops, which came to the table with a perfect golden char. They were accompanied by roasted fingerling potatoes, local pea shoots and watermelon radish in a light, lovely lemon-basil vinaigrette.

Blossom’s shrimp and grits showcased perfectly cooked crustaceans in a tasso gravy flecked with spicy andouille sausage and served over grits made extra silky with cream cheese.

Banana pudding, ubiquitous in the South and often pedestrian, was a standout. It featured a ramekin filled with a deep layer of frothy cream that gave way to a layer of banana at its base. Executive pastry chef Mallory Ellis leads the dessert program for both Blossom and Magnolias. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of Charleston, she says she enjoys adding her own twist to the staples people love.

There is a lot to love about Blossom. The new raw bar, vibrant dining room and gracious courtyard for alfresco seating combine with an always fresh take on Southern classics. Blossom will win your heart, every time.

Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer and marketing consultant.