Four years ago Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill quietly opened on Market Street. Though it’s done little advertising, its unusual approach combined with a reputation for remarkable food and flawless service has made it one of the most highly reviewed restaurants in Charleston.
Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill bills itself as a “modern” steakhouse, a term that has stirred some controversy in the industry. The concept is to evolve away from the typical dim, leather-clad clubs that serve oversized portions followed by bourbon and more bourbon. Instead, contemporary steakhouses are catering more to women, and a more health-conscious and ecologically minded demographic at large. Foodies, if you will. My husband and I are the perfect demographic targets. We don’t diet, but we do prefer smaller portions; we’re not vegetarians, but we only eat meat if it’s ethically sourced; and we go out for dinner regularly so we appreciate small plates and affordable entrees. We also revere the cocktail hour and consider Charleston’s creative bartenders to be national treasures.
The first thing we notice is that Burwell’s ambience has authentic Charleston flair with a perfect balance of masculine and feminine elegance. The building is a marriage between an 1897 Charleston Single House and a 1950s-era block building. Exposed beams, polished concrete, reclaimed wood and glowing Edison bulbs give this eclectic space a contemporary feel, while a two-story chandelier, sparkling tile and velvet accents keep the space from feeling too industrial.
We start at the rooftop bar where we sip a crisp, refreshing cocktail called Spring Fever while feeling sorry for the sweltering tourists below on Market Street who don’t know about this secret little nest. The bar downstairs is packed, as usual, which is one of the reasons the restaurant is a local favorite.
It’s worth mentioning that the restaurant snagged Charleston’s beloved Joe Joe Fahey, after the Speakeasy fire, as well as the talented Katie Meuli. These are the kind of bartenders who will ask you how your week is going or what you’re having for dinner then disappear to “make you something.” My Spring Fever is a combination of Reyka vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon and freshly juiced strawberry and cucumber. It’s perfect.
At last we’re ready for our table and ready to experience the artistry of Burwell’s award-winning culinary team. From the executive chef to the passionate service professionals, Burwell’s culture finds and keeps those focused on contemporary food. In fact, they are shaking up the traditional steakhouse menu.
Our server, Kathy, helps us choose dishes to share and doesn’t hesitate to recommend two perfect wine pairings. Our first dish is one of the restaurant’s signatures: a small plate of Korean BBQ pork belly with grilled scallions, kimchi and local shrimp. The pork is tender, tangy and nicely complemented by nutty sesame seeds and scallion puree.
Next is a lettuce salad from Sweet Bay Farms in Huger, South Carolina. The lettuce is just-out-of-the-earth fresh with creamy dollops of goat cheese, juicy blackberries and crunchy macadamia nuts. The balance, and the size, is exactly right.
In addition to portion sizes and ambience, owner Ken Emery briefed me on the other pillars of a modern steakhouse. “People are more casual these days, they dine out more, and they want ethically and humanely sourced food,” he says. These values are not only important to Burwell’s clientele, they’re important to Emery and coowner John Thomas, too. “We consistently get five-star ratings because our food is good, our atmosphere is relaxed, and we’re farm-to-table and nose-to-tail. We’re doing the right thing for the community,” he says. Emery is getting ready for his annual trip to Snake River Farms on the high plains of eastern Idaho. Snake River Farms supplies all of Burwell’s American Wagyu beef, and he visits the farm once a year to wrangle cattle and talk about how the restaurant can continue to respect its natural resources.
Our second course starts with seared diver scallops on a bed of local Sea Island field peas, grilled corn, tomatoes, fennel, Mepkin Abbey mushrooms and speck (ham). The combination is so delicious we fall into silence. Finally, my husband, a serious connoisseur of scallop dishes, remarks that for the first time in his memory a chef has allowed scallops to just taste like scallops.
Next we share an 8-ounce Wagyu rib eye filet, a newschool cut with a firm texture and marbled juiciness. We note that the steak is also allowed to just be a steak. There’s no diversionary sauce, no gourmet flourish, no sleight of hand. It is served with an aromatic farro salad that perfectly complements the steak’s flavor and texture.
Finally, our server presents the dessert menu. Nine times out of 10 we pass on dessert, but Chef Mark Heyward-Washington, Burwell’s renowned pastry chef, has outsmarted us. His list is so unusual and tempting that we can’t pass, and we can’t choose. Kathy steers us toward the Biscoff cookie cheesecake, which turns out to be an inspired combination of Biscoff cookies, vanilla Chantilly cream, caramel sauce, white chocolate sauce and candied Kix cereal. It’s a divine, sweet and salty finish to a delicious meal.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.