“Our goal is to have people feel good when they leave, but not necessarily know why,” Patrick Whalen, owner of 5Church says to me. Based on the restaurant’s rave reviews, that strategy is clearly working. I, however, am not going to be lulled by any epicurean hocus-pocus. I might feel really good when I leave your restaurant, sir. But I will know why. With that mystery to solve, my husband, Watson, er, William, and I schedule dinner for two. The game is afoot.
For the uninitiated, 5Church is a funky restaurant housed in the old Mariner’s Church on Market Street. When we enter, it’s clear we’re not in shrimp ‘n’ grits territory anymore. Soaring stained glass windows give the restaurant a Sainte-Chapelle glow, while polished concrete and black banquets provide a visual anchor. It’s masculine enough for a business dinner but romantic enough for date night.
The most striking element of 5Church is the ceiling. The entire text of The Art of War, a fifth-century treatise that contains more life wisdom than war strategy, has been painted in white letters on a stark black ceiling. “Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness,” one passage reads. Hmm. That sounds like “make people feel good without being obvious.”
Other passages read: “There is only we,” an allusion to the restaurant’s fierce devotion to teamwork, and “To expand your territory you must divide the spoils,” a nod to their profit-sharing culture and structure. I realize this isn’t randomly chosen text; it’s a manifesto.
Our server, Alyssa, is ready for every question I have about the food, wine and the history of the building. Pro tip: If your server can talk about a fifth-century text, architecture, wine and black sea salt in one breath, put your napkin on your lap and eat whatever she brings.
That’s just what we do, though we give her subtle clues such as “we’re hungry” and “wine is good.” She smiles and says, “I have some ideas,” then makes for the kitchen with a stop at the bar. Alyssa returns with life-saving cocktails and a plate of complimentary hummus and baked lavash. We feel happy already.
Next, she brings an appetizer of cured ahi tuna served on slices of fresh pineapple, with pine nuts, hoisin, cilantro, pickled poblano peppers and volcanic sea salt. The combination of flavors is so well balanced that I would gladly eat this dish every meal, every day, for the rest of my life. We also share a beet salad served with whipped local feta, satsuma oranges, honey, granola and pistachios. About the time the earthy flavor of the beets starts to fade, the creamy tang of the feta kicks in. It’s a brilliant combination.
It’s time for wine, and the list features beloved domestic selections, plus choices from the volcanic regions of Italy that oenophiles love to see on a menu. Patricia Smith, a level two sommelier, has put together a collection that goes deep and wide. The wine selections are diverse, which mirrors the menu and philosophy of executive chef Adam Hodgson, who has just arrived with our entrées.
A graduate of Johnson & Wales in Charleston, Hodgson knows Lowcountry cuisine. However, he’s also lived and cooked in other places, such as North Carolina and Colorado, which gives him a larger reservoir of culinary inspiration. Hodgson designs the seasonal menus under the loose guidance of the restaurant’s chef partner, Jaime Lynch.
When I ask him about his creative process, he says he works purely on inspiration. “I look at what’s available locally first,” he says, “then I think about what I can do to make that ingredient stand out. I like to approach a dish first in the way you would have had it prepared when you were a child, but then do it completely differently.”
Chef brings me sea scallops artfully plated on a river of butternut puree with large, fresh local peas placed to resemble pebbles. It’s topped with red pepper jam, Dijon pepper foam and Italian sausage for a buttery, sweet, spicy, tangy flavor profile.
William has the signature “60 Second” New York strip. The steak is heavily seared on one side for about 15 minutes so it develops a thick, flavorful crust on the bottom while remaining medium rare on top. It’s served with carrot puree and crispy potatoes. Dessert is warm beignets with Nutella, cinnamon, white chocolate drizzle and mint. They are crispy outside and fluffy inside—everything a beignet should be.
From décor to service to cuisine, the more I take in, the more I realize how much thought went into creating a cohesive culinary story at every turn. There are dozens of details I don’t have room to tell you about, and even more that few people will ever notice. My advice? Put yourself in the capable hands of the chef and server, take time to enjoy the thoughtful surprises and surrender to the captivating mysteries of 5Church.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.