Low Country, High Expectations

“I grew up on the water,” says The Lantern Executive Chef Casey Maness. Photo by Tim Robison

“I grew up on the water,” says The Lantern Executive Chef Casey Maness. Photo by Tim Robison

If Little Rainbow Row in Flat Rock is the pocket version of the historic Battery in Charleston, repping the centuries-old connection between the two locales, then The Lantern Restaurant & Bar may become Hendersonville’s version of S.N.O.B. (“Slightly North of Broad”), Charleston’s memorably named downtown bistro — and a standout of Southern coastal cuisine in a city known for its restaurants.

Antebellum planters founded Flat Rock as a well-appointed summer escape from Low Country heat: their architectural imprint and blanket of gentility still shapes the town, 150 years after Appomattox. And The Lantern reignites the link — the restaurant segues in from the outdoor deck at the Charleston Inn Bed & Breakfast, re-christened late last year by Shelle Rogers and David Payne, who are restoring portions of the inn’s interior — as well as one of its earlier designations. Built in 1880 as the Smith-Green House, the three-story grand dame became the Charleston Boarding House in 1906, then endured a spate of name changes — most recently the Claddagh Inn — and some colorful history: in 1916, the inn was purchased by Confederate veteran L.R. Chewning, reportedly a gangland pal of Jesse James.

A century on, Rogers and Payne are influencing the inn to live up to its full Charlestonian potential. A white-columned double verandah gives way to a languidly posh interior — brass bits and mirrored accents; scarlet and black upholstery; wide plank floors below and tasseled, slow-moving ceiling fans above; and wisps of white curtains like sun-bleached sea oats. Happily, no bits of seashore kitsch wreck all this savvy curation.

After all, Executive Chef Casey Maness carries the sea in her blood, noting to Bold Life, “I grew up on the water” — including living on various lakes in NC and vacationing on the coasts of both Carolinas, where the family went deep-sea fishing. Maness joined the Coast Guard at age 19 and was sent to “a culinary boot camp of sorts” in Petaluma, California. “Six months of 18-hour days cooking for [up to] 700 people. I was 20 years old, and it was a reality check for sure, but it was a great experience.”

Her cooking remains moored in her southerly roots, however. “In the South,” she notes, “nothing happens without food.” Maness presents a menu that clocks all of the mainstays of Charleston food culture — shrimp with Geechie Boy Grits sourced from Edisto Island, She Crab soup, rich cheese dip (Maness’s version is smoky and bacon-infused), and “dirty rice” — traditionally, white rice flavored with chicken giblets and spices.

Photo by Tim Robison

Photo by Tim Robison

The latter dish is more commonly claimed by New Orleans than Charleston, proving another connection — that of the two ancient seaside Southern cities, where the catch of the day remains king (here, it’s provided by Inland Seafood, which zooms in fish overnight from the coast). While sturdily hewing to the Charleston motif, Maness offers several seafood mainstays that have frankly become too classic to regionalize: Oysters Rockefeller and a Louisiana Gumbo are among the small-plate selections, and Shrimp Etouffee and Crab Cakes make the main board.

“Southern cooks have always drawn on a mix of our heritage — Native American, European, and African,” notes Maness. “You find many dishes that are meant to be shared throughout Louisiana and Charleston alike. It’s about gathering as family, sharing a dish, sharing a story.”

The Etoufee entrée swims in a smoky dark roux with a high top note of wine — reminding the diner that France is, after all, the antecedent of all these rich delights. And the Crab Cakes are a triumph — shaped from SC blue crab, served dramatically in a hot skillet, and generously proportioned (none of those half-dollar-sized cakes that disappoint elsewhere) without being one whiff too dense.

A list of signature house cocktails includes the Charleston Breeze (cucumber vodka, fresh lime juice, lemon-lime soda and house-made pineapple-basil simple syrup) — plus three profoundly decadent “liquid desserts,” most notably the Key Lime Pie Martini (whipped vodka, Liquor 43, fresh lime juice, cream, and a graham-cracker rim).

The solid sweets include a bourbon pecan pie, a classic cheesecake, and a flourless chocolate cake purported to be topped with a raspberry ganache — the night Bold Life was there, the ganache had changed form into a simple scattering of fresh raspberries — and pink Himalayan sea salt.

The Lantern’s seasonal produce is chosen from farmers in NC and SC, but when it comes to the go-local imperative, Maness always opts for authenticity over proximity. Her andouille, for instance, comes from the famed Cochon Butchery in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

“To me, when you source what matters locally, that’s the number-one thing,” says Maness. “I’m not going out looking for local salt.”

The Lantern Restaurant & Bar is located at 755 North Main St. in Hendersonville, inside the Charleston Inn. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 11:30am-9pm. Call 828-513-5033 for reservations. thecharleston.net

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