Sherry has lately enjoyed a very minor resurgence in big city bars – the New York Times a few months ago noted “a renewed interest” – but the craze hasn’t yet overtaken Charleston. On a recent visit to Barsa, a bartender told me the Spanish-themed restaurant didn’t have the single sherry on its by-the-glass list.
In a 2012 New York Times column, wine critic Eric Asimov conceded that sherry is “often consigned in the public imagination to the stuffy, dusty sitting room, or to the after-dinner drinks selection.” But that perception hasn’t slowed the growth of sherry bars in London, where drinkers have taken up the continental tradition of sipping sherry with Marcona almonds and Spanish ham.
Brooks Reitz, former manager of The Ordinary, thinks sherry is equally suited to a culture seeped in boiled peanuts and barbecue. He’s devising a “decent selection” of sherries for St. Alban, the European-style café he’s hoping to open at 710 King Street before year’s end.
“In terms of flavor, it’s so singular,” Reitz says. “I find that it’s like savory and salty and a little sweet, and when I think of it, my mouth waters.”
The Ordinary, FIG, Husk and McCrady’s offer sherries, but Reitz worries the low-alcohol beverage is “lost in the shuffle” at restaurants with elaborate cocktail programs and significant spirit inventories. He envisions sherry playing a more central role at St. Alban, which will only serve wine, fortified wine and apertifs.
“You have olives or almonds and a glass of sherry,” Reitz says. “It’s such a simple, civilized thing. I’ve really grown to love it.”
St. Alban will operate as an all-day café. Reitz and partner Tim Mink, who’ve formed a restaurant concept and design consultancy, studiously avoid referring to St. Alban as a coffee shop for fear patrons will think they should only visit in the morning. (The name was selected for its European connotations, but Reitz says the café doesn’t have any affiliation with the beheaded British martyr.) The owners would much prefer they return in the afternoon or evening for sherry and cheese, or a bottle of wine to share with friends.
Reitz and Mink are also developing Leon’s, another project first announced by Charleston City Paper. Reitz calls the venue at 698 King St. “more of a proper restaurant,” but he doesn’t anticipate the dining room will entirely shed its paint-and-autobody past. He describes the concept as a “scruffy fried chicken and fish joint with cheap beer and expensive Champagne.”
“That’s such a storied pairing, and there’s nowhere to get it,” Reitz says. “You can get fried chicken at Martha Lou’s, but they don’t serve any beer or wine or anything.”
Leon’s chef hasn’t yet been announced, but Reitz says they’re now conducting tastings with “someone who’s got (fried chicken) history in their family.”
In addition to chicken and fish, the restaurant will serve raw and chargrilled oysters. It’s scheduled to open early next year.