Recently I had a chance to stop by 5Church, a new addition to the Market Street area downtown. Market Street, as locals know, is generally known as a hub of tourist activity, and after dark the streets fill with 20-somethings stumbling between one of the many bars lining the street. For oldies like me who were a part of that scene oh, I don’t know, a decade or more ago, you might remember 5Church as being the old Mad River Brewing Company. Yep, that place. The place where you drank yards of beer and left your dignity behind.
Gloriously, the new 5Church doesn’t look anything like the old Mad River Brewing Company. Inside, the atmosphere has a hallowed, almost haunting feeling, with exposed beams and the entire text of Sun Tzu’s Art of War hand-inscribed on the ceiling. We dined late on a Monday evening, so the restaurant was understandably empty. Nevertheless, I could easily see how this cavernous space could easily absorb a crowd. It seemed like 5Church is a fitting name, even though the restaurant originally gets its moniker from its address in its original Charlotte, North Carolina location.
As for the menu, I liked seeing classic Charleston touches to its New American-centric menu, with local oysters, fish and grits woven throughout the dishes. Main courses seem to cover all the bases, from roasted lamb ($29) to seared sea scallops ($31). From the layout of the menu, though, it’s abundantly clear that you should, first and foremost, consider 5Church a place to get a good steak. But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk about the appetizers.
The absolute must-try appetizer on the menu are the broiled local oysters. Actually, let me stop and say this: if it’s ONE reason you stop by 5Church, it’s for this dish. At $13 for 2 oysters, it’s not a cheap dish, nor will it be a filling one, but still. I think it’s worth it. The oysters are broiled with a dollop of Anson Mills grits, topped with a quail egg yolk and garnished with freshly shaved truffles and Bulls Bay red marsh salt. It’s everything Charleston should be in one, ridiculously tasty bite. I think I may have eaten oysters in every way possible in Charleston, and I have to say that — besides raw with a cold beer on the back of boat — this is one of my favorite prepared versions. Stop by, order a beer at the bar, and get yourself these broiled oysters. Close your eyes while you’re eating them, and I swear you’ll feel everything you’ve ever felt about our grand city in that one bite.
After those oysters, I needed a minute, but the wait staff, ever brisk and friendly in their service, had already moved on. The Prime “60 Second” NY Strip Steak arrived at our table, a vibrantly red piece of meat that looked like someone had turned my steak inside out, with the medium-rare that I’d ordered on the outside of the steak and a thick, righteously caramelized crust on the bottom. Our server explained that 5Church’s steaks are “painted” in rendered beef fat before they’re seared on the grill, which gives the exterior an extra-crunchy crust (side note: the kitchen calls this rendered fat the “Bob Ross” after the acclaimed painting instructor from PBS. I found this fact delightful). The “60 Second” steak gets its name from the fact that it’s only ever seared on one side, instead of flipped for an even sear on both sides. The meat is continuously cooked on that side until the rest of the steak reaches a medium rare temperature, giving the diner more of the juicy, warm red center that’s so coveted in a steak experience. I loved this method, but I think it only works because of the extra juicy, extra crispy crust that the “Bob Ross” gave to the meat. If you’re only getting one side of crust on your steak, that crust has to be outstanding. Luckily, in 5Church’s case, it was.
As for dessert, even though by this time I was so full of steak and blissed out on my oyster experience that I could barely eat anything else. The clear standout was the pretzel bar ($8), a sweet/savory chocolate bar with crunchy wafers reminiscent of a Kit-Kat bar. A smooth, velvety ganache enrobed a salty-crunchy interior, and the house made vanilla gelato was a wonderful, creamy contrast. A month later, I'm still craving that dessert. And that steak. Oh, and definitely, definitely those oysters.