Avant-Garde in Avondale

07 May 2024

Bearcat joins a growing cadre of eateries bringing elevated dining to West Ashley

By Wendy Swat Snyder

Photos by Aleece Sophia

Charleston is recognized nationally for its vibrant culinary scene and award-winning concepts. And while foodie-worthy offerings have become ubiquitous in the suburb of Mount Pleasant and points east of the Cooper River, curiously, the area west of the Ashley has, until recently, remained a practical fine dining desert.

But options for West Ashley residents are on the rise, with new eateries like Bearcat getting the attention of the local community and beyond. Named after the binturong, a rare bear-like cat that prowls the woodlands of Asia, the restaurant claims an approach as fierce and unafraid as the bearcat.

“We give it our all—push as hard as we can,” explains George Kovach, Bearcat founder and executive chef. “We want the menu to reflect what we would want to eat when we go out, rather than doing the same thing that most restaurants do. Where I come from—when I was in Chicago and New York—you do something that sets you apart.”

A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Kovach found an affinity for food cooking at his grandmother's elbow and got his first restaurant gig at the age of 15. He discovered his passion during a trip to New York where he dined at wd~50, a leader in molecular gastronomy.

“It was some of the most creative food I'd ever witnessed,” says Kovach. “They transformed nostalgic dishes into something that was innovative and new—that's what we're trying to do at Bearcat.  We appropriate some of those techniques that may benefit a dish. A few of the dishes on the menu have zero modern technique in the preparation. We maintain a balance with dishes that some diners may find more accessible.”

That style of cooking—what Kovach calls creative contemporary American food—propelled his move to New York, where he worked to hone his technique at establishments that embraced that approach. He would move on to Chicago, working as chef de cuisine at Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant. He credits that stint for helping him develop the kind of balance that now defines his approach at Bearcat. Other credentials include opening executive pastry chef of Ever, which within a couple months garnered two Michelin stars; executive pastry chef for two Michelin-starred Acadia and executive pastry chef of one Michelin-starred Band of Bohemia.

Chef de cuisine John Coleman grew up in Clemson, South Carolina, helping in the family kitchen and working in restaurants throughout his school years. He and Kovach connected in Charleston where he'd gotten his first exposure to fine dining in the avant garde kitchen of Cordavi.

“We had similar mindsets about what we wanted to do personally from a food and restaurant standpoint—more of a grassroots approach,” says Coleman, whose Charleston credentials include Social, Edmund's Oast, 492, Chubby Fish, Parcel 32 and Longboard. “We don't want to be bound by a concept. We want to go with the flow, cook what we find interesting and balance that with the guest's expectations.”

Both reside in the West Ashley neighborhood of Avondale, and felt strongly about its vibrant nature, and the lack of elevated dining options there.

“Avondale is too close to downtown Charleston to not be represented in the casual fine dining world,” notes Coleman.

Ideas emerged for a brick-and-mortar eatery, and Kovach signed a lease for the former Al Di La restaurant property in the heart of Avondale.in 2022. With the help of a few friends, the team undertook a complete renovation, demolishing the interior, and handling 75% of the construction—such as the chef's counter—themselves. Bearcat opened in 2023 on Halloween Day, bringing to the local community what some friends describe as “punk rock fine dining.”

Gone are the standard white-cloth tables. Inside Bearcat, a minimalist design concept rules. Dark hardwoods and dim lighting dominate the cozy dining rooms and bar, evoking an intimate ambiance. Outdoor dining is offered in a garden-like setting populated by potted herbs and flowering plants.

The evening my guest and I visited Bearcat, our well-versed server, Brooke Weaver, observed that the team was so passionate, it was like working on a cooking show. Out from the exhibition kitchen came an amuse bouche—a treat reserved for diners at the chef's counter. Cue the applause. This evening it was chawan mushi, a Japanese classic that blends a savory egg custard with tiny mushrooms called honshimeji—what Kovach calls a warm soothing cold weather bowl.

“We're taking inspiration from all over the world,” he adds. Eggs hail from Storey Farms.

Next out, a shrimp salad that riffs on a green papaya salad called som tam, substituting pickled daikon and carrot radish for green papaya. The sesame profile of nuoc cham enhanced tender bites of shrimp. Nearby CudaCo. Seafood House supplies much of the kitchen's seafood.

Steamboat Creek Oyster Farm on Edisto Island supplied the main ingredient in our next course—oysters that were lightly grilled and splashed with a lovely creamed leek sauce.

Carolina Gold rice and local blue crab starred in the crab rice, chef's nod to the Lowcountry. The silky dish was well flavored with seasonal pickles and a Hollandaise sauce.

A small, shareable plate of dumplings defied convention: black sesame paste and a touch of activated charcoal colored them black—producing an exotic and unexpected visual. A cashew miso, chili and lime finished the interesting dish.

Bright notes of spring onions and green peas from Ambrose Family Farm enhanced the cavatelli—another small plate featuring housemade pasta we very much enjoyed. The vegan-friendly dish evokes the spring season with the addition of leek oil, herbs and pickles.

Our main course of swordfish was perfectly cooked and presented with a tasty succotash featuring Jackson Wonder butterbeans, fennel and olives.

A cooling dish of shaved ice wowed us with flecks of toasted coconut, pink guava, and kiwi dried using a Japanese method called hoshigaki. Every mouthful was a surprise of contrasting textures and flavors. We finished every bite of the light and lighthearted dessert.

Kovach and Coleman agree that all things Bearcat are continually evolving—for the future, a chef tasting menu may be in the works. For now, they're happy to be changing the perception of dining outside of peninsula Charleston by offering locals another option west of the Ashley River.



25 Magnolia Rd., Charleston



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