Worldly cuisine worth the trip to Wild Dunes Resort
By Wendy Swat Snyder
Photo by James Stefiuk
When was the last time you sat poolside for a bite to eat? When you're looking for a change of pace from your usual list of top Charleston dining spots, consider heading to the Isle of Palms, where Wild Dunes Resorts' newest luxury property, Sweetgrass Inn, is wowing diners with a hidden (in plain sight) gem. Oystercatcher Restaurant & Bar anchors the hotel's expansive lobby, serving seafood-centric fare in a chic, casual setting for dinner. At the helm of Oystercatcher is chef de cuisine Austin Blake, whose adventurous menu draws both locals and visitors to the table.
“The initial plan for Oystercatcher was interim dining,” says Blake, who assisted with the restaurant's opening. “A little bit of breakfast, a very limited menu—tapas style plates, maybe twelve items. Then I showed up, very ambitious, very hungry to work hard, ready to cook the best food I could.”
Sweetgrass Inn opened in the spring of 2021, and the Oystercatcher was quickly embraced not only by hotel guests but a growing population of locals.
“It was very well received, which expedited the need to build out more of a restaurant space—so a dining area with high top tables was added, and seating on the patio,” says the Virginia native, who got his start in hospitality at lauded Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va., a Travel + Leisure pick for The 15 Best Resorts in the South category for 2022.
“I'd applied for a job in the engineering department but they needed prep cooks, and I was 22, I didn't really care. Five days later, I was working on the grill, cooking for the resort's opening night. That's where I really learned the value of hard work—plus I had a lot of great chefs mentoring me,” said Blake, whose culinary training was entirely hands-on.
Blake left Salamander a sous chef for an opportunity in Philadelphia at Vernick Food & Drink. Owner Greg Vernick is a recipient of the James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award.
“I realized there was a lot I didn't know, so I started at the bottom at Vernick,” he says. “I wanted to build a better base, learn classic French style—I worked through all the techniques to sous chef over a three-year period.”
Learning the ins and outs of the financial side of the hospitality industry was also on his to-do list. Joining the Oystercatcher start-up team would provide that experience.
“Coming to Wild Dunes, working for Hyatt, would give me the opportunity to learn how to manage food costs, manage labor—they have a great infrastructure,” he said. “They took a chance on me—there was a tight timeframe—they brought me on as chef of Oystercatcher based on a phone call.”
He notes that working in a resort's on-site restaurant provides a set of challenges different from a conventional restaurant.
“You don't have a typical neighborhood spot where you know how many people to expect or what they're going to order. Guests come and go from different parts of the country,” he said.
That said, Blake strives to have fun in the kitchen, creating a menu with a little mystery, using short descriptions for dishes designed to surprise. Inspiration, he says, comes from all that's around him.
“Wild Dunes has a lot of international work and travel visa labor. We have staff from Bulgaria, Ecuador, India and Thailand. I like to pick their brains, find out what they cook at home and see if I can incorporate some of those influences into Oystercatcher's menu. And having a part in developing a dish is empowering for them.”
The spring evening we visited Oystercatcher, my guest and I were waved through the Wild Dunes gate and found free parking nearby. We enjoyed the upbeat resort vibe as we strolled along Sweetgrass Plaza past trendy shops and the Gallery at Sweetgrass. We slipped past vacationers lounging poolside into the hotel, smartly turned out with sleek, contemporary furnishings, a clean white on wood color palette, and a showstopping installation of illuminated wall art.
Dana Kalmey met us at our table, engaging us with an enthusiastic and excellent overview of the menu. She suggested several small plates: the fried oyster dish was, naturally, first. It was heaven on the half shell, featuring North Carolina Core Sounds Blake says are shucked to order. The briny bivalve was presented in a Thai chili aioli and hit all the right notes: crispy, salty and spicy.
Then, the poached shrimp salad—perfectly cooked shrimp served on a bed of crisp rice. Blake says he learned the technique at Vernick—a play on paella, where the rice stuck to the bottom of the pan is the best. The cumin lime vinaigrette, salsa verde and green plantains were inspired by Ecuadoran staff.
The veal tartare with apricot mustard is a dish chef says came to be on a whim: a desire to create an unconventional tartare in a presentation that's approachable. Out went the capers and cornichons in favor of a sweet/savory sauce of seasonal fruit that's cooked down to a butter consistency and blended with dijon and whole grain mustards. A Storey Farm egg and crispy potato gaufrettes finished the beautiful dish.
From the vegetarian list came a refreshing confit fennel salad with avocado, Kalamata olives and Marcona almonds. Chef explained he sous vides the vegetable with white wine, lime leaves, salt and herbs and serves it over green goddess dressing made with an oil of blanched green herbs blended with tofu. An innovative—and vegan—presentation we loved.
The roasted broccoli was vegan as well, and a dish in which fennel plays a lead role. Here, it's pureed with coconut milk, dijon mustard and salt forming a flavorful base for the dish. The broccoli had just the right touch of char, and we loved the sweet/ acid notes from the preserved lemon and grapes.
The evening's signature dish was grilled bronzino stuffed with a lemony bulgar wheat salad. The crispy fish was presented whole, surrounded by a half dozen shell-shaped plates brimming with accoutrements like marinated tomatoes, sweet and sour cabbage, and pickled peppers to be eaten Mediterranean style. A fun study in contrasting, bright flavors and a stunning presentation.
A novel space with a seaside vibe and inspired dining—and not just for resort guests—Oystercatcher is a breath of fresh air.
Oystercatcher Restaurant & Bar
Opens at 4 p.m.
5757 Palm Boulevard (pull into the main resort gate and indicate that you are dining at the restaurant)