May 2008

See You Later at the Alligator Grille

Author: Paul deVere

Yes, you can get a taste of real alligator at the Alligator Grille. Try the alligator gumbo, alligator spiedies or alligator sushi rolls. You’ll also see artworks of alligators everywhere, either hanging from the walls or adorning the cap of one of the half walls that partition the restaurant’s open space. The most striking might be the one that greets guests above the long bar at the restaurant’s entrance. It is a backlit version of the Alligator Grille’s logo, a monochrome version of a very colorful painting by Hilton Head Island artist, Martha Worthy. Regan Barnum calls it the “happy feet” alligator. Regan Barnum and her husband, Nick, own the Alligator Grille.

But the most famous among the restaurant’s collection is a brightly painted, antique wooden alligator from Mexico. It is the sole survivor from a fire that destroyed the first Alligator Grille at Coligny Plaza. Due to the sculpture’s location within the restaurant (it was under a skylight) and though a bit crispy, it was saved. Popular local artist, Amos Hummell, restored the piece.

The fire, March 25, 2003. “For mile markers in your life, that was a zinger,” Regan Barnum said. “Everyone was so supportive. Friends told me that good things come from bad events. I wasn’t quite certain that I believed that,” she softly laughed. “I’m very thankful we’ve been able to open the Alligator Grille again and to have the opportunity to shift gears with the times.”

Sixteen months after the fire, the new Alligator Grill opened in Park Plaza. At the Coligny location the restaurant catered to the beach set and tourist crowd. The Park Plaza location called for a new focus. “With this location, I not only had a lot of loyal customers that I built up as visitors, it became particularly diverse with people who live on the island full time. We now think more of the community that frequents Park Plaza. We give them the option to come in after work, catch a drink and have sushi rolls at the bar. Or they will have friends and relatives visiting and want to come for the whole nine yards,” Barnum said.

Owner, Regan Barnum, in the Alligator Grille dining area that faces an open kitchen.

Those “nine yards” include over 100 wines, a full sushi bar, a large menu with multiple choices of fresh fish, plus lamb chops, filet mignon, and the new signature AG Burger. “If the 21 Club can do a signature burger, so can we,” Barnum said. “It’s been a hit.” Also on the menu is the logo of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, which means Alligator Grille works to support locally captured seafood that is environmentally sound and captured under very specific guidelines.

As the weather warms, service expands outdoors to a sidewalk café. “Park Plaza turns into a little city. It’s all about community. Food brings us together,” Barnum said. “The attractiveness at Park Plaza is the synergy of all sorts of different restaurants, all promoting quality cuisines but different styles. It’s the same concept with our menu. There are all sorts of options.”

Those options are also found on the children’s menu. “I’d always been involved with nutrition and was always disappointed by the kid’s menu,” said Barnum. “It was very standard and very ‘fat foody’. If you ate out frequently it was repetitive and unhealthy. One of the things we started was to put grapes on the plate and put some vegetables on there. We offer meals like a petite fillet, grilled chicken breast—forget the chicken fingers and shrimp. It’s been received very well.”

Other than the panoply of alligator art, the restaurant’s interior is unusual in other ways. The multi-level floor and half walls create both an open and intimate feeling. The long bar has stools with arms to allow patrons plenty of room to eat there. “We encourage it,” Barnum explained. At the entrance, there are even easy chairs with magazines where a patron can relax and enjoy one of over 40 specialty cocktails. Hanging from the ceiling are large, oblong decorations. “Yes, the ‘pod people,’” Barnum laughed. “They are originally from Macy’s in New York. They hung over the cosmetic counter.”

Executive Chef, Luke Lyons

The kitchen is open for all to see. Chef Luke Lyons’ space is lit up like a celebrity chef show. The kitchen, and Chef Lyons, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, are all part of the entertainment.

“Consistency and variety are what people are looking for,” said Barnum. “I couldn’t sleep at night if we weren’t putting out a product that I thought was really exceptional. And the people you surround yourself with, the ones that get it, they feel the same. Everyone has a unified vision and team spirit to accomplish a goal every day. They know it’s not going to be the same picture. There are going to be nights that are less than fun; there are going to be surprises,” Barnum explained. Then she laughed and added, “But there’s something quirky with the people who get involved in this business. They enjoy challenges.”

The Alligator Grille: a Review

Full disclosure: In another life, I had the opportunity to promote some of the finest restaurants in the country, from New Orleans to the mountains of Western North Carolina to Washington, DC. In another life, my wife was an F&B pro, a hotel manager who was once threatened by a chef with a nine-inch Wusthof when she made him throw out his shrimp scampi (prepared for 250 hungry conventioneers) because it did not meet her (the hotel’s) standards. We are not gourmets, gourmands or foodies, but you’ve got to respect the opinion of somebody who stood up to nine inches of very sharp, high carbon stainless steel. Me, I’m just along for the ride.

Scene: Park Plaza.
Restaurant: Alligator Grille.
Server: Finnie (real name, Ryan, but that’s another story).
Selections: Pan seared grouper filet (me); pan seared filet mignon (bride)
Number of stars to give the chef: five out of five
Number of stars to give to our server, Finnie (aka Ryan): five out of five

Service: In the best sense of the word, we were pounced on immediately when we walked into the restaurant. We were seated and Finnie was there in seconds. With his deep, sonorous voice (broadcast quality), and having ascertained we had never been there before, he entertainingly introduced us to the nuances of Alligator Grille. He understood: eating out isn’t really “eating.” It’s entertainment! Promising.

Drinks arrived quickly. So did the bread. I have a thing about the bread because I like to make bread myself. This was real bread—homemade sourdough. Absorbs the alcohol, so I’m told. My bride is impressed with her “gimlet,” since it is not really a traditional gimlet. They have followed her instructions precisely. This is our first impression that Alligator Grille is into people and food, not just food.

Though Alligator Grille has an extensive sushi menu, my wife and I missed that whole business. But the avocado and cream cheese roll is too good to pass up. Finnie makes sure we get it right away. The roll isn’t “wow.” It’s more “ummmm,” as in “wow” a few octaves lower, but just as good.

Finnie presents the wine list. We are hopeless. We have ordered fish and beef. Finnie suggests and we say, “What the heck?”

The entrées come, the wine comes. Finnie is right. He is more than right. I keep the cork. It still sits on my desk. We are driving. We do not order (though tempted) a second bottle.

There is nothing special and everything special about our entrées. They are superb—as good or better than anything I’ve tasted in this nation’s major metropolitan cities. My nine-inch Wusthof survivor wife agrees. Between bites. She reluctantly shares a small piece of her filet. Bless that cow.

We share dessert. We NEVER have desert. But it is an epicurean night, so we succumb to Finnie’s suggestions. It is an apple something. I apologize for not noting the name.

Good coffee at the end. Always a good sign. Always a CRITICAL sign of a fine dinner.

Would we recommend the Alligator Grille to friends, relatives, strangers? What a fine, fine evening. We’ll give it 5 alligators. And really, check out the sushi bar.

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