The dining world is choked with all manner of themed “authentic” restaurants: Irish pubs, Texas steak houses and Bourbon Street bars offering menus stuffed with suspiciously similar chicken wings, potato skins and anything else that can be deep-fried to perfection.
Of course, each carries a distinctive, theme-appropriate moniker, such as Paddy O’Sullivan’s Spicy Wings/Where the Buffalo Wings Roam/Ragin’ Cajun Wings. So when I heard that Henry’s at the Barn, a new upscale eatery in Avon, was offering cuisine inspired by South Carolina’s Low Country cooking, I was hesitantly thrilled.
The Low Country style of cooking, you see, reminds me of my past and present. We vacationed in the area throughout my childhood; my sister married into an old Southern family from Beaufort, S.C.; my folks now winter in Hilton Head and call to tell me how great the weather is, and, when time permits, I still venture down to the area. Oh, and the Confederate sub that sank in Charleston Harbor was named for some great-great-great uncle or something back when my family was on the wrong side of the Civil War, but that’s another story.
Let’s just say, I have ties to the spot and know whereof I speak: Henry’s at the Barn offers magnificent food that absolutely evokes the flavors of South Carolina’s marshy lowlands. So, here we go, y’all.
Upon arriving at our Avon destination, I was pleased to discover Henry’s does occupy a beautifully refinished 170-year-old barn that was painstakingly moved to its current location. Framed photos of this process are displayed on a wall as you enter the dining room. I always find it particularly cool when people work to preserve, rather than destroy, our heritage.
The barn, painted a country blue and now outfitted with a bar that makes excellent use of driftwood to form its functional elements such as the footrail and back bar shelving, features a cozy dining area and a loft filled with overstuffed sofas and myriad details that are rugged, clubby and comforting at the same time.
The main dining room, restrooms and kitchen at Henry’s are housed in a brand-new attached structure that, while certainly nice, lacks much of the character of the barn. On the upside, the additional construction allowed the eatery some space to build what may well be the best outdoor dining area on the West Side. Spacious, paved in stone and featuring a bar and a fire pit that will beckon even the most reticent diners outdoors on a cool summer night, Henry’s patio is a destination itself.
The masterminds behind this beautiful eatery, chef-owner Paul Jagielski and his wife Tracey, are already on their way to establishing Henry’s as a signature dining spot in this fast-growing area. But the food coming out of Jagielski’s busy kitchen will ultimately ensure it.
For those of you who aren’t aware, Charleston, S.C., has a thriving, innovative and highly competitive dining scene. Surrounded by bountiful farmland and abundant fishing, this area offers cooks (many of whom, like Jagielski, are graduates of the now-defunct Charleston outpost of Johnson & Wales) a wealth of ingredients and a distinctive Southern culinary heritage into which they can weave their own backgrounds and experiences. It’s one of my favorite U.S. cities, and the food at Henry’s, while not making up for the winter vacation I missed this year, certainly helped to lessen the ache.
For starters, the menu offers a wide range of appetizers that reflect Jagielski’s sensibilities both as a chef from Ohio and an acolyte of the flavors he encountered in the South. Chilled seafood “fish bowls” allow guests to combine stalwarts such as crab claws, clams, mussels, ahi tuna, oysters and shrimp accompanied by different dips and presented very cold and very fresh. Prices run between $5 and $7 for each two-piece selection.
As in all cooking originating from the coasts, sea and land are never far apart. On the hot side of things, an appetizer of fried green tomatoes with pimento goat cheese, spiced pecans and sherry vinaigrette ($8) was tart, earthy and a gustatory postcard from Charleston. Skillet-fried oysters with hot sauce, blue cheese dressing and celery ($12) tips its hat to everyone else’s preoccupation with disjointed chicken wings, but quickly sweeps any comparisons under the rug with perfect execution and interesting yet familiar flavors. Also familiar, for those of us who inhabit different shores, are the Lake Erie fries ($11). Thinly cut pieces of perch and walleye are breaded and served along with fried Idaho and sweet potatoes and a knock-out tartar sauce. It’s hard to say no to such a delicious take on fish and chips.
The two salads are straightforward with a nice inflection of Low Country ingredients such as corn bread croutons and fried okra. Last, but far from least, the roasted Carolina duck with corn cake and Henry’s Barbeque Sauce ($10) had our table full of waterfowl fans clamoring for the last bite.
The jewel in this eatery’s culinary crown must be the shrimp and grits ($23). If you’ve never encountered this dish at its finest, now’s your chance to do so without hopping on a plane. Good shrimp is good shrimp, generally speaking, so the real soul of this dish lies in the creaminess of the grits and oh-so-Southern blend of andouille sausage, sautéed peppers and a nicely spiced cream sauce. Jagielski’s team scores a 10 on this Low Country fave.
My seafood-loving guests were also scraping their plates over the very fresh seared Carolina grouper with corn leek cream and a softly perfect grit and cheese soufflé ($26), and the fairly authentic, roundly excellent Low Country boil ($24). A toothsome mixture of shrimp and other shellfish, fingerling potatoes, sausage, sweet onions and sweet and hot peppers, this simple yet delicious meal is to the inhabitants of coastal Carolina what cioppino was to the dock dwellers of yesterday’s San Francisco or bouillabaisse is to the fishermen of France. It combines local, affordable, readily available ingredients with a big kettle, some good times and a gathering of friends and family. And while Henry’s rendition is served in china on white linen instead of on a newspaper-covered picnic table beneath garlands of Spanish moss, some of this spirit remains.
For those of you who would prefer something a little less surf and a lot more turf, Henry’s offers a few steak cuts and some delicious buttermilk-fried chicken ($19). A real Southern charmer, the chicken is moist and delicious, the breading spiced and crisp, and the accompanying tomato-stewed collards, black-eyed peas and crab-and-corn hush puppies as good as anything you would find in mama’s kitchen (almost).
As if all of this weren’t enough, Henry’s serves up a delicious Southern-inspired Sunday brunch that introduces a line of griddle cakes, omelets, egg dishes and sides too numerous and delicious to give justice to here. Suffice to say, I’ll be back to check them out and, until time affords me the chance to return to my Dixie roots, I’ll be happy to make due dining in Avon.
Henry’s at the Barn, 36840 Detroit Road, Avon, (440) 934-6636. Hours: Tue-Thu 4:30 - 10 p.m., Fri & Sat 4:30 - 11 p.m., Sun 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Major credit cards accepted.