The Southern states have a storied past, but there's no denying a certain charm. An instinctual sense of hospitality has survived the Civil War and decades of battering hurricanes, and Hugo, named for the hurricane that roared through Charleston, S.C., in 1989, is the embodiment of that charm.
People seem to come out of the woodwork to greet you at Hugo's as you traverse the length of the red awning, and even though you're walking under it rather than on it, you sense you're in for red-carpet treatment. A pretty young woman smiles and opens the door before you even come close to the hostess, who then whisks you away to a low-lit dining room.
Each time something arrives at your table, it seems to be carried by another of a battalion of fresh-suited young men, some pleasantly flirting with my friend and me, as Southern manners would demand.
Hugo occupies the space in Oakley that formerly housed Pho Paris. The once hard-edged, urbane dining room has a softer feel and seems to whisper "old money" as you unfold your napkin into your lap. Hugo's bar, on the other hand, has a more casual vibe, inviting patrons to discuss and compare their selections from a menu of small plates (you can also order from the regular dinner menu in the bar) that includes Foie Gras Mac n' Cheese ($13), Scallops ($13) with a cauliflower purée, arugula, bacon and truffle, and Sweet Corn Fritters ($8) as they listen to the soundtrack courtesy of bartender Brian Mulroy's iPod, which provides a diverse selection of tunes that included Morphine, Amy Winehouse and The Bears on one of my visits.
As the name indicates, chef/owner Sean Daly concentrates on Low Country food, a regional cuisine of South Carolina that combines English, French, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences with a "metropolitan twist." His menu includes traditional recipes such as Shrimp and Grits with white cheddar and a tasso demi-glace ($25) and the Hugonut Torte ($7.50), a free-formed torte served with apples and walnuts and homemade maple ice cream that's named for the French Huguenots who brought it to the Charleston area in the late 17th century. Other dishes, like the Veal Chop ($25) with garlic, fingerling potatoes and cipolini onion, fall outside the Southern mold.
A few of the dishes didn't come together for me. Even though I could have licked the accompanying mascarpone from the floor if no one was looking, the fritters I ordered in the bar one night were heavily breaded, reminding me of donut holes my cousin made when she babysat us as kids. And the roasted Pork Loin ($23) I had for dinner the next time never really gelled into a dish for me, even though each individual ingredient was a success. The loin, marinated and rubbed with herbs and garlic, sat on top of a smoky piece of slow-roasted pork shoulder. It was served with butter beans and golden raisins on a bed of spicy vinegar greens with a throat-burning bourbon sauce.
Other dishes were phenomenal. To me, Daly seems at his best when using a delicate touch -- the Haricot Vert Salad ($8) with shallots, tomato, fennel, olives and basil was a perfect balance of flavors; and the Watermelon Salad ($8), comprised of two chunks of fresh melon, lumps of crabmeat and hearts of palm on top of watercress, was very lightly dressed with a refreshing tarragon vinaigrette. It would make an excellent accompaniment for one of the drinks on the innovative Muddled Cocktail menu, like the Salad Shooter (pureed cucumber, muddled mint, vodka and soda) or maybe even the Hugo Heater, with cherry tomato, jalapeño, tequila and soda (both $8).
I honestly think if I went to Hugo's every day of the week I'd be happy ordering the Halibut ($24) each and every time. The seared fillet is served in a large, angular soup bowl, which makes for a dramatic presentation. It sits atop a boat of Brussels sprouts potato hash in a sea of creamy sweet corn purée that insists you pay it your undivided attention until you've mopped up the last drop.
What did I just say about eating the halibut every day? Forget that -- if I ate the halibut and the Crème Brûlée ($7.50) every day I'd be perfectly happy. Daly, who makes all the desserts at Hugo's, wields one mean kitchen torch. The crust was the only perfect crème brûlée topping I ever remember eating -- you could hear the crack of caramelized sugar as you pushed down to get to the creamy bottom.
Hugo, which appropriately opened near the start of hurricane season, ain't very likely to be blowing out at the end of the season.©
Go: 3235 Madison Road, Oakley
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood and chicken
Accessibility: Fully accessible