Serving superlative seafood on a charming rooftop, Balao is the place to be on a sunny day (Charleston City Paper) Jul04


Related Posts

Share This

Serving superlative seafood on a charming rooftop, Balao is the place to be on a sunny day (Charleston City Paper)

On our first date, Balao stood me up.

I’d made reservations under one of my ever-evolving pseudonyms and arranged to meet friends. But when we walked up to the hostess station at Burwell’s, the downstairs neighbor and gatekeeper of the rooftop location, we were met with a confused look. “It’s closed,” she stated, gesturing vaguely at the outside world behind us. “It rained earlier.”

The same thing happened a few days later, only this time it was clearly stormy, so I didn’t even try.

For all of its charms, Balao is a fair weather friend, a tough sell in a climate where rain is a near-daily occurrence. Nonetheless, when the sun is shining and the rooftop is as accessible as it will ever be (take your pick of notably steep staircases to get you there), Balao more than makes up for any flakiness.

I started with the ceviche — ($12 at happy hour/$15 otherwise), a cool, welcome treat on a hot, sunny rooftop. Made with the ‘seafood of the day,’ mine featured whole bay scallops in plentiful supply. Mixed with chopped green onion, jalapeño, and tiny cubes of peach, it’s garnished with paper-thin slices of cucumber and radish, and then sprinkled with cilantro. Served with tortilla chips, the dish is fresh and bright, with the predominant flavor being that of citrus.

The tacos ($8 HH/$10) are served on a typically diminutive flour tortilla, but with enough fillings for a burrito. Moreover, what’s loaded on is muy delicioso. Nicely charred fish o’ the day — bay scallops again — are piled on to the point of overflowing. They’re then topped with avocado, cubed peaches and pickled cabbage, plus a drizzle of rich crema. It’s hard to say what’s more lovable: The flavors or the bang for one’s buck.

Also far better than anticipated, the heirloom panzanella salad ($12) is like a big bowl of summertime. Here, fresh herbs mingle with purple, yellow, and greenish-red tomato slices and large, crouton-esque hunks of sourdough bread. The addition of bacon lardons and charred corn, as well as raw red onion and a tomato vinaigrette, lead to a dish in which every mouthful is a little bit different, but all are equally fresh and well-balanced.

The outdoor space at Balao is tiny and, as previously mentioned, exposed to the elements. There’s also a long, wood, full-service bar, which opens (via a series of sash windows) to an eating bar inside. The enclosed area feels like overspill dining space — drab and slightly shut off from everything else — and begs the question, “Why abandon ship at the hint of rain?” (My best guess would be the outdoor bar.)

But no matter. When they’re up and running, life is good and service is attentive and friendly. All the dishes suggested by the sweet bartender/waitress turned out to be winners, but perhaps it’s just that it’s hard to go wrong.

Certainly seemed that way with the ‘Hell Yeah’ sandwich ($14), a messy celebration of Italian/Southern decadence. Imagine that, against all odds, a meatball sub and a po’ boy meet and fall in love. Disagreements over where to spend Christmas aside, their love child might be a slightly sweet, seeded hoagie filled with breaded, fried calamari and bay scallops. Add some sliced soppressata and scamorza cheese, plus piquant banana peppers and a marinara sauce, and you’ve got one hell of a little, messy bundle of joy. Yes, the bun is too soft and the innards spill all over kingdom come, but it’s an undertaking worth the possible dry cleaning bill.

Along with the innovative food offerings, Balao has a hyper-creative cocktail list with house inventions like the Summer Rosé ($11), made with rosé-soaked watermelon, St. Germain, and aperol. In contrast, the Global Warming ($10) contains mezcal, green tea, and smoked peaches, whereas the Death in the Morning ($10) features chilled espresso, Godiva dark chocolate liquor, and mint. R.I.P.

Although 75 percent of the dishes already sampled contained scallops, I couldn’t resist the server’s glowing endorsement of the seared diver scallops ($18). Lawd have mercy: Balao may want to change its name to Pectinidae, for the taxonomic family that contains scallops. Plated on creamy, rich middlins (the Southern equivalent of risotto, made with broken pieces of white rice), the two large scallops are inarguably fresh and perfectly seared. Surrounded by a well-seasoned mix of chard, mushrooms, and zucchini; cloaked with a black garlic puree; and topped with a scattering of pungent kimchi; the outstanding dish is also a bargain, which makes it twice as fine.

Despite its slightly inaccessible location and mercurial opening times, there’s no good reason Balao was relatively empty on a sunny Wednesday night. The service is welcoming, the food superlative, and the price quite right. Go before everyone else catches on.