By Becky Billingsley
Photos by Becky Billingsley and Adam Kirby
Wednesday, August 18, 2010, Pawleys Island - Chef Adam Kirby’s mind races and he talks fast, but it’s worthwhile making the effort to keep up with what he’s saying. The result will either be you learn something nifty about the culinary world, or he is describing something luscious you’re about to eat. On the best days, it’s both.
Chef Kirby’s culinary career started in his home base of Athens, Ga., and shifted to Hilo, Hawaii. There he steeped in Pacific Rim cuisine and marinated in new ideas. The young chef wanted to realize big dreams, so he went back to the mainland and attended Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from the school’s Le Cordon Bleu program.
He worked on the West Coast for a while, including a stint at Stars in San Francisco, before heading back to the side of the country he knows best, first in Atlanta, and then to the Grand Strand. In 2004 the chef was hired by Anne Hardee, and worked with her for three years before, three years ago, Chef Kirby became Hardee’s business partner.
“He is very creative,” Hardee says, “very passionate about his food, his presentation.”
It’s an understatement: Kirby fearlessly tinkers with longtime favorites to keep them interesting.
Bistro 217 was born as a second child to an established restaurant family. Hands-on partner Anne Hardee says she gave the new business its unusual name because it was their second restaurant, and because it is located on U.S. 17, the main north/south thoroughfare skirting the Grand Strand coast.
Anne has more than 20 years’ restaurant ownership experience, and she “wanted to create a unique, eclectic atmosphere.” It’s nice to see plans work out so well.
You enter Bistro 217 at the courtyard, where wrought iron tables are ringed by painted brick walls and sheltered by sturdy reinforced canvas. The space can be enclosed with zippered plastic drops, or opened to allow balmy beach breezes. Well-maintained plants add color, ivy crawls along the walls, and diffused natural light provides a Zen-like aura.
Inside the restaurant are banquettes and booths, a well-defined bar area and nifty little nooks for business meals or pleasurable privacy. Fresh flowers are a given; on a recent Wednesday it was miniature orange and yellow sunflower blossoms floating in shallow glass dishes.
Some regulars thrive on the daily specials. Every day there are three for lunch and five for dinner.
“We’ll have a big salad with a bunch of stuff on it,” the chef says, “like a nut- or herb-encrusted fish. We’ll have a sandwich with soup or salad. There’ll be a pasta dish.”
He tosses off the phrase “a pasta dish,” as if it was an ordinary humble plate of something or other, but it will be perfectly al dente pasta with choice fish or local farm-raised chicken tossed with luxurious sauce and flavored with herbs the chef likely grew himself.
“I’ll change the spring menu when I plant the garden,” he continues. “I’ll green up the menu a little bit.”
But while many diners love the excitement of discovering that the day’s salad is coconut-crusted sole on a bed of greens, strawberries, walnuts, cucumbers (little half-moon morsels with the seeds removed), feta and red onion, with mango vinaigrette; others enjoy working their ways through each new seasonal menu.
The menu is divided into starters and entrees, but they might as well be called small plates and big plates.
Starter choices might include Tomato, Crab and Jalapeno Soup that delivers bursts of sunshine in juicy tomato chunks and satisfying bites of crab meat and pepper heat. The lunchtime Warm Pistachio Encrusted Goat Cheese Salad is memorable, while at dinner a popular sharing item is the Vegetable Quesadilla filled with grilled portabello mushroom, diced tomato, sautéed spinach, roasted onion and three cheeses: brie, provolone and feta.
Lunch entrees are perfectly portioned balanced meals. Fish Tacos come with a rustic avocado salad, white corn chips and fresh salsa cruda, and the fish is cilantro encrusted tilapia. The Reuben 217 is a lovingly prepared sandwich that starts with corned beef braised in beer for 16 hours, and ends with fresh cabbage braised in the pan juices.
This fare is comfort food on a new higher plane. The Bistro Gyro is served with house-made hummus, and the Monster Bistro Burger even has house-made mayonnaise.
At night the chef’s deft mastery of flavor combinations is shown off in Bistro Bangkok Chicken with a pleasantly sticky five pepper jelly sauce on traditionally non-sticky Georgetown County rice. Chef Kirby’s palatable genius shines with Horseradish Encrusted Pork Schnitzel, while Seared Diver Scallops with lobster carrot reduction is always a mouth-watering choice.
Of course the chef has dessert surprises, including house-made ice creams.
“I don’t use any recipes,” he says. “I just make it how I think it’s made. Today I have Tiramisu with mascarpone, whipped cream, pressed espresso, espresso vodka, a lot of chocolate shaved on top.”
It works. It always works.
Bistro 217 is at 10707 Ocean Highway in Pawleys Island, and the number is (843) 235-8217. It's open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.