About 15 years ago, someone I worked with – whom I considered the ultimate in sophistication (he raced cars! he collected art! he traveled!) – mentioned that he’d had dinner at La Cantina. The food, he said, was amazing, and afterward the restaurateur had put on, of all things, a puppet show – set inside an open-air theater.
It sounded so incredibly unusual, like nowhere I had ever been (or ever would be) and it was only a short drive away in Clarks Hill, S.C. I wanted to experience it for myself, but then, as sometimes happens when you’re young and easily distracted, I promptly forgot all about it.
Fast forward to the present, when in the space of two weeks, two friends separately mentioned on Facebook that they had dined at La Cantina. I hadn’t even realized the restaurant was still open, but I took it as a sign that my husband, Sean, and I should visit.
La Cantina offers New-Mexico-style dining on the South Carolina side of Clarks Hill Lake (or its official name, Lake Thurmond).
Featured in publications such as Southern Living, it’s recognized for its casual approach to fine dining, including its house special steaks, cooked in moments in a blazing hot 1,800-degree wood-fired oven. The oven was built by co-owner Rusty Lindberg, who is not only a chef, but also a ventriloquist and classic guitarist who performs in the after-dinner hour.
The restaurant is open only Friday and Saturday evenings, and you must make reservations. I called on a Friday morning, leaving the number in our party, the time we wanted and our name and number, and received a callback within a couple hours confirming our reservation.
After about a half-hour of driving, we spotted the gaily painted sign, and soon were on the grassy lawn walking toward the small brown cottage that is La Cantina.
We were early, but co-owner Laura Buchanan greeted us with a smile and a wave of her arm, “You’re the first here, so pick where you want to sit.”
The horno – the darkened and cracked clay and stone wood-fired oven – was already blazing and smoking next to the covered outdoor patio, charming with its suncatchers, windchimes, birdhouses and strung lights. Seats are available indoors too, but I wanted to be right next to the show.
Each table setting was different and rustic, with a colorful assortment of pink, yellow, blue or floral tablecoverings, but we finally decided on a small round table made out of a section of tree trunk topped with a wooden board, with an ornate silver candelabra as the centerpiece. My seat was an old church pew, padded with a faded embroidered cushion, while Sean’s was a plastic green garden chair.
Laura was quick to offer bug spray. “I sprayed everything,” she said, “but you might need it.” After a liberal dousing of Off!, we ordered – choosing from La Cantina’s small and well-edited list of chicken, steak and seafood entrees, each ranging from $18 to $24.
Sean went for the classic horno steak and I chose the salmon del rio, with an almond crust and white wine beurre blanc. Each entree comes with bread and salad, and sides: either mashed potatoes or rice, and the day’s vegetable.
About 20 diners were there that evening, arriving just in time for act one of the Rusty Lindberg show: dinner. The one table that elected to dine indoors stood outside to watch as Lindberg, cracking jokes all the while and calling himself the “cultural ambassador of Clarks Hill,” used a long-handled gripper to shove a bent metal frying pan full of steaks right into the heart of the hot oven. Flames leapt through the cracks in the metal oven door, turning it red hot, and moments later Lindberg opened the doors again and pulled out the sizzling hot pan of darkly crusted steaks.
After a quick stride into the kitchen, our food was ready. Our salads were romaine topped with banana peppers and ribbon-like strips of orange carrot, gently blanched, topped by a truly amazing pale yellow curry dressing, both warm and gentle.
Sean’s steak was thick and meaty, with a smoky, black crust from the hot oven, while my salmon was a hearty bite of bright pink flesh, crunchy almonds and the unusual-looking beurre blanc, which was slightly tart.
Sean doesn’t usually like salmon but couldn’t stop swiping bites. And to be honest, if our orders had been reversed, I wouldn’t have been able to either – it was delicious and so unexpected. Also unexpected was our vegetable of the day – blanched, two-inch-long sections of scraped carrot, topped with a creamy white dollop of pickled creamed cabbage – not the most beautifully presented side, but it was actually pretty good.
Afterward, we enjoyed small slices of decorated chocolate cake (which they ordered from a caterer) and Laura’s own yellow cake with chocolate icing – both good, particularly with a bite of the whipped cream piped onto the plates – before Rusty brought out his guitar.
“No, I think it’ll be music tonight,” he said, when asked about the puppet show. He began singing and strumming selections from his latest CD, a soundtrack for the movie In Search of a Perfect World, another of his productions. His show was about a half-hour, and we all relaxed there in the cool evening, with nothing but the sweet guitar music in the background and Rusty’s easy voice.
As you might guess, La Cantina might not be for everyone. You have to be willing to take the rustic with the fine. But it has a blend of easy sophistication that will make you feel right at home, if you’re open to enjoying it.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: La Cantina, 1750 Garrett Road, Clarks Hill, S.C.
HOURS: Friday and Saturday, 6-10 p.m. (reservations required)
SECOND HELPING: (864) 333-5315, lacantinaclarkshill.com