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Louis Osteen

Louis's at Pawleys on Pawley's Island, SC

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Louis Osteen relaxes on the deck of his Fish Camp bar, his shaggy head bopping to the fiery blues playing overhead. He casually flips the pages of the New York Times spread out in front of him. I suspect this is a Sunday morning ritual for Osteen, before the blitz of lunch orders sends him scrambling to the kitchen.

Sunday, after all, is fried chicken day. Lunch is bound to get busy.

That's certainly the reason we've ventured back here after eating last night at Louis's at Pawleys, the more formal dining room of the Osteen restaurant compound (there's also an adjacent carry-out shop, Louis's To Go). Louis's, it turns out, is where the older generation tends to sup, while twentysomethings and families with small children like to hang outside on the Fish Camp deck. Point me to a seat at either one and I'll be happy.

Pawley's Island, one of the oldest seaside resorts on the East Coast, can seem startlingly pristine to a first-time visitor. No businesses save hotels are allowed on the island proper, and the beach is wide and meticulously groomed. The night before, we were lucky enough to catch a peach-hued sunset over the salt marshes that separate the island from the mainland. The shadowy, rippling reflections looked like a money shot from The Prince of Tides.

It was a fitting image to keep in our minds as we ate dinner. Osteen has secured the reputation as the premier interpreter of the area's cuisine. After taking his low-country sensibilities to Charleston for a decade, he and his wife/business partner, Marlene, moved back when the city's economy began to droop in 2001.

"I had no intention of returning to Pawley's Island," recalls Osteen. "I said, 'I've been there and done that and I ain't comin' back.' But a friend of mine, with some other people, bought this property and made me a deal I couldn't refuse."

The locals are happy to see him. The woman next to us at dinner, who has vacationed on Pawley's since she was a child, expressed how glad she was to taste Louis' shrimp and grits again. They're definitive, all right. A pool of grits, permeated with cream and butter, support a cascade of plump, fresh shrimp. Gravy speckled with onion, bell pepper and a suggestion of bacon delivers a piquant wallop while tempering the richness of the grits.

Wisely, Osteen serves his shrimp and grits as a starter at Louis's (though the kitchen is happy to whip up an entree size if requested). Some room has to be saved for the menu's other pleasures. Crab and bacon-stuffed trout with lemons and capers has an easygoing appeal — it's just what you want to eat after a day at the beach. A mixed grill highlights a masculine slab of loosely bound sweet onion sausage. Osteen's butterscotch pie tastes like a treatise on the nature and possibilities of brown sugar.

Later, at the surprisingly rowdy bar inside the restaurant, we get a tad sloppy drinking Blanton's single barrel bourbon.

As outstanding as the fine dining experience was, I get the sense that Osteen's heart beats most amorously for his outdoor Fish Camp. At lunch the next day, I can't help but preamble the main event — the fried chicken — by ordering a Southern vegetable plate to start. Here it comes: supple beer-braised collards; mac-n-cheese with a crunchy bread crumb topping; creamed spinach punched up with shallots; simple succotash; and a hefty hunk of corn bread. I'm going to need a nap.

The first bite of skillet fried chicken crackles between my teeth, as a spasm of juice runs down my chin. I spoon some rice and gravy into my mouth. Sigh. I chomp on more fried chicken and snarf down squash casserole. Then I dig into the slow-cooked green beans. Their porcine aftertaste reminds me of my grandmother's beans. I look up at my friend, a Yankee from Philly who joined me for the weekend. "You know," she says, shaking a chicken leg at me, "I've never eaten Southern food like this before. Now I get it."

Yeah. Me, too.

Louis's at Pawleys/The Fish Camp Bar, 10880 Ocean Highway, US 17, Pawley's Island, SC. 843-237-8757. www.louisatpawleys.com. Open daily, 11am-11pm. Louis's entree range: $20.75-$29. Fish Camp entree range: $8-$19. Major credit cards. Lot parking.

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