Succulence, success and the way of Sermet
BY: CHARLIE MORRISON
These days, business is booming at Sermet’s Courtyard. The parking spots between the restaurant and the live oaks that affront it are often taken, the indoor space and the outdoor patio are frequently full of happy diners and jazz fans on the weekends, and the mahogany bar is typically busy, the wine flowing. And while the restaurant, like Daniel Island itself, has witnessed tremendous growth over the past few years, when restaurant owner and operator Sermet Aslan first opened the business with partner Dana Vosburgh back in 2010, things were very, very different.
Six years ago, when Aslan opened his third restaurant in the Lowcountry here on Daniel Island next to the nearby Wando River, the economy was still in recovery from the recession of 2008. Aslan had only been on the island one time before he began scouting the property at 125 River Landing Dr. that would become Sermet’s Courtyard. And when he visited there wasn’t a light on at night near the location.
All the same, despite the fact he was locating his new restaurant in a largely undeveloped part of Daniel Island where, as he described it, “the only thing moving down the street in those days were tumbleweeds,” Aslan made his decision to set up shop on the island, a decision that for the past six years has changed the face of the island’s culinary milieu.
And while Sermet’s Courtyard did survive those early days, many competitors did not. Within three months of opening back in October of 2010, three restaurants on the island had closed their doors for good.
For Aslan, merely surviving wasn’t enough. He chose from the beginning to do it his way. Not only has the Courtyard endured, it is flourishing. Most importantly however, at least in Aslan’s eyes, is the fact that he didn’t compromise what he would call his restaurant’s “soul” to be successful.
“This location, you’ve got to want to come here… it’s a destination,” said Aslan. “I said to myself, ‘if I do well, it’s going to be on my own merits. It’s not going to be because I’m located at a busy intersection.’”
To be sure, in building Sermet’s Courtyard from the ground up, Aslan said he “stuck to his guns” – in the restaurant’s location, its layout, the menu, the wine list, his staff, and even his pricing. In growing the restaurant, Aslan leaned on much of what he’d done, learned, and had success with at his previous restaurants in the Lowcountry, Sermet’s Grill in West Ashley, and uber-popular downtown Charleston dinner and nightclub Sermet’s Corner, which he owned and operated for more than 15 years.
And Sermet has learned the art of the customer in his over two decades of restaurant experience here in Charleston. Better yet, he’s learned what customer he wants to court for the Courtyard.
“What we have created here is a place that, if nobody knows about it, I don’t care,” waxed Aslan philosophically, a warm intensity in his eyes and a room temperature red swirling in his wine glass. “If three people know about it, those three people are real customers. They’re not gimmicky, they’re not hip, they are not all current, but those are three good customers, real customers.”
“If they judge you, you need to take it like they know the chef,” he continued. “And when you give it to them they know as a recipient, they know that this guy’s got guts. If you have that relationship, you don’t sell yourself short and you don’t sell your customers short.”
And while compromise isn’t the Turkish-born Aslan’s style, he has had to make some changes in developing Sermet’s Courtyard into the hot spot it now is. The restaurant once served lunch and Sunday brunch. However, Aslan made the move a couple years back to abandon the full-time restaurant concept and focus solely on dinner.
Faced with pressure from some customers in his restaurant’s early days who wanted to see an expanded children’s menu, Aslan considered another change. That thought didn’t last long though, said Aslan, who decided to offer dishes kids could eat, but not to introduce a kids’ menu. Again, sticking to his guns paid off, according to Sermet.
“I love it when I see a table where a kid who is no more than nine years old is chomping down on calamari or eating some mussels,” grinned the affable Aslan. “I’m glad that I stood my ground and did a simplified yet dignified menu. For the first year, I had a hard time, but I stuck to my guns. If I’m going to make it, this is the way. I had to make my own statement.”
And when it comes to how he staffs Sermet’s Courtyard, Aslan again defers to his roots. Not only does his daughter Megan (Aslan) Delli-Gatti manage the front of the house at the restaurant, a man that could be his son runs the kitchen, longtime Sermet’s employee and family friend Casey Crowley. Crowley, who grew up with Delli-Gatti and now serves as Sermet’s executive head chef, a position he took on in August of this year when his brother Brett relinquished the position to help Aslan open up his new James Island restaurant, Sermet’s Southernterranean Cuisine-Bar.
Having the brothers Crowley along with Megan and others from Aslan’s West Ashley extended family on his staff is another key to the Courtyard’s success, said the restauranteur.
“I have a great staff here. They’re so good that for them, I’m really just a soundboard. They come up with the new ideas and look to me for my thoughts. We have a great relationship. Right now, it’s 100 percent about them (Casey and Brett Crowley).”
As for the food itself, fans of Sermet’s Corner in downtown Charleston won’t be disappointed. Though he sold his interest in Sermet’s Corner before opening the Courtyard, Aslan transitioned much of what the downtown restaurant and venue was known for – homemade pasta, sauce, and desserts, food made with southern stylings and a distinct Mediterranean influence. And he also kept a number of the popular dishes he’d served downtown. Fans of Sermet’s Corner will find some of the dishes that made him a local celebrity in the Holy City’s burgeoning food world, dishes like his chicken agnolotti, shrimp couscous, and his signature calamari appetizer.
Of course that makes sense, as to not introduce those items to the menu at Sermet’s Courtyard would equate to a waste of Aslan’s culinary good name, his reputation. And though many of his Daniel Island offerings reflect his downtown success, the menu continues to evolve, not only seasonally but on a daily basis. Chef Crowley and Aslan are constantly enhancing the restaurant’s specials menu, and each night diners can expect a fresh seafood special offering to be available.
As for his culinary and menu-building philosophy, again Aslan turned to what got him here. “I like to do what I know best, and those are my dishes,” he said. “When people know you, they know this restaurant will be a reflection of the food we serve. And there is no best way of cooking. There’s different cooking. There’s no best chef, there are different chefs. The people who don’t know that, they are the ones who should go to the ‘fashionable’ restaurants. I’m not trying to be the best of anything, I’m just trying to be me.”
And if there’s one thing about Sermet that’s universally appealing, it’s just that, his insistence on being his own person and his own restauranteur. Also appealing is his faith in himself and his love of his new Daniel Island customer base, which he explains with seriousness, sincerity, and seeming wisdom.
“When I announced the opening, many of my downtown restauranteur friends said to me ‘what are you doing on Daniel Island? Nobody makes it there, don’t do it,’” said Aslan, still swirling his wine as he spoke. “But I’m glad I did. I am glad that I endured while keeping my own identity, and I am unbelievably happy with the people here.”
“They bear hug me here now,” he added with a smile, his glass at last drained. “…I am theirs, and I love that.”
Sermet’s Courtyard is located at 115 River Landing Drive, Suite #101. For more information on Sermet’s Courtyard see their website at http://sermets.com/sermets-courtyard. To make a reservation give them a call at (843) 471-1777.