Would that all of our homes could be as quickly and as lovely renovated in six weeks time, as was Palmetto Cafe in the Charleston Place Hotel.
A late winter redecorating enlightened the breakfast, brunch and lunch spot of this premiere Orient-Express property in Charleston Place. No wrecking ball required but a fine eye for design opened a warren of dining areas into a spacious, light-welcoming conservatory of courtyard-inspired dining.
It’s complete with indoor fountains, antique planters and the verdure of a wall alive with sculptured greenery that embraces the design aesthetics of the outdoor courtyard with all the charm of Charleston.
The white decor does for the dining room what a white plate does for food, providing a palette for visually arresting detail. British-inspired Southern Colonial furnishings dress the room with the emblems of good taste. The familiar has been rearranged, but Palmetto Cafe continues to play the notes of attentive service and intelligent cooking with gracious practice.
Taking a page from the culinary playbook of Charleston Grill chef Michelle Weaver, whose menu is divided into “pure,” “lush,” “Southern” and “cosmopolitan,” the cafe menu of chef de cuisine Steven Manali is divided into “ocean,” “range,” “vine” and “cafe classics.”
But customer favorites were not abandoned in favor of the new. The liquid velvet of she-crab soup ($12) is unsullied and sherry service remains for your personal adjustment.
Caesar salad ($25) comes with your choice of proteins: grilled shrimp, fried Edisto Island oysters, diver scallops or grilled chicken.
The exquisite blue crab cake ($14), rounded with lump backfin sections is lightly bound together and bears a smidgen of fresh herbs and chives.
Sister Orient-Express property, the 21 Club, allows the “21 Burger” ($25) to be reproduced at the Palmetto Cafe. This burger, originally priced at $2.75 when a burger could be had for a dime, is topped with caramelized onions and a roasted tomato.
If all of the menu choices confuse, the cafe has put together the “Palmetto sampler” ($28) that includes a demitasse of she-crab soup, a “21 burger” slider, a mini-crab cake and a small portion of crab salad with a mint julep cup of hot, tender, skinny fries.
Bread service is taken seriously here. Crisp sheets of carta di musica, the paper-thin flat bread of Italy, along with rustic multigrain sliced bread and modified Parker House rolls are served warm with a tricolor terrine of butter flavored with kalamata olives, roasted red peppers and herbs. Do not fill up!
If lunch is defined for you by soup and sandwich or salad, the cafe will not disappoint.
Larger appetites will find seared chicken with gnocchi ($27), filet mignon ($31), seafood linguini ($29) or simply prepared sea bass ($28).
The seafood taco ($28) preparation intrigued us. Sushi-grade tuna was seared and bedded down with fresh slaw and cilantro; a blue corn tortilla was loaded with plush lobster meat; and another with local shrimp towering over the taco’s sides were cooked with respect and the cilantro garnish was so fresh, it literally was germinating from coriander seeds. Splashed with the juice of grilled limes and drizzled with cilantro-lime aioli, a seafood taco never had it so good.
Desserts are creative in both flavor profiles and presentation. They included an ingot of pistachio cheesecake; a drizzle of “Twizzler”-flavored syrup brightening chocolate cake; delicately formed quenelles of creme Chantilly; and dried pineapple entremets coated in bittersweet chocolate.
True to the context of Orient-Express restaurants, you will find a well-versed server who can address preparations, ingredients, portion size and signature dishes with the well-rehearsed discourse of a Charleston tour guide.
The servers here perform their jobs with awareness of you as the guest and of each other: a quick two-step to allow hot foods to come quickly to the table; a glance at the floor and quick return with a dust pan; a cursory look at neighboring tables assessing needs.
When we rejected the signature peach tea garnished with peach slices (we are purists for iced black tea); our server brought us each a glass to taste, along with fresh mint leaves and a cruet of simple syrup.
There is precision in mincing, there is inscrutable freshness, there is artistry in the plate presentation and there is sophistication that does not strain at pretense.
And all of this comes with a cost. The Palmetto Cafe is expensive. Wines by the glass tally in at $10-$19 and that $20 minimum per person is easy to attain. But in the price/value equation, your money is well spent.
Dressed in light, the Palmetto Cafe is a pearl in the jewel box of Charleston Place.
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