Tourists flock to Charleston to slurp she-crab soup, buy benne crackers and fill up on fried shrimp. But what about the poor schlub who's just here for a medical imaging conference? What's he going to have for supper?
Representative Dish: Roasted monkfish bourride
Address: 102 N. Market St.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Food: 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Costs: Appetizers, $8-$18; lunch entrees, $12-$22; dinner entrees, $20-$29
Picture our hero wandering the streets of downtown Charleston, a name badge still swinging from his neck. He's accompanied by a couple of sweaty guys from Milwaukee he met at the wine-and-cheese cube reception, which all three men agree is a far cry from the chicken breast banquets that used to cap off a day of meetings. What they desperately want now is a restaurant that doesn't stint on air-conditioning or charge for bread baskets; it wouldn't hurt if there was a big-name beer on draft and steak on the menu.
Come fall, this party would likely end up at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse; the Orlando-based chain last month announced plans to open here its 141st location, occupying 10,000 square feet on Church Street. While downtown restaurateurs claim they're not worried about the incursion, Charleston's culture may not be as resilient as its economy. The consequence of Ruth's Chris is likely to be an increasing number of visitors bopping in and out of the city without any clue that they didn't visit a sultrier Boston or quieter South Beach.
Yet there is another, smarter way to feed tourists, beautifully represented by the fine new restaurant from Hank Holliday and chef Frank McMahon. When renovation bills at Mercato mounted in the wake of water damage, the duo shifted course, transforming the seven-year old Italian restaurant into Brasserie Gigi.
Gigi is predictable in ways that Ruth's Chris fans are bound to find comforting, starting with the smiling hostess stationed at the front door and ending with the vanilla bean creme brulee. But what comes in between ought to make Charleston proud, since it's a spotless reflection of the city's culinary mores.
Whether or not Gigi's decor is true to pre-war Parisian bistros is immaterial, since it aligns exactly with the way Americans like to imagine France. There are globe lights suspended from the ceiling and hexagonal black-and-white tiles covering the floor. The seating area directly opposite the zinc bar is furnished with plump, C-shaped, red leather banquettes which romantically solve the problem of wanting to sit alongside your dining partner without looking like you're posing for Grant Wood. On the second floor, there's a raw bar and tables queued up beneath intentionally tarnished mirrors, but the upstairs went unused on the three weeknights I visited.
Even though Gigi isn't playing to a full house, the kitchen sometimes takes on an unbecoming mass-production mindset: Tomatoes are always welcome in season, but the reflexive garnish of chopped tomatoes on dishes which weren't starved for color or zing felt like a lesser restaurant's trick. And I'm still flummoxed by Gigi's willingness to stamp its name on the dull, oven-roasted "Gigi potatoes" that tasted as though they'd spent a long day soaking en masse in a water-filled bus tub.
But those careless moments are aberrations. More characteristically, Gigi is the source of thought-out plates that elegantly convey exuberance. (McMahon told City Paper that the restaurant's named for his wife, but if all this upbeat continental charm makes you think of Leslie Caron, the servers in starched white aprons probably won't correct you.)
Have a look at the grilled squid salad, for instance, a shiny weave of glittery white anchovies and a well-oiled near-pistou, surrounded by hunks of cool potatoes and tender bands of lemon-assisted squid. Texturally, the salad careens from slippery to crunchy. If you're looking for a reason to cheer toasted bread crumbs, order away.
Or, really, order anything slanted toward the sea. McMahon grew up near the coast in Ireland, but the more salient biographical detail is his stint at Le Bernadin, widely recognized as one of the greatest seafood restaurants in the world. Locally, he's spent 15 years at the helm of Hank's Seafood Restaurant, and his experience is evident at Gigi's.
Skilled dishes such as the monkfish bourride are the showpieces of a conservative menu imperatively filled out by French onion soup, salade nicoise, steak tartare and half of a roasted chicken plopped on a pad of buttery mashed potatoes that compensate for the chicken's shallow flavor.
A few of these terra firma representatives work well: Potato leek soup, yellow as a Post-It note, tasted of potatoes and leeks, rather than a thickening agent. A steak salad didn't sound terrifically exciting, but a rare sear and a vinaigrette constructed from good oil made the beef, variegated beets and snowdrifts of Roquefort into a really enjoyable plate. It's lovely with a glass of wine; Gigi's manageable list is guided by flavors, not geography, so there are plenty of affordable choices from California and Oregon alongside the French offerings.
A classic steak frites was less successful, mostly because the meat was pummeled with butter, despite a ramekin of bernaise sauce standing by. Crisped fries tinged with grease didn't alleviate the richness, which apparently also afflicted whatever the men at a table near mine ordered. "Only thing that would have made this meal better would be if it was 32 degrees out," said one of the diners, play-slumping in deference to the food's perceived heaviness.
So back to the bourride. Gigi's version isn't as soupy as some, but the eggy sauce has a fresh lemon edge that nicely frames the fleshy roasted fish. Lemon also helps power an excellent shrimp Provencal; distinguished by plump shrimp and the right amount of thyme, the dish is more shellfish than noodle.
Simpler dishes are equally impressive: A raw oyster is hardly a rarity around Charleston, but Gigi's shucking aptitude is striking. Capers Blades, primed to slide out of their marble-white shells, are pristine.
Gigi's also takes a rewardingly minimalist approach to its escargot, classically sauced with scads of butter, garlic and parsley and spiked with anise. The escargot are served in their shells, since the real fun of eating snails is grasping them with tongs and extracting their chewy meat whole.
Clearly, Gigi isn't only for tourists: It would be a shame if local eaters held the restaurant's location and welcoming demeanor against it. But for the sake of a city that has a wonderful culinary reputation to uphold, here's hoping more tourists find it.
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