The Vendue Inn was primed for a makeover. Located in the French Quarter, the properties known as the Vendue Inn were once home to merchant warehouses dealing in indigo, cotton, rice and tea. It takes its name from the auctioneers or vendue masters who traded in the commodities of 18th-century Charleston.
What our stars mean
5 stars: Exceptional; sets a standard for dining excellence.
4 stars: Superior; worth a trip beyond your neighborhood or culinary comfort zone.
3 stars: Solid example of this type of dining.
2 stars: Adequate if you're in the neighborhood or seeking this type of dining.
1 star: Generally disappointing dining experience.
What our $ signs mean
One $: $5 to $15
Two $$: $15-$25
Three $$$: $25-$50
Four $$$$: $50 +
In 1783, Sam Prioleau built Prioleau's Wharf to further enhance his access to goods. We know this "made land" today as Vendue Range and the gateway to Waterfront Park.
The Drawing Room Restaurant and Bar at The Vendue
Representative Dish: Pan-roasted grouper, crispy snapper, tasting of South East Family Farm beef
Address: 19 Vendue Range
Bar: Full-service bar, specialty cocktail menu
Hours: Daily. Breakfast weekday 7-10 a.m.; 7-11 a.m. weekends; dinner 4-11 p.m. weekdays; 4 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Costs: Appetizers $6-MP; soups and salads $7-$9; small plates $10-$19; large plates $13-MP; desserts $8
Vegetarian Options: Yes, if one eats seafood
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Parking: Meters and city garages
Noise level: 80-85 measured on a weekend night
Other: Sidewalk tables, event space, catering, The Rooftop bar, The Press coffee shop, The Gallery, docent for art tours, artist-in-residence program, Tuesday-Saturday Coffee Tour and Wine Tour, call for details.
In many ways, the complex of the vendue masters has returned to its roots of commerce, only in the 21st century it is trading on history, architecture and cuisine.
In 2012, the Avocet Hospitality Group acquired the inn's properties under the direction of Jonathan and Lisa Weitz with plans to reinvigorate them as a boutique hotel dedicated to the arts. The art program is curated by Robert Lange Studios in collaboration with the Charleston arts community.
The name has been simplified to The Vendue and includes The Press, a coffee shop that takes its name from the former location of the South Carolina Gazette newsroom and printing press of the late 18th century; The Rooftop that continues to operate as a bar and event space; The Gallery and The Drawing Room Restaurant and Bar.
In the 16th century, guests would "withdraw" to a room for conversation and gender segregation. By the mid-17th century, every proper residence had a "drawing room" where guests would be received and entertained. The 21st-century Vendue has a "drawing room" where guests are wined and dined but the implications of "drawing" reach deeper than art's implication.
For executive chef Jon Cropf, it is drawing on the contacts he made with farmers and purveyors at Blu Restaurant and Bar at The Tides Hotel on Folly Beach (another Avocet property). It is the extension of his reach into world cuisines, ingredients and techniques. It is the opportunity to attract more than hotel guests to the tables of The Drawing Room. It is the palette to inspire the palate of staff and guests.
The new space is refined, lighthearted and elegant. Its feel is contemporary but its appointments are classic.
The art installations are compelling, playful and provocative as demonstrated by LOOK by Carl James, Bank In The Form of a Pig by Harry Allen and The PIN Project. The Weitzs and Langes ask us to "experience art outside the frame" and they have provided a venue at The Vendue for that to happen in a collaborative and pivotal manner.
For his part, chef Cropf layers harmony and contrast on the plate. He paints with a bold brush as heirloom beets, smoked goat cheese and duck prosciutto are anchored in "licorice" soil. The influence of a watercolorist is apparent as pale pink shrimp bob in a nage of mozzarella and flowering herbs.
A piquillo pepper coulis is lightened by raspberry puree and the flesh of shishito peppers are scorched by flame. Technique is the tool that provides lightness and darkness to his plates. Texture is his palette knife crisping poached eggs, shaving radishes, poaching shrimp and excising snap peas. Searing creates the veneer for his pan-roasted scallops and grouper while confit of lemon or supremes of orange provide acid and color accents.
Cropf also "plays" with his food. Pea shoots and baby carrots are served with braised rabbit crepes, Manchego crackers are re-imagined cheese straws and Grana Padano is emulsified into a mousse.
Blu's menu successes make an appearance at The Drawing Room: braised short ribs, crispy snapper and pan-roasted grouper.
Small plates are amplified with artistic "scribbles" - blossoms, blooms and micro-greens. If we look to science, Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University has demonstrated that "diners prefer visually arresting food." I think the caveat to that is it must taste good as well. On that note, Cropf delivers.
Small plates are just that, but the ingredient composition allows you to create a meal where the flavors have kinship. So a summer shrimp gazpacho can be the prelude to braised rabbit crepes or crudo and charcuterie can be combined for a table-sharing tapas experience.
The menu also serves the bar well where spiced popcorn, charcuterie, crudo or foie gras will complement a cocktail or a beer. And then there is the quintessential burger saturating a brioche bun topped with tender butter lettuce and in-season tomatoes.
Servers navigate the canvas of the menu and are schooled apprentices of Cropf's deliberate education of the ingredients on the plate.
If there is any awkwardness to this redesign, it is the guest traffic flowing to the registration desks through the restaurant and bar area.
The Drawing Room has sketched a menu of satisfiers. Eat. Drink. Gaze. Robert Lange Studios and the six gallery collaborators at The Vendue have inked a collection that frames our food with inspiration.