Restaurants can be likened to children. Those who are loved and supported, flourish and endear; those who are neglected or handled carelessly, won’t likely realize their potential, and may even misbehave to excess, to get any—even negative—attention.
My and Kimberly’s life revolves around food—ours and others’—and this is especially true during our trips and travels. Most of the places we’d like to visit are chosen because we want to eat the food, which is the best way to get to know an area.
We had a few reasons to visit the Charleston, South Carolina area, but the food was foremost on our minds.
And while we had expectations for the region, we didn’t for any particular restaurant. We were, however, very excited by Charleston’s potential for providing great gastronomic pleasures.
We had done some research on Charleston restaurants, and we’d noted the locals’ high-profile favorites as well as some lesser-known gems. We chose one from the former category on our first night in town.
The chef wasn’t cooking there that night, nor was he in his other restaurant. He was out of town. That’s not necessarily a red flag. Joël Robuchon, David Chang and Patrick O’Connell have passionate, well-trained kitchens putting out brilliant food in their absences. Though I’d love to meet all three, I visit their establishments to experience the food, whether they’re on the line or not. We approached this meal the same way.
The dinner began well, despite walking to the restaurant in a well-indexed, 116-degree heat. The old-school cocktails were brilliant as were the appetizers. Our server was a little timid and didn’t have much to say about anything, but she was polite and her apparent lack of passion was tolerable.
Then came the entrées. It was in this moment we realized that the neglected, latchkey restaurant had been misbehaving. And it wasn’t a simple oversight on one of our dishes; it was a cacophony of major missteps on both. Lazy and heavy-handed would best describe the kitchen’s approach.
Dry, overcooked chicken is as easily avoidable as it is ubiquitous, but when it includes dark meat, it is a crime worthy of a public flogging. Dry, overcooked pork is also avoidable, especially when the chop is an inch-and-a-half thick. These misstakes beg the question: why bother sourcing top-notch, local ingredients if you’re just going to mishandle them?
The entrées’ supporting cast of starches and vegetables was perfect in spots, but sloppy in others, which translated to an overall “average” rating. The side order of cornbread was brilliantly conceived, but arrived “greasy” instead of pleasantly “fatty.” It was almost as if the food’s successes were as accidental or carelessly achieved as its failures.
Even the entrées’ seasonings were off. Too much smoke or salt can destroy a dish—and both, in combination with dry meat, is more akin to a Gitmo torture technique than servable food.
Our server sensed our dissatisfaction, probably because we gushed about the starters and cocktails, but said little about the second courses. Sadly for the kitchen, she was seemed happier to not inquire about our lack of commentary.
Why didn’t we complain? Because the issue wasn’t a single understandable oversight to be remedied by sending back a plate. The issue was a complete lack of concern for the food, which permeated our entire meal.
We thought perhaps we could salvage part of the meal with some sweets and additional liquor. We were only a few bites into our final course when our server asked if we needed anything else. Unfortunately, we hadn’t finished saying “no, we’re good” before she’d dropped the check on the table and fled.
Ah…another scorched dining experience courtesy of the “turn and burn.”
I could have overlooked the clumsy service if the food had been even “mostly good.” That our experience suffered so many fundamental failures was immensely disappointing, especially given the amount of buzz that this restaurant had inspired.
Most disappointing, however, was the fact that I’d eaten food that this chef cooked himself, and I knew what our dinner could have—and should have been.
Being too quick to chase the book deals, television appearances and expand the empire seems to have cost this chef’s newest staff its proper training.
During our time in Charleston, we spoke with several diners who were equally disappointed with their latchkey experience. We also spoke with a few diners who raved about their meals. My guess is either the ravers were lucky, or the rest of us weren’t. As disappointing as our experience was, we may never find out.
The following night we ate at FIG. The food was as brilliant as the service. Jason Stanhope, Mike Lata’s chef de cuisine, was generous enough to stop by our table at the end of service. (Lata wasn’t there after service, but he had been there earlier that day.)
Without us naming where we’d eaten the previous night, Stanhope knew exactly where we were talking about. Rather than chime in to critique a competitor, he admirably suggested we try the absentee chef’s other restaurant.
We considered the suggestion, and then made another reservation at FIG.
The second visit was—somehow—better than the first. The food, service and drinks were equally phenomenal. (Except for the tomato tarte tatin, we ordered dishes that we hadn’t tried during our first visit.)
The greatest success at FIG is that the food combines the love found in home cooking with the delicate execution and technique of an experienced, passionate chef.
Better still, Chef Lata was on the line that night and both he and Chef Stanhope stopped by our table towards the end of service. It may be cheesy, but it made us feel pretty cool.
No matter. I trust fully that at FIG, the food will always come first and our dining experience will be exquisite…even if the chef isn’t there to make us feel cool.