Greg Bauer is a veteran of the Marines, a former portfolio manager, and now an accomplished cook of Vietnamese cuisine, thanks to his executive chef Anh Toan Ho. For the past 15 months, Bauer has been learning the nuances of Vietnamese food from Toan while completely overhauling the building he purchased at 340 King St., the former Teavana, and transforming it into CO, a swanky Vietnamese restaurant.
Bauer moved to Charleston in 2011 to open the restaurant and has spent a long time putting together the pieces. "One of the key elements to doing ethnic food is partnering with the right group," he says. "It's also one of the most interesting components, piecing it all together."
Bauer found Toan through his company Saigon Catering (perhaps the only Vietnamese caterer in Charleston?), and the two spent hours exploring recipes and dishes at Bauer's apartment. Toan would quickly demonstrate a recipe, Bauer scribbling notes before recreating the dish himself. It was a lesson in simple, fresh cuisine.
"There are few other cuisines that offer as much flavor and freshness as Vietnamese," says Bauer, who has spent a fair amount of time traveling in Asia. His first trip was to Singapore, a great introduction to that part of the world he says, and the reason they chose the CO Singapore Sling as their signature drink.
CO, which means feast, opened (softly) last night and Bauer has hopes of slowly finding an audience, but considering the dearth of ethnic food in town and Charleston's appetite for it, I imagine it won't take long for those community tables to fill up with eager eaters.
I stopped by yesterday for a quick tour and an impromptu tasting of some key dishes. I have to say, they were pretty wonderful.
The pork and ginger gyoza ($5), made in house, come with a soy scallion sauce that's so good I could've drank it.
The pork and crab spring rolls are crisp and tender ($6). Not your typical greasy, tough overly fried roll.
Left to my own devices, I probably would've never ordered the tofu buns ($5), but now that I know what little treasures they are, I will definitely be ordering these again. The tofu is a thin, crispy layer and the bun itself is quite delicious. I loved these little sliders.
More dishes came out, and it seemed like the food just kept getting better (even though I was getting fuller). The Vietnamese chicken salad will easily fall into regular lunch rotation for me (once they open for lunch after a few weeks of mastering dinner service). Very light and crunchy with a gentle heat, the chicken salad is dressed with a sweet lime sauce and hidden by prawn kapuk, a crispy shrimp cracker that could be sold by the carton. So good.
Interestingly, Bauer seemed most enthused about com ga ($12), a very simple dish that is literally chicken and rice. For him, this dish shows the true artistry of Asian fare. It's simple but succulent. The chicken is poached, fried, and lightly sauced.
The com chien ($12), or fried rice, comes with tofu and veggies or loaded up with Shanghai sausage, pork, chicken, and shrimp. We got a taste of the meaty version. If you like fried rice, you'll be hard-pressed to find a nicer version than this one.
Bauer and his team are pictured below. He's tapped Rochelle Jones to craft the cocktail menu, which spans specialty drinks, sake, wine, and beer. On tap are Kirin, Westbrook White Thai, and Great Divide's Samurai Rice Ale. The most intriguing cocktail? The Blue Bobba, made with vodka, coconut water, lemongrass syrup, and tapioca pearls.
The restaurant is small with 60 seats. Downstairs there's a bar and a community table. Upstairs, you'll find a lounge area, a small bar top that overlooks the first floor, and a dining room with community tables and a smattering of two-tops. Bauer worked with architect Neil Stevenson and Mark Regalbuto of Renew Urban to transform the space, taking it down to dirt floors and exposed brick walls before piecing it back together.
As I was interviewing Bauer, a delivery of baguettes arrived from the Butcher & Bee kitchen. The sign on the door says banh mi/noodles/bar, so I was curious about the banh mi, Vietnam's signature sandwich. Finding good bread in this town is a huge challenge, particularly for a sandwich like this. Bauer's search has been exhaustive, and it seems like he might've found the perfect baguette. About four minutes after the bread delivery, we were chomping down on a caramel pork banh mi, which was quite delicious. I think they found the perfect bread.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to taste the pho, which Bauer promises is amazing, but that gives me a great excuse to get back over there. And I don't think Charleston will waste much time checking this place out. For the hour I was there yesterday afternoon, the door popped open continuously with people inquiring about when they'd be opening. If Bauer had wanted to do this thing quietly, he probably shouldn't have put it on the busiest part of King Street. Brace yourself dude, the crowds are coming.