Even the most hardboiled locals will admit they sometimes like to escape Charleston. Three relatively recent arrivals on the restaurant scene, Muse, La Fourchette, and Pane e Vino, are as far off Charleston's well-worn, Southern-fried track as you can get. You won't find any grits at these places, but you might feel as though you're in an Italian villa, or at a café in the 17th arrondissement, Edith Piaf on the turntable, or overlooking the wine-dark sea on some island Odysseus may have visited on his long, strange trip home.
We spoke with Perig Goulet of La Fourchette, Massimiliano Sarrocchi of Pane e Vino, and Jason Houser of Muse about their old-school influences.
Perig Goulet at La Fourchette
Downtown. 432 King St. 722-6261
Big ego'ed chefs looking to make their mark with a unique menu of "Pacific Rim meets Provençal with a tinge of Tex-Mex" need not apply at La Fourchette.
Owner Perig Goulet knows what he wants, and it's French, absolutement. Being a chef in Goulet's kitchen is a little like being Spielberg's cameraman: it's a great experience, but you're pretty much going to do things according to the boss's plan.
"I have different chefs," Goulet says. "I have a great team. They know how to make my menu.
"But if they suggest a side of pureed sweet potatoes, or grits, I say no. If they ask me, 'You want some green zucchini with that?' I say, 'Guys, keep it simple.' If you start to change from the way French people do things, it's not traditional."
In case you're guessing, Goulet, 45, is as French as a long, deep kiss. He grew up in Brittany, the coastal peninsula in Northwest France that juts out towards England and informs many of La Fourchette's seafood dishes, such as a recent skate wing special with capers and steamed potatoes.
Other dishes — the pommes frites fried in duck fat (don't ask for ketchup), the couscous, the poulet basquaise — reflect other French regions, as well as Algerian and Basque influences, but all, Goulet insists, are typical of Parisian restaurants.
Fourchette will begin lunch service in time for Spoleto, offering buckwheat crepes — sometimes called galettes (galetes in the Breton dialect) back in Goulet's home terroir.
"The soil is perfect there for this kind of wheat," Goulet says, and he knows from crepes. He ordered a special machine and brought back coarse gray salt from home just for them, and he'll only give two more of the secret ingredients: sweet butter and rum.
Before opening La Fourchette in December of 2005, Goulet managed Il Cortile del Re for several years, when it was owned by Pane e Vino's Massimiliano Sarrocchi. (Sarrocchi, in his impish way, claims to have the Midas touch, having seen former employees Goulet as well as Lana's Drazen Romic and John Ondo start successful restaurants of their own).
Another big influence on Goulet is his "big brother consultant," Gwenael Goulet, who opened Buffet de la Gare in Westchester County, N.Y. in 1980. That's where La Fourchette's signature dish comes from, the La Cassoulet, duck confit with beans served in a Le Creuset ceramic dish.
Gwenael Goulet came up in Paris back when aspiring cooks apprenticed, working 17-hour days for meals and a half-pack of cigarettes (the way he tells it, anyway).
"Restaurants now are kind of mixed up," Gwenael says, "with the fusion, a little bit this, a little that. It's good to try to keep some authenticity."
La Fourchette has sold some local French teachers on its authenticity. Classes from Goose Creek High and Ashley Hall have come in to get a verité exposure to French culture.
"I tell them from the beginning, I'm not going to serve them Coca-Cola," Goulet says. "If I could, I would serve them wine, but I cannot."
Massimiliano Sarrocchi at Pane e Vino
Downtown. 17 Warren St. 853-5955
\Forget the intimate little red-walled restaurant with its house Sangiovese, its primi and secondi piatti, you don't need to eat a bite at Pane e Vino to get swept away to Italy. Just spend a minute talking with owner and chef Massimiliano Sarrocchi.
Stocky, with a thick goatee and darting eyes, Sarrocchi, 40, has the best Italian accent you've ever heard, a voice that bounces like a basketball being dribbled six inches off the ground.
Having opened Il Cortile del Re on Lower King Street ten years ago, Sarrocchi is recently divested of it, free to focus on Pane e Vino, which he started a year-and-a-half ago with his wife, Natasha. He feels the location just off Upper King is more relaxed, more appealing to locals.
At Cortile, Sarrocchi did all the cooking for the first four years, but at Pane he shares duties with Chef Jason Pigg, with him since 2002. Sarrocchi comes in early and "jumpstarts" the sauces and a few dishes on the menu he created.
Speaking of that menu, those who haven't met "Massi" and don't know what an affable and easy-going person he is might read it and expect Tony Shalhoub's unbending Primo from Big Night.
"No ingredient changes, taste our foods in the traditional way."
The pappardelle all'antica, a wide-noodled dish with pork, Marsala, and anise, which Sarrocchi discovered in a Renaissance cookbook, "[w]ill not be topped with cheese!"
Neither will the spaghetti ai gamberi, a crab sauce with shrimp, spiced with saffron and paprika. "No cheese on seafood!!"
"I know it's kind of a strange position, Sarrocchi says, "but I think ... whenever you offer something, you should try and please yourself first."
Four times a year, Sarrocchi pleases foodie tour groups, taking them to a villa owned by an artist friend in Montalcino, Italy. He cooks for them and leads food and wine field trips, although he says "most of the time people are more into the eating and drinking than learning."
Pane's aim is to provide comfort food, not fine dining. That's comfort food from the Tuscan countryside, mind you. And while Sarrocchi is open to new ideas from his trips to the boot, he's not so much from customers.
A woman recently insisted it was her right to ask for a change, since she was the one paying for the meal.
"Just because you are paying doesn't mean you can make your own recipes on the menu," Sarrocchi says. (It comes out of his mouth much less hard-assed than it reads.) "If you go to an art show, you don't say to an artist, 'I'd like to buy this piece, but you could you change the colors so it matches the walls in my house?'"
Jason Houser at Muse
Downtown. 82 Society St. 577-1102
Jason Houser, executive chef of Muse, has worked in restaurants for half of his 29 years. He came here from Atlanta, cooked his way through college, took a degree in Religious Studies from the College of Charleston.
His focus was Tibetan Buddhism, but a post-grad trip all around the Mediterranean created a religious fervor for the people and the food of the lands once ruled by the Roman Empire.
Having worked in kitchens all over town, from Andalucia's to Zebo, Muse is Houser's first time running the show.
Owner Beth Ann Crane lured him away from an extensive stint as sous chef under Bob Waggoner at Charleston Grill, and in late December they opened the tucked-away wine bar on Society Street. Muse is meant to seem like a rustic villa with uniquely decorated little rooms.
"We want it to feel as not-Charleston as possible," Houser says. "We want you to feel like you're in the Mediterranean when you're in the restaurant."
Exactly where is up to you — Houser says "we're not trying to pigeonhole ourselves." When asked if he had to name his favorite region on the Mare Nostrum, he said Greece to relax, but food-wise it's a toss-up between Spain and Italy.
"Really, the Mediterranean has so much to offer, we can use anything but soy sauce," Houser says, working on a batch of sesame bread. "It's an all-encompassing thing ... Everywhere you go in these coastal Mediterranean towns, the food is extremely simple, the ingredients are extremely fresh. There are some bold flavors in there, with lemons or really nice olive oil, not very confused, very focused."
While reticent to name a signature dish with Muse so new on the scene, Houser pointed to a grilled squid in an herb marinade finished off with lemons and capers and Espelette, a Basque chili pepper.
He also offers a duck breast in sumac, on a bed of onions cooked down in Madeira wine and mixed with dates and pomegranate juice.
Unlike older chefs like Goulet and Sarrocchi, Houser is still working young man's hours — noon to midnight, most days. And he isn't taking the same strict stands, yet.
"Ultimately we're in the hospitality business," he says. "If the guest wants something a certain way, I'll do my best to accommodate them, even though personally I might think it's kind of silly myself."