When I first checked out the menu for Annie's Bistro, the French restaurant that opened recently next to the Five Guys in Mt. Pleasant's Towne Centre, I almost yawned. The offering seemed limited and very middle-of-the-road. Just six appetizers and seven entrees, all familiar French standbys, each entree served with a predictable combo of roasted potatoes and haricot verts.
But when I stepped through the front door, my nose immediately perked up at the tantalizing odor of garlic cooking in butter. This is promising, I thought.
There's not much to the place. A bar with a dozen stools stretches along one maroon wall, half the stools with wrought-iron backs and the rest with woven wicker covers. The rest of the narrow space is filled by two rows of tables adorned with yellow cloths printed with twisting olive branches. It's small enough to feel cozy but not so tight that you feel cramped.
Two bites into the appetizer course, I was already thinking about how far we've strayed from simplicity in dining. Serious new restaurants itemize each and every purveyor, and, I guess, we're all supposed to know whether Crooked Painted Barn beef is the good stuff or not. Chefs trumpet their farm-to-table and nose-to-tail philosophies, and they unleash the shock and awe of groaning boards of house-cured meats whose names send us scrambling to Google ("Wait, was that the lomo or the lonza? Lomo? Lonza?").
Annie's charcuterie plate ($16) offers salami, ham, prosciutto, and patê with the traditional cornichons and Dijon. There's a cheese plate ($14) with brie, Montrachet goat cheese, and Roquefort.
The spring tomato salad ($10) seems a little underwhelming when it arrives: a small plate of mesclun topped with a layer of tomatoes sliced into one-inch chunks and liberally sprinkled with feta and a pale brown vinaigrette. But, the first bite is cool and delightful, the creaminess of the crumbled feta balancing perfectly the sweet acidity of the tomatoes, all pulled together by the tangy smoothness of the shallot-infused vinaigrette.
Of course there's escargot ($12), and they come tucked in the six indentations of a traditional white plate, blanketed with a yellow-green a persillade of minced parsley and garlic. The buttery broth is garlicky, but not overwhelmingly so, and the snails have the just right tender but chewy texture.
There's nothing special about the slim baguette that's served alongside, either, except that it has a perfectly crisp crust, is delightfully soft in the middle, and is excellent for sopping up the garlicky broth from the six little wells in the escargot plate.
Annie's menu changes regularly, but recent entrees have included ratatouille ($20), baked king salmon ($24), and pork medallions and mushrooms ($21) in a sauce of white wine, Dijon, and cream.
No fruity sauce is drizzled over the fanned slices of duck breast ($24), and there's no need for it. The salty, fatty crust is just right, and the rich meat is infused with a generous dose of rosemary.
A whole snapper ($24) is served on a wooden platter, four half-moons of lemon lined up along the top. Pan-sautéed in garlic, butter, and white wine, the pristine white meat is sweet and pure beneath the garlicky seared skin dotted with big crystals of salt.
I suppose such entrees would be complemented quite nicely by celery root purée or kale or farro. But, does one really need anything more than roasted potatoes and haricot verts? The potatoes are scooped into grape-sized spheres and given a golden brown sear in the oven. The skinny beans are tossed with plenty of herbs and garlic and topped with a few chunks of stewed tomato.
The dessert choices are limited, too — just two per night. The pear tart has a disk of flaky pastry layered with an exceptionally sweet filling and a circle of thin, overlapping slices of pear, and the whole thing is delightfully warm. A stubby cylinder of creamy chocolate gelato is placed atop a layer of warm, purple berry coulis, and the sweet but tart berry flavor is great against the cool gelato.
This simple, comforting, and impressive food is the handiwork of chef Carole Robert, who was born and raised in Paris and spent weekends on her grandparents farm in the Loire Valley. (The bistro is named for Robert's late mother, Annie). Robert's husband, Mark Manly, tends the front of the house all by his lonesome, though the chef does pitch in and bring out a few of the dishes to the tables, chatting up diners as she goes.
The culinary sensibility is as French as Robert's accent. The menu notes that the sausages in the sausage and peppers entree ($22) are homemade by Mt. Pleasant's New York Butcher shop. (And what could be simpler than sausages slow-simmered with bell peppers and served over rice?) Apart from that, there's no name dropping of local farmers and producers to be seen.
But, that doesn't mean they couldn't if they wanted to. The whole snapper, it turns out, was fresh caught by local sea-to-table rock star Mark Marhefka, but I learned that only when Annie came out of the kitchen to apologize for the dish taking so long to cook. "Mark brought the fish in today and they were so huge," she said. "Almost three pounds each, so it will take a little bit longer." We felt no need to complain, and, thanks to a good glass of wine and a little more of that wonderful crusty bread, the time slipped pleasantly on by.
Start with the best, freshest ingredients and treat them simply. It's a credo we hear loudly proclaimed by any number of chefs and restaurateurs these days (some of them charlatans, some the real deal). But, there's something refreshingly modest about a restaurant that just quietly goes about practicing it as if there's nothing new and radical about it at all — which, come to think of it, there really isn't.
Robert and Manly originally opened Annie's Bistro Francais in Bethesda, Md., in 2010, but after Manly's family retired to Charleston and their daughter graduated from high school, they decided to head down to the Lowcountry, too, bringing their restaurant with them. I'm quite happy that they did, and, judging by the murmured praises we heard from the tables around us, I'm not alone in the sentiment. (One couple told us they had come in for lunch earlier that day and were so pleased they came back for dinner, too.)
It's almost enough to make me want to burst out in an elegant peroration in French, but the only phrase I can remember from school is apres moi le deluge, which doesn't seem particularly fitting. So, I'll just say this: Annie's Bistro is the real deal, and a refreshing reminder that there's a reason the classics became classics in the first place.