It's been a while since Charleston saw the opening of a new big-night-out restaurant. Sure, a flurry of ambitious fine dining places were launched in the past year — The Macintosh, The Grocery, Next Door — but they've kept the atmosphere a little more casual, focusing instead on ingredients-centric food and holding the prices below that "very expensive" range. The service is less formal while wine lists have been shrinking, supplanting the big leather-bound book with a single front-and-back page.
Not at 'Cesca, a new Italian restaurant that opened earlier this summer. (That's "Ches-Ka," short for Francesca, by the way.) It's something of a throwback to the pre-lardcore mode of upscale dining, more in line with Oak Steakhouse, Peninsula Grill, and Halls Chophouse. Single purveyors aren't mentioned on the menu. The wine list has hundreds of bottles, including an impressive selection of Piedmontese and Tuscan varieties: Barberas, Barbarescos, Barolos, and Brunellos.
It's not on Upper King Street but rather right down on the original East Bay restaurant row — or, at least, half a block off that restaurant row, in the space on Faber Street that housed the short-lived Buccaneer. The basic layout remains the same, but everything else has been thoroughly overhauled, with impressive visual results.
The dining area is large and open, and there's more space for special events at the top of a long black-railed staircase. The exposed brick walls are old and beautiful, as is the accompanying blend of classic dark woods and earth-tone accents. With high-backed cloth banquettes and light fixtures made from bunches of twigs, the dining room is a comfortable mix of the sophisticated and the rustic.
The evening begins with a basket of sourdough and ciabatta, and a dab of olive oil from 'Cesca's private label adds a bright, fruity touch. The expansive dinner menu invites you to indulge yourself, offering two dozen appetizers and salads to choose from before you even get down to the serious business of the primi and secondi.
There are marinated olives ($8) and artichokes ($7) and platters of salumi ($14) and artisanal cheeses ($10 for 3, $15 for 5, and $20 for 7). Oysters on the half-shell are sprinkled with micro-watercress and shards of limoncello ice ($16), while asparagus is dressed with bacon and a roasted egg ($13).
Amid all this choice, the crudo takes center stage. There's a fixed selection of four variations plus daily specials ($5 per piece or $23 for a flight of six), and the results are mixed. The hamachi gets a sprinkling of fiery green chiles, and two clams in their shells are touched with citrus oil and basil leaf, which adds a fine fragrant kiss. Spice from the pepper sauce goes nicely with the ahi tuna, but the vinegar bite is too sharp, and the minced scallops with savory capers and pine nuts just doesn't come together as a satisfying whole. The best items were the chef specials of the night: slices of snapper with a rich olive tapenade and bits of fatty salmon dressed with the complexly intense flavor of preserved lemon rind.
There are nightly appetizer specials, too. Perhaps my favorite starter was one of these: arugula and baby greens tossed with a flavorful marinated watermelon, against which big shreds of lump crab give a pleasingly cool note and bits of gorgonzola add sharp pops of flavor — an excellent combination.
The primi offer plenty of fresh pasta selections, like orecchiette with spicy pork sausage ($16) and fettucini tossed with garlic butter and thinly sliced yellow squash, then adorned with big sautéed local shrimp ($17). The goat cheese ravioli ($16) are subtle and delicate, with five little ravioli arranged around a small pile of arugula and drizzled with a thin brown butter sauce. The fried sage leaves decorating the top add a nice note to the mild creaminess of the goat cheese filling.
There's also a risotto di giorno, which featured fried oysters the night I tried it. It's a substantial plate, and the half dozen oysters that topped the risotto were flawless, especially the light, crisp batter. Unfortunately, the rice was pretty flat and needed a lot more flavor to hold up against the oysters and to justify the jaw-dropping price tag of $26.
The secondi continue the theme of hearty Italian favorites. The seafood includes frutti de mare with lobster saffron broth ($27) and diver scallops with pecan-smoked farro ($26), while carnivores will be tempted by the 12-ounce bone-in veal chop ($41) and the 28-ounce porterhouse for two ($52).
There are a few stumbles toward the finish. Cooking chicken al mattone (literally, "under a brick", with a weight pressing the bird) usually results in gloriously crispy skin and meat that's still tender and juicy inside. 'Cesca's "brick chicken" ($19) gets the salty, golden-brown skin just right, but inside it's dry, even the dark meat of the leg. It's served with long whole honey-roasted carrots, which add a pleasing touch of sweetness, but the bed of sautéed farro underneath is blasted with herbs and overwhelms everything else.
The bone-in pork chop ($28) weighs in at a hefty 14 ounces, and has a big smoky first bite from its bacon wrapping. The top is glazed with a tasty sweet brown sauce that I could have used a little more of. The pile of multi-colored cauliflower that is served alongside has a nice, slightly charred sear, but it's lonely and cries out for the company of some other veggies.
As befits a big-night-out spot, 'Cesca rallies with the desserts, which are tasty if predictable. There is tiramisu ($7), suitably gooey and decadent with a Grand Marnier mousse. A dome of sweet panna cotta ($7) is drizzled with blackberry coulis, while crisp cannoli ($5) are filled with an intensely sweet vanilla mascarpone and served atop of a wonderfully savory pistachio gelato. I do like the concept of the dessert flight ($12), which lets you sample three small portions from the dessert menu chosen by the chef.
All told, 'Cesca has some good things going for it. It's an elegant, big-ticket restaurant with flashy but familiar Southern Italian fare. Owner Anthony Mazzola is a veteran of the New York restaurant industry, having been a partner in several high-end Italian ventures in Manhattan (including the original 'Cesca), and chef Jason Colon has a track record of more than a decade at a succession of fine dining restaurants from Boston all the way to Hawaii and Singapore. They're industry pros, and it shows in the Charleston incarnation of 'Cesca.
At the same time, there something missing in the experience. It's sort of like listening to an album made by studio musicians: smooth and polished, professionally done, but not particularly surprising or exciting. And you pay triple-scale rates for the privilege. Perhaps that new restaurant shine just needs to wear off, but the all-important touches of character and surprise just aren't there.
For now at least, 'Cesca isn't going to be the next local-centric foodie favorite, but that's hardly the only culinary audience in town. It certainly brings New York-style fine dining to downtown Charleston — and with New York prices to match. Time will tell whether that's an innovation that this dining town needs.