Chef Nate Whiting transforms his menu into a postmodern wonder 

Tristan's New Star

Back in September, Tristan's executive chef Aaron Deal was lured away by Chicago's Custom House. This could have dealt a serious blow to the downtown restaurant, since the Beard Award-nominated Deal not only was a rising star on the Charleston scene but had also helped overhaul the restaurant's fine dining reputation. But General Manager Steve Harris had a few recruiting tricks up his sleeve, and in October he announced that Tristan had snagged Nate Whiting from the Dining Room at the Woodlands Resort & Inn in Summerville.

Whiting is a Johnson & Wales graduate who apprenticed under Chef Robert Carter at Peninsula Grill then served several years as a sous out at Woodlands before being named the resort's executive chef. He's been at the Tristan helm for about two months, and, after phasing in a series of new dishes starting in November, his new menu is now complete.

A few favorites from the old Tristan menu are still there: the she-crab soup ($7) playfully done up as a cappuccino, complete with a frothy parsnip foam; the hickory-smoked lamb rib appetizer ($10) served with a smoky dark chocolate barbecue sauce. Noticeably absent, though, is the once-infamous Tomahawk Rib-Eye, a $55 monument of excess (complete with 12-inch rib bone handle, a truffle-laden sauce Périgueux, and foie gras) that is best left to a more ostentatious era.

Whiting has not banished foie gras and truffles altogether, but they seem to have moved into the background in support of a more local orientation that focuses on fresh vegetables and other products of the Lowcountry water and soil. Tristan has moderated its prices in recent months, too, with appetizers now in the $10 range and no entrées on the regular menu topping $30.

Whiting's new dishes keep with the restaurant's postmodern bent, and they're postmodern in the best sense of the word: playful and inventive, with a strong sense of irony and wit, hence the use of quotation marks in some of the menu descriptions. And the food's delicious, too.

The Lowcountry Carbonara ($13) is a prime example of this playfulness. Carolina quail is seared a golden brown and served over Wadmalaw onion "impasta," the tender strands of braised onions standing in for the traditional spaghetti. Dressed with a bacon-tinged crème fraîche and a poached quail egg, it manages to be both homey and extravagantly rich at the same time.

The Shrimp "Cocktail" ($11) from the cold appetizer menu deploys some ironic quotation marks, too, for the cocktail sauce surrounding the poached shrimp is actually a Kanzuri red pepper paste, and it's all served over a pool of freshly made hummus. You've got Lowcountry South Carolina, Japan, and the Levantine coming together in a single dish, but it works. The Kanzuri paste and the minced peppers that decorate the top of the dish look as if they might be fiery hot, but they aren't. Instead, it's a subtle, slightly spicy flavor that provides an apt basenote for the cold richness of the poached shrimp.

On the entrée section of the menu, the diver scallops ($28) are some of the most firm, perfectly cooked scallops I've had. The tops are seared a dusky brown and the insides are perfectly toothsome and buttery. I'm not sure exactly what's tucked away in the carrot mousseline that comes alongside the scallops, but one must assume there's a healthy dose of cream in there, for it's a rich, wonderful base for the dish — far better than a plain carrot puree could ever be. It's accompanied by tiny, tender Thumbelina carrots and little arcs of sautéed zucchini. The whole is topped off with perhaps the trendiest item on the menu: a Vadovan Emulsion, which (later research revealed) is a French take on Indian spice mix that Whiting whips into an airy foam. Like the Kanzuri paste on the shrimp cocktail, it sounds like flavors that could be dangerously overpowering, but they're applied with a light touch and serve to complement the scallops and not upstage them.

Whiting started smoking meats and seafood over locally-grown hay while he was still out at Woodlands, and he's brought that preparation to Tristan. The hay-smoked flounder ($26) is a scrumptious portion of tender white fish, infused with a subtle smokiness from the hay — a flavor that's much more delicate than hickory smoke and imparts a few grassy notes, too. The flounder is served with little spheres of potato confit and a cippoline onion that's sliced and braised in a wonderful broth, and little slices of Catevertano Olives and a piquillo pepper coulis serve as garnish.

The regular menu has plenty of tempting options like these, but the best way to get a full sense of Whiting's repertoire is through one of the three new tasting menus: a three-course (appetizer, entrée, and dessert) for $40, a four-course that adds a second appetizer for $50, or the full six-course chef's tasting menu ($75), which cherry-picks some of the best items from the regular menu and throws in a few surprises.

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Our tasting menu started off on a truly remarkable note with an amuse bouche of strawberry and mascarpone dusted with whitish-gray champagne powder. It's exactly what an amuse bouche should be: a surprising treat. While the strawberry and mascarpone are a fine combination, it's the fizzy burst from the champagne powder that surprises and delights. "It's like pop rocks for grown-ups," my dining companion declared.

That set the tone for the evening, and each course brought new surprises and delights. The courses progressed from delicate and light to progressively richer and darker flavors, tracing a journey from the seas to the farm. It started with the cold poached shrimp cocktail followed by a single diver scallop over that fantastic mousseline, then a big square of the hay-smoked flounder, which offered a nice transition from sea to land through the grassy tinge of the hay smoke. Then came the richness of the quail and Lowcountry carbonara followed by a brief but perfect intermezzo of green apple sorbet.

The fifth and heaviest of the six courses was braised veal cheeks served over creamy, cheese-laden Anson Mills polenta with a truffle oil jus. The veal cheek is presented much like tenderloin filet, but one touch of the fork reveals delicate, slow-braised meat that's so tender that it almost falls to shreds. The polenta is perfectly done too, with big strands of melted white cheese just adding to the richness of the dish. If it were any larger of a portion (and there is a similar big option on the regular menu, the beef tenderloin over polenta for $26), it might be too much of a good thing. The smaller portion is just right, and it includes what looks suspiciously like a Brussels sprout but is actually a collard leaf wrapped around a filling of onion, grainy mustard, and other savory treats and slow braised until it's almost as fork-tender as the veal.

After such a decadent meat course, the dessert provides a nice, homey contrast served with one last playful wink. The pumpkin "carpaccio" has thin slices of pumpkin topped with a tangy Satsuma granita, foamed coconut yogurt, and pepitas — pumpkin seeds coated in sugar and toasted till caramelized. The granita gives both a wonderful cold temperature contrast and a sharp tangy counterpoint to the sweetness of the rest of the dessert. A single crispy-fried sage leaf across the top provides a stark splash of color, and its flavor, muted by the frying, blends perfectly with the pumpkin. Paired with a tawny port, the pumpkin carpaccio is a fitting closer for the six-course tour, in which traditional favorites are twisted in playful ways but still combine into a seriously delightful meal.

And that seems like the right balance for a restaurant like Tristan, for in such a splashy locale the food shouldn't be too subtle nor too brash. The interior is all blues, whites, and browns, and it radiates out from the open kitchen, which is positioned in one corner and is separated from the dining room by a big arc of a counter with red pendant heat lamps. The dining room swirls around the kitchen in a concentric circle, divided from the bar area by a curving wall with glass windows covered by thin white drapes through which you can see the backs of the bar shelves, their gleaming bottles all lined up in rows. Overhead, the ceiling is dominated by a massive oval indentation back-lit with blue lights. Even the serving dishes are flashy and dramatic. Flying saucer-esque plates are shaped like flat domes with round indentations in the middle to hold the food. The sorbet intermezzo is served in a small, sphere that's been sliced lengthwise off at an arching angle, so it looks as if it's tipping up to show you its contents.

This avant garde style has garnered mixed reviews. Some observers love the inventive, modernistic look while others have labeled it visually chaotic. (Here at the City Paper, one writer has described it as "cutting edge . . . fun and modern" and another as making "you feel like you're in a bad Star Trek episode"). My own impression has grown more approving as the menu has evolved.

In such a brash room, the gargantuan tomahawk rib-eye and the $25 foie gras-topped burger seemed to push things over the top. With the new, more subdued menu, the interior softens. The tables are comfortable, the room not too loud, the open kitchen with its red lamps not as showy as it once seemed. The service we received was just right: friendly and welcoming, but not at all intrusive or phony. For the fourth year in a row, Tristan has received the AAA Four Diamonds award, and one can see why.

With a new chef leading the way in 2010, Tristan continues to grab a lot of attention. If Nate Whiting's first crack at a new menu is any indication, Tristan will remain a bright star in the constellation of Charleston's fine-dining sky for some time to come.

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