The first night I visited Chez Nous, my party ate literally everything on the menu. Even though we were just a party of two that wasn't much of a feat. The menu is handwritten on a single half sheet of paper in a highly stylized script, and there are just two appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts each day. And each day they are completely different.
That physical menu reflects the essence of Chez Nous. It's small, it's simple, and it does things in its own eccentric but charming way.
Each of the six items on the daily menu is written in French (with an English translation beneath it), though the offering also incorporates elements of Spanish and Northern Italian cuisine. Over the past few weeks, the appetizers have included a bean salad with anchovy and lemon, grilled sardines with radicchio, and bruschetta with ricotta, peaches, and ham.
Poached shrimp are tossed into frisée, arugula, cherry tomatoes, and sliced cucumbers to create a cool summer salad with one unexpected ingredient: cold green beans. It turns out to be a delicious combination that's subtly accented by a light creamy dressing.
That soothing subtlety is found in other dishes, too. Two thin slices of country pâté arrive on a bare wood board accompanied by nothing more than a row of sliced baguette and a small mound of halved cornichons. The first bite of pâté seems a bit mild and unassuming, and it might make one wonder, "Where's the mustard?" But I'm glad there was none on the board, for each successive forkful of the cool, silky meat really grew on me. In a perfectly deft finishing touch, a few broad flakes of salt are sprinkled sparingly over the top of the pâté, and they give just the right salty kiss to each bite.
These dishes are the creations of Executive Chef Jill Mathias and Juan Cassalett, her sous chef and fiancé. Mathias is a veteran of fine dining restaurants in Martha's Vineyard, and she spent her off-seasons traveling in France and Italy before she landed in Charleston for a five-year run leading the kitchen at Carolina's, one of the old war horses of downtown fine dining.
Carolina's closed its doors early this year, almost forgotten as Charleston's fine dining scene shifted toward Upper King Street. Though she has now moved to a much smaller stage, it's also more personal and intimate, and it seems to really let her own style of cooking shine through.
Though the offering is different each day, there are some familiar patterns. Fish or meat tends to be seared golden brown and served on top of some vegetables with a small pool of light sauce on a spartan white oval plate. One day, it might be flounder over haricot vert, on another it's stuffed quail over arugula, snapper over eggplant and zucchini, or even a whole roasted branzino over tomatoes and olives. But it's not a lock-step formula, and you may find novelties like crisp fried eggplant drizzled with honey or comfort fare like a chicken fricassee with rice and green peas.
Amid the variety, there is a common theme: simple but intense flavors. A thick boneless chicken breast is served sliced with the skin on, and that cap of skin is roasted crisp and brown, adding a pleasingly salty, herbal burst to the juicy white meat. Beneath it are tiny, tender potatoes and slices of white mushroom surrounded by a thin buttery sauce.
The sauce that accompanies a square of seared flounder is similarly straightforward and delicious — a blend of butter, olive oil, lemon, and a little cream. The texture of the flounder is just right, the edges seared golden brown, and it's served over a layer of tender chopped artichokes tossed with plenty of herbs. The tangy, silky sauce ties it all together, and it's so good you'll want to sop up every last bit at the end with a few slices of baguette.
The focused simplicity extends to the desserts. A square of dark chocolate is cool, thick, and bittersweet, perfect for spreading on a warm sliced baguette, and flakes of sea salt add nice little accents. The dish of sweet and creamy rice pudding would be pleasing enough on its own, but its elevated further by a dollop of fig and cherry mostarda that's laced with mustard and pepper. Those subtle savory notes balance perfectly against the sweet, cool pudding.
Chez Nous occupies a small two-story house on Payne Court, a narrow alley that's all of 50 yards long, extending off Coming Street between Cannon and Spring. Patrick and Fanny Panella, the owners of Bin 152 wine bar, originally bought the antebellum-era single house with the intentions of living in it, but as they got into the renovations, they decided that it was the perfect spot for a restaurant.
The downstairs dining room has a handful of tables and a six-stool bar that was created from wood repurposed during the renovation. There's a single row of tables in the narrow room upstairs and more out in the brick-paved courtyard along the side of the building. With bare wood tables, simple chairs with elegant bentwood backs, and old hardwood floors, the setting blends the rustic and elegant and evokes a comfortable if undefined era from the past.
The walls are decorated with 19th-century portraits in gilt frames, and on each floor there's an antique mirror, its surface browned and worn with age, on which the day's menu is written. Swing music plays quietly on the sound system. The wait staff wears blue-and-white striped Breton fisherman shirts with mustard yellow aprons around their waists. It's all very stylish and cool — sort of Charleston, sort of French, and all in all quite appealing.
I'll admit I've been intrigued by the concept of Chez Nous's tiny menu since I first heard of it. On the one hand, it seems like a risky proposition for a restaurant. Its prices (appetizers typical run between $11 and $13, entrees between $19 and $28) put it squarely in the fine-dining category, and the offerings are the same for both lunch and dinner. Can a mere two options satisfy enough diners in a market accustomed to broad choices, not to mention the conflicting demands of vegetarians, vegans, lactose-intolerant, paleos, gluten-freebies, and whatever else pops up next week?
At the same time, there are virtues in being small. A slim handwritten menu can change not only to follow the seasons but even to match the weather on each and every day. On a scorching July evening, light dishes like a cool shrimp salad and roasted chicken are just right, especially when paired with a glass of crisp Sauvignon blanc. And, with just a handful of dishes to focus on, Mathias and Cassalett can knuckle down and try to knock each one out of the park.
From what I've sampled, at least, they've managed to do exactly that. Amid a food scene that seems increasingly in love with the big, the bold, and the loud — fried chicken, spicy kimchi, dizzying arrays of high-gravity beer — Chez Nous is marching to the sound of its own tiny, quiet drummer. And I think that's just delightful.