Robert's of Charleston
Robert Dickson may have put down his knives and abandoned the stove, but he hasn't left the building. After 30 years tending the fires and the hearts of thousands who have marched through the doors to be serenaded into gustatory bliss, Robert's voice still shakes the house down, and the prix fixe meals still provide a calm respite from the bustling pace of urban life. The little room down on East Bay continues to sustain a steady stream of anniversaries, birthdays, engagements, and other celebratory meals, but with the addition of Robert's daughter and son-in-law, MariElena and Joe Raya, it takes on new life.
There will be no curtain call at Robert's. For a venerable old stalwart of the Charleston scene, the place still reverberates with the sweet melodies of success that made it a star in the first place. Now endowed with the Culinary Institute of America training of MariElena and the expert wine knowledge of Joe, Robert's sports a new, more innovative menu and a focus on pouring interesting, value wines from regions you may not be all that familiar with. If you haven't been to Robert's in a few years, it's time to return.
There are still the old folks, celebrating their 40-something wedding anniversaries (five the last time we were there, to be exact), the birthdays that rouse an impromptu jingle from Robert before dessert (we saw two), and the occasional engagement, but for 85 bucks, you can't get a better show on East Bay Street, even with Spoleto in town. The room still fills with the tinkling of the front piano and the wine flows freely through a respectable four-course meal, mixing the French classicism of the Robert's of old with a world beat of flavors that march frenetically through the menu — not quite John Coltrane, but much more innovative than some of the Muzak being served down the street.
The menu changes with the seasons, but one can count on a few good regulars. They usually start with a pâté of some sort, a small plate of country meats and accoutrements, mustards, relishes, and the like. They are good, if not mind-blowing, but Robert's is not really about trendy cuisine. Italians often classify wine into those which one must "think about" and those reserved for the pure enjoyment they provide. I think if Robert's was a wine, it would have to be placed into the latter classification. It provides a well-crafted meal that focuses on the synergy of the parts, the creation of a fabulous experience rather than an academic foray into the nature of ingredient or preparation. Taken that way, relaxed and slung back in a comfortable booth, enjoying conversation with couples seated so close they eat alongside, and reveling in service that is at once attendant and unobtrusive, one senses the true beauty of a meal that requires little else. At Robert's, you choose an entrée from a list of three and off you go for the night, free to enjoy the interlude, the opera, the piano, and life itself.
MariElena's dishes make that chore easy. Innovative, delicious plates like the "Southern Style Duckling," showcase her ability. Thin slices of duck breast come perfectly cooked and surrounded with fresh chow chow, spinach cornbread, and a sauce smacking of green tomato and buttermilk. From there it's on to a salad, which in the winter may mean roasted beets with the peppery bite of arugula, some citrus, walnuts, and knobs of fresh goat cheese, but in springtime sports local asparagus, just steamed, sliced, and laid atop a pile of wild mushrooms, celeriac, and a frisée salad dressed up with white truffles.
Main dishes provide your only choice at Robert's. The fish these days is local grouper, steamed in a banana leaf and napped with a carrot-ginger reduction, or you can opt for the grilled roulade of veal and chicken (which we've never tried, but heard raves about from the neighbors at the next table the last time we visited). Perhaps the perennial favorite is the tenderloin, a nice-sized lump of rare beef swimming in a beautiful pinot noir reduction sauce. It is a fine steak and the unctuous gratin potatoes that accompany the plate make it my favorite dish in the house.
Dessert is a constantly changing affair, but it is respectable for a kitchen without a dedicated pastry chef. The Tahitian vanilla gelato that often makes it to the plates is divine, as is anything chocolate that MariElena sends out. By that point in a meal at Robert's, you're stuffed full of good food, great music, and memorable times — which is really what makes it one of the best deals in town.