Since it opened four years ago, Muse Restaurant and Wine Bar has stood out for its distinctive interpretation of Mediterranean cuisine. In February, new chef Howard LaFour, who was Craig Deihl's sous at Cypress, took the reins at Muse, making subtle changes to the menu.
The good news for Muse fans is that much remains the same under the new kitchen leadership. They still make the restaurant's savory Merguez sausage ($10) in-house from fresh lamb, and there's always a bruschetta of the day ($8), which might be topped with anything from prosciutto or cheese to dates or white beans.
The grilled duck breast ($12) remains one of Charleston's best appetizers because of its inspired combination of Middle Eastern flavors. The meat is rubbed with sumac and then grilled, which gives it a splendidly smoky flavor with a fruity kick of tartness, and it's served with sweet Madeira-braised onions, pomegranate jus, and Medjool dates that have been caramelized and reduced down to almost a mush.
The grilled calamari ($10) is also a fine appetizer, and a good one to share with the table. The broad-cut rings of squid have great bits of brown char from the grill, and they're tossed with olive oil, thin strips of basil, and little bits of red pepper and orange zest that add big sparks of sweetness and spice.
The entrée selection has not changed radically, either, under the new chef's watch. It still features housemade pasta, fresh local seafood, and meat dishes, all prepared with accents of Italian and Iberian flavors. There's potato gnocchi tossed in gorgonzola cream ($16), a rib-eye steak with pancetta and roasted garlic jus ($27), and Muse's Mediterranean version of shrimp and grits ($19), with the shrimp seared and served over polenta with a basil and tomato cream sauce.
Muse's crispy sea bass ($28) is a local favorite — a whole fish that's deboned and fried lightly until the skin is golden and crispy and the tail is poised in a dramatic arc. The presentation changes regularly, and the current incarnation is served over a small bed of rich potato purée with a salad of apricot, radish, and parsley tossed in a white balsamic dressing.
While old favorite dishes remain the same, there are some new flavors and combinations, too. The catch of the day lets the chef exercise his chops with a variety of fresh local fish. On my last visit, the catch was corvina served over a ragu of butter beans, squash, and zucchini and topped with tomato jam ($26). The corvina, a dense white fish, was cooked just right, with a beautiful golden sear on the top. The tomato jam adds a subtle, bright sweetness to the fish, and the ragu —which is really more of a succotash to my eye — is a fine blend of seasonal vegetables with a little rich buttery jus at the bottom.
The concept and decor for Muse was inspired by the time owner Beth Anne Crane spent in Italy during graduate school, particularly by the frescoes of the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. She returned to the Lowcountry determined to create a restaurant that has the feel of a rustic villa.
She succeeded. Once you stroll the half-block down from King Street and step through the blue round-topped door into the stone-tiled courtyard, you feel far, far away from the bustle of the commercial district just around the corner. It's an old two-story house with small dining rooms on each floor and half a dozen outdoor tables in the courtyard.
The interior is tight, and usually there's some jostling and bumping as you come in and get settled into your table, but for me that's part of the charm. The Old World villa feel is imparted through lots of small touches like the tapestries and frescoes that adorn the walls, banquettes with pillows to cushion your lower back, and the vibrant red and blue color scheme. The small dining room downstairs, with its blue walls, red curtains, and old fireplace, is a fine setting for an intimate dinner, while the tiny red-walled bar area, with 10 stools crammed into the front room of the old house, is a great spot for sharing a couple of glasses of wine with friends. With over 100 selections, Muse has one of the best offerings of wine by the glass in town, and a knowledgeable serving team to make recommendations, too.
For me, Muse remains an eccentric but utterly delightful restaurant, and a comfortable, reassuring place for a good meal. It's quiet, tucked-away location and its distinctive fusion of Mediterranean flavors should keep it a local favorite for years to come. For Spoleto visitors who have already eaten their way through downtown's flashy high-end steakhouses and the trendy palaces of hyper-Southern local cuisine, Muse is a worthy alternative, providing a vivid example of the diverse, rich variety of today's Charleston dining scene.