I can't believe I'm sitting in an apartment in Paris, France, longing for the last meal I had in Charleston. Paris is arguably the gastronomic center of the world, yet amidst the escargot, artful aspics, foie gras, and gorgeous pastries, there's one thing seriously missing: vegetables. Really good, well-prepared vegetables. Vegetables worthy of center stage, not the chorus. The last time I experienced that was at The Park Café the night before boarding a plane to France.
The Park Café is the latest launch of restaurateur Karalee Fallert — known for her slew of successful, highly conceptualized and well-executed eateries (Monza, Taco Boy, Closed for Business, The Royal American, and Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen). The Park Café sports good bloodlines. Fallert is a proven entity, established enough to feature prominently in a two-story mural recently created to highlight Charleston's sizzling scene. Since moving here 10 years ago, The Park Café is Fallert's eighth launch. I was cautiously optimistic to try it, allowing the possibility that a restaurateur can spread herself too thin. If you expand your empire and juggle too many culinary pins at once, does quality or originality suffer?
Not in this case, apparently, and not for Fallert anyway. She transformed a former garage at the corner of Rutledge and Grove into an inviting neighborhood bistro, her own neighborhood in fact, so you might say she created The Park Café for herself. The Hampton Park community, budding with artists, young professionals, entrepreneurs, and hipsters, has been craving more restaurants — right now there's Moe's Crosstown Tavern and Rutledge Cab Co.
A few weeks ago, my date and I settled into a sunny corner table for lunch. We ordered glasses of white wine, trading sips of a crisp, chalky, light-bodied Portuguese alvarinho, and a rounder, grassier, more vegetal Spanish verdejo in hand, as we took in the scene. The midday sun bathed the white-washed eggshell wooden floors, and sprouts in filigreed containers hung from the walls, giving the place a home-away-from-home, warm, sophisticated but organic vibe. Its centerpiece — a funky "chandelier" of intertwined raw branches.
We ordered an appetizer of mushroom and walnut pâté ($9). It's rich, smooth, luscious, more like a flan or a mousse than a traditional paté, perfect for spreading on crisp toast rounds. The plate was brightened with slivers of heirloom carrots, radishes, cucumbers, and shishito peppers dotted with olive oil and balsamic. It's a perfect start.
Generous chunks of fresh salmon swam within the creamy smoked fish dip ($9), topped with spicy jalapeños and served with artisanal crackers encrusted in sea salt and black pepper. We scooped it up on wedges of crunchy celery with a squeeze of lemon. Then came a bowl of roasted cauliflower ($6). They call it a salad, but I could eat it as a meal each day for eternity. Toasted hazelnuts crunched amongst lightly charred cauliflower florets dressed in a light champagne mustard vinaigrette sprinkled with slivers of Italian parsley.
Just as I was beginning to think vegetables couldn't possibly taste any better, I sank a fork into the eggplant caponata tart ($9). Nestled in a square of flaky puff pastry that was as delicate as any Parisian equivalent, the tomato-based smoky eggplant was smooth and creamy, topped with a velvety dollop of housemade fromage blanc, and paired with fresh frisée and arugula. An ample portion, it could easily be listed as a salad rather than appetizer.
A plate of toast piled high with homemade ricotta passed by in the hands of a slender, inked, pony-tailed hipster while dainty ladies in patterned sundresses lunched at outdoor tables, one with her patient Shih Tzu on a leash. Nearby diners bit into pork loin hoagies and fish specials with gusto, and no one willingly overlooked the stellar veggie plate entrée ($12).
Executive Chef John Amato, formerly a sous chef at FIG from 2008 to 2011, keeps pristine produce at hand. In addition to Ambrose and Limehouse, the café sources from The Green Heart Project, a school-based urban gardening venture founded by Fallert in 2009 that now reaches far beyond its initial classroom focus. The veggie plate pays homage to the seasonal bounty: a colorful array of the freshest, ingredients to be found, each bit scrumptiously executed. The vegetables don't require the crutch of lard, the disguise of cheese, or the crunch of the fryer. Zucchini slices bear the searing mark of the grill. Lightly charred, halved okra pods are subtly pickled (no full face pucker here), and sweet little gooseberries pop with flavor among cherry tomatoes.
A part of me can't believe how solidly good my luncheon was, so I dropped in the evening before flying to Paris for one more taste. Saddling up to the handcrafted open counter by the bar, I ordered a Mongoose cocktail ($9). Tequila based with a sprightly kick of lime and honey, it started off a leisurely Monday night, which wasn't crowded at all. The lunchtime menu was unchanged, dancing along in stride to the steady, mesmerizing mix of French café tunes, new alternative folk, and backyard grooves. A slight touch of the spoon burst a poached farm egg, liberating its contents as they merge with a soup of clear chicken broth vegetables. This farm egg vegetable soup ($8) was perfectly seasoned, allowing the mixture of bobbing vegetables and petite mushrooms to sing.
The local head lettuces salad ($12) constituted a meal unto itself, a veritable veggie orgy of paper-thin shaved produce, shiitakes pickled with cherrywood-aged balsamic, petite orange wedges, little bites of marinated shrimp, and the crunch of fried shallots. Carnivores might prefer the Daily Dog ($8), a house-made sausage stuffed with flecks of visible herbs, its contents changing daily according to the whim of the chef (on my visit it happened to be a chicken dog, and my friend polished off the whole thing with a groan and a smile). Or there's the bone-in pork chop ($15), a substantial plate of lean pork paired with fresh pesto farrotto and grilled peach wedges. But it was the market catch that really shined, on this night it was local wahoo, pan-seared to preserve its pale pink center, paired with a medley of grilled zucchini, hearts of palm, and heirloom tomatoes, all perched in an iridescent golden tomato sauce of an almost nuclear hue.
For dessert? Aebleskiver ($7), Danish popovers, a nod to Fallert's Danish roots. I can imagine the restauratuer and her siblings dancing around the kitchen in their pajamas whipping up these little airy puffs of doughy heaven dusted in powdered sugar.
Back to my pre-Paris lunch, I watched neighborhood ladies greet each other, and I spotted three separate members of Charleston's food community scattered at different tables: a wine and cheese shop owner, a progressive Vietnamese restaurant co-owner, and a salad shop proprietor. Perhaps another affirmation that The Park Café is deserving of tastebuds? Evidentally, there's no need to fly to Paris to get a great meal.