80 Reid St., Downtown
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($8-$15)
Serving: Lunch & Dinner (Mon.–Sat.), Brunch (Sun.)
Alluette's Café belongs to a genre all its own: holistic soul food. This means a lot of different things rolled into one. It's fresh, local produce and seafood. It's slow food. It's organic vegetables and hormone-free, antibiotic-free meat. It's Geechee-Gullah soul food served up with a New Age, whole-foods sensibility.
And it's just plain good. If you want to fully understand what this means, you'll have to visit the little pink building next to Burris Liquors on Reid Street and try it for yourself.
Alluette Jones opened her café on Valentine's Day of this year, with Chef Absalom Thomas by her side in the kitchen. The restaurant attracts a slow but steady stream of customers from various walks of life. On a recent visit, I shared the tiny peach-colored dining room, which has just four small tables, with two committed vegans and a pair of business travelers from North Carolina who had dropped by after hearing a friend rave about the fried shrimp. I know all this because Alluette's is the kind of place that puts its guests surprisingly at ease and gets everyone talking to each other, including Alluette herself.
The North Carolinians' tipster was right about the fried shrimp ($14.95). I might even go out on a limb and declare them the best fried shrimp in the city — and that's no small accomplishment. Freshly caught in local waters, they are butterflied and lightly coated in an herbed batter then fried in organic oil. They come to the table golden brown with flecks of green dill and a sprinkling of chives over the top, and there's a little cup of spicy, remoulade-like sauce for dipping. The minimal batter is just right, enhancing but not overwhelming the flavor of the shrimp, creating a dish that's crispy and satisfying and doesn't leave you weighed down with grease.
As you might expect from a "holistic" restaurant, Alluette's has plenty of vegan options on the menu. Some of these, like the lima bean soup ($5.50 cup/$7.50 bowl), are quite remarkable. There's no chunk of fatback or ham hock lurking in the broth (the menu board proclaims in large letters, "This is a no pork café!"), but the soup is still rich and complex. It's flavored with red pepper flakes and a hint of sesame oil, a note continued by the benne seed crackers that come on the side.
Also vegan friendly is the tomato and basil sandwich ($8.50), a perfect choice for a hot summer day. Served on toasted multigrain bread (which, like all of the café's breads, hails from Saffron bakery), it has slices of local organic tomatoes layered with basil leaves, mesclun, red onions, and alfalfa sprouts. The kicker is the layer of hummus that's spread on both slices of bread. I suppose this takes the place of mayonnaise and keeps things vegan, but it also adds a nice zip to the sandwich and really makes the whole thing come together.
The vegetarian offerings are almost good enough to make a committed barbecue nut say, "Who needs meat, anyway?" But, unrepentant carnivores need not worry: the Geechi Girl Burger ($9.75) is made from ground Black Angus sirloin with cheddar or Swiss cheese and a side of hand-cut fries. From organic potatoes, of course.
Alluette's offers just a small selection of beverages: water, fruit juice, coffee, or Aunt Mary's iced tea ($2). It wouldn't be a soul food joint without sweet tea, but in natural-foods fashion there's no cane sugar involved, just a blend of fruit juices. Aunt Mary's recipe is supposedly a closely guarded secret, but through charm and deduction I was able to uncover at least part of the formula: pineapple juice, and maybe a little grape, too. It's a delicious and refreshing take on the old southern standard.
All told, you leave Alluette's feeling light, refreshed, and — dare I say it — even a little bit healthier than when you went in.
It seems a perfect time for a café such as this to arrive on the peninsula. From the shrimp, limas, and rice to the brilliant colors of the Diane Britton Dunham prints on the wall, Alluette's has a distinct Geechee-Gullah Lowcountry style. It showcases the best of local ingredients, with most of its produce coming from Joseph Fields Farms on Johns Island and its fresh seafood from South Carolina waters. And it's a friendly, welcoming place to grab a wholesome meal.
Alluette may not have caught the attention yet of the Southern Foodways Alliance or the roving cameras from the Food Network, but it's only a matter of time. (In fact, rumor has it that the FN boys are slated to do a feature in July.) When that happens, look out: the place is so small there'll be a line halfway down Reid Street waiting to get in.
Beat the rush and try it now.