Chez Fish
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch
Entrées: $15-$20
3966 Betsy Kerrison Pkwy.
Johns Island

Chez Fish uses blue water glasses. Not just a pastel, translucent hue, but dark cobalt goblets set against a rainbow of table linens. There are faded yellow walls, mirrors set into the columns, worn-out paint on the doorframes, an open kitchen with gas flames leaping into the air — in other words, Chez Fish is a real bistro, worn and weathered like a comfortable sofa.

Authentic bistros serve real food in an environment that lays aside the haughty nature of a restaurant with the coziness of home. They are friendly, welcoming places, and Chez Fish is no exception. It is authentically French, gruff yet inviting, sophisticated but easy to understand. As the name suggests, they serve all manner of creative crustaceans, mollusks, fish, and more — you enter through the attached retail fish market, which speaks to the authenticity of the cookery inside. Chez Fish is not pretending to be a bistro, it exudes the concept, serving lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. There is little pretension, even if the menu (and some of the prices) connotes upscale dining; its proximity to Kiawah and Seabrook makes this all the more amazing. You feel at home there, munching on baguettes and butter, but this is not to say that the place is devoid of style. They plate fanciful dishes that, while not the meat and potatoes one might expect from a roadside market joint, fill the room with a well-grounded flair.

The classically French menu, with some Asian fusion, showcases a predominance of seafood (and snails) in myriad guises. Shrimp cocktails and seafood raviolis would provide a splendid start to the meal; the “Mussels Mariniere” ($6.95), however, takes the prize. They are so perfectly cooked, tender and plump, splashing around in their garlicky, white wine cream sauce, that one bowl justifies the long drive out from the city. Each bite seems better than the previous and you will need extra baguettes to sop up all that delicious broth.

Luscious starters can also be found on the daily specials menu. A “Roasted Beet & Cucumber Carpaccio” ($8.95) stretches the traditions of the Italian classic in a delicious manner, displaying thin wafers of the impeccably fresh produce, unfussy, naked, only a small drizzle of “Lemon Truffle Vinaigrette” and few stems of endive to frame the delightful interplay of earthy beet and crisp cucumber.

Other daily specials take advantage of the fresh seafood being sold next door. The “Swordfish and Mahi Mahi ‘Duo'” ($23.50), respectively, feature both grilled and seared preparations — again a nice juxtaposition of style and texture. The morsels of fish come atop a mound of purple Peruvian potatoes and surrounded by an acceptable, if a bit tomatoey, espagnole sauce — an acceptable dish, but at the price, perhaps a bit unrefined and under-executed.

The “Pecan Encrusted Black Grouper Topped with a Beurre Blanc Sauce” ($18.95) represents everything that Chez Fish can be. It is a beautiful specimen, meltingly tender, with a light pecan dusting, just thick enough to provide a textural crunch and lend a buttery richness to the fish. Perhaps it is overkill to dress such a rich preparation with a cloak of beurre blanc (which is basically more butter), but the result provides an extraordinary dish indeed — concentrated, flavorful, with an opulence that puts it over the top.

All of this is complemented by a diverse selection of house-made desserts and great service. The “Raspberry Tart” ($6.50) sports loads of fresh fruit perched atop a wonderful pile of cream and a dark chocolate shell, slathered with mysterious liquors (Grand Marnier perhaps?) and finishing without the cloyingly sweet temperament of so many overdone offerings these days; a simple preparation, showing restraint and elegance. It leaves the meal sprightly and fresh, devoid of any ornate bulk.

The service is perfect, considering the pedigree of the place. Straightforward and unobtrusive, they get the job done without unnecessary pampering and pomp. Suggestions are spot on and the waiters will quickly tell you about certain dishes that may not be at their peak seasonal freshness (and which ones that are). An ample, well-constructed and priced wine list rounds out Chez Fish, serving bottles and by-the-glass selections tailored to the food and the budget (and served in sparkling clear glasses).

Chez Fish will not be convenient to most in the greater Charleston area, it will not impress those used to the pomp and procedure of fine dining downtown, it will not attract you with loud signs or coupon specials. It stands singularly, its own place in the world, as none could hope to replicate the original. It just sits out there, behind its white picket fence and faded awnings, offering outstanding food, friendly service, and great wine — all of which makes it totally worth the trip.

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