The best downtown lunch deal used to belong to Tristan, which offered an affordable prix-fixe three-course lunch. The menu was fresh and innovative, and the price was right ($15) — particularly if you were entertaining business clients or looking to impress a new friend. Tristan gave up on lunch a few months back, thanks to recessionary blues, but a new option has popped up downtown, and it’s one foodies should take notice of.

Over at Trident’s Culinary Institute of Charleston downtown campus, 181 Palmer is providing a refined summertime menu at the same bargain basement prices. For $15, you get three courses and a beverage (iced tea or coffee), plus you get to watch the kitchen in action on a large television screen. 181 Palmer is one of the labs at the downtown culinary campus where students get real-time experience on the line. Chef Scott Stefanelli plans the menu and oversees the students as they grill steaks, plate salads, and make desserts, and diners get to watch and benefit from this hands-on test.

At first, Stefanelli wasn’t sure he’d have enough students to man the kitchen this summer, but when a handful planned to stick around, he designed a simplified menu. One that could be executed by a skeleton crew. “During the regular semester,” he says, “I can have 15 students back there on the line doing all kinds of stuff with foams and sauces.” Stefanelli tries to throw as much at them as possible so they can learn in the heat of the fire. Not only do the students cook the food, but they learn the art of expediting and how to work the front of the house too.

Four of us stopped by for lunch on Wednesday and ate the entire menu plus the special of the day. From the four appetizer choices, we selected one of each: bruschetta, pork belly, grilled shrimp and melon salad, and sweet corn chowder. Plus, they sent out an order of the mussels that were the special of the day, and we were so very glad they did. Made with a Sam Adams cream stout, the fragrant broth the mussels were swimming in was delicious. Stefanelli says he was playing around with this dish for next Tuesday’s Sam Adams Beer Dinner. All he needs to know is that it’s a winner.

For our main courses, we again ordered one of each: sweet tea-brined chicken, grilled fresh fish of the day (mahi mahi), steak with fried onions, and a spicy jambalaya. The best thing on all four plates had to be the fried onions that came with the steak. For dessert, we got to finish up with strawberry shortcake, mango sorbet, a chocolate mousse, and a final savory cheese course.

The fun part comes at the end of the meal when you get to fill out a comment card. The students are here to learn, they remind us, and all comments are welcome and encouraged. We applauded the service we received from Bryan Voss, and we praised the skills of the steak griller. In the spirit of being constructively critical, we questioned the texture of the chicken and pointed out the misplaced iced tea spoon. It was hard to find much to quibble about, though, since our experience was rather enjoyable.

181 Palmer will be serving lunch for a couple more weeks. It’s only open on certain days (July 13, 14, 16, 20-23, 28-30), and reservations are required so you need to plan ahead. Call (843) 820-5087.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.