Although I may not live long enough to see humanity achieve Star Trek-like teleportation abilities, a visit to John Zucker’s Purlieu is almost like living in the future. Beam yourself into the chic, tiny bistro, situated at the corners of President and Fishburne streets, and you’re suddenly transported to Paris. Granted, everyone speaks English and the menus don’t require translation, but the warm, cozy space has a distinctly European ambiance.
The seasonal menu is also decidedly French, with a frog leg tarte ($13) included amongst the starters. If your innocent child self was exposed to the disturbing mental image of millions of frogs on tiny crutches and is still plagued by a sense of Muppet-based loyalty, well, rest assured that Kermit is not real. Moreover, Chef Jeff Williams has been kind enough to debone the meat, and the small medallions — at once firm and vaguely sweet — are lightly battered and pan-fried. They’re served both scattered on the edges of the plate and within the accompanying upscale potpie where mushrooms, peas, and artichoke hearts mingle in a rich béchamel sauce. Topped with puff pastry, the dish is at once homey and refined.
The artichoke gratin ($15) — an upscale riff on gooey hot artichoke dip — hits similar notes. Served in a small crock pot, there’s a crisp edge of browned gruyere around the base, while the crunchy Parmesan panko topping breaks open to reveal cream-flanked fresh artichoke pieces. Accompanied by some assertively garlicky slices of crostini, the subtle flavors of the unpretentious gratin may have been better served with the toast points mentioned on the menu.
In contrast, the same crostini pairs beautifully with the decadent rabbit rillet with foie gras mousse ($18). Presented in a glass jar, the sweet shreds of rabbit meat are topped with a thin layer of the lush mousse. Eaten along with the accompanying vinegary herb salad and crunchy preserved walnuts, it’s downright sublime.
Purlieu occupies a space that has the feel of a tiny storefront. I counted room for 30, plus a four-seat chef’s table, yet the compact footprint adds to the feeling of intimacy. Service is equally warm, with the entirety of the knowledgeable staff pitching in to deliver dishes or answer questions.
My lovely waitress emphatically recommended the baby beet salad ($10), and it was advice worth taking. Made with radish slices, raisins, and feta, plus pistachios and a basil-forward vinaigrette, it’s a flavor symphony. The star of the show features delicate baby beets in a rainbow of hues, and it’s nice to see more than just the run-of-the mill red ones. I’m looking at you, yellow beets. Smooches.
The roasted North Carolina chicken supreme ($21) was a surprise, and a true display of the chef’s ‘rustic meets refined’ aesthetic. The slices of juicy chicken breast are impossibly tender and topped with savory Mepkin Abbey oyster mushrooms, thinly sliced radishes, and a rich chicken jus. Plated on a creamy bed of sweet cauliflower puree, the dish also features roasted bits of romanesco, as well as mild purple and yellow cauliflower florets.
The celery root hash ($6) is also delicate, featuring browned, brunoised cubes of the potato-like vegetable. Served with what seemed to be the same flavorful chicken jus, the earthy root is notably elevated here.
Accompanied by three slices of the near-ubiquitous crostini (referred to this time as “garlic toast”), the chef’s bouillabaisse ($29) is a faithful take on the classic. Heavy with shrimp, mussels, and snapper, there are even chunks of briny fresh crabmeat to be found. The broth is thick and delicately seasoned with gremolata and celery leaves. Although a thick baguette might do a better job of soaking up the remains of the sauce, it’s hard to find much else to fault here.
A welcome addition to the Westside neighborhood, not to mention the Charleston dining scene as a whole, Purlieu is one of those venues that’s going to be hard to get into. Nonetheless, the unpretentious yet upscale vibe permeates everything from the food to the atmosphere, making it a reservation worth waiting for.
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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.