Even if you study the menu several times before going to a restaurant, the analysis paralysis can hit when you sit down. Should you go with your gut or get the server’s recommendation? Does the progression of menu items make sense? Are you ordering too much food?
To help with this indecisiveness, several restaurants here in Charleston offer tasting menus and chef’s tables, leaving the decision in the chef’s hands. The menu is already set, so sit back, relax and enjoy a stress-free dinner.
‘Let us pick for you’ at Chasing Sage
When visiting Chasing Sage, the staff wants you to feel as if you’re at a friend’s house for an intimate dinner party. At a dinner party, you wouldn’t order food from your host, so Chasing Sage recreates that experience with its “let us pick for you” menu.
“The idea of it is to present an alternating format, where we design a meal around you or your group, and we don’t keep it super specific,” said Walter Edward, chef and co-owner. “We allow a lot of leeway for me, the chef and also for the servers to kind of guide people along this meal, however we deem is right for that person.”
When diners choose this experience, they discuss their preferences with the server and can request specific dishes from the a la carte menu, or leave it entirely up to the kitchen. The menu can easily be made vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free or gluten-free. Some courses may come out with one portion per diner, while other courses are better when shared.
The “let us pick for you” menu consists of five courses for $65 per person, with the option to add beverage pairings for an additional $45. When City Paper spoke to Edward, the meal kicked off with a dish that would be the corn kid’s dream: sweet corn agnolotti. This pasta dish is made with polenta that’s cooked in corn stock and corn juice and served atop a corn and basil soup. The finishing touch is popcorn shoots that are grown in-house.
“It’s sort of like corn on corn on corn,” Edward said. “It’s really appreciating all the aspects of corn season in just a few small bites.”
Edward describes the first course as “snacky” and the second course as light and vegetable-focused. The second round of dishes is followed by a bread course, then two more savory plates before dessert.
The menu changes a couple of times per week, so diners can expect a unique experience with every visit.
At the time of writing, the featured dessert was poached pears with pear fritters, brown butter toasted walnuts and miso butterscotch ice cream.
“I love to look at a menu and know that you like certain ingredients in certain preparations, but at the same time, sometimes it can be hard to know what it’s going to be until you get it,” Edward said. “Sometimes it’s really fun to put the reins in someone else’s hands.”
Chef’s counter at Wild Common
When Wild Common resumed service after the 2020 lockdown, executive chef Orlando Pagán sat down with the restaurant’s owners and suggested a tasting menu-only format. At the time, it was just Pagán and his sous chef running the kitchen, so the duo wanted to focus on only a few dishes and execute them perfectly.
“The main feedback from guests was that they’ve been planning three meals a day — breakfast, lunch and dinner — for the last few months and it’s really good to not even think about [cooking] right now. Just sit down and have somebody cook for me,” Pagán said.
The Spring Street restaurant currently serves a four-course tasting menu with three seatings Wednesday through Sunday and four seatings on Friday and Saturday. For an especially interactive experience, Pagán recommends sitting at the chef’s counter, not to be confused with the chef’s table.
The chef’s table is a private dining experience for groups, while the chef’s counter refers to the eight seats directly in front of the kitchen, allowing diners a front row seat to their meals’ preparation and plating. Guests at the chef’s counter enjoy the same four-course tasting menu as the rest of the dining room, but are able to interact with the chefs more.
“We go deeper into dishes, you know, people tend to ask more about specific sauces, they see us plating, how the whole structure of the restaurant is, and how each course kind of develops,” Pagán said.
The tasting menu begins with smaller portions to ease people into the meal. Right now, for example, the menu may start with crab rice with kimchi or a baked oyster. Then, guests have the option to add a caviar course to their meals. The next course would be a bit more robust, like a duck breast with mushroom quiche. For dessert, expect something playful like the chef’s elevated take on a Fig Newton.
Chef Pagán explained that the menu changes fairly often, depending on if he is particularly excited about a specific ingredient or if one of his cooks brings an exciting idea to the table. Guests can expect dishes with an array of influences, from the flavors of Asia to North Africa. The chef added that after 25 years in the industry, he tends to get bored easily and switches up the menu as he sees fit.
“That’s the beauty of it right now. We are not under an umbrella of one cuisine; we touch everything and it keeps it interesting for the cooks and the guests,” Pagán said.
Tasting Menu at Sorghum & Salt
One of the best ways to experience the locally-driven, vegetable-forward menu at Sorghum & Salt is by ordering the tasting menu. Prior to 2020, the downtown restaurant only offered this chef-curated menu on select days, but now diners can have this experience any day that the restaurant is open.
Diners can choose between a four and six-course menu, which are $62 and $85 per person, respectively. Wine pairings can be added for an additional $35 for four courses and $50 for six. Local produce is the star of Sorghum & Salt’s menu, so over time, vegan dishes were organically added and now, customers can order a completely vegan tasting menu.
Every tasting menu experience at Sorghum & Salt — vegan, vegetarian or otherwise — starts with an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre, then either two or four small plates, an entree and dessert. At the time of writing, the amuse-bouche was an intriguing combination of a homemade peanut butter marshmallow sitting atop salsa macha (medium-spice salsa made with dried chiles and nuts), which is topped with fermented collard greens and chopped peanuts.
“It’s a weird one, but it’s really good,” said Trevor Evans, the restaurant’s operations manager. “The fermented collards bring spice, the salsa macha brings some sweetness and the homemade peanut butter marshmallow encrusted with peanuts gives you some really cool texture as well as a flavor combination that you wouldn’t normally be used to.”
From there, diners enjoy one or three more small plates before the entree. A vegan entree Sorghum & Salt has previously featured is an eggplant farce that is breaded with panko breadcrumbs, lightly fried and served alongside cherry tomatoes, walnut gremolata and chickpea aioli.
For the omnivores, Sorghum & Salt also serves entrees like slow-roasted A-5 Wagyu beef and market fish.
“If there’s two vegans, two people who aren’t and two people with peanut allergies at one table, we will accommodate on a per-plate basis,” Evans said. “We make things as similar as possible so diners can have the same experience.”
For dessert, diners can expect a dish like vegan white chocolate mousse made with soy and coconut milk atop Meyer lemon puree, which is garnished with popcorn powder and pistachios. For non-vegans, the dessert is also topped with caramelized white chocolate.
If you want to check out Sorghum & Salt’s tasting menu, the restaurant offers a standard, vegetarian and vegan tasting menu every night. The restaurant is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and reservations can be booked on Resy or by phone.
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.