Chef Nico Romo recommends oysters and lobster rolls in the summer | Credit: Ruta Smith

With summer comes seasonal local produce such as tomatoes and peaches. Chefs at some of your favorite restaurants have creative ways to embrace summertime ingredients, and they’re itching to share their favorite dishes this season.

Photo by Ruta Smith

Chef Nico Romo made a name for himself in Charleston in 2017 when he first opened NICO, an upbeat oyster bar on Shem Creek that serves French cuisine alongside the beloved bivalves. He followed that restaurant with French-fusion Bistronomy by NICO downtown in 2020 and Italian restaurant Laura in Summerville in 2022.

He’s shared many of his childhood dishes with Charleston through his three restaurants, but one dish that always brings him back to southern France is fougasse.

“I’m from Lyon, so for vacation, I would go south of France like Monaco and Nice,” Romo said. “It’s hard to find [fougasse] in Lyon since it’s a regional thing.”

Fougasse is a French dish from Nice, which Romo compares to focaccia bread. While you can eat it plain, he said, you can also stuff it with a variety of fillings such as cheese, tomato, chicken or bacon. For a quicker summertime snack, Romo said he loves tomato and mozzarella. “It’s all I need all summer.” (Recipe included)

But if you find yourself out on Shem Creek, downtown or in Summerville, Romo recommends a few dishes from his restaurants that epitomize summer. For example, NICO serves lobster rolls on toasted brioche with pomme frites and Camembert fondue. “It’s not technically the season [for lobster] — it’s more of a winter thing — but it’s that fresh, cold salad and fresh seafood that’s nice.” But when in doubt? Oysters, he says (even in the summer).

Sweet and acidic

For Chez Nous executive chef Jill Mathias, the warm weather is a sign of fresh, summertime fruit.

“One of my favorite dishes to make is our summer fruit salad,” she said. “There’s just so much bountiful fruit in Charleston.”

Chez Nous incorporates seasonal fruit such as blackberries, peaches and tomatoes into summer salads | Photo provided

Though the menu at Chez Nous changes daily, one example of a fruit salad you might find from Mathias has blackberries, peaches, plums and figs (or any other seasonal fruits) topped with Marcona almond and sherry vinegar.

“It’s super simple, but so delicious,” Mathias said. “The vinegar makes it a little different. It’s not sweet on sweet. It gives it kind of a well-rounded balance.”

Often thought of as a vegetable, tomatoes are one of the most popular summertime fruits among chefs.

“I feel like all chefs love to play around with tomatoes,” Mathias said. “A lot of summer bounty just speaks for herself. You don’t have to do much to it.”

At Chez Nous, Mathias has paired tomatoes with various fish for a stark contrast of sweet and savory.

“I like to serve tomatoes with tonnato sauce or tomatoes with garlic cream and anchovies.”
She described the tonnato sauce as a tuna mayonnaise and added, “it’s nice to have that natural saltiness to it.” The tomato provides a sweet, sharp flavor and is balanced with the creamy, salty tonnato with just a hint of acid.

And when not making a salad at Chez Nous, Mathias searches for a nice savory shrimp salad.
“Shrimp season is really awesome,” she said. “So any sort of shrimp salad, I’m super psyched to go eat.”

She said her favorite place for a shrimp salad is Post House in Mount Pleasant because of the dish’s light cafe-bistro elegance.

But at home, Mathias likes to keep things simple with what she calls a “refrigerator salad” — a salad made with “whatever’s in the fridge,” such as squash, tomatoes, beans and peppers.

Switching things up

Though downtown neighborhood restaurant Berkeley’s doesn’t change its menu often, there’s always room for new specials, said owner Marc Hudacsko.

At Berkeley’s tomatoes star in summer specials | Photo provided

“Berkeley’s is a little different. We’re not really like a seasonal menu-type of place, although we do run a lot of specials,” he said. “The easiest thing is to get as many fresh local tomatoes as we can get our hands on and do whatever we can do with that. That’s my MO (modus operandi) in the summertime.”

One of Hudacsko’s go-to menu items combines two summer favorites: peaches and tomatoes.

“I find myself often doing … some kind of peach and tomato salad in the summertime and whatever else is on hand, like lots of fresh herbs, some blue cheese or pickled red onions.”

Tomatoes are always an item he gets in surplus, he added, especially when he’s at a Charleston-area farmers market like the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market. It’s an ingredient that, even after its peak ripeness, still has a handful of uses. All season long, tomatoes can be used for quick dishes like a grilled cheese with fresh tomatoes or something a little heavier like a shakshuka breakfast or a tomato sauce for pasta.

“I’ll eat a good tomato like an apple,” Hudacsko said. “I’ll just sit there with my little jar of salt and take bites out of it and keep salting it as I go. “Why mess with them?”

But if you’re in the neighborhood looking to get one of Berkeley’s many tasty sandwiches, Hudacsko said a pro-tip for a summertime meal is a wedge salad with a buffalo chicken cutlet for a little bit of freshness and spice.

“It’s the hot item right now. That’s what all the servers are talking about. You won’t regret it.”

Icy spicy

James Island’s Sichuan restaurant Kwei Fei is known for its spicy, “loud” heat, but it shouldn’t stop you from going to the restaurant for a bite to eat during the summer.

Kwei Fei co-owner and chef David Schuttenberg said spicy Sichuan dishes are good for regulating body temperature in the summer. He recommends a cold sesame noodle salad topped with chili crisp. | File photo by Ruta Smith

“In the Sichuan province, eating spicy foods is all about releasing damping from the body and regulating body temperature,” said co-owner and chef David Schuttenberg, “so I don’t like to step away from spicy foods in the summer.”

During Charleston summer months, which Schuttenberg said is very similar to the summer climate in the Sichuan province of China, a favorite dish to serve is ji si liang mian, a cold noodle dish topped with the restaurant’s signature Sichuan chili crisp for a cool, crunchy heat.
“It’s the temperature contrast between a cold dish with that much spice,” Schuttenberg said. “I really love that. And I think that it’s just a really satisfying bowl and noodles.”

The ji si liang mian is cold sesame noodles topped with poached chicken, chilled cucumbers, pickled daikon radish and bean sprouts to add a coolness that balances out the heat.
“And then of course,” he said, “We love to just drizzle it with a pile of our chili crisp.”

Try out these two recipes from Jill Mathias and Nico Romo

Arugula and marcona almond salad
From Jill Mathias

2 tbsp diced shallot
3 tbsp sherry vinegar
12 halved figs
7 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 nectarine
4 oz cantaloupe
2 plums
1 cup blackberries
8 oz. arugula
Half of a lemon, juiced
²⁄³ cup marcona almonds
Salt and pepper

Combine shallot, vinegar and ½ tsp of salt. Let sit for 5 minutes. Mortar and pestle 3 figs. Transfer to shallot mix, whisk in olive oil.
Cut fruit into slices and mix all fruit. Drizzle with half the vinegar, season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss in arugula. Add more vinegar and lemon juice.
Garnish with almonds.

From Nico Romo

250 g all purpose flour
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 g dry yeast
1 tsp salt
15 cl water
25 g chopped black nicoise olive
25 g grated emmental
1 tsp rosemary, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together, then add water and olive oil. Form a ball of dough and add the chopped olives. Lay out the dough flat into a sheet pan with parchment paper. Make sure to oil the paper with a brush.
Cut holes in the dough and make them look like tree leaves, then brush a little olive oil on top. Bake for 15 minutes, flip it and top it off with chopped rosemary, a pinch of kosher salt and the emmental grated on top.
Cook for another 10 minutes.

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