It had been years since I last dined at Chez Nous, but when I sat down at a small banquette table a few weeks ago, I felt like I was back in an old familiar haunt. I credit Instagram for that.
Each morning just before lunch, @cheznouscharleston posts a picture of the day's menu, handwritten in black ink on a small white card in executive chef Jill Mathias' eccentric and highly-stylized script. Next comes a separate picture of each and every dish being served that day, taken from above in flawless light.
Admittedly, it's only seven pictures total, since Chez Nous serves just two starters, two entrees, and two desserts, and the selection changes daily. Occasionally you'll see a stylish shot of the restaurant's exterior — a postcard-cute yellow Charleston single house — or a moody view of one of the two compact dining rooms with wide-planked wooden floors, white walls, and timeworn brown rafters. The images roll across my screen so consistently that I almost feel like a regular.
All this might tempt one to declare Chez Nous a creature of the Instagram era, but apart from those daily snapshots, it seems far removed from "influencer" buzz and rapidly shifting trends. The setting is charmingly old and the cuisine European-inspired, but it's hardly a throwback to an older mode of dining, either. Chez Nous stands alone just as it is, an eccentric outlier.
It's been that way since the restaurant opened in 2014. The basic white plates are still the same, as are the spartan brown tables and the comforting smell of old wood when you step into the first-floor dining room. Downstairs, the same eight stools line the small bar along one wall, with a row of two-top tables along the other. Upstairs a single row of brown wood tables stretch along one wall, and the ancient fireplace at one end has an even older-looking mirror hanging above it.
With such a dynamic menu, any review of Chez Nous is by necessity a fleeting snapshot. On my last visit, each of the courses balanced a dark, heavier dish with a brighter fish-based option, and each was splendid, though in very different ways.
On the other side of the ledger, the flawlessly crisp puff pastry of the vol-au-vent ($15) encases tender mushrooms and hearty chunks of rabbit in a supremely rich, creamy sauce — a filling, comforting opener. The scallop crudo ($18), by contrast, is sparkling and delicate, with tender white scallops sliced thin, dressed in citrus and oil, and topped with chunks of supremed orange. A sprinkle of flaked sea salt and crushed pink peppercorns add pleasant prickles to each cool, citrusy bite.
In contrast to its slim menu, Chez Nous' wine list is fairly deep, with two dozen reds and 15 whites, about a third of them available by the glass. The selection slants French with a few nice Italian bottles sprinkled in, and our server nailed it with his recommended 2014 Viña Alberdi Rioja Reserve. Medium-bodied with a tart, almost bitter finish, it's delightful on its own and mingles well with the dark notes of mushroom and duck as well as the bright acid of the crudo.
On the larger plates, the duck leg confit ($28) is silky and dark beneath its jacket of golden-seared skin. When you stir the red wine sauce into a forkful of the purple-black beluga lentils on which the duck rests, it's a wonderfully warm, savory combination.
The trout ($34) manages to outshine even the duck. Two roasted filets, skin on and connected along the top, are served over a bed of green limas and tender local carrots. Enrobed in a pale yellow butter sauce and punctuated by bursts of tarragon, each bite is sharp but luxurious.
And none of these dishes will be available on the day you are reading this. One can easily get lost in the endless scroll of Chez Nous' Instagram, looking for patterns and encores. Whole trout made a re-appearance three days after my visit, this time with green beans, croutons, and brown butter. But more typical is a seared square filet of one fresh local fish or another served over the top of anything from roasted veggies to squid and white beans.
Handmade pastas of every size and shape pop up with regularity, as do a few heavier meat courses like a pork chop or coulotte steak. But they're balanced by a colorful array of salads — lettuce hearts tossed with pine nuts and herbs, pear and prosciutto or pork belly and radicchio tumbled amid beds of mixed greens — along with a few more unusual plates like fennel fritters, grilled sardines with roasted potatoes, or quail with figs and farro.
Overall, Mathias' dishes are simple and straightforward — a handful of ingredients, a basic sauce — but eminently fresh and flavorful. I particularly like that the same menu is served for lunch and dinner, since midday offerings are too often dumbed down with lackluster sandwiches or half-sized entrees. Some afternoons are best spent eating big — sharing a bottle of good wine, swapping bites of each other's appetizers, and splurging on dessert.
While we're talking dessert, if you happen across a meringue on the menu, snap it up. There's nothing wrong with more typical entries like the recent pear tart ($11), though it's a bit dry and boring next to Mathias' splendid chocolate meringue ($10). The stiff confection — pale tan in color — is shaped into an irregular hollow round, filled with whipped cream, and modestly drizzled with chocolate sauce and nuts. The texture of the meringue itself — neither sticky nor crisp, melting on your tongue into a wonderfully light, chewy morsel — puts the whole thing over the top.
Chez Nous is tucked away on Payne Court, a short alley off of Coming Street between Spring and Cannon, so it's fair to say it's off the beaten path. But each time I've strolled down to the little yellow house, I've found myself transported into Chez Nous' own idiosyncratic world.
I have a relentless urge to fit every restaurant into a pattern or a trend. How do its dishes or ingredients build upon prior influences and traditions? Does its decor or style foretell where diners' tastes are heading next? Where does it fit within the larger Charleston scene?
But not every star snaps neatly into a constellation. Sometimes, like Chez Nous, it's just a small, brilliant gem, shining alone in the larger firmament.