American/Eclectic – Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
14 N. Market St. 577-0090
In recent years, fashionable restaurants in town have been turning away from Charleston’s fabled yesteryear to embrace the contemporary culinary world, and not a moment too soon. For those who have suffered countless permutations of “shrimp and grits” for too long, Cordavi represents another fresh oasis of cosmopolitan, international style — a respite of pause and reflection that draws from influences more ingenious than indigenous. They offer no apologies for intricacy or expense. Rather, it is the rarity of the foods and the skill with which they are presented that will become the hallmark of their reputation.
Small tastings of exquisite morsels parade from the kitchen in a sequence of marvelous flavors. Marked with the obvious influence of contemporary greats — Thomas Keller (The French Laundry), Ferran Adria (El Bulli), Daniel Boulud (DANIEL) — these dishes are more than beautiful platings; they presage the future of Charleston’s cuisine. Gone are the grits and the gravies, replaced with foams and froths, textural contrasts that push the architecture of the ingredients themselves — and it is a welcome change indeed.
Chefs David Szlam and Cory Elliot bring impeccable execution to their delicious cuisine. The parallels with modern gastronomic temples, such as The French Laundry, are unmistakable — owing, no doubt, to Chef Szalms extensive training in the kitchens of San Francisco. The seasonal menu is available in a variety of configurations that, while sometimes confusing, allow the diner to explore the tastings in numerous ways. Tasting menus can be selected prix fixe for three ($45), four ($55), or five courses ($65). For 85 bucks per head, the chefs will prepare the signature “Chef’s Tasting Menu,” with an optional paired wine flight ($30). The menu guidelines may be difficult to decipher, but the knowledgeable staff make selections easy, steering the diner through the construction of a satisfying progression and expertly pairing wines, even if one does not splurge on the full tasting — if you do have trouble with the menu, you will forget all about it once the gustation begins.
Cordavi presents some of the best food to be had in Charleston — the quality of the ingredients, the perfect execution, and the sheer multitude of flavors will leave you speechless. Dishes are interwoven with amuse bouches and playful bites, small tidbits of flavor that help transition through the rich textures of the culinary performance. First course selections such as the “glazed kumamoto oysters” are a symphony of flavors, two plump, salty specimens, perfectly cooked (poached in butter perhaps?), set upon melted leeks, and coupled with a generous scoop of sevruga caviar. A cold lump of beef tartare, topped with a poached quail egg, goes over the top with the addition of a vinaigrette layered thickly with minced black truffle. Oyster-like salsify purée hides inside the “porcini infused salsify ravioli,” playfully surrounded with a fairy ring of crispy, fried sweetbreads and crawfish tails, all draped in a silky cloak of “lobster froth.” The colors and flavors sing from the plate and after a few bites, you realize that Cordavi has transcended the food — this is an art, and it only gets better as the meal continues.
“Butter poached lobster” alternates luscious chunks of crustacean with meltingly tender braised pork belly noisettes, a surf and turf juxtaposition smoothed effortlessly by the accompanying cauliflower risotto. The “ribeye medallion,” perhaps the best dish on the menu (I found myself softly chewing with eyes closed), presents a perfect landscape of Wagyu (Kobe) beef floating above a smooth parsnip purée, bisected by a small river of concentrated demi-glace. The meal concludes with an excellent selection of cheeses and an imaginative dessert menu. The “key lime panna cotta” molded with a blood orange jelly and impaled with a graham cracker crisp provides a perfect conclusion to such a gustatory adventure — the bracing acidity of the lime washing away the rich indulgences of the past few hours, leaving one sated, but not stuffed.
Cordavi will win no awards for being distinctively Southern, but that’s just the point; it represents a new American fusion of technique and ingredient that draws from the masters of contemporary cuisine. Appropriately, the physical layout needed little change from its last incarnation as Vintage. The space evokes a cool sophistication, original postmodern art blanketing the walls which reverberate warmly with soft jazz and the quiet conversation of the cocktail bar. If the space is slightly austere, it serves only to highlight the true purpose of Cordavi: exquisite food.
For the cost and the antecedents emulated, Cordavi should strive to be perfect, a goal not yet realized — but it comes close. For all of the fine-tuned cuisine, the front of the house seems strangely out of kilter. Despite more staff on hand than patrons dining, food routinely finds its way to the wrong table. Servers apologize profusely, citing the “extreme difficulty in executing such a complicated menu,” but fail to realize that the ultimate beauty of such a meal lies in its effortless presentation — as if it were produced by a well-oiled machine. Upscale diners do not want excuses, only results. When the service eventually matches the quality of the food, Cordavi will represent one of the best experiences in town, and Charleston’s culinary reawakening will be one step closer to reality.