55 S. Market St., Downtown
Entree Prices: Very Expensive
Serving lunch, dinner, Sun. brunch
Over the years, Tristan has been many things: an opportunity and a curse for several chefs, a perennial underachiever whose pedigree made it all the more disappointing. It’s been an odd duck, edged in among the trinket shops, beer bellies, and horse carts of the City Market, hardly a place you’d expect to find exceptionally innovative cuisine. For most of its life, Tristan has struggled to perform amid the overly exuberant hype. The theatrical dance of the dining room and open kitchen has scarcely had an audience, and it’s languished, dependent on a fat wallet or two to float above the red ink.
They’ve tried it all: cheesy radio commercials, internet cameras mounted to the chef’s head, some rather creative television commercials, and a marketing campaign asking: Where will you go?
Well, guess what, I know where I’ll be going to a lot more often — Tristan. And once word gets out, a lot of other people will be going there more often too.
New Executive Chef Aaron Deal and Sommelier Brian Austin have succeeded where the marketing materials and the bottles of chocolate barbecue sauce failed, finally securing Tristan’s place among the stars of the city’s culinary scene.
Seasoned Tristan fans, don’t despair. Deal still features the gargantuan tomahawk ribeye ($55), a megalith of red meat with a foot-long bone, fully frenched, dripping with succulent flavor and seared in volcanic heat. The lamb ribs still melt with the savory smack of their signature chocolate barbecue sauce (which is delicious by the way), a deft nod to the Oaxacan mole and perhaps one of my most beloved dishes. Power-lunchers eager to impress will find the should-be-famous foie gras burger beckoning from a Wednesday afternoon seat, all $25 worth of fresh ground beef, seared foie gras, and truffled mayo packaged in a toasted English muffin.
But it is Deal’s talent that has brought Tristan back in a big way, and Austin’s deft hand with the wine pairings puts the place over the top. While you can get an excellent array of traditional appetizers (with unusual twists) from the regular menu — romaine Caesars with fried white anchovies ($8), big lump crab cakes with sea urchin roe ($14), or succulent veal sweetbreads topped with a fennel crust and baby organic turnips ($12) — the chef’s tasting menu ($85) displays the full potential of Tristan’s future. For the price, tasting menus deliver perhaps the most representative sample of a chef’s talent, and Deal’s is exceptional — balanced, innovative, and fresh. A restaurant’s regular menu must pander to a diverse clientele — a fish here, a vegetable dish there, a dozen phallic bone-in ribeyes delivered to the sophomoric chants of a bachelor party in the private room. But the tasting menu satisfies the adventurous, the eater who comes to experience the food solely as art. Deal understands this and delivers a brilliant performance.
The current tasting, custom made with creative interpolations of seasonal flavor, obviously required much thought and collaboration. The six courses kick off with a savory dessert: foie gras pot de creme, served alongside a smattering of blue cheese, walnuts, and pickled cherries. A simple cup belies the complexity, the silken consistency that threatens to overwhelm the tongue and seems to linger for weeks. It is a gorgeous bite, the lightness of texture foiling the richness, a long slow finish of perfect balance, and the quench of a 34-year-old Sauternes with which it’s served. One takes tiny nibbles at the spoon, stretching the flavor between pieces of cheese and nuts and wine — each juxtaposition a new wrinkle of flavor.
Perfectly seared diver scallops appear, rafting in a redolent “bacon jus.” The deep, smoky flavor of the liquid bathes the seaborne taste of the scallop in the subtlest of ways, complementary rather than overpowering. The Brussels sprouts, deeply fried and enveloped in a crust of natural sugars, are so good even sprout haters will find these delicious. The scallops get a slathering of salsify purée on top, the perfect application of this root vegetable that tastes something like oysters. Residing in a futuristic flying saucer of a plate, the whole concoction is at once simple and complex, displaying the underlying unity and diversity inherent in any great piece of art.
The dishes continue in rapid succession, each an excellent model of craft and service. Beef short ribs dance with black edamame, paired with a Chateauneuf du Pape, the play of ingredients as creative as it is delicious. Heirloom baked beans accompany a seared duck breast, and the duck is divine, cooked to a shattering crisp, thick, plush, and pink inside, but you could just as well toss it to the dogs. One taste of the heirloom beans and the Brunello di Montalcino with which it’s served will leave you with weak knees. In this perfect combination, Deal seems to have found what guys like Sean Brock and Mike Lata are garnering national accolades for. Lowcountry chefs don’t always have to look to the mythic plantation kitchen for inspiration; they just need to step into the backyard and sniff around to find the future of Holy City cuisine.
Nothing exemplifies this modern take at Tristan more than the white tuna ($30). Made of local fish skinned with the thinnest veil of prosciutto, Deal sears the crust until the ham forms a crunchy shell and gently places the morsel among golden beets and haricot verts. The mouth-watering juiciness of the fish can hardly be described, but the “parmesan vanilla broth” that accompanies makes it a must-try on every Charleston foodie’s list. It is one of those magically executed experiences that makes the whole trip worthwhile — earthy beets, a splash of the sea, and a tropical flair tempered by the backbeat of hard cured cheeses and salty ham — a riot of flavor that sounds almost offensive but will make a believer out the most severe critic.
Undoubtedly, some will still deride Tristan’s decor, which can make you feel like you’re in a bad Star Trek episode, and others will complain about the location and its snarling traffic (use the complimentary valet parking), but Tristan’s future seems bright. Deal and company are delivering an experience that few proprietors in this great restaurant town fully understand. There seems to be a renaissance of sorts abounding, gaining momentum, new players showing old hats the door with technical innovation and a keen focus on method and ingredient. The score must change if the music is to keep time, and Tristan hits all the right notes. As the beat goes on, the difference between has-beens and newcomers becomes more evident, and the rift will only widen. The dreamers are in full command. Y’all better get to Tristan before the expense account crowd finds out what they’re missing, or this show just might be sold out.