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Charleston--Alluette's, delurking to rave

Our first visit to Charleston, travelling from metro NY region for a long weekend mini-vacation, and I came prepared with a good-sized list of recommendations from Chowhound to fit our needs (moderate to bargain, walking distance from historic district). We're still here until Monday, but I had to de-lurk and write my first Chowhound post to exclaim in amazement about the dinner we just had at Alluette's Cafe, which I discovered not on Chowhound but through a blog posting on Holly Herrick's blog, Charleston Chow (http://charlestonchow.blogspot.com/

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We were the sole diners on a Saturday night (at least while we were there), and this just should not be. For $60, including a generous tip, we had a meal that paralleled in quality and skill of preparation anything I have ever had for more than double the price.

The restaurant focuses on fresh, local and often organic ingredients. Alluette's philosophy of good food means that the restaurant concentrates on seasonal vegetables, chicken and fish, prepared simply but expertly. I dislike 'cleverness' in restaurant cooking, and this restaurant demonstrates that excellent ingredients and thoughtful, minimalist preparation produces the most outstanding results.

My partner started with a cup of fish stew; it was jumping off the spoon with fresh fish flavor, in a simply seasoned tomato base with excellent body. My partner proclaimed: "This is better than any clam chowder I've ever had, just with fish instead of clams." Well ... okay... Anyway, we were both immediately impressed with the quality coming from the kitchen.

The restaurant is still building a clientele, and consequently the dinner menu is simply the lunch menu with one special. That night it was fried shrimp, served with choice of two sides. I had collard greens and organic potato salad. A dozen sweet, juicy shrimp arrived. Greaseless, slightly crisp; they appeared to have been dredged in seasoned flour only. I could detect a light touch of dill weed. Alluette served them with 'Geechee girl sauce,' a cayenne-seasoned mayonnaise. The collard greens had been lightly stewed with onions and peppers; I could have eaten a quart of them. The potato salad was also flawless.

When Alluette heard that we had come all the way from New York to eat at her restaurant, based on a blog posting on the internet? Well--she offered to make us something not on the menu. My partner jumped at the offer of fresh flounder. Alluette mentioned 'baked flounder', but what arrived at the table was a gorgeous and fearsomely fresh whole flounder, dusted with cornmeal and fried as expertly as the shrimp. Unlike the shrimp, the flounder had a distinct crunchy crust from the cornmeal dredging. This was also served with geechee girl sauce. Since the flounder took up the whole plate, a separate plate came with the same lovely collards and sweet potato slices panfried with slivers of sweet red onion. The chef's choice of sides was in my view another example of how smart this lady is about food. They were excellent accompaniments to the fish, both in flavor and texture.

At this time the restaurant is not serving liquor; they offered as beverages (in keeping with the holistic foods philosophy) homemade, juice-sweetened ice tea or a selection of juices or water.

At 80 Reid, near the corner of Market and less than half a block from King St., the location is not heavily trafficked. The exterior is unassuming to say the least, in a small strip mall. However the interior, half a dozen tables and simply furnished, is cheerful and has a modest charm, with paintings from local artists for sale on two walls. We also noticed a patio seating area off the side, with screening for intimacy and to remove from view the urban surroundings of the block.

Even though I don't live in this area, I really hope that Alluette's Cafe gets the attention and business it heartily deserves. She tells me that they are showcasing local blues musicians on Wednesday and Friday nights, as well. Hope some of you can check out the restaurant and spread the word.

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  1. We are headed to Charleston on the 18th. Is it a BYOB? Sounds like amazing food. You had me with the collards until you said they had peppers in them.

    2 Replies
    1. re: crazyspice

      You know, I have no idea about BYOB--I would assume it's okay, but I suppose the best thing to do would be to phone and ask.

      1. re: jilbur

        Thanks to Jibur's post, we ate there today for brunch. It is every bit as good as the description. We loved the tea with pineapple juice, the fresh shrimp salad (that she peeled and de-veined after we ordered it), collards, and bread pudding. She was out of the fish stew, sadly. They were empty except for one other table, also sadly; although it gave us the opportunity to talk alot with the waitress, cook, and Alluette herself. Her personality and the restaurant's back story/mission (ie locally grown food and organics) really made the place stand out from the pack.

        I'd also add, just in case you aren't in the mood for bread pudding, that the restaurant is only a few short blocks on King from both Cupcake (a wonderful cupcake bakery) and Paulo's (the best gelato I've had in ages.)

    2. Thanks for the tip. We went for dinner on a visit to Charleston last weekend and it was everything you said. The collards were not too peppery, just well flavored and the lightly fried whiting was outstanding. They were out of fish stew this night as well. Loved the sweet tea almost as much as the conversation with Miss Alluette and Cliff, who were very gracious and happy to talk to the outsiders about Charleston politics. The patio space is lovely and evidently they have live jazz there on Wednesday and Friday. We don't drink, so also don't know about BYOB.

      Too full for dessert, I still couldn't resist buying her last brownie for later. Believe me, I know from brownies and this was heaven--deep rich chocolate that was just the right texture between cakey & chewy.

      Sadly, when we went (about 7:00 on a Friday), we were the only patrons, so do get the word out--although she said she's going to be featured on the Food Network on July, so that will boost business.

      1. I went here this past weekend, and have to say, it was quite good. For anyone not from the area, be advised that it's a bit far from the normal tourist part of downtown, but there is parking there if you have a car.

        We had the fish soup and the lima bean soup to start. Both were superb. I had the whole fried whiting which was also excellent, and my girlfriend had the crabcakes. The crab had been caught fresh by the owner, and the crabcakes were among the best I've ever tasted--the perfect ratio of crab to filler. Easily the highlight of the meal.

        Also, try the tea--it was superb.

        1. I went to Alluettes today and found the food very good by drastically overpriced. The fried shrimp, which were unique and excellent, were $19 (nearly $2 a shrimp). The potato salad accompanying it was nothing special. The shrimp salad sandwich was $10.50 and was skimpy on shrimp salad. Sweet tea was $2.75 and included only one refill (in a small glass). A slice of cake was $10 and cookies, though large, were a whopping $5 each. Lunch was $20/person and we left hungry. All this in a cinder block building attached to a liquor store/check cashing place. If they want to survive, they are going to have to lower their prices or at least increase the portion size.

          2 Replies
          1. re: tennreb

            I'll agree with you on the price. Overpriced and small portions. I'm usually one to complain about how restaurant portions are oversized, but here, I agree with tennreb, they need to lower their prices or increase the portion size.

            I'm also going to be a dissenting voice on food quality. My husband and I went for lunch not long ago and ordered the shrimp burgers, a daily special. They were okay, but far from deserving of the raves others have posted here. Worse, though, were the "hand cut" fries. Awful. Truly awful. Limp, greasy and completely unseasoned -- not even underseasoned, just completely lacking in seasoning. If the shrimp burger hadn't been so tiny, I would have taken a single bite and left the remainder untouched.

            I really wanted to like the place -- lowcountry food with a focus on organic and local. Unfortunately, while I might be willing to return (with a little arm-twisting or continued rave reviews from other 'hounds), I won't be able to drag my husband back.

            1. re: tennreb

              Holy Cow! I still in sticker shock from last weekend in NYC, but that STILL sounds high. And a limit on sweet tea? In the South? how does the saying go....that dog won't hunt?

            2. We're going home to visit in a few weeks, and I was planning to try Alluette's - however, given those prices, that's pretty pricey, even by Charleston standards. Not sure we'll work it into the rotation, but if we do, I'll report back.

              1. I recently had a chance to review Alluette's Cafe for the George Street Observer. Like many here have stated, my general impression was that the food was excellent, but the prices were simply unreasonable. Here's the full review if you're interested in a more detailed breakdown:

                "From the outside, Alluette's Cafe isn't much to look at. It's in a pretty nondescript strip mall on the border of the sketchy side of town. The inside continues the low key theme. Alluette's, named for its proprietor Alluette Jones, only has about a half dozen tables, none of which adhere to any recognizable pattern. The walls are covered in paintings by local Gullah artists and the book shelves are filled with titles promising "natural cures."

                The menu, which makes Alluette's commitment to fresh, local, and organic ingredients abundantly clear, is fairly small, but complemented by a sizable list of daily specials. It's important to choose something you're pretty sure you'll like, however, because the prices at Alluette's are way higher than you would suspect in that location.

                We chose to start with a cup of the fish stew ($7 for what appeared to be about 6 oz.). Warm and hearty with loads of delicious vegetables and wild-caught salmon, it would be the perfect cure for a cold winter night. The tomato basil-based stew wonderfully combines flavors from the farm and the ocean.

                From there, we moved on to entrees. Relying on the recommendations of just about everyone who has ever been to Alluette's Cafe, I went with the fried local shrimp ($19). I've always thought that all fried were roughly the same, but boy was I wrong.

                Alluette's fried shrimp have a light, crispy exterior that doesn't drown out the taste of the shrimp. They are seasoned with a healthy dose of dill and served with a spicy cayenne mayonnaise. I have to agree with Robert Moss of the City Paper's assertion that Alluette's is dishing out the best fried shrimp in the city.

                My partner opted for the chicken salad ($15). Served over a bed of some the freshest, tastiest local veggies I've tasted in quite a while, this dish would be an absolutely ideal light meal if the price tag wasn't so absurd. Fifteen dollars for a single, albeit delicious, scoop of chicken salad and some greens just isn't a reasonable purchase for anyone living on a budget.

                For dessert, we were tempted by Alluette's giant cookies ($3) but ended up selecting the bread pudding ($6). The pudding was full of raisins and nice, crunchy apples. The flavors were all right, but I found it to be a little on the dry side.

                Another interesting item to note is Alluette's sweet tea, which is sweetened with fruit juice instead of sugar. On the day we went, they were serving a pineapple tea which I really enjoyed. It's a particularly attractive option for those of us who get turned off by the amount of sugar many restaurants around these parts put in their tea.

                Overall, the food at Alluette's was excellent, but I don't know how highly I can recommend it, given the cost. I can't really blame Alluette for that, though. It's got to be difficult enough to turn a profit in a restaurant that small, but I imagine it gets significantly harder when you commit to the quality of ingredients she does.

                So, if you've got money to burn, by all means move Alluette's toward the top of your "must-try" list. However, if you're like me and $30 dinners are a substantial investment, you might be better off heading down to your neighborhood vegetable stand and trying to recreate some of Alluette's dishes yourself."

                Hope this helps!
                - DH
                http://www.DavidGHeiser.com - One Charleston College Student's Guide to Food and Film