Each day, they come—colorful dispatches from chef Jill Mathias that dance across Facebook and Instagram like digital lures—six dishes in still life, and usually a picture of the menu scrawled almost illegibly in her beautifully romantic cursive script. There are braised squids laced with spinach, tomato, and chili pepper; brawny butcher steaks draped like Japanese fans across buttered potatoes; roasted golden beets peeking through tangles of lightly dressed watercress. Even if dining at Chez Nous tonight is of no possibility, we watch and we wait. No day is the same. No dishes repeat. Her posts are like fleeting love letters sent every afternoon.
She adores burrata and spring radishes. They appear on the menu as often as couples swoon amongst the chocolates-box of a dining space’s rough brick, dark wood, and glittering votives. It may be a tiny sequestered single house tucked within an interior block of Elliotborough, but it feels more like a quaint mountain cottage in the ancient Savoy region of France, full of vegetable tarts, steeped bitters, and tarnished mirrors. There is barely a sign. Reservations are refused.
The 1,100-square-foot cottage is cozy, seating 36 guests indoors and an additional 20 in the walled garden, where a communal table provides a pleasant setting in all but the harshest months. Tables for two bedeck the porch and first-floor bar. Upstairs, seats are packed as snugly as the oiled sardines Mathias serves atop crusty baguettes slathered with roasted garlic and eggplant. Those demanding elbowroom, convenience, and privacy will need to look elsewhere.
For the rest of us, Chez Nous is the hidden gem we’ve been awaiting. Rather than bemoan the limited offerings (the kitchen serves only a small handful of rotating dishes each day and, for the most part, they’re unable to accommodate substitutions), we should exult in the diversity of a menu that never repeats and creates culinary excellence from the ripest bounty of the season. Rejoice that we mustn’t call ahead—just arrive and rarely face a long wait. Enjoy the well-sourced wine list, which doesn’t suffer for its lack of American options.
We must also understand that if we patronize a small trattoria embedded in the residential fabric of the city, we cannot judge it against the showpieces that line King and East Bay. To do so misses the marvelous bellwether presented by Mathias and her husband, Juan Cassalett, who serves as the restaurant’s sous chef. (Mathias and Cassalett co-own the place too, along with partners Patrick and Fanny Panella, who also helm Lower King’s Bin 152, and Chris Kellogg, an area antiques dealer.) The femininity of their cuisine stands out in the pork-fattened culture of today’s Southern fine dining, too often dominated by bourbon and live fire. Mathias moves forward with the lithe dexterity of a danseuse who masters in six moves what a typical kitchen of sweaty tattooed grunts needs three fattened pigs and a tub of demi-glace to equate. There is high value in her approach if Charleston’s cuisine is to move beyond its current barrel-aged state of salted ham and smoked butterbeans. The simplicity of her touch underlies the deft understanding of balance and harmony at play within each plate. Portions are restrained, flavors nuanced.
A typical night might reveal a silky puree of chickpeas, thinned lightly with white stock and studded with small creek shrimp and cubes of rich chorizo for a satisfying first-course soup. Perhaps this is followed by jet-black risotto coupling squid and swordfish as deeply colored as the rice. A single grilled shrimp announces the theme, and a verdant ring of young, peppery olive oil at the base of the plate brightens the subtle, savory tint of cuttlefish ink. Flaked salt cod swims alongside fresh grape tomatoes and slivers of spring onion with just a drizzle of oil and lemon to bathe them. The plates are stark white. The music is jazz.
You could clear the number of female chefs in this town from the table with a single sweep of the crumber, but it’s the sensibilities of the food, not the gender of the cook’s hand, that allow Chez Nous to render such excitement within the local food community. Together, Mathias and Cassalett fuel that excitement by providing a glimpse at their process of creativity. It flashes across Facebook with the waning day. You might think them culinary descendents of Frank Lee; Mathias shares many philosophical notions with the sage chef from Slightly North of Broad. But when you eat at Frank’s, he’ll stuff you full for sure. At Chez Nous, you’ll have room for dessert. Hope for the oh-so-Southern watermelon pudding, with a buttery soft quenelle of crème fraîche gingerly balanced atop.
The Draw: Perhaps the most romantic meal in Charleston
The Drawback: The limited menu provides few options for the restricted diet.
Don't Miss: Seasonal desserts, such as watermelon pudding