Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 25, 2010

Restaurant Review – Robert’s of Charleston – Charleston, SC

I’m sorry; I failed you.  I’ve known about this place longer than some of you have been alive.  And I never told you.  I’m going to fix that now, before it’s too late.

The year was 1976.  The American Bicentennial Celebration was in full-swing.  In New York City, the Parade of Tall Ships was seen by a record six million people.  On TV, we had the Bicentennial Minute, and the creation of Schoolhouse Rock.

And down South, in a city known for its involvement in the Revolutionary War, a smaller celebration was taking place.  A quiet click of a lock, the popping of a cork on a bottle of champagne, and a new restaurateur’s sign was turned to “open.”  Robert Dickson had opened his doors for business.  Following the classical model, his place was to be named after the chef d’ cuisine.  It would be “Robert’s of Charleston.” A first for the city, Roberts would feature such things as cloth napkins and linen table cloths.  Seating would be at 7:30, and dinner would be served at eight.  If this schedule did not fit your evening, well, tough patootie.  Robert was a man with a vision, and that vision was focused on your dinner.  You needed to be similarly focused.  Robert was bringing another new dining concept to Charleston:  the prix fixe.  For a single price, the diner gets five courses, selected by the chef d’ cuisine.  The wise diner calls ahead to determine the menu before making reservations.  The third concept, while not exactly new to Charleston, was dinner theater.  But this theater had a cast of one:  Robert.  At the beginning of the meal, the kitchen doors would burst open, and Robert himself would serenade his diners to the tune of “Food, Glorious Food!”.  A classically trained baritone, Robert’s pipes left Ethel Merman in the dust.

When I was a boy, my Mom would talk about dinner at Robert’s.  One only went there on special occasions, and then when the money was flush.  My freshman year in college, with no consumer debt (yet), two jobs, a Pell grant, and an allowance from my Dad, I scraped up my pennies and took my girlfriend to Roberts.  It was a tiny place.  Maybe a dozen tops, in one of the byways off of the old Marketplace and in the heart of the tourist district.  The walls were antique brick, the floors were formica/tile, and the kitchen had white saloon doors.  Salat of Bitter Herbs with a champagne vinaigrette dressing.  She-crab soup.  Seafood étouffée.  Pressed duck.  And some sort of chocolate mousse/cake thing I have no name for.  Mmmm.  It’s been twenty-five years, and I still remember the menu.

A while back I chanced to be in Charleston on a personal errand and was disappointed to be unable to find Robert anywhere in the phone book.  A trip to the storefront confirmed that Robert and his team were not there. Ah, well.   So you can imagine my surprise when, on a more recent trip back to the Holy City,  I heard my wife say, “What’s this?  ‘Robert’s, of Charleston?'”

My response was uncharacteristic:  “Gimme!”

I quickly read the flier and noted that it was, in fact, the same Robert of my youth.  He was in a different location, but there was a phone number.  “Hello? Yes?  Tell me, is Robert singing Monday night?  (Yes)  I see.  Excellent.  Do you still have a table for three available?  And you seat when?  Excellent.  Thanks.”  I provide a name for the party, and a phone number, and rang off.  You will notice that I did not feel it necessary to inquire as to the menu.

There were some raised eyebrows over in the corner with my sister and wife.  I am not known as a “take charge” guy.  I actually AM a take charge guy.  I just also like it quiet. And being a “take charge  guy” in the presence of either my wife or my sister involves a certain amount of noise up with which I am not willing to put.  So I adapt.

But I digress.  They were welcome to dine anywhere they wanted.  But I was going to be at Robert’s of Charleston once again, and there would be room for them at my table.

Robert’s new location was different.  The place is in an old store front.  If anything, there are fewer tops that back in the day.  The walls are a warm, textured amber color, and the decor is evocative of a villa in Tuscany.  Intimate, it’s more like being at a dinner party than at a restaurant.  Impressionist paintings line the walls.  Guests are greeted by a soft grand piano quietly filling in the silence as the host sees everyone to their seats.  Once seated, guests are presented with personalized menus.  “McNutt Party – Welcome to Robert’s of Charleston.”  Ok, it was cooler back when this had to be hand-calligraphed or run off on an off-set press.  I admit, they’re knocking these things out with a laser printer in the back office.  But it’s still a nice touch.   Blindingly white table cloths, good, heavy, flatware, heartbreakingly good smells coming from the kitchen were the order of the evening.

At 8:00, on the dot, the curtain, for the doors are no more, burst open, and Robert once again came forth, to the tune of “Food, Glorious Food!  We’re anxious to serve you!”  As we go through life we often look backwards with rose-colored glasses, remembering the sights, sounds, and even flavors of our youth with a fondness that magnifies them beyond what true life experience could reasonable support.  Not dinner at Robert’s.  In fact, as near as I can recall, some things are better than they were back in the day.

We started with a Sea Scallop Mousse, served with lobster sauce and a pickled cucumber & calamari salad.  Now, Sea Scallop Mousse is particularly challenging.  There is a proportion of cream, egg, and scallop that has to be just right to get the right texture.  And we all know that Fish Is Not My thing.  This was quite good.  If I was able to get around my anti-fish bias, it would probably have been excellent.  My companion certainly thought so.  Our second course was Thyme Roasted Duck Breast with ricotta ravioli, braised cabbage, and a tomato mustard sauce.  It was excellent. The duck was sliced thin, and tender.  The thyme complimented the gamey flavor of the duck just like it’s supposed to, and I found myself carefully apportioning the sauce to the duck meat so that no jot of flavor would be left behind.  The final course before the entrée was Organic Baby Arugula Salad, with apples, pears, blue cheese, applewood smoked bacon, pickled beets, and a house made benne crisp, a sort of sesame cracker.   Now, I know that arugula has become something of an elitist symbol; you know, the image of spoiled yuppies complaining about the high cost of arugula has become almost a self-parody.  But this was crisp, refreshing, and flavorful. The fruits were sliced thin, like crackers, and were crisp, juicy, and flavorful, with almost no sign of browning.  The bacon chunks were delicious and the benne crisp an excellent finish.

We were offered a choice of entrée.  I opted for the Chateaubriand of Beef Tenderloin, my companion the Olive Oil Poached Golden Tilefish.  The beef tenderloin was just that, cooked medium rare and served at the perfect temperature.  The fingerling potatoes were firm but not hard, and the vegetable medley flavorful and firm, with just the right amount of crunch.  Sauce Marchand du Vin is a butter-and-wine sauce that complements most beef dishes very well, and the beef tenderloin tonight was no exception.  Robert’s spice blend rendered the sauce into a flavorful treat that set off the beef tenderloin with a perfect note.

For dessert we were offered Double Chocolate Napoleon, a bitter-sweet chocolate ganache accompanied by a white chocolate ganache, and served with a crispy chocolate pastry and fresh strawberries.  Chocolate is not my thing, but this was excellent.  The pastry was a crunchy compliment to the ganache, and the strawberries a sweet and refreshing finish.

Robert with Will

Pardon my Demonic Eyes

Now for the sad news.  Robert is retiring.  And he really means it this time.  He’s set the date. He’s decided to stay open through the close of this year’s Spoleto festival.  But on June 12, 2010, “Food, Glorious, Food!” will ring out for the last time at 182 East Bay Street.  The good news is that his daughter and current chef d’ cuisine is planning her own project in the near future, but there will be no theater with the dinner.

To sum up, I give Robert’s of Charleston:

Five Pints for Cuisine
Five Pints for Service
Five Pints for Atmosphere

And one of the very few perfect scores I’ve given here, but I can think of nothing that would add to the experience.

For pricing:  $$$$

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  1. Sounds like Robert’s is what Antoine’s was supposed to be.

    • Heh – funny you should mention that. My last words to Robert were, “Tell Marielena you guys are leaving Antione’s of New Orleans eating your dust.” He laughed and said “Thanks!”

  2. sounds like we need a road trip before June?

    • Sadly, I don’t think I can work it in. I’m only home three weekends between now and Pennsic. How did the Summer get so FULL?

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