It should come as no surprise that a city with a French Quarter, an homage to its history of French merchants, would be home to French bistros, brasseries and restaurants. Fast and French (Gaulart & Maliclet), the Fat Hen, the late La Fourchette and 39 Rue de Jean have provided us with a regular carte of frites, moules, baguettes and mousse au chocolat.
Charleston is currently flying the tricolor for four new establishments Francais: Annie's Bistro Francais, Brasserie Gigi, Bistro Toulouse and Chez Nous.
Two are homegrown and two represent proprietor moves into the Lowcountry: the transplants are Annie's Bistro Francais and Bistro Toulouse.
Carole Robert and Mark Manly are the husband-and-wife team who previously operated Annie's Bistro Francais in Middleburg, Va. A record snowfall in 2009 damaged the property and they moved to the tony Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, Md., and reopened Annie's named in honor of Robert's late mother.
In another three-year cycle, this one relating to leasing rates not weather, found the couple heading south to Mount Pleasant.
Annie's Bistro opened this winter serving lunch only. Once a liquor license was secured, dinner service followed in early spring.
In true bistro fashion, a chalkboard on the sidewalk lists the daily specials for lunch and dinner. The menu is modest and limited. Lunch features sandwiches, salads and a daily soup and entree special. The dinner menu real estate has much of the same as lunch plus charcuterie and cheese boards as well as their signature escargot and a balanced selection of entrees. The same vegetables - potatoes and haricot verts when this review visit took place - accompany each entree. Expect a basket of a warm baguette, custom baked for Annie's in Hancock, Md. It's a baguette that marries crumb and crust to support the sandwiches of ham and cheese, prosciutto and mozzarella, chicken and shrimp salads without excising the roof of your mouth.
Robert is the chef and Manly manages the front of the house. Family members lend a hand when required but it is a two-person operation on many days. Robert grew up in Paris and spent holidays at her grandparents' farm where the basics of husbandry, butchery, farming, preservation methods and seasonality took hold for her.
Annie's is a bistro rooted in French home-style cooking. The quartet of regional, seasonal, French-inspired and scratch-cooking reverberates through her menu.
Although the area around Towne Centre of Mount Pleasant has little in common with a French residential arrondissement, the scale of Annie's has all the trappings of a Left Bank bistro. Much of what was the decor of the former Annie's in Maryland made the move south. Barstools, Souleiado-influenced tablecloths, water carafes, kitschy signs and framed reviews from The Washington Post lend an air of informality and cobbled decorating to the space.
The iconic Eiffel Tower is used repeated, as a bar hook for purses, the "A" in Annie's font and in photographs throughout the narrow dining space.
As they did in Maryland, Robert and Manly outsource desserts to a local baker.
Robert uses local products and creates a menu that is printed daily for the bistro. She has embraced cuisine du marche (cooking from the market). That being said, they brought much of the Maryland menu to South Carolina and have yet to complete the updating of their Wordpress site, anniesbistrofrancais, with current prices, menu, and wine list. The Facebook page suffers from the same lack of attention.
The food is uncomplicated and generous in portioning. Country pates, French cheeses and Italian charcuterie keep company with garlic and parsley (persillade) escargot, goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms and salade composee. The kitchen turns out fish (head to tail), duck breast, merguez sausage and pork tenderloin, along with daily specials.
Ratatouille, a classic Provençale vegetable casserole of eggplant, squash, peppers and onions was short on eggplant, which was surprising. It was served with a hillock of rice that needed a boost from salt and beautiful royal red shrimp. These crimson crustaceans are available only until June and are a deep-water species of shrimp usually netted off Cape Canaveral. They bring a soft texture and sweet flavor to any dish and have been described as "lobster-like." Try them if they remain on the menu.
The haricot verts that were plated with a seared, rare duck breast were just a few minutes short of releasing their herbaceous flavors - cooked to the point of squeaky stiffness, they needed more time to soften. Uniform rounds of pommes Parisian, marbles of potatoes parboiled and then finished in a hot oven or pan, were a point, as the French say: crusty rounds of starchy potato goodness.
All the dishes are cooked to order and this can cause delays at the table if a significant number of guests arrive about the same time. At the time of our visits, a regular stream of parties spared the kitchen the meltdown that is possible if the 13 tables of the Bistro are anywhere near capacity.
Short of the soft crab special, most of the Mount Pleasant menu has been featured at their Bethesda location. I say that because I expected more precision with the execution of the dishes. Their virtues are at lunch where Robert's soups won her many fans in Maryland and salads and sandwiches satisfy in their simplicity.
Undercooked green beans and over-cooked squash do not speak to bistro fare and the limited vegetable selection can be a problem for some. Serve up the ritual plat du jour and tantalize us with the earthy, rustic robust cooking that speaks of home, the neighborhood, the true bistro.
House wines are nicely priced at $6 a glass and the wines skew with the appropriate French accent for blancs and rouges. Expect to pay $8-$11 for them.
The umbrella-shaded patio tables hoisting the brands of Corona and Yuengling are a bistro faux pas. Where is the Ricard, the Fisher?
With our current Francophile restaurant renaissance, the bar has been raised for mom-and-pop operations. Expectations are high for fusty French traditional cooking. We want panache with our parmentier; elan with our eclairs.