Chez Nous Very French restaurant the perfect place for a date

Customers dine at the bar of Chez Nous in Charleston.

Restaurant goers are a sophisticated bunch. The upshot of eating all those drunken noodles, pelmeni and empanadas is gaining a more nuanced understanding of the cultures that created them.

But patrons of Chez Nous, the new continental hideaway from Bin 152's Patrick and Fanny Panella, can be forgiven for entertaining hoary stereotypes of France as a nation of gourmands who are forever locking lips or turning up their noses. The wisp of a restaurant, tucked into a residential cul-de-sac near Spring and Coming streets, is genuinely romantic. The nearby convenience store probably would do well to double its orders of breath mints and long-stemmed roses. Yet there's an innate haughtiness to the enterprise that some guests may find off-putting.

First, the haughtiness (a trait so synonymous with French restaurants that the word's illustrative sentence in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is "The haughty waiter smirked when I remarked it was odd that a French restaurant didn't have French fries"). Chez Nous has come up with a mind-boggling number of ways to not accommodate its customers.

Each day, Chez Nous serves two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts, drawn mostly from the southern French and northern Italian canons. The constantly changing menu is scrawled by chef Jill Mathias, late of Carolina's, who writes like the artist she is. Her penmanship is compact, reedy and florid. It's also pretty near illegible. Salad of pranks? Salmon ant primary?

Servers are in the habit of reading the menus to their tables - "it's part of our conviviality," one of them told me when I asked about the impenetrable handwriting - but transcriptions also are helpfully posted on Chez Nous' Facebook page, which is updated daily. If you like what's on offer, though, you can't make a reservation. The unmarked restaurant only accepts walk-in guests.

And if you have any kind of dietary restrictions, liking what's on offer may be a blue-moon scenario. I tried four days in a row to dine at Chez Nous with a vegetarian friend, but she was understandably reluctant to make a meal of strawberry clafoutis or blueberry sorbet. (The restaurant wasn't encouraging when she called to ask whether there were any unlisted dishes more suitable for vegetarians.) Happily, Chez Nous may be getting better in this regard. Last week, there was one dish on each menu that didn't appear to feature animal flesh. A radish salad is better than nothing.

The beverage program, which is confined to beer and wine, is similarly rigid. There's an attractive selection of espresso drinks to accompany dessert, but if you want decaf, tant pis. And while it makes thematic sense to only pour French and Italian wines, it's a costly choice for customers: There are just six reds available for under $50, and none of them qualify as a light red, which is a natural choice when one person's having the steak and the other person's having the fish.

But meat eaters with money to burn won't have any trouble succumbing to Chez Nous' numerous charms, including Mathias' understated cooking and a two-story dining room so lovely that it's hard to think of a better backdrop for date night.

Chez Nous was assembled with a set decorator's eye for detail. From the outside, it looks like a child's drawing of a house, with a high-peaked roof and four casement windows behind slatted black shutters. The brick-surfaced courtyard provides a tantalizing porthole view of the kitchen, which is all warm light, hanging cookware and scurrying chefs.

Most guests are drawn indoors to dine, where the magical mood's enhanced by a gypsy jazz soundtrack. They may have a difficult time deciding whether to sit downstairs in the bar, where the walls are scattered with vintage portraits in weathered metal frames, or upstairs, where light spills over the single row of wooden tables. Either way, you get wide wood-planked floors and exposed brick.

Ordering decisions are considerably simpler: With just six items on the menu, most parties will order the whole thing. And odds are good they'll like everything they eat.

Dishes rarely have repeat engagements at Chez Nous, but a swordfish that cropped up on an early May menu came fairly close to what I'd consider the restaurant's signature style. The triangular wedge of tender fish, apparently touched with little more than salt, sported a penny-colored sear. Perched on a broad pedestal of trimmed green beans and poppy green peas, and dressed with a sheer sauce nipping with lemon, the fish tasted meaty and clean.

Classic, careful techniques and exceptionally fresh ingredients are hallmarks of Mathias' kitchen. As are small portions: Nothing looked stingy on the plate, but I always left the restaurant hungry, which is unfortunate after spending $50 on supper.

There was nothing left to order, of course. But I could easily have eaten more of the gracious tagliatelle, a swirl of noodles, nutty morels and cream. Or the impressively fowl-tasting sous vide chicken with crisp, peppery skin.

The chicken was served with an unappealing block of polenta that tasted even blander and mealier alongside the expertly prepared meat. Not everything goes right at Chez Nous: A lobe of foie gras, which looked as though it had been deveined with a spoon, had an overwhelming metallic flavor that wasn't subdued by the extravagantly sugared rhubarb compote or distractingly grassy olive oil on the plate.

More typical, though, was an al fresco meal that began with a splendid mint-spiked salad of wrinkly little gem lettuce, cured pork and plump fava beans, and ended with a delicate fig budino. This is surely the experience the Panellas endeavored to craft. Best not to get any ideas about deviating from it.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.

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