Here’s what Saint Alban gets right at night:
1. The lighting. The upper King restaurant is so meticulously decorated that is almost seems a shame to lower the lights, but the golden candlelight mood more than makes up for not being able to scrutinize the chair backs and wallpaper.
2. The music. When Charleston restaurants play music, it tends to recede into the background. Saint Alban doesn’t turn the volume up high, but its smart selection of the kind of sultry, jazzy tracks you might have spun if you threw 1950s Greenwich Village dinner parties for poets and disgraced counts sets the romantic tone. (I’ve never attended any such parties, but I’ve apparently read too much Eugene Walter.)
3. The food. Chef Ari Kolender is working with a very limited kitchen, but he’s still turning out sophisticated food that references the coarse edges of Southern Europe in much the way that sister restaurant Leon’s draws inspiration from the rough-and-tumble American South. This is where you come for peppers and bottarga and squid ink and anchovies.
To be clear, this is not a review. Saint Alban has already been reviewed by The Post and Courier, although not by me: I’m on friendly terms with Kolender and owner Brooks Reitz, so didn’t feel like I ought to assess the restaurant in starred fashion. But as a believer in the restaurant’s buckwheat waffle and egg salad sandwich, I was intensely curious when it last month reinstated dinner service.
The dinner menu at Saint Alban is tiny, consisting of three small plates, three medium plates and three large plates, one of which wasn’t as large as usual when we visited, because the kitchen was out of clams for the linguini. I ordered the dish anyhow, and was rewarded with a pile of al dente black noodles soaked in clam likker and a rush of chile flakes. I’m looking at the picture of the pasta now, and reconsidering my dinner plans.
In truth, I’d sort of forgotten about the linguine, perhaps because the other dishes were more forward about showing off their saturated colors and full-bodied flavors. The Piedmontese peppers, for example, were stunning, and way more naturalistic than I expected. When I read “white anchovy, tomato, olives, pedro ximenez vinegar” on the menu, my mind ran to split and stuffed. Instead, I got a plate of gorgeously roasted peppers, slumped beneath planks of meaty anchovies and whole green olives. Terrific.
A rich dish of buffalo milk mozzarella settled into a hearty green lentil stew was lovely, but so was the wholly modest plate of radishes, spritzed with lemon, salted and served with their bitter tops attached.
When Saint Alban first opened, late-night service (complete with the sherry and olives that found their way into our meal) was part of the plan. But staff was so overwhelmed by the response to breakfast and lunch that evening hours were struck from the schedule. Judging from the number of customers on the night I visited, many of the restaurant’s fans aren’t aware of their return. But judging from the food, those tables are unlikely to remain empty for long.