First: An apology.
Perig Goulet, last seen professionally as chef-owner of La Fourchette, has done his level best to make sure nobody notices his new place at Cannon and Rutledge streets. The windows of the former Lana are tinted so darkly that the restaurant couldn’t roll through town without inviting a traffic citation. There aren’t hours or a menu posted outside the building, nor anywhere else: Goulette Rotisserie and Grill’s unclaimed Yelp page consists exclusively of two pictures of a mounted deer’s head and one picture of a metal bull on wheels.
And for at least a few weeks after its May opening, Goulette didn’t have a published phone number. I know this for certain because hopeful customers, who’ve waited three long years for Goulet’s return, called me instead.
So I’m sorry about upending the obscurity that Goulet has worked so hard to cultivate. Really, completely and genuinely sorry, because I like knowing I can always find a seat at a restaurant with exceptional chicken and fairly priced French wine, if not at a table of my own, then with friends who just chance to be there, too, as happened on my third visit to Goulette.
As that bit of serendipity made clear, Goulette is a neighborhood restaurant. It’s not a “neighborhood restaurant concept” or a “restaurant that draws inspiration from neighborhood gathering spots across the Southeast.” It’s a restaurant for when you’re hungry or tired or even grumpy, which is what Goulet’s loyalists can get when faced with yet another tourist-pleasing menu.
“All they had was fried chicken and barbecue,” one member of a couple seated at the bar told Goulet plaintively, explaining their reasons for abandoning some faddish restaurant earlier in the evening. (Goulet’s opening question, delivered with the dramatic gregariousness that’s his front-of-house signature, was “How did you find me?”)
Weirdly, Goulette serves barbecue, too. But that’s better evidence of Goulet’s indulgent attitude toward talented employees than his interest in courting tourists.
Goulet wisely hires for personality and promise, so he has little choice but to be forgiving when a Fulbright scholar with a knack for conversation has to be taught how to open a bottle of wine. Or understanding when chef Kyle Yarborough, who spent part of his time outside Goulet’s orbit manning the pits at Cumberland Smokehouse, wants an outlet for his mustard sauce. To be sure, it’s not Goulet’s intention for the aroma of smoked meat to lure AirBnB occupants to his subtly marked restaurant.
If out-of-towners by this point are feeling a little unloved, they can take heart in knowing they probably wouldn’t like Goulette anyhow. For one thing, visitors might well find Goulette boring.
There is a sameness to the offerings at Goulette that runs contrary to Charleston’s reputation for imaginative cooking. Such as, every entree comes with french fries: The only main dish listed that isn’t followed by the phrase “pommes frites” is fish-and-chips. How many magnificent french fries does a diner need?
All of these fries, with mayonnaise, thanks. The fries are bathed twice in scorching hot rendered duck fat, producing the model creamy-crispy contrast that Americans fruitlessly seek in their microwaves and fast-food bags a few million times a day. Rich and enthusiastically salted with flakes big enough to be visible, the fries pair nicely with whatever lively wine you’re inclined to pick from the approachable list.
That only covers about one-quarter of the plate, though. (Maybe one-third, if you’re lucky.) With most of the entrees, another quarter is reserved for flaps of Little Gem lettuce, scantily dressed in lemon juice and oil. Sweet, crisp Little Gem isn’t as substantial as the romaine that’s an area salad standard, but it’s a lovely counterpart to the rotisserie chicken, which is Goulette’s raison de etre.
Bringing up chicken in a restaurant context is just asking for someone to point out that he can make chicken at home: Unless it’s fried and served by Martha Lou Gasden, poultry isn’t why people are buying airplane tickets to Charleston. They’re after local seafood, not a chicken that’s uniformly perfect from wing to thigh. Fat-glossed, bronzed skin, speckled with simple herbs, is of no use to the tourist set. Tender meat that’s juicy, but not sloppily so? Maybe next trip.
Other meats on the mostly meat menu include a duck leg confit that lacks the chicken’s nuance, and a carefully tended hanger steak, as well as grilled shrimp and fish. The kitchen also offers a selection of accompanying sauces that seem to have been borrowed from a schtickier, less confident restaurant: There’s nothing formally wrong with a coq au vin or green peppercorn topping, but I never found a cut that benefited from a dollop of demi-glace or cream. I’ll admit to briefly enlisting the gorgonzola sauce as a French fry dip, but it couldn’t compete with the default garlicky aioli.
Sauces are especially gratuitous when there’s lamb on the table. It comes in two formats at Goulette, and I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite. The chops are smallish, but their textbook grassy flavor is vast. As for the merguez sausage, it’s foremost a marvel of texture, with the spiced meat taking on a consistency that’s most like chiffon cake. The harissa and paprika aren’t so abundant that a diner would have to adjust her water consumption, but they’re prominent enough to provoke fleeting thoughts about French colonialism.
Another winner from the classic French playbook is the nicoise salad, although purists will quibble with the composition, which runs longer on salty olives than starchy potatoes, and the presentation, which is as rumpled as weekend pajama pants.
Just like at home, casualness here reflects comfort, not a deficit of care. Take the tomato rosemary soup, served medicinally cold on hot nights: Goulette could have heavily salted the soup and beribboned it with creme fraiche, as so many restaurant kitchens are wont to do, but instead stuck with a basic puree that’s just a few steps removed from the garden.
So it goes in Goulette’s dining room, little changed in appearance from its Lana days and still conducive to conversation. Nothing here is elaborate, groundbreaking or unpredictable. It’s a restaurant that would have satisfied before Charleston was a darling of the food world, and it’s a restaurant situated to keep satisfying should that halcyon era end.
Let’s be honest: The menu is short, laminated and doubles as a placemat. But it ends with profiteroles, bathed in so much chocolate sauce it’s like the babysitter was put on sundae patrol. For locals worn out by novelty and glamour and hard-to-get reservations, the puff pastry’s appeal requires no explanation.