Malagon is making exceptional food, but its owners don’t want you or me to know it.
The quality of chef Juan Cassalett’s workmanship is apparent even before what eaters would consider the meal’s official get-go. Tucked among a list of snacks that serves as a preface to the tapas restaurant’s multi-page menu, roughly midway between the house-made sourdough bread and obligatory olive assemblage, is a dainty quintet of almond-stuffed dates. Each date is sheathed in a near-translucent slip of Spanish ham, which confers more body and soul than a single wisp of meat might be expected to muster.
It’s not exactly fashionable, this kind of nutty engastration. But Cassalett’s menu seems designed to transport guests back to Spain (“back” being the operative word in a dining room that doubles as a vacation memory swap meet.) His accomplices include an array of cheeses, shellfish, garlic, plenty of paprika and, of course, pork, snouting its way into every dish it can.
Ham is the centerpiece of magnificently crisp golden croquettes, travel-size orbs charged with silky bechamel. Later, pork reappears as ribs and a skirt steak, but Malagon’s compact tables, along with the people seated at them, are apt to fill up with elegant takes on roasted peppers, fried potatoes and octopus well in advance of servers broaching the carne course.
Or they might have already feasted on tender rings of squid, nestled in an intentional mess of short fideo noodles, dramatically blackened with squid ink. Who knows. There’s a high tide of uncertainty surrounding Malagon because I’ve never been there.
Some restaurant owners hang a banner to announce their grand openings. Malagon’s Patrick Panella, by contrast, marked the occasion by sending me an email saying I would not be “grant(ed) access” to the restaurant that has settled into the former Artisan Meat Share on Spring Street.
According to Panella, his team felt personally disparaged by the 3.5-star review I gave their nearby restaurant, Chez Nous, upon its opening in 2014. In that column, I noted that certain patrons could be put off by the hard-to-read menu, scant directional signage and lack of vegetarian options available on a regular basis. In short, I implied that the restaurant wasn’t very welcoming.
Panella didn’t have to supply a reason for the pre-emptive ban: Restaurant owners have the legal right to decide who’s allowed through their doors, so long as they’re not discriminating against a protected class. Edicts like these aren’t especially bothersome, except so far as they prevent me from connecting readers with a potential source of pleasure, and properly crediting the hard-working employees who’ve labored to create it.
Still, it’s not up to a restaurateur to dictate if or how the local newspaper covers his business, which meant I had to devise a workaround in order to keep you informed.
Obviously, I could have just ignored Panella’s decree and shown up. Or shown up in an elaborate costume. Or shown up with a kindly member of the clergy, military officer or someone else equally unlikely to be turned away. All of those ideas were floated by helpful fellow critics.
But Panella had said in his note that I would be embarrassed if I tried to eat at Malagon because they would turn me away, and I didn’t want to court a spectacle that would shift me to the center of the story. While a review always reflects the perspective of the critic who wrote it, he or she is just an emissary of the people who have to think twice before plunking down $100 for dinner on a random Tuesday night. It’s not a starring role.
Since I couldn’t go to Malagon without risking being cast in one, I covertly sent a colleague with a takeout order. That strategy was viable for about the five minutes it took my confederate to reach the restaurant, where she was told that Malagon doesn’t package up its food to-go.
And thus, I was reduced to puzzling out Malagon from leftovers and photographs handed over by co-conspirators.
Malagon doesn’t have much of an online presence: There’s a Facebook page with a few story links and stylized M’s, and an Instagram page with several pictures of canned beer, beef and a server’s apron, but essentials such as the menu are reserved for those who are granted access to the restaurant.
Yet even from the literal scraps of evidence I could tell that something special is happening at Malagon. What I couldn’t tell from looking at a Basque pig-in-a-blanket smuggled out in a Kleenex was whether the servers have deep knowledge about what’s on offer, if the wine list complements the dishes or if the room’s quiet enough for carrying on conversation. So I honestly have no clue if you should go. But based on Panella’s request that The Post and Courier not tell its readers about Malagon, it’s possible he’d rather you didn’t.
If we date Charleston’s current culinary preeminence back to 2008, when the Charleston Wine + Food Festival had a few years behind it and the city was about to embark on a three-peat in the James Beard Foundation’s regional outstanding chef division, that puts us in the 12th year of a pretty good run. Or, to state it another way, the area’s food-and-beverage scene is just about to hit adolescence.
That’s a tumultuous time, as those who work in the industry here have no doubt noticed. But it’s a critical time, too. Because what lies on the other side of the storm is adulthood, the point at which people begin to look outward and consider perspectives other than their own.
Charleston restaurants may collectively decide that they never want to grow up — they’d prefer to stay cute and cling to the folks they know instead of engaging with strangers from diverse backgrounds with different opinions. That’s an understandable inclination. But it also comes with consequences.
For example, when’s the last time you traveled to hang out with a kid who didn’t belong to a friend or relative? In the grand scheme of things, immaturity isn’t super compelling. If Charleston wants to remain atop seemingly every list of great eating cities, it may have to surrender some of its more youthful tendencies.
Then again, it’s probably more fun to focus on tightening the seasoning for its marinated lamb and perfecting the curve of its churros, which is apparently the play at Malagon. Online reviews suggest both dishes are edging toward terrific there, although nobody’s posted any illuminating details. Just delicious, I guess. Enjoy it if you can.