A TINY CHARLESTON TREASURE OFFERS A TASTE OF A FRENCH FAMILY HOME
It’s in an up-and-coming neighborhood, one that’s still diverse enough to charm with its patina of regular life and yet crackling with that optimistic energy particular to places on the brink of evolution. Head off the main road, onto a short side alley, and then dead-end at the tucked-away circular court. There, the unassuming house stands before you, its adjacent courtyard filled with a long, narrow table and a smattering of black French café chairs. Through the open window, you can see a pretty redhead bustling back and forth in the kitchen. She smiles continually, and laughs intermittently, as she cooks alongside a dark-skinned, dimpled fellow, the window allowing a glimpse into their wonderfully familiar, domestic camaraderie. A side door opens and another fellow with tousled hair emerges, brandishing a bottle of red and two glasses. He smiles impishly—maybe at being caught with alcohol in hand at the midday hour or maybe at life in general. Out of the corner of your eye, you glimpse the discreet words on what appears to be a private residence: Chez Nous. Our house.
This extremely subtle signage is for the restaurant that this little profiterole of a place is. For we are not in the courtyard of a private home, nor are we in a French village. But we may as well be in both.
Because this restaurant is that homey. And it is that French.
When Chez Nous opened in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013, it inspired the sort of black-or-white reaction from the local community normally reserved for political debates or polarizing flavors like rosemary. People loved this tiny French haven, simply could not get enough of it, or else they found it borderline offensive, entirely not for them. Fortunately (and unlike many political debates), time has assuaged most local naysayers. Those on the other side remain as besotted as ever.
Chez Nous opened in a tiny “Charleston single house,” an architectural style specific to Charleston characterized by being one room wide along the street and two to three rooms deep with a piazza on the side to maximize exposure to the breeze coming off the water. The one-room-wide venue is tiny for an eating establishment (though they do have two floors of seating—in total thirty-six indoor seats). As a result, they cannot take reservations. They do not market the business save for their everyday postings of their menu items on social media. Which leads to the menu itself. It changes daily and consists of six items in totality: two appetizers, two entrées, two desserts. It’s written by hand on paper by Chef Jill Mathias (the pretty redhead from the window). You can perhaps understand why not every diner would be thrilled with the operation: people’s expectations when selecting a restaurant generally include that they can be seated at a mutually agreed upon time, that they have had a chance to virtually peruse the menu, that there will be plenty of options for today’s array of personal dining requirements, and that the menu will be presented in typed, legible font.
On the flip side, consider having dinner at someone’s home. Such engagements involve the host selecting the menu and the host determining at what hour you will dine (regardless of what time you may be invited to show up). And, if you requested a recipe or the name of a dish served, you would hardly expect the host to type up a Word document.
Chez Nous is an experience that is akin to dining at someone’s home—personal, intimate, and subject to the whimsy of your host. Only it’s so much better.
If you fall in love with this place, you will fall utterly in love with it. If you don’t then you have every right to your feelings, but I am 85 percent certain we are not dining compatible.
Chez Nous owners Fanny and Patrick Panella are also the proprietors of Bin 152, a cheese and wine bar/art gallery/antiques market on lower King Street in Charleston, in the heart of a neighborhood that, in contrast to the location of Chez Nous, was never up-and-coming but always and forever simply “up.” With Bin, the Panellas showed the Holy City they were not inclined to do things the usual way. You order your wine at the counter, they have very carefully curated food options (more than forty types of cheese, select charcuterie, house-made crusty bread), and you have the option to purchase the antique chair on which you are perched while sipping your wine or the painting hanging above your table. When Bin opened in 2010, people were confused by the enterprise in perhaps the same way Americans are notoriously confused by the cultural affect of the French. But time has proven that Charleston truly loves this quirky little gem. I happen to walk past Bin every day on my way home from work. It is always just-filled with people lingering over conversation and wine. Never raucous, yet always lively. How they manage to keep it perpetually populated with just the right number of people is as bewildering as how a wonderful French meal can extend for hours with spread after spread of rich food and no one ever feels too full or too jammed into her pants the way we can feel after too much “American” fare. Living in the urban center of Charleston, I walk by a lot of places on my way home from work. Bin 152 is the only one I ever wish I could stop into every single night. Some nights I do. I like those nights.
With Chez Nous, Fanny and Patrick took on a bit more of an ambitious project: a full restaurant requiring more service than counter pours, cheese/charcuterie arrangements, and light antique haggling. Drawing on Patrick’s extensive knowledge of wine—particularly French, Spanish, and Italian varietials—Fanny’s business acumen (her background includes working at Le Pain Quotidien in New York City), and both of their exceedingly impressive palates, they were hardly industry novices. But for their new venture they needed a team—including a talented chef, competent servers, and other devoted staff.
They approached Chef Jill Mathias, formerly of Carolina’s, a recently shuttered stalwart on the Charleston dining scene, about heading their kitchen. Jill went to Johnson & Wales for culinary school when it was still located in the Lowcountry. As executive chef at Carolina’s, she was a tour de force in the culinary community, someone whose elevated Southern comfort food made consistently favorable impressions on visitors and locals alike. In the Carolina’s kitchen, she met her future husband, Juan Cassalett, a talented chef from Colombia. Their working history lends insight into the easy back and forth witnessed through the window of Chez Nous, despite the altogether tiny working space. Juan also attended culinary school in Charleston—at the Culinary Institute. After working with Jill at Carolina’s, he went on to enjoy educative stints at FIG and Xiao Bao Biscuit, both among the preeminent eateries on Charleston’s diamond-dotted culinary landscape.
They came back together to take on the Chez Nous project, which Fanny and Patrick presented to them the day before Jill and Juan were headed to Colombia on a vacation where Jill was to meet Juan’s family, and see his home county, for the first time. New adventures never seem to be isolated.
They had much to talk about over their trip, but one thing was certain: the endeavor wholly appealed to both. The idea of changing the menu daily was certainly a draw, for Jill in particular, but both agree that it is Fanny and Patrick themselves who make the whole enterprise exciting and utterly worthwhile. “Patrick is an amazing wine teacher. He knows so much about the regions and why the wines are what they are. The servers here are lucky that they learn so much from him—two of them took their Introductory Sommelier test and passed recently. That is a pretty rare thing,” says Jill. “And Fanny’s palate is just insane,” chimes in Juan. “For someone who cooks recreationally, she has an amazing depth of knowledge. They are both so talented and so invested. So wonderful.”
In fact much of the menu—born from a year and half of weekly meetings between the two chefs and the two owners, most lasting six to seven hours in length—is comprised of a database of about 1,200 tested recipes. The inspiration for the vast majority of these dishes was Fanny’s family and the food they cooked in her native France.
At Chez Nous, it is important to the Panellas to keep the dishes and wine suggestions true to the regions on which they focus: Northern France, Northern Italy, and Spain. If a dish is served all over the country, it might make an appearance, and the menu always indicates the country of origin of each dish so an appropriate wine pairing can be made.
The geographical limitations are something the chefs enjoy: “We have a lot of structure. But within the structure we actually have so much freedom.” As for the community reaction, Jill is matter-of-fact. “It’s not a restaurant for everyone. It’s limited, and we don’t bend the rules too often. Still, the community support has been beyond my expectations.”
Juan adds, “We offer a unique experience to people, and most of our customers appreciate that. And we will be accommodating; we tell people to call ahead and ask what is going on that week. If you have a specific need we can suggest the best day to come in. Plenty of people do that. We have two vegetarians who come in almost every week, and they love it here.”
“It’s a house,” says Jill. “Eating here is like coming to someone’s house and having dinner. You want people to feel at home. And they do.”
As for working together, the two jokingly refer to Chez Nous as their real home and the house they actually live in as their “summer home.” Says Jill, “We worked together before we were together, so we know how to do that.” She shrugs happily. Juan flashes his dimples at her. I can’t help but interpret the telepathic message that passes between them: “Dinner at our house is the best dinner going.” Mais oui.