Chef Nico Romo and friends celebrate Bastille Day with a seafood soirée
For years, the French expatriate community in Charleston, South Carolina, knew right where to seek each other out for a dose of home. There was the occasional happy hour at Fish, the erstwhile King Street restaurant helmed by fellow countryman Nico Romo, the youngest member of l’Académie Culinaire de France and one of only sixty- six French Master Chefs in the country. But the real homecoming was once a year on July 14, when the French celebrate la Fête Nationale, the holiday that commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, igniting the French Revolution and ultimately leading to the downfall of King Louis XVI and the monarchy.
In their decade-long run, Fish’s Bastille Day parties were wildly popular among expats and American Francophiles alike. Donning blue, white, and red—the colors of the French flag—the revelers drank Champagne and toasted to liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
So when Romo moved on a few years ago to open his own restaurant, NICO, across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant, the party moved too. Now, the local “Frenchies,” as Romo affectionately calls them, gather at the home of his restaurant partner Joel Olindo and his wife, Carole, French expats both.
Unlike the Fourth of July, when most Americans host or attend cookouts where serving anything besides burgers and hot dogs is tantamount to sedition, Bastille Day has no prescribed menu. Romo explains that the French simply cook what’s in season where ever they find themselves. And at the Olindos’ contemporary home on picturesque Shem Creek (once chockablock with shrimp trawlers) in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village, that means seafood.
Now a father of two children under the age of 4, the chef is taking the party down a few notches this year, inviting just a handful of friends and family, including his parents Tinou and Manuel, visiting from Lyon. Nonetheless, the festivities kick off with a spirited toast of Veuve Cliquot, glasses clinking and “tchin-tchin!” echoing around the dinner table. “In France, Bastille Day is a celebration,” Romo says. “Here, it’s more like party.”
The evening’s menu is inspired by early summer in the South of France—for starters, a tomato arugula salad, asparagus and peas with feta and tarragon, and a refined ratatouille. Local triggerfish is grilled and embellished with red wine butter sauce. And the pièce de résistance? A seafood tower with oysters, periwinkles, crab, shrimp, clams, and escabeche. Romo typically offers an escabeche at his restaurant with whatever seafood is super fresh; tonight that’s octopus and scallops. “It’s basically pickled seafood,” he says, “a classic dish that you would serve on the coast in France.” In between slurps of oysters and sips of Romo’s spring smash, a rosé and gin concoction with strawberries and cucumbers, there’s lively talk of what Bastille Day is like in France, with town hall celebrations and fireworks. Enough to make them all miss home? Mais non, says guest Olivier Galy, originally from Paris, “Bastille Day in the States is more fun.”