By Peg Moore

There was actually a moment when some observers of the culinary scene believed French cuisine to be passé. How could soufflés and foie gras ever go out of fashion? They aren’t.

New York Magazine recently reported that “Old-School French food has risen from the dead.”

In New York, La Grenouille, Le Perigord, and Le Veau d’Or, survivors from the 1960s, have recently been joined by new restaurants focused on French classics. NoMad was one of the most popular restaurants to open last year. Andrew Carmellini’s Lafayette, which just opened, has been attracting intense media attention. Balthazar, popular for two decades, just added a London branch. Le Bernardin continues to top popularity lists.

Nostalgic feasting Le Perigord is described in the Zagat guide as a “bastion of formal French dining, old school down to the last detail, feeds your taste for nostalgia.” I was reminded of this glowing description while reading a scientific report in the New York Times, “Fond Remembrances,” which said many psychologists see nostalgia as a sign of depression. Was I really depressed remembering the sole meuniere at Le Perigord? It was a sole in Rouen that drove Julia Child into cooking.

Research by Dr. Constantine Sedikides (who often feels nostalgia for the fried okra and friends in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) shows that happy memories are actually uplifting — “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” he says.

I’m glad I never knew I was supposed to be depressed for having nostalgic memories of the Floating Island at a Greenwich Village restaurant or the frog legs at La Grenouille. Savor cherished memories, whether of food, friends or experiences.

Preservationists know how healthy it is to cherish the past, to enrich our sense of identity with historic buildings. Our French restaurants provide us with an opportunity to celebrate Charleston’s French Huguenot culinary heritage as well.

Savoring nostalgia in Charleston

Among my delicious Paris memories is a simple leisurely luncheon we once had near the Mouffetard market in the 5th arrondissement. We sat at a table on the sidewalk with a bowl of mussels, a bottle of white wine and, of course, bread to dip in the delicious garlic-y sauce. That meal reminds me how important it is to eat slowly and mindfully, to savor each bite — no cell phone, no clock watching. It is a way of life for many in Paris, often cited as a way French women stay slim.

To replicate that mussels memory, I head for 39 Rue de Jean, where their mussels are famously delicious. It is a good place to sate a longing for steak frites, steak tartare, escargots, salade nicoise and truffle potato soup, too.

Blanquette de veau at La Fourchette rivals their popular steak with duck-fat fried frites. Desserts are worth the calories — the profiterole or a crepe especially. Fast and French serves a popular cucumber soup, croissant sandwiches, escargot, fondues. The seating is designed to promote conversation. A good source for take-out French cheeses.

Locavorism in the French Huguenot tradition

The marriage of locavorism and French cuisine is very much in the tradition of the French Huguenots, who emigrated here in such large numbers during the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s been called “New Southern,” but in Charleston, it’s really a renaissance of the way Charlestonians ate then.

Early cookbooks such as “The Carolina Housewife” by Sarah Rutledge (1847), “Carolina Rice Cookbook” by Mrs. Samuel G. Stoney (1901), the “Receipt Book of Emily Sinkler” (1855) and “Rose P. Ravenel’s Cookbook,” provide insights into how sophisticated the cooking was before the cuisine of poverty following the War Between the States, when frying became popular as an inexpensive way to add flavor. Historic cookbooks, including the more recent “Charleston Receipts” (1950), contain lots of recipes calling for shrimp, rice, grits, oysters and local vegetables, but no fried seafood platters. There are none in La Rochelle either (many French sailed from there to Charleston). A seafood tower is the signature dish of better restaurants.

In Charleston you may feast on a similar tower at Hank’s Seafood. Chef Frank McMahon trained in his father’s French restaurant in Ireland, was sous chef at Le Bernardin in New York and turns out specials in the tastiest French/Charleston tradition.

One of the most beautiful places to experience classical French cuisine with local ingredients is Peninsula Grill. Chef Graham Dailey is a graduate of the Cordon Bleu in Paris, trained in the kitchen of Lutetia in Paris, is a master of incredible sauces. Graham is passionate about local sources, but promises foie gras and lobster will stay on the menu.

At Charleston Grill, you will find delicious French classics in the “Lush” section of the menu — such items as butter poached lobster, foie gras and caviar. There’s always a yummy soufflé at High Cotton — even if it does not appear on the menu, you can request one at the beginning of the meal. At Fish, Chef Nico Romo applies his classical French expertise to delicious fusion appetizers. Do not miss the charcuterie at Husk, SNOB, High Cotton, and Cypress.

French pastry

Authentic old-school French chocolates that look too pretty to eat, baguette sandwiches, croissants and pastries such as the chocolate meringue and the Royale are to be found at Christophe Chocolates. Baguette Magic in the farmers market has croissants and a delicious eight-grain boule.

The Huguenot torte is neither a torte nor of Huguenot origin. This popular sweet is believed to have been adapted from a dessert that originated in southwest Arkansas and was a favorite of the Huguenot community in Charleston (there’s a recipe in “Charleston Receipts”).

Tickets for the 2014 Wine and Food festival (March 6-9) go on sale in September. Bon appetit!

Peg Moore, chief culinary correspondent for this paperzine, may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Charleston Grill — 244 King Street. 57-4522.

Christophe Chocolates — 90 Society Street. 297-8674.

Hank’s Seafood — 10 Hayne Street. 723-3474.

Fast and French — 98 Broad Street. 577-9797.

39 Rue de Jean — 39 John Street. 722-8881.

La Fourchette — 432 King Street. 722-6261.

Peninsula Grill — 112 North Market Street. 723-0700.

If you enjoyed this story, make sure to read the article on the John Ravenel House here.

Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:


Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)