I recently shared a great meal at FIG with an old friend—a guy who loves to eat and truly knows food (he should—he’s the chef de cuisine at the acclaimed Chicago restaurant Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park). My friend had previously met FIG’s chef at the James Beard awards in NYC, which worked to our benefit—we were not treated like animals during our visit. In fact, we were treated really well and we had a chance to speak with the man himself—the affable, confident, and capable Mike Lata.
I’ve eaten through a lot Fig’s somewhat seasonal menu over the course of many visits. I appreciate what Lata is doing—what I understand to be localism prepared with roughly French technique and great quality ingredients. Lata has been on the local/seasonal bandwagon since its beginning (in the states at least). Trends come and go, and I imagine that soon “organic” and molecular gastronomy will meet their demise. (Do you think Adria eats science food when he is hungry? No, it’s just food wanking). However local/seasonal eating is here to stay because it is in its essence an anti-trend. Food simply tastes good when it’s seasonal and local—this wisdom is commonsensical.
Right now Fig’s menu uses late fall’s produce with warming, winter preparations. There are root vegetables, braises, the usual seafood standbys, and so forth. On this particular visit, nothing wowed us more than the ethereal, unbelievably textured pate made with chicken liver and pastured pork fat. This dish comes with the traditional accompaniments (cornichons, mustard…) and is without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted (I eat pate whenever it’s available) and certainly the best in town. This one should not be missed.
For starters (apart from the pate), we sampled the Tennessee style ham and the beef tartare. I found the ham to be too salty and cut too thick with a somewhat strange flavor. It came with arugula and some cheese (pecorino I think) which didn’t really make sense to me—the greens did not really highlight or illuminate the pork in any way and seemed to be nothing more than a garnish. I would prefer this sliced much thinner like a serrano and served with some of the edible things that those no doubt good quality pigs might eat. This dish was the only miss of the night. The beef tartare was vibrant and delicious—obviously ground from great quality meat and served with paper-thin fried potato slices—almost like a deconstructed burger and fries—this, to me, made perfect sense. A quail egg, however, would’ve been nice.
Our entrees, though pleasant, did not wow either of us like the pate had. My braised short rib was fork tender and very meaty tasting with a nice puree of root vegetables. This dish was simple and satisfying. My friend’s flounder was also nicely cooked—perfectly crisp and tender—and very fresh—but to me a little uninventive—I definitely prefer FIG’s triggerfish which really highlights Lata’s ambitious side—triggerfish is a mess to deal with—ask any fisherman. As a side we shared FIG’s cauliflower in brown butter, which was under seasoned, though delicious once salted.
FIG has a nice dessert offering that rounds out a well-paced, enjoyable meal. We tried the Bosc pear, butterscotch pot de crème, and apple crisp. These old standby’s worked nicely and were not end of the meal gut busters.
FIG is great and consistently praised (rightfully so) by local food writers. It was even mentioned by the New York Times. Maybe this praise comes in response to both what FIG is and is not among its peers. It is local, high quality, well-prepared food served in a laid back dining room with perfect, understated service. It is not annoying fusion food, tourist seafood, food served by a tuxedoed man-servant, or god forbid, molecular gastronomy. However, as Charleston’s de facto “foodie” restaurant, I find FIG a bit lacking in ambition (though not in approach). Maybe some house cured meats and/or house pickled vegetables could add that extra artisanal touch and ingenuity that will keep foodies interested. Either way, I’ll be back for more soon and praise FIG for what it has accomplished so far.
Check out FIG’s homepage: http://www.figrestaurant.com