The South of France

Chez Georges puts a Lowcountry spin on the fare that made the Old World famous.

Story By Barry Kaufman + Photography By Lisa Staff

Essentially, it means that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Chez Georges, the latest culinary jewel in the island’s crown, exemplifies the beauty in this saying.

First let’s talk about the more things change.

For many of us, the initial shock of walking into Chez Georges comes from how little it resembles Casey’s Sports Bar, the spot’s previous tenant. Seeing crisp, clean modern furnishings and designs embellished with fleur de lis patterns, all informed by a continental sense of sophistication, where once had been neon-drenched athletic memorabilia bearing just the thinnest patina of grime, could not be more night and day. It’s a remarkable transformation from a hole-in-the-wall sports bar to an urbane, almost metropolitan French bistro.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. For all its decided lack of sophistication, Casey’s was at its heart a community gathering spot. Its legion of regulars never drank alone, joined by nearly everyone on the island at some point or another, whether popping in for a game or popping in just because. It was where the locals drank. And that sense of community is still fully intact at Chez Georges.

“If you want a burger and a beer, you’re in. If you want a bowl of mussels and a glass of wine, that’s an easy dinner. If you come in for an anniversary, you can do that, too,” said owner George Casalicchio. “That’s a bistro, to us. It’s a place that’s part of the community.”

Chez Georges offers a comforting take on the refined French classic Bouillabaisse, using many ingredients found in a Lowcountry boil.

À votre santé

One of the most noticeable changes to the physical structure sits at the very heart at Chez Georges. What had once been a wall between the bar and dining areas has been opened up into a refrigerated wine cellar, a testament to the vital role a good wine list plays in French cuisine.

“I devised this initial list, but it will be a living, breathing thing,” said Casalicchio. The wine list skews unabashedly French, with nearly 80 percent of the total selections hailing from France. For the other 20 percent, Casalicchio has placed an emphasis on wines that, in his words, drink French.

“European wines are much more earthy and terroir-driven,” he said. Finding these wines means taking a discerning eye to American offerings, skewing away from the typically oak- or fruit-forward varietals we produce. Even then, approachability is key.

“The mission of this list is that you can come in and drink a glass of wine for $8, or you can find something new. There’s a white bottle for $280 and a bunch for $35,” he said.

The cocktail list is similarly poised between sophistication and approachability, balancing between familiar favorites and unique new pours. At the heart of the cocktail list, however, is an approach that puts food front and center.

“All of these are meant to be a part of your meal,” said Casalicchio. “There’s culinary intention.”

Bon appetit, y’all

Early reviewers are raving about this Tarte Aux Oignons — a buttery onion tart filled with caramelized onions and topped with fried white anchovies, tomatoes, sherry and greens. The sweet onions and salty anchovies are a winning combination. “Truly one of the best things I have ever had,” one patron remarked. “Everything we ate was delicious but the onion tart was extraordinary,” another said.

Creating a sense of community from a culinary perspective means taking an approach that will please everyone. Obviously, this is easier said than done, particularly when your culinary approach begins with French cuisine. By design, French food tends to be exclusive, geared toward the sophisticated palate that can truly appreciate the nuances behind its epicurean artistry.

So how do you make French cuisine approachable? By marrying it to the most crowd-pleasing culinary milieu on the planet – good old-fashioned Southern cooking.

“Our dishes are rooted in France,” said Casalicchio. It’s where they grow from those roots that things get truly exciting. Growing up on his great-grandparents’ farm and honing his craft in Michelin-starred kitchens around the South, chef Burns Sullivan gained an appreciation for the ingredients that inform the region’s cooking, and he brings that to bear with every dish.

“I’m not from the Lowcountry, but I’m speaking to the Lowcountry,” said Sullivan. “You look at something like the bouillabaisse – it doesn’t get much more traditional French than that. But we’re making it in a way that’s almost Lowcountry boil-esque.”

It comes down to the ingredients – locally sourced seafood in the bouillabaisse, or oxtail in the French onion soup. “Oxtail harkens back to the Caribbean food which Southern food has its roots in,” he said, “taking these off-cuts and cooking it low and slow to develop flavor.”

Ultimately, despite the veneer of exclusivity that surrounds it, French cuisine shares much of its deepest-held tenets with Southern food. Driving toward that connection is what informs the menu at Chez Georges.

“That’s how French cooking is, and it’s how Southern cooking is. It’s using what you have. You cook with your heart and with what the land gives you,” said Casalicchio. “The South has food that’s uniquely theirs, and France is very similar.”

The Le Cabaret is a Chez Georges twist on the classic vodkda gimlet. Other creative cocktails include the d’Arc and Avec Leal.

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