Reviewing Al di La

Without the benefits of history

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The challenge I have of being relatively new to Charleston — I've lived here for only a year — was met this week. It came with the assignment from editor Stephanie Barna: figure out how Al di La in West Ashley is doing three years after owners Mark and Gillian Kohn took over from founder John Marshall. How's the food? How's it serving the neighborhood and beyond? Luckily, I had plenty of background information (nice to work for an editor who always has food, among it all, in mind), and also had the chance to talk with Marshall and Gillian Kohn after a few visits and a few already-formed opinions, as always.

Al di La was a treasured new spot in West Ashley when Marshall opened it in 2003 — one of the few restaurants offering good food at reasonable prices in the area, period, and certainly on the frontier of the Northern Italian cooking scene in Charleston given Marshall's experience.

In the years before, the folks at Barboursville vineyards near Charlottesville had sent Marshall to Italy to work in multiple small trattorias north of Tuscany so he could fluently open Palladio restaurant. What an experience that must have been. After Palladio, Marshall's idea was to bring that knowledge to West Ashley in Al di La, which just about everyone says he did a great job with, caring passionately about everything from the folks to the food and everything in between.

But just a few years on, Marshall started to worry about traffic issues in the area (which I found interesting because I hadn't even thought about that) and so sold it to the Kohns who obviously weren't as worried, and understood the bar scene better than Marshall. After talking with Marshall and looking at his career, part of me wonders whether he just wanted a new experience.

So how is Al di La doing? As usual I went more times than I'm paid to and reimbursed for — a practice that's important to me especially as I talk to more owners whose livelihoods and families' livelihoods depend in part on the perception of their restaurant.

About whether to point out the good experiences at Al di La, of which there were many, there was no question. Neither was there a question whether to bring up the few pesky negatives about Al di La — wilted and gritty greens, less than completely heated gnocchi — because they're both so damn easy to fix, and were mostly remedied on additional visits which made me think they were anomolies.

Anyway, I really believe Al di La has a bright future, and hope my review in some teeny tiny (and I mean small here) way contributes to that. The Kohns are doing an incredible job with the place Marshall started, and they have an amazing opportunity and thing going. Salute.

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