After closing for a few years, Chez Fish on Johns Island is open again, with just a few small changes. Rene Constantin, who was the restaurant's head chef from 2002 to 2006, is now an owner but still cooks everything. The place retains its laid-back French-Caribbean-meets-Johns-Island feel, both in terms of the decor and the menu. But it's been fixed up a little. The comically cute name — roughly translated to "at fish's house" — still grabs you as you're driving by, piquing your curiosity as out-of-the-way food shacks do. And perhaps like before, it's still a good idea to stop and investigate.
Much of what Jeff Allen wrote about Chez Fish in his 2006 CP review still applies to the place today. The entry foyer doubles as one of the dining rooms and as a seafood market offering fresh local seafood and some prepared dishes, like crab cakes. A big wood-framed chalkboard hangs there too, introducing constantly changing daily specials. Those dark blue water glasses are still set against equally bold colors: bright red tablecloths, black bistro chairs, sunny yellow walls, bright white trim, and an azure blue floor. Reproduced Parisian street signs decorate the walls, and simple metal light fixtures hang above the tables. Flames jump from pans in the open kitchen, as the smell of whatever super-fresh piece of fish is being seared at the moment wafts into the dining room.
The menu looks like one you might find beachside on St. Barts, a cool combination of refined French cooking tempered by local color. Lunch is more casual, with soups like she crab ($5.95) and tomato basil crab bisque ($4.95), house and Caesar salads ($6.95), and a crispy goat cheese salad ($7.95). I tried the tomato basil crab, and it was about as good a twist on the classic soup as can be, if a touch salty. Pastas are more creative. The linguine casino ($14.95) is bustling with shrimp, scallops, and mussels in a white wine sauce. The vegan pasta ($11.95) is packed with diced zucchini, carrots, and yellow squash in tomato sauce and is a great option with the non-vegan addition of fresh local shrimp (it could be any seafood or chicken, $2.95 or $1.95 respectively). Mine was lovingly adorned with nine or 10 de-veined and perfectly fresh plump pink ones — plus a leaf of fresh basil as a garnish. Lunch sandwiches include one with crab cake and spicy remoulade ($7.95), an ultimate Swiss (Constantin's from Switzerland) cheeseburger ($7.95), and a catch of the day broiled or fried ($8.95). I had one with grilled local flounder. It was fresh and good, as was the great looking mixed side salad with cucumbers, fresh local tomatoes, shredded red cabbage, and a creamy vinaigrette. The fries were hot and crisp, too.
The food and atmosphere at Chez Fish hits its stride at dinner. On a recent Wednesday night, it was buzzing with a refreshing mix of staff and patrons you'd expect to find in rustic Johns Island with more upscale Kiawah and Seabrook right around the corner. A friend and I started with a couple of the special salads. A classic iceberg wedge ($7.95) had an original twist, with warm gorgonzola dressing spooned over some fresh tomatoes and a couple pieces of crispy bacon. The beet salad came stacked high with a pile of roasted beets that were deeply flavorful and plentiful, scattered over with diced red and green tomatoes, mixed greens, and a classic creamy and lemony French vinaigrette.
Entrée-wise, we mixed it up with one menu standard and one special. The pecan-encrusted black grouper with beurre blanc is justifiably a favorite. The thick, really fresh grouper is encrusted with finely chopped pecans and then seared until crusty outside and succulent inside. It's served over rice pilaf and topped with a generous sauté of dutifully julienned carrots, onions, and zucchini. That old-school cliché vegetable side never tasted so good, and the grouper was perfect. A special bouillabaisse seafood medley ($19.95) was absolutely loaded with day-boat fresh seafood: fish, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and a fat stone crab claw, all surrounded with nose-diving baguette slices slathered in garlicky rouille, true to Provençal form. Special indeed. For $19.95, I'd go back again and again for that dish. I'm also looking forward to trying other seafood mains on the menu like sautéed local flounder with lemon caper sauce ($18.95) and the grilled jumbo scallops and tempura shrimp with apricot, mustard, and ginger sauce ($18.95).
There are also inviting dishes from the land, like an Italian breaded chicken ($14.95) topped with goat cheese and olive tapenade, a New York strip with frites ($16.95), and a bone-in pork chop ($16.95) with caramelized onion barbecue sauce and mashed potatoes. On the night we visited, we had a hard time not ordering a particularly interesting sea/land combo special: Cajun-inspired penne pasta with shrimp, andouille sausage, and okra ($14.95).
We didn't have room for dessert ($5.95), but imagined that options like crème brûlée, chocolate praline mousse, gelatos, sorbets, and profiteroles with chocolate sauce would have done as well as the dishes on the savory side of the menu. And Chez Fish's wine list is fine, but it includes many of those supermarket standards that tend to push aside smaller, more unique bottles. Maybe that's an appropriately unpretentious play, but I'd like to see a couple of smaller French producers on the list. Still, our bottles of Louis Latour Pouilly-Fuiseé seemed to do a pretty good job cutting through those classic French sauces and assertive flavors.
Chez Fish isn't trying to be anything it's not, which is why it's so appealing, especially in a town where the attempt to capitalize on the idea of Lowcountry cuisine sometimes takes precedence over the execution of the food itself. In fact, what's so charming about Chez Fish is exactly that contrast between unpretentious setting and surprisingly good food. And, of course, the abundance of local fresh seafood doesn't hurt either ("When it's fresh, it's easy," Constantin told me by phone).
It's a good thing Constantin opted to retain what's obviously an original, heartfelt concept in Chez Fish. If you find yourself near Kiawah at mealtime sometime soon (lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch) and catch that Chez Fish sign out of the corner of your eye, stop in — there's substance behind that intrigue. If the quality of the seafood served at Chez Fish is any indication, the seafood market is worth checking out, too.