Chefs manipulate food. It's what cooking is. You take the raw ingredients, you do something to them, you serve the dish. Some chefs don't do much at all, operating in the tradition of Alice Waters, the famous founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., simply showcasing the inherent high quality of local ingredients. Other chefs manipulate food so much they need a research laboratory in which to do their cooking. Think of elBulli's Ferran Adrià, the renowned Spanish master of molecular gastronomy who alters and refines the essence of quality ingredients. Waters and Adria represent the two extremes of the food manipulation spectrum.
If you consider Charleston's best chefs with that spectrum in mind, you might put James Beard award-winner Mike Lata of FIG on the Alice Waters end and fellow Beard award-winner Sean Brock of McCrady's and Husk on the Ferran Adrià end of the spectrum.
It occurred to me after a trip to Cypress a couple of weeks ago that not only is Executive Chef Craig Deihl — a 2011 finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast — in the same culinary ballpark as Lata and Brock, but he interestingly falls right between the two on that food manipulation spectrum.
Like his peers, Deihl cooks with the best ingredients available. He strives to maintain the integrity of the ingredients on the plate to indulge and surpass our expectations, but a little less so than Lata. He manipulates and stylizes the food to create surprise and modern design, but a little less so than Brock.
No matter where your preference falls on the spectrum (and there's a place for it all), the sweet spot where Deihl resides makes for a unique Charleston upscale dining experience
The decor at Cypress embodies that balance between modern urbanity and simple rusticity. With its striking combination of historic East Bay exterior, warm brick interior walls, intimidating three-story glass wine-wall, and vertigo-inducing glass railing overlooking the bustling kitchen far below, Cypress almost feels like a grand New York or Las Vegas restaurant, yet it clings to local tradition.
The tables and booths have sleek high backs and warm upholstery. They're comfortable and almost playful, setting the stage for Cypress' celebration-worthy cooking. You almost feel like you're loading into a theme park ride when you file into a booth with friends at Cypress — a ride with martinis and impeccable steak served tableside.
Luckily, you don't have to ponder the culinary spectrum to have a fun, worthwhile experience at Cypress. Right away, the wait staff's knowledge and attention live up to the grandeur of the place. Like at FIG and McCrady's, the waiters know and love their chef's food. There's no mistaking that this is a restaurant with a deep-seated food culture.
Deihl has been head chef at Cypress since right after it opened in 2001, and his philosophy — and often his hands — are all over the dishes that come out of the kitchen. After 10 years, Deihl is still involved in every aspect of the show. (When I called Deihl last week to make sure I was right about ingredients in some of the dishes we tried, he asked me to call him back in 15 minutes so he could decapitate and ice down a huge cooler full of wreckfish that had just come through the door.)
Apart from finding the freshest, preferably local ingredients, he is big on balancing the fundamental tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. The pickled royal red rock shrimp starter ($12) exemplifies that skill. The beautifully briny shrimp are matched with pickled onions, fennel, and horseradish pickle juice, and served with smoky pan-roasted local asparagus alongside a bold, almost fluorescent swipe of blood orange and beet purée. Another starter we tried showed the same skill at work. The sashimi tuna and oysters with a cilantro-lime glaze and pineapple wasabi ($15) is one of the oldest and most loved appetizers on the menu. Raw beau soleil oysters, which Deihl gets year-round, are delicately draped with thinly sliced sashimi tuna, a dot of sweet tropical nasal-hot pineapple wasabi, herby tart cilantro-lime glaze, and a little scallion. No wonder its popularity endures.
Deihl's award-winning charcuterie is celebrated, of course, on the charcuterie plate ($12), which is another popular choice for the table. The combination of meats varies based on what comes into the kitchen but can include pork pâté, lamb bacon, house-smoked ham, and sopressata, served with housemade mustard, an array of pickled vegetables, and freshly cooked biscuits. The classic accompaniments give a little sour to balance out the richness of the charcuterie — and in turn make it seem even richer. This plate reminds me that I need to get on board Deihl's Artisan Meat Share program, which supplies you with four bags of his charcuterie per year. (The cured Cypressata recently won a Good Food award.)
Main-course wise, the crisp wasabi tuna ($32) epitomizes umami savoriness. Tuna is wrapped in phyllo, deep fried until crisp on the outside and pink throughout, and served with edamame and shiitake mushrooms, all adorned with a creamy ginger beurre blanc and chile glaze. Another fresh fish main, the pan-roasted wahoo ($30), is a generously thick piece of wahoo with royal red shrimp on a bed of mixed local peas like limas and speckled butterbeans with delicate herbs like chervil, basil, and parsley and a drizzle of lemon oil. Alongside a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc, these were some of the best fish dishes I've had in Charleston.
Lastly, a friend and I shared the traditional Caesar salad, followed by the Chateaubriand for two. The traditional Caesar ($9 per person) is prepared tableside: raw garlic is mashed together in a bowl with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Next, anchovies and mustard are pounded into the mix, and then more olive oil is slowly drizzled in. The dressing is finished with freshly grated parmesan, lemon juice, Worcestershire, and a little Tabasco, and tossed with crispy romaine, a little more fresh parmesan, and garlic croutons.
Soon after (and alongside a hefty glass of Syrah), the Chateaubriand (for two — $32 per person) was a beautiful sight. Perfectly cooked, sliced, and plated tableside like the salad, it was dutifully topped with indulgent Madeira demiglace and béarnaise sauces, and served with an intensely rich parmesan potato gratin and haricot verts. In a world where too many "steakhouses" concentrate on everything but the food, the Chateubriand made me realize Cypress is the real deal.
And when you compare the cooking at Cypress with other expensive fine dining restaurants in Charleston, Deihl definitely occupies a valuable niche.