Dimly-lit Murano glass chandeliers dangle from soaring ceilings, heels click on marble floors, and a group of loud, gesticulating diners crowd Mercato's bar, sipping Bellinis and nibbling on calamari and bruschetta. Nestled between Peninsula Grill and the Doubletree Hotel, Mercato is not in Milan — it's in our own Market.
Mercato is the love child of hotel/restaurant magnate Hank Holliday and Executive Chef Jacques Larson. Larson painstakingly prepared for the new endeavour — spending four months doing stages in the kitchens of famous Italian chef Mario Batali's New York City restaurants Lupa and Otto, followed by a two-month grand tour of Italy, where he worked in four different authentic Italian kitchens and toured salumeries, gelaterias, and formaggios. The result is a restaurant that serves up genuine Italian flavor for the eyes, ears, and palate.
"It's a dream come true," says the new executive chef. You can tell that he means it. Moments before settling into one of Mercato's luxurious leather booths for a chat, Larson was discovered in the kitchen tasting his handmade pastas and putting the finishing touches on that evening's menu. A self-proclaimed perfectionist and workaholic — with two broken engagements as a result of his devotion to food and beverage — Larson is managing Mercato with the same gusto he brought to his preparation for its opening.
"Jacques is an extraordinary chef," says Mercato's owner Hank Holliday. "He has an extraordinary work ethic, and is great to work with," qualities that brought him to Holliday's attention when Larson began his career at Peninsula Grill.
After working at Peninsula Grill for nearly six years, despite Holliday's pleas for him to stay, Larson decided to leave Charleston. Also a painter, Larson considered pursuing his artistic bent, but instead chose to move to North Carolina, where he took over the helm of Basil's Trattoria.
"For all intents and purposes I wanted to turn it into a bistro," says the French-trained Larson. "But the longer I stayed and the more I researched and began to educate myself on true Italian cuisine, the more I loved it."
Larson began reading Mario Batali's cookbooks and felt that he had discovered an entirely new world of cuisine. "The more I cook, the more I have developed a cooking style that is more along the lines of Italian cuisine," says the chef. "There are only two or three ingredients on a plate, and they are all in harmony. This food just really lets the food speak for itself."
He brought his fresh look at cuisine with him when he returned to Charleston to assist Chef Brett McKee with the reopening of Union Hall. Shortly after that, Larson became top toque at the market restaurant Cintra. Then the opportunity for Mercato was presented.
"Jacques paid his dues for more than 11 years," says Holliday. "We had been talking for years of his dream to do his own Italian restaurant."
"I loved Cintra," says Larson. "I love being down the street. I love the smaller restaurant and I've always loved the underdog, but after a point in time you want to reach a larger audience."
An opportunity to work in Mario Batali's kitchens and travel Italy was also an offer far too delectable to pass up.
The Batali experience was not all love all the time, however. It was inevitable that a French-trained chef named Jacques would experience some cultural culinary hostility in the very anti-French Batali kitchens. In Larson's case, the bitterness erupted over sweetbreads.
"I don't know if it's because I paint or if it's the French background, but I always try and give a plate a little height," says Larson. "I'll never forget when the sweetbread special I did at Lupa — which tasted great, looked great — came down the line. The executive chef took it and smashed it down with his hand and said, 'This is not fucking French food, this is Italian' and just smooshed it."
But the lesson is one that Larson has taken to heart. "Bob Carter at Peninsula always used to say, 'You eat first with your eyes,' and so you want to make a plate beautiful, but there is a way of making a plate beautiful without spending 10 minutes plating it before it goes out," says Larson.
At Mercato, simply-plated dishes prize color over composition. Dark green olives and bright green arugula contrast with juicy red tomatoes to create a bruschetta that makes eyes and mouth water.
Larson worked with sensei Bob Carter at Peninsula Grill for over five years. "The presentation is still only the secondary part," says Chef Carter. "The lasting impression is with the palate. The most important thing is that it tastes great, and that is the philosophy at my restaurant and at Larson's."
Getting it to taste great is something Larson will always continue to work on. "It's all about consistency," says Larson. "People notice little changes. If we tweak something, people notice, but the tweaking is part of what has kept me in food and beverage. You are always trying to get better. There is always room to improve."
Larson already has improvement plans in the works, hoping to have in-house sausages being produced by this winter — lonza, sopressata, and coppa for starters. He will use the skills he learned working at Batali's Otto, which has one of the largest Italian meat programs in New York. "I want it to be one of the biggest focuses we have here in this restaurant," says Larson.
In addition to the meats, Mercato handmakes its own pastas, using European-style eggs from local grower Celeste Albers that create the added flavor and color of an authentic Italian pasta.
"I've been so excited to come back," says Larson. "I was gone for only six months, but I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be back in Charleston and back with the Holliday company."
Mercato is Hank Holliday's third restaurant, sister to Peninsula Grill and Hank's.
"It's just an honor be in the same league as Chef Bob Carter [at Peninsula] and Chef Frank McMahon [at Hank's]," Larson says. "It's big shoes to fill. I always did really well down the street and took a lot of pride, but this is just a much bigger venture."
Larson can lay his fears to rest. His genuine leather Italian wingtips fit just perfectly.