Entrées: Expensive ($17-$23)
Lunch & Dinner (Tues.-Fri.), Dinner (Sat.)
920 Houston Northcutt Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
Alair Bistro's décor reminds me a lot of the anonymous little French and Italian places I used to frequent when working in London: a single storefront room, a little deeper than it is wide, with a small set of tables and a little bar in the back. Everything is laid out simply and elegantly, with nice touches like white tablecloths laid diagonally over black, the tables fully set with point-folded black napkins. The white drop ceiling gives it away, though: you're just in the Village Pointe Shopping Center in Mount Pleasant, right next to the Starbucks.
And that's sort of emblematic of the whole meal. Each dish on the menu looks and sounds elegant and sophisticated, but the delivery doesn't quite follow through.
I don't want to pick on the lump she crab soup ($6), but if it's hyped in print right on the menu as "quite simply, the best in the Lowcountry," and the server is going to tell you three times between your ordering and finishing it how good the soup is, then it really needs to be the absolute best in the Lowcountry. And it's not. There's nothing particularly wrong with the soup. It's creamy with fine bits of onion and celery and carrot, and it comes with big lumps of tender crab spooned over the top which, once stirred in and sprinkled with sherry, make for an enjoyably rich starter. But there's nothing subtle or surprising about it, and you would expect more from the Lowcountry's best she crab soup.
The Shrimp Manalé ($9) sounds intriguing: a shrimp dish inspired by the "Barbeque Shrimp" at the legendary Pascal's Manale restaurant in New Orleans. Unlike the original, Alair's shrimp are served without heads on, which can be forgiven for commercial reasons. The shrimp are large and firm, and they have a fabulously rich, steamy aroma when they come to the table, but the first bite hits with a smack of spice that overwhelms everything else in the dish. Alair serves their version like Mussels Provençal, in a deep white bowl with slices of French bread for dipping in the sauce. But, with the fiery Cajun seasoning stomping whatever subtlety might otherwise be found in the butter sauce, I found no desire to soak it up with bread.
The fresh lobster and black truffle ravioli with shrimp and tomato cream and mushroom butter sauce scented with white truffle oil ($19) sounds like it couldn't go wrong, and it doesn't go wrong, exactly. It just doesn't go anywhere. Lobster-filled ravioli should be delicate and exquisite, but this one is gooed up with a white cheese filling that obscures the lobster. The tomato, cream, and mushroom butter sauce is smooth and tasty, but there's a ton of it. Like the spice in the Shrimp Manalé, the supporting actor overwhelms the lead. A better entrée is the large shrimp, spicy sausage, and tasso ham gravy over creamy stone ground yellow Carolina grits ($16), which succeeds because of the grits, which are fluffy and chewy with a mellow corn flavor that holds up well against the spiciness of the sausage and tasso.
The dessert course almost gets it right: delightful coffee served in a French press paired with a tasty-looking crème brulée with a crisp golden crust and sweet creamy custard underneath . . . that was still noticeably cold at the bottom of the dish.
Alair Bistro is open for lunch as well, which is often the best way to get a taste of a restaurant without paying the full dinner prices. The she crab soup is there (at a reduced $4 a cup), as are a range of more corner-café style lunch items like green salads and sandwiches. Some of these are pretty standard — a Reuben ($8.75) and a traditional BLT ($8.25). There are some more ambitious offerings, too, like the smoked turkey and French brie cheese on a fresh croissant with raspberry Chambord spread ($8.25), a tasty blend of crispiness from the croissant with salty smokiness from the turkey and sweetness from the raspberry jam. But, with prices ranging from $6.75 for the Caesar salad ($10.25 if you want chicken added) to $10.50 for the salmon BLT, it's a bit on the pricey side for a corner café lunch.
Alair Bistro is the kind of place you really, really want to like. The service is friendly and welcoming, the room delightfully classy with soft, pleasant music and eclectic, colorful paintings on the cream and red walls. From appetizers to salads to entrées, the items on the dinner menu all sound so wonderful it's difficult to choose: salt and pepper fried calamari with pineapple sirachi ($8), romaine and gorgonzola salad with roasted cider garlic dressing and spiced walnuts ($7), pan-seared sea scallops and jumbo shrimp in Frangelica cream ($20). This could be your secret little place over in a quiet corner of Mt. Pleasant where you take friends for a special night out and wow them with your insider knowledge.
But the delivery just doesn't follow through on the promise. In a town like Charleston, where dozens of excellent restaurants deliver so much more in that $15-$25 entrée price range, Alair just doesn't do much to stand out from the crowd.