Chef Jeff Williams leads the kitchen in creating French-inspired, Lowcountry-flavored dishes; (Right) Diners can take a seat at the “chef’s table” counter to watch the kitchen in action.
Tucked into Charleston’s Westside neighborhood, Purlieu has quickly and quietly emerged as a staple French bistro. Chef-owner John Zucker of Cru Café and Catering opened the restaurant, affectionately referred to as “P237,” in the fall of 2017. Its creation favored attention to details in setting and fare, emphasizing polished cooking and unique design accents. The result? Immediate popularity among local diners eager for a table in the small space.
The petite dining room, with just 34 seats, its what the French would call a salle à manger, or an eating room. Designed by the careful hand of Zucker’s mother, Terry, who owns Los Angeles-based Starting Over Design Studio, the restaurant is outfitted with salvaged wood, tables washed in pale hues, timeless subway tiles, and scattered bibelots (small, decorative trinkets). Markers of Purlieu’s muse are judiciously displayed throughout the space: a plaque proclaiming “le chef a toujours raisin” (the chef is always right), a commemorative tray celebrating the 1959 Tour de France, vintage bistro signage, and a map of the Seventh Arrondissement add a Francophile accent.
Walking along Fishburne Street, passersby glimpse Purlieu’s window-seat (or “catbird”) counter, where diners may enjoy a glass of wine while the sun sets. Venturing inside, you’ll find a cozy, comfortable banquette, its French blue fabric matching the color of the chevron-patterned napkins on the tables. Near the back corner, a community table leads the eye to the kitchen, in front of which a tiny “chef’s table” counter offers a front row seat to the cooking.
(Above, left to right) A toss of baby gem lettuce, fines herbes, sliced pears, and champagne vinaigrette pairs well with a citrusy cocktail; traditional salmon-and-lox toast gets elevated with everything spice seasoning; and a French dip features slow-braised brisket.
Zucker’s team—which includes executive chef Jeff Williams, beverage director Jacob Fuhr, and a brigade of confident cooks—mines the dual traditions of the French culinary canon and the Lowcountry’s seasonal pantry, and their results are modern and delicious.
Bistro classics are rebooted for the 21st century: frog legs come wrapped in a golden puff pastry with carrots and peas and cloaked in creamy béchamel sauce, an Italian chopped salad is tossed in an herby green goddess dressing, and an artichoke casserole is baked with nutty Gruyère cheese. Even the seemingly simple items—a burger and onion rings—are given upgrades. The juicy patty is topped with Dijon mustard and sweetly caramelized shallots, while the onion rings are tinted with toasty, tobacco-colored cayenne.
This is a kitchen that does not shy away from robust greens—such as frisée, lamb’s leaf, and watercress—herbs, or citrus, packing flavor into their first courses and salads. The French triumvirate of fines herbes (chive, chervil, and tarragon) adds punch to baby gem lettuce, sliced Asian pears, and champagne vinaigrette. In other dishes, lemon and basil brighten the briny nage (broth) of Blue Hill Bay mussels, and orange wedges sweeten a braise on locally caught snapper.
Zucker and his team excel at creating items that are rooted in tradition, yet riffed in presentation. For example, delicate salt-cured duck breast feigns prosciutto; served with juicy slices of Asian pear and earthy beets, the dish delivers a salty-sweet punch. “Everything” spice elevates toast topped with crème fraîche cream cheese and lox. Purée of pomme (mashed potatoes) is made with cauliflower instead of the root vegetable, while good, old-fashioned diner hash is tricked out with celery root.
Earthy black lentils form a bed for delicate, citrus-braised local snapper topped with sweet lunchbox peppers, fennel fronds, edible flowers, and juicy orange supremes; (Right) Charleston artwork mingles with European-inspired decor in the dining room.
While their creative menu items surprise and delight, the staff also perfects the small culinary details, whether they’re emulsifying vinaigrettes, pan roasting a succulent chicken breast, artfully plating wedges of salmon toast, or tempering a glossy chocolate glaze.
Fuhr’s curated wine and beer selection—which is well-considered and moderate in price—weaves well among the flavors on the plate. A chilled glass of Bouzeron Aligote “The Three” complemented the roasted chicken entrée with mashed cauliflower, mushrooms, and broccoli-like Romanesco.
Daily desserts are perfect counterparts to the savory dinner fare. One sweet finish was a “chocolate bombe,” a decadent hazelnut mousse anchored on a soft Genoise sponge cake. The treat demonstrated artistry and skill, with tender pastry and airy chocolate foam.
“Purlieu” is a word familiar to Lowcountry locals. Whether spelled “perloo,” “purloo,” or “pilau,” it identifies the classic rice dish bursting with flavor and layered with history. “Purlieu” (from the Anglo-Saxon “purlewe”), however, is a piece of land at the forest’s end, or a place on the outskirts of town. Both definitions are reflected here: a neighborhood eatery for those who want quality without pretension, friendliness without artifice, and intimacy without formality.
The Draw: Indulgent neighborhood bistro where kitchen competence shines
The Drawback: There’s only room to seat 34 diners, so reservations are a must.
Don’t Miss: Fines herbes salad, citrus-braised snapper, burger, and chocolate bombe