New visitors to Charleston may not notice the low-key, minimalist, single-story brick building at the corner of Meeting and Hasell streets, especially if they’re searching for older, more ornate, antebellum charms. Originally a 1950s Western Union office and later repurposed as a marinara-slinging Italian joint, the building now home to FIG does not clamor for attention. It doesn’t need to.
A sign on the door reads “FIG: Food Is Good.” And while it’s small, its message is the understatement of the decade. Since it opened in 2003, FIG has become known as one of Charleston’s best restaurants (many would argue the best)—a stand-alone institution that has consistently dished up fresh, subtly nuanced, intensely seasonal, clean and seductive flavors for 13 years and counting. Not only has it garnered two James Beard Foundation Awards, but two in the same category, which is almost unheard of, especially considering chef/partner Mike Lata and, later, his anointed executive chef, Jason Stanhope, each earned the Beard title “Best Chef: Southeast” from within the confines and challenges of an inherited, outdated, cramped, and steamy kitchen.
Those days are past. Earlier this year, Lata and partner Adam Nemirow invested in a total kitchen overhaul. Now, cooks don’t need to compete for ovens or space on the prep line, or gripe over poor drains or inadequate ventilation. Their biggest challenge is adapting to newfangled touch-screen technology, like convection ovens with finessed internal humidity controls.
Lata has compared the kitchen upgrade to a kid getting his first beater car and later acquiring a Cadillac. One could also compare it to a musical prodigy plucking on a hand-me-down violin, then being handed a Stradivarius. The instrument does not the musician make, but in the right hands, its melodies are transcendent.
FIG’s menus remain daily improvisations based on the finest ingredients to roll through the door. You could liken the restaurant to a well-established indie rock band, with its own flock of groupies and ability to fill the house. In that vein, its chef/farmer interdependence mirrors the very best of singer/songwriter collaborations. Each evening, FIG pulls out familiar tunes to please the crowds, but no performance is ever the same—its riffs are both exciting and mesmerizing. Lata, whose focus is now divided between FIG and newer establishment The Ordinary, has given Stanhope full authority to play (or not to play) the place’s greatest hits and to add to Lata’s already glowing repertoire.
Some guests may bemoan the disappearance of past favorites, such as cauliflower with mustard butter or the tomato tarte, but certain themes remain constant, at least for now. The evening lineup typically features FIG’s deeply savory and utterly smooth chicken liver pâté, which mimics foie gras on the palate. Or a chilled shrimp starter elevated with a trifecta of fennel, pine nuts, and plumped golden raisins, all kissed with a vinaigrette that Stanhope wooed out of visiting Gramercy Tavern chef Michael Anthony, then tweaked to make his own. Rendered bone-marrow salsa verde deepens the flavor profile of freshly caught fish. The nine-veggie plate takes a snapshot of what’s growing in local fields, underscored with bass lines of soffritto or garlic confit. You might find yourself wondering why the okra tastes better than any okra you’ve ever had.
Discerning palates may detect notes of buckwheat, alfalfa, or clover in Stanhope’s signature cottage cheese, depending on what the cows have been munching that week. My server describes the cottage cheese preparation as “an epic process” of careful sourcing, low and slow cooking, and temperature-sensitive development of the curds. That’s the sneak-attack of FIG’s artistry: what appears understated or familiar is in fact supremely orchestrated and highly technical. Even the pastry team embraces an element of clever surprise, achieving such wonders as nutty ice creams made with toasted peach leaves.
What do the recent renovations mean for diners? Very little—the food coming out of the kitchen is still as close to perfect as possible. Things are just more comfortable and more efficient now for those preparing it. The white-tableclothed dining room remains welcoming and unpretentious. It has undergone some nips and tucks of its own, including a gentle muting of color schemes and substitution of artwork with smoky mirrors, so there’s little to distract diners from conversation and the food on their plate.
For a while, after Stanhope’s James Beard win in 2015, the coveted bronze medallion hung over the cook line, gazing down at chefs scaling banded rudderfish, eavesdropping on conversations among cooks peeling potatoes destined for a silky puree. The medal now presides in the busy back bar area side by side with Lata’s, a gleaming testament to hard work, individual potential, and collective accomplishment. The bar has been set high, doubly high. And FIG does not disappoint.
THE DRAW: James Beard Award-winning cuisine in an elegant but unpretentious setting
THE DRAWBACK: Crowded bar area; reservations can be difficult to snag.
DON'T MISS: Chicken liver pâté