The old yellow door now sports a crimson hue. Upon opening, remnants of Mercato, Brasserie Gigi’s Italian-American predecessor, greet you familiarly. The cushy leather booths remain, pale brown in hue and soft as clouds. Bottles of Champagne and French reds glint in the reflection of tarnished mirrors plating the walls, and expanses of glass still look out toward the City Market. These similarities make sense, as the place is still owned by restaurateur Hank Holliday, who’s also proprietor of several other spots on the Market. But in place of nightly live jazz and Tuscan dishes, the space now offers an Americanized amalgam of Parisian bistro culture in the heart of modern Charleston. And with chef Frank McMahon—who’s long run the kitchen at sister restaurant Hank’s Seafood—heading up the cuisine, Gigi transports her guests sublimely into our mythologized culinary geography of the Gauls.
If you love seafood, or the beautiful bitterness of Niçoise olives and the shattering crumble of crusty baguettes smeared with sweet butter, then McMahon’s compositions will tempt your passions. He brings the experience of more than a dozen years at Hank’s and formative training at Le Bernardin, one of New York’s most lauded seafood spots. And his own childhood in Europe surely informs his confident approach to French standards.
Perhaps you begin with the potage parmentier, a deliciously subtle cream purée of potato and leek topped with chive, served lukewarm. Or commence with the deeply caramelized onion soup, so picturesque that the lava flow of Gruyère cheese bubbling over the bowl might have been lifted from the photos in a Julia Child cookbook. The salade Niçoise features deeply crusted rare yellowfin tuna, which lacks ample seasoning but provides heft against the sprite crunch of green beans and the Niçoise olives to make a satisfying fall lunch. There is classic steak tartare, moules frites, and herbed and buttered escargot. All represent excellent renditions of their definitive forms.
Nightly first-course specials also present classic themes and can make for a light, delightful meal. They might include a perfectly rustic house-made country pâté served with crispy pan-fried goat cheese and duck rilletes that drip with the flavorful fat in which they were rendered. McMahon wraps his pâté in bacon, which plays nicely against the subtle crunch of walnuts within. He tops the pile with a tassel of frisée and dots the edge of the plate with orange supremes.
There are also massive seafood towers—much like those served at Hank’s, which is just around the corner—that offer fresh oysters and shellfish at market price, each coming with the house cocktail sauce that has quickly eclipsed all others in town. On a recent Tuesday, the kitchen served a fine slab of swordfish, surrounded by citrus, topped with peppery and herbal microgreens, and anointed with crushed coriander and a smattering of white truffle oil. It was perfectly cooked, soft, sweet, and juicy, suffering none of the cottony texture so often prevalent in overcooked versions found elsewhere.
The toothsome monkfish bourride inhabits a small, addictive pool of saffron aioli studded with parsley and potatoes and sprinkled with fresh blades of lemon thyme. The fish du jour, often a snapper or black bass filet, is masterfully presented à la meunière—accented rather than overwhelmed by the acidic balance of brown butter and lemon. And a delicious salmon “charcuterie” presents the house-cured fish in two ways: as inventive “rillettes” smoothed into small ramekins and as a tiny dice of tartar, cucumber, and capers beside a handful of pickled onions.
Though the prices approach those of nearby fine-dining establishments, the service is more casual, sometimes too much so. Spent plates languish while servers attend to other needs. Given the relaxed bistro setting, these slip-ups aren’t as glaring as they might be in a white tablecloth venue such as sister restaurant Peninsula Grill, where one is accustomed to impeccable service.
Brasserie Gigi showcases McMahon’s considerable skill with seafood and provides a reliable outpost serving the quintessential dishes of the French canon. Many menu items recall the chef’s specialties at Hank’s, with a Euro accent. If you’re not too stuffed with oysters and pâté to entertain dessert, try the fruit sorbet made by Claire Chapman, the pastry chef at Peninsula. Like Gigi itself, it comes sweetened for the American palate, but it can make for the perfect adieu to a lovely meal.
The Draw: Fine French standards and superb seafood
The Drawback: Uneven service can blemish a stellar meal.
Don’t Miss: The beautifully prepared swordfish with fresh citrus and white truffle