The Star of 2020

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris January 05, 2021 17:00 in Dining Diary

We’re jaded. Eating in great restaurants is what we do. So this year no one was more surprised than we were to be stopped in our tracks by the excellence of a new restaurant.

So many restaurants come and come, and even in 2020, few rarely go. There are a lot of great restaurants in this great eating town, the grande dames, of course, the casual millennial hangouts, and lately the hard-to-understand new establishments that are often about anything other than food that tastes good. 

Tom always says that his favorite restaurant is Antoine’s but the best restaurant in town is Commander’s Palace. Commander’s Palace is definitely not my kind of restaurant, but I will concede that it is a one-of-a-kind.

The level of service is nonpareil. I always recommend that people experience this place simply because they will have no other similar eating adventure. A gaggle of waiters greets you upon arrival, and you are truly made to feel like the most important person in the world. It’s like you are swept up into a party, a party you gained entrance to simply by making a reservation. Utterly unique. I attribute this phenomenon to the two girl cousins that run the place. What can we say? They are fun!

Revolution is the other comparable restaurant in town in this one-of-a-kind zone. It’s a beautiful place, as others are, and the service is extraordinary, but the prices are what pops this out from the crowd. Well, that and the after-dinner jewelry box of treats, though conflicting reports make us wonder if the jewelry box is another COVID casualty.

And before Revolution, there was the short-lived and much-ballyhooed Stella, which was avant garde and hyper-expensive. Unsustainable in a town like this.

This year a place arrived on the scene that in our opinion outdoes them all. Tchefuncte’s, on the Northshore in the wide bend of its namesake river, opened in late October upstairs in the new building that was the old Friends.

Tchefuncte’s is owned by two Northshore businessmen who had the good sense to get a terrific chef and decorators that allow the natural surroundings to take center stage. Massive windows surround the building, with cool neutrals illuminated by all the natural light. Fluid banquettes fill out the main dining room, which is flanked by a spacious bar and several rooms of differing sizes. Outside there is an outdoor living room with fire pits. So inviting! 

But it is the kitchen that takes center stage, bordered by a food bar offering eight seats to observe chef Michael Gottlieb’s smooth command of this kitchen. 

Gottlieb hails from Savannah where his family operated a bakery for a hundred years. He is passionate about his baked goods, and a bakery station is manned full-time, cranking out everything from the housemade bread to tiny profiteroles for a crab salad amuse bouche, or miniature loaves for a single shrimp tiny poorboy with shreds of lettuce so fragile they are assembled by tweezers. This is an extra step no one does, and it is second nature here. Here is a chef’s dream kitchen, with every imaginable amenity, including a tandoor. Michael Gottlieb is skilled at it all, and has assembled a staff that knows what to do at all these stations. We love to sit at the food bar and watch them do it.

We first went to Tchefuncte’s as drop-ins at the food bar. Reservations were a month or more out in the beginning. They are still hard to come by, which is a testimony to the excellence here. A lot of these people are coming from the Southshore.

That first night we enjoyed chatting up the very nice young man assembling tuna tartare eggrolls, and another with his tweezers dropping lettuce into the amuse bouche. The girl at the pastry station was baking hot souffles. In the middle of it all was Michael, coolly placing fat tortellini over a paneed veal chop, or assembling slices of steak in a stunning presentation before issuing a simple call to action: Service! A row of waiters lined up for pickup to deliver these culinary masterpieces to their end destination.

Michael has been assisted by his brother Laurence from Savannah when he is in town, or various chef friends from the south shore who are not so busy in COVID world. They seem to enjoy this chef’s fantasy kitchen and its inner workings as much as we do.

We had two meals at the food bar before experiencing brunch, then lunch as each service came on line. We have written about all of these meals already, so I’ll just focus here on why this one restaurant is so special in our opinion.

One night we had a crab cake which was not the best I have had, but what made it unique was that instead of a slice of lemon or lemon zest, the lemon was a gelatin! Yes, it was pure jumbo lump crabmeat and yes it was seared to perfection and yes it was beautifully presented on a lake of lemon butter sauce, but the extra step required to make a gelatin is unique.

Every time we go there we debate what to get because everything looks and is fabulous, but we continue to be tempted by the tableside silver carving station that meanders around the room when someone orders carved meat. This changes every night, but when was the last time this was available? Louis XVI?

In the wine room there is of course quite a selection, but is there anywhere else a saber on display for someone to whack the cork from champagne by breaking the head off the bottle?

How many places bake their own tiny profiteroles for teeny weeny crab salad sandwiches that are an amuse bouche? How many restaurants make their own boursin cheese, their own mayonnaise? (Yes, we know a few chefs do homemade mayo, and that Emeril made his own Worcestershire back in the day, but it is all these “extras” combined that add up.) How many have a station for just baking everything in house, from baby poor boy loaves large enough for one fried shrimp to hot souffles?  How many places serve great pancakes at brunch? Maybe quite a few, but I doubt many are also serving  those pancakes with pure maple syrup aged in wood barrels.

What I like about Tchefuncte’s more than any of these things individually is that all of these very special traits come for the same price that you see on the check at other first class restaurants. That’s not to say you won’t run up a bill, but that bill is in line with all the other A-listers that don’t take these extra steps.

And that makes Tchefuncte’s a bargain. A stunning, delicious bargain. Our pick for the best new restaurant of 2020.  Finally, some good culinary news from this year.