Tucked in the basement of a picture-perfect hotel in downtown Charleston, sits Zero Restaurant and Café, where lifestyle bloggers have flocked since the first day it opened. It’s a slice of pure Charlestonion ( and photoshoot ) heaven, with huge candle-lit, drapery-lined porches, an old-fashioned courtyard filled with perfectly matching bicycles, and a small patio. It’s the kind of place where people take pictures of their cheeseboards and wine glasses from above, #blessed.
But I am not a lifestyle blogger. I’m a pudgy, brutally honest, hot-mess-of-nerves blogger; the photoshoots I do always include me on a certain side of the camera (whew!). I only write about one thing, and that thing is food.
In my writing about food, I’ve encountered a sea of farm-to-table restaurants at the same price point as Zero that are haphazardly slopping pork belly and local beans on a plate. Executive Chef Vinson Petrillo, on the other hand, is creating seasonal masterpieces of both flavor and technique. It’s fresh, it’s playful, it is meticulously executed.
This most recent visit to Zero Restaurant and Bar was only the second time I’ve done the “Omnivore” ( because I literally do eat all the things ) Tasting Menu. The first time was my reigning “Best Meal I’ve Ever Had”, and despite my incredibly high expectations, I’m thrilled to report that this most recent experience is my new champion.
The first course is a shared plate with delicately sweet and savory Foie Gras Macarons, the divine Eggs and Caviar, a modern take on a lobster roll, and a Potted Plant that the waitress explicitly mentioned was to be consumed, and it’s a good thing — because otherwise it would have gone untouched, thought to be a garnish!
The next course is Beet Tartar. Look, I’ve never in my life been excited about eating a beet. I don’t hate them, but I’m not lining up to eat them, either. I must admit though, this dish was absolutely delicious and completely fascinating. The beets are cooked in the coals of an on-premise grill, giving them a perfect, smoky flavor that makes them delightfully meaty.
Perched atop the perfect little cubes of beet is an encapsulated carrot “yolk” — a playful twist on the classic egg yolk-adorned beef tartare, and just like that egg yolk, this one runs down the beet base with a quick flick of the fork.
Next, the Liquid Parmesan Tortellini. There’s nothing to not like about that title. Brought out in a large bowl, a clear broth is poured into the bowl ( verrrrrry slowly by our fabulous and verrrrry patient waitress, who was super cool about me taking a million pictures of everything ) as soon as the dish hits the table. Each bite was an explosion of woodsy flavors mixed with creamy parmesan, which brings me to the most unexpected element of this dish: spruce.
I thought surely that was just something I didn’t recognize on the menu description that had the same name as a Spruce Tree ( aka straight up, Christmas Tree, yo ), but lo and behold, there it was on the plate: tiny Christmas Tree Tips. My first thought, “[gasp] Chef Petrillo, I trusted you and now there is a tree in my dish!”, but that first thought was quickly pushed out by my own chewing of said spruce. What can I say? It works. I didn’t want it to work … but it did!
After the tortellini, Roasted Snapper arrived with a tiny forrest of potato and leek “mushrooms”, paired with literally the only wine I do not like: California Chardonnay. This Chardonnay, however, was only very lightly oaked, and paired nicely with perfectly executed snapper and creamy mussels surrounding it. Personally, I would have preferred the wine not be quite so soft on the palate, but that is only my preference and the choice was certainly not to the detriment of the accompanying dish.
Unfortunately the sunset caught up with us before I could get pictures of the next two courses. After the fish course, the meat course was served: Beef Wellington. One of my favorite dishes, I’m delighted that it seems to be among the few items that can always be found on the menu. It was paired with a Charbono from the same winery as the Chardonnay, but I think the softness of their winemaking style suited this dish a little more. I highly recommend including both the beef and the Charbono in your dinner should you be lucky enough to dine at Zero Restaurant.
Now, for dessert. I’m not a huge dessert hound, but the Tres Leches makes me swoon. Coconut, cake, and honeycomb come together to make a sublime ending to a phenomenal meal. Like a rat in a sugar water test, I would eat literally however much of this they chose to put on the plate, until I explode. It’s the perfect final installment in an already superlative meal.
Like a culinary Magritte, Chef Petrillo’s playful use of molecular gastronomy combined with classic methods creates an dining experience that is show-stopping, but amusing. The food is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, from the spruce tips on the tortellini to a mushroom forest under the cloak of crispy seaweed.