Charlie's L'etoile Verte
Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Charlie’s L’etoile Verte is decidedly a very special place. Kind of like coming home after being away for some time, and finding the things you love and remember still in place, and somehow as beautiful and delicious as ever despite the passage of time. There is something elegant and sweet about the restaurant, paired with a bit of country—French country, of course—and a bit of rustic casual on the side. The magic lies in Charlie’s skill at combining these rather contradictory elements of style and taste into a place you can’t wait to get back to, and when you are finally there, you never want to leave.
Outward appearances would tell you that Charlie’s doesn’t take itself too seriously. The casual porch on the charmingly elegant Lowcountry restaurant teases you a bit as you come to the door through trellises and flowers, and chalkboard signs. Inside, the fabrics, photos, lighting and woodwork create an atmosphere inviting you to make yourself at home. I have happily lingered on Charlie’s porch after a meal, wine and dessert, enticed to savor the experience for a moment or two longer. However, peeking beneath the pot lid on the operation tells another story.
Owner Charlie Golson, along with son Palmer Golson and daughter Margaret Pearman, are the essence of what makes a great family restaurant great. Opened in the winter of 1982 in a tiny space where the tables were few and the enormous hand-written chalkboard menu changed daily, the restaurant’s namesake cultivated a reputation for excellent food, great wine, and delightful bistro atmosphere. Moving to their current locale in 2001, Palmer joined his dad fulltime, with Margaret following shortly after. Capitalizing on each other’s strengths is what makes it all work better than ever 32 years later.
“More than anything, we’re a fresh fish house,” Pearman said, and her brother’s experience as hunter and fisherman goes a long way toward putting the freshest fish on the menu. “Palmer is excellent at finding the best fish every day. He buys a lot of whole fresh fish, and he’s meticulous about cutting it. He’s a hunter at heart.”
Charlie Golson’s lifetime career in the kitchen was inspired by his travels, particularly time spent in Paris, along with one of his first jobs, working alongside a French chef at the Chatham Club in Savannah. After Palmer joined Charlie’s kitchen, “For a whole year, Dad sat by Palmer and directed him. Palmer perfected it,” Pearman said.
Her dad describes Margaret as the one person who has learned every job in the restaurant; however, it is Pearman’s education and knowledge of wine that has brought the restaurant’s outstanding cellar up to the level of excellence it currently enjoys. Much like their menu, she says “I’m not afraid to put something quirky on the list for a while, especially if it’s really well priced.”
Pearman’s skills extend beyond the wine list. Most days she can be found alongside her dad building the restaurant’s dessert menu. Her carrot cake and key lime pie are requested favorites, but it is the biscotti and caramel cake that put a twinkle in her eye. Returning from her junior year abroad with an obsession for biscotti dipped in Italian dessert wine, the crisp cookies are often on the menu and often with a unique twist introduced by Charlie. The caramel cake is a classic home-style yellow cake with boiled caramel icing. “A lot of people don’t make caramel icing like that anymore, because it’s difficult. It’s a candy. We do it the old-fashioned way,” Pearman said.
Charlie’s sincere focus on the food is evident, while the handwritten, photocopied menu that changes daily, certainly is not. With a nod to their original chalkboard menu, and looking a bit like an extensive grocery list you might write before a big party, the contents of Charlie’s menu are juicy, surprising, and delightful. My husband and I recently spent an enjoyable evening at Charlie’s debating our choices and enjoying a meal that induced plenty of passionate eye rolling. We like each other quite a bit, but the eye rolling that evening was for the aces meal.
We started with three lovely sea scallops perfectly grilled with a drizzle of a Sriracha sauce, shiitake mushrooms, crispy rice noodles and a grilled lemon. And we couldn’t pass up the pâté maison that was deeply flavorful and accompanied by cornichon, Dijon mustard, chopped egg, and red onion. Next came the crisp salad with crumbled cheese, tomatoes, olives, and light vinaigrette that comes with every meal at Charlie’s, and freshly baked breads brought in daily from The French Bakery.
That night, fresh Copper River Sockeye Salmon was on the menu, paired with bacon cheese grits, tomato curry sauce and shiitake mushrooms—sublime. The salmon was seared perfectly, and the grits with their decadent hint of bacon combined beautifully with the zingy sauce and the rich mushrooms. After much back-and-forth deciding between the filet mignon with boursin, the grilled breast of duck with raspberry demi-glace, and the local grilled swordfish with house-made pimiento cheese, the fish was chosen. Alongside the swordfish and truly elevated Southern-staple pimiento cheese, was a potato gratin that was comforting, rich and absolutely perfect. From the cellar, we enjoyed a New Zealand Riesling and a French Bordeaux, and our desserts were bread pudding with crème anglaise, and the pavé au chocolate—pure comfort for us both.
Charlie’s also offers a special menu that may be enjoyed on the bar side of the restaurant where bartender extraordinaire Jeff Mix presides. Monday evenings are half-price bottles of wine in the bar and dining room, which has grown to standing-room-only proportions.
Charlie’s L’etoile Verte is decidedly a very special place. Rooted firmly in the flavors of France, this family endeavor isn’t afraid to build on its strengths: being a little brave and a little bold, embracing their Southern heritage and finding tastes and temptations that make for very enjoyable dining. Be warned: You may never want to leave.
Charlie’s L’etoile Verte is located at 8 New Orleans Road,
Hilton Head Island. Open Monday through Friday for lunch
from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Monday through
Saturday from 5:30 p.m. until. Reservations are recommended.
(843) 785-9277. For more information, visit charliesgreenstar.com.