By Kristin Hackler
Chef Rene Constantin, a veteran chef with 45 years of experience under his belt, was born in a small French village called Nax in the canton of Valais, Switzerland. As of 2009, the population of this little town situated 4,000 feet above sea level in the Swiss Alps was close to 460. According to Constantin, the pure melted snow which flows from the town’s majestic peaks feeds the Rhone, Rhine and Po rivers in France, Germany and Italy, respectively. On leaving his remote mountain village to make his fortune in America, Constantin already spoke seven languages fluently, and understood the cuisine of those countries even more. But this article isn’t about him; in fact, he insisted on it. This is about the much-anticipated return of his restaurant, Chez Fish, on Betsy Kerrison road.
Closed since 2008, island residents have continued to call the little restaurant asking if they plan to open again one day, and if so, would they still be serving the Tomato Basil Crab Bisque?
“We definitely have the Tomato Basil Crab Bisque on the menu,” smiled restaurant manager, Connie Stogsdill, pointing out that several local favorites will be returning with the restaurant’s reopening, such as Constantin’s famous She Crab Soup and Pecan Encrusted Black Grouper over Rice Pilaf topped with Beurre Blanc Sauce and served with Julienned Vegetables.
Chef Constantin was the original chef for Chez Fish when they first opened in 2003 and stayed on until 2006. When he heard that the restaurant had closed in 2008, he began the long and arduous process of purchasing the restaurant and renovating it from top to bottom, inside and out. There were days, he said, when he would fall asleep in the back room late at night and begin working again the next morning at first light. The result, however, is a perfect combination of produce stand, fresh fish market and an international fine dining restaurant.
When Constantin first decided to reopen Chez Fish, he called on an old friend to help him with providing fresh fish and produce for both the market and to supply the restaurant. Richard Tolbert, a fisherman on Johns Island for more than 25 years as well as an organic farmer with a regular tent in the downtown Farmers’ Market, leapt at the chance to return to Chez Fish. He is currently stocking the restaurant with fresh catches daily, as well as early spring produce. While it will be a few weeks before heartier vegetables such as carrots, spring onions, beets and turnips start coming in, the restaurant currently has fresh arugula for sale and will make announcements as new vegetables become available.
“This way I know the fish and the produce are as fresh as they can be,” said Chef Constantin.
Before one even walks into the new restaurant, they’ll notice the changes. The little outdoor patio is surrounded by a fresh kitchen herb garden which Chef will use for most of his dishes, and a low table at the front door will offer fresh flowers for sale. Once inside, a wide display case to the left will showcase the various catches of the day both for sale and as specials on the menu. Local products such as Gullah Gourmet crackers and mixes will also be available for purchase, and the cozy bar featuring fine wine and beer selections invites visitors to sit and have a drink before settling down at their table. The main dining room has been repainted in cheery tones of red and blue with sunshine-yellow walls bedecked with Lowcountry paintings by artist Cathy Myers for sale. The kitchen is somewhat split between two sides of the restaurant, with the main prep area in the back and a full kitchen behind a waist-high wall and glass in the main dining room. While diners will be able to watch as Chef Constantin works his culinary magic, he’s quick to point out that he won’t be wearing the typical chef’s coat and blousy patterned pants.
“Cooking is an art, I don’t need to be ostentatious about it,” he smiled.
Along with the restaurant’s much-in-demand favorites, other menu items will include Curried Shrimp & Scallop Medley with Sweet Pickled Cucumber and Sour Cream; Linguini Casino with Shrimp, Scallops and Mussels in a White Wine Sauce; Bone-In Pork Chop with a light Caramelized Onion BBQ Sauce and served with Mashed Potatoes and Julienned Vegetables; and a Crab Cake Sandwich with Spicy Remoulade Sauce for lunch.
“The style is my style,” said Chef Constantin in regards to the wide variety of food preparation styles. Not drawing from any one particular country for its culinary influence, Chez Fish offers a wide variety of selections made with only the freshest local ingredients.
Chez Fish officially reopened on Tuesday, March 22, and will be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m., and the last dinner order will be taken at 10 p.m. Brunch will be served Saturdays and Sundays, and mimosas will be available. For more information, call Chez Fish at 768-8901.