That's hard to imagine when you're in that beautiful restaurant now, enjoying the delicious creations of French Master Chef Nico Romo.
Along with several other Charleston historic buildings, the Fish building got new life when Patrick Properties bought and restored it.
Romo joined Patrick Properties in 2007 as culinary executive director. In addition to Fish, he oversees food service at William Aiken House, Lowndes Grove Plantation, the River House and the American Theater.
When Randall Goldman, CEO of Patrick Properties, was looking for a culinary director for the company, he had definite ideas about what he wanted.
"I had always had the idea for a concept for a restaurant called Fish," Goldman said. He grew up in Singapore where he knew of a restaurant called Fishes. The owner's philosophy was to respect the life that you're taking and are going to be serving, he said. The ingredients should speak for themselves; for example, a cucumber should taste like a cucumber. The chef's job is not to change the taste of ingredients but to enhance them.
From his travels throughout France, he knew that the chefs there shop often for the freshest ingredients for their foods.
"They're shopping daily or almost," he said. "I wanted someone who had that understanding of needing to go to the market daily."
The food culture in this country has moved toward restaurants cooking what is available, often called farm to table.
"We've been doing that for a long time," Goldman said.
He wanted to find a chef with that mentality, and Romo "seemed to immediately understand what it meant to me to support local fishers and farmers," he said.
In spring 2010, Romo became the youngest chef ever, at 30, to receive the title of master chef of France. To become a member of this prestigious group, called the Maitre Cuisiniers de France, one must be invited, reviewed and approved. He's the only French master chef in South Carolina, and one of only 55 in the United States.
Romo grew up in Lyons, France, and graduated at 19 from the Helene Boucher Culinary Art School. He worked for a French master chef in Vienne, France, before moving to the U.S. to work at Chez Philippe in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., and the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta.
The food at Fish
French cooking with an Asian twist is Romo's specialty, and perhaps the most visible proof of that is the dim sum dishes on the menu. Main dishes and desserts are offered in this traditional Chinese style. For the dinner dim sum, the diner chooses four from such delicacies as lobster roll, caramel pork belly, duck hash or lamb spring roll. When I dined there with two friends in March, we split a dim sum as an appetizer.
On that same visit, I picked the frozen banana oatmeal pie, apple cobbler, adult Milky Way hot chocolate and butterscotch pot de crème for my dessert dim sum. What an indulgence to try so many yummy desserts.
"When I go out, I like to try everything I can," Romo said.
Another example of the Asian influence is how some dishes are lighter than in traditional French cooking. On my visit, I ordered the Bouillabaisse, a classic French fish stew usually made with tomatoes. Romo's version at Fish is lighter, with local fish, scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and bok choy in a coconut lemongrass broth. It was light and packed with flavor.
One of my dining companions ordered scallops, and the other ordered triggerfish. Both raved about how delicious their meals were.
The dinner menu emphasizes that the seafood, meats and vegetables are from local waters and farms. Many descriptions give the source of the food; for example, there's chicken from Keegan-Filion Farm in Walterboro, trigger fish from South Carolina waters, and Clammer Dave's steamed clams.
Romo appreciates living and working in Charleston, where there are excellent chefs and also an adventurous foodie clientele.
"People here love food and they eat whatever," he said.
Adventurous or not, diners are bound to be impressed by their meal at Fish. Their wallets will be pleased, too. Few dinner large plates are more than $25, and the menu also includes medium and small plates. Lunch is a great deal: $10. That includes such choices as salads, Asian wraps, pad Thai noodles or steamed buns. You get to pick a protein, sauce or dressing, and a side such as tomato and cucumber salad or an edamame and lentil salad.
Preserving the past and looking to the future
Patrick Properties grew out of Charles and Celeste Patrick's desire to save a piece of Charleston history, the American Theater. The Art Deco cinema was built in 1942 and operated until about 1970. Then it sat vacant until the company bought it. The building was dilapidated, had no roof and had suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Hugo.
The owner wanted to get a demolition permit but met with public resistance. It was put up for sale, but there were no eager buyers, Goldman said. Redevelopment of that end of King Street was still far in the future.
Patrick Properties purchased three lots - the American Theater, the William Aiken House and the building that houses Fish Restaurant.
The the 1837 building at 442 King St. that now houses Fish had no roof, the façade was gone and the walls were held together with rotting timbers. After extensive renovations, the restaurant opened in August 2000.
In the summer of 2008, the restaurant was renovated and enlarged. The Charleston-style single home building was extended into the neighboring building, which allowed for a larger bar and the addition of the main dining room. The restaurant also has a second floor for private dining and an upstairs piazza.
In June, Lowndes Grove Plantation will be the site of a meeting of French master chefs, with Romo and Goldman playing host to French master chefs from the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world.
It will be the first time the French chefs have met in the South, and Goldman finds it especially significant that the June 16-18 meeting will be at Lowndes Grove, which was burned in 1780 during the siege of Charleston by the British during the Revolutionary War. French troops fought alongside the Americans. This beautiful plantation, built in 1786, sits on the banks of the Ashley River.
"This will be the first time since the Revolutionary War that the Plantation has had such a concentration of French," he said.