I could hardly wait to head to Charleston when I read the new spring menu at 181 Palmer, the restaurant located at the Culinary Institute of Charleston on the campus of Trident Technical College. It's always fun to go into a classroom restaurant and see the future chefs in action.
At 181 Palmer, lunch is served Monday through Thursday to reserved guests (make your reservations online at www.opentable.com) in order to give the students hands-on instruction about service, cooking and general operations of a restaurant. At first it may seem like the guests would be a guinea pig for great mistakes that lead to unpalatable food. It certainly has that potential. However, with careful eyes on every dish and every table there is almost no danger of things steering too far off course. There are numerous professors both in the kitchen and in the dining room.
We arrived to the school and stepped in from a rainy Thursday to a charming set up in the lobby of the main building. 181 Palmer is complete with a maitre d' station, a bar ( even though the enterprise isn't allowed to serve alcohol) and precisely-set tables. After a brief wait, we were politely greeted and seated directly at noon. The decoration was minimal, but elegant and clean. The best part of the dining room was a giant projection screen that fed live footage directly from the kitchen. We actually could witness each plate being made and watch the students take instruction from their instructors. Needless to say, it was a distraction from the table conversation as I was engulfed in the events from the kitchen. Luckily, my company didn't mind.
Our server was very pleasant, but clearly nervous. Possibly the first table he had served or just the fact that he was a future chef who wasn't comfortable presenting just yet. Once he realized that we were just there to eat a good meal and had no expectation of him solving cold fusion in the next hour, he loosened up significantly and seemed more natural. He was well-versed in the menu and in service which won me over almost immediately. It showed that he was putting effort into his educational experience and that he understood that we were paying guests. He followed most of the processes in fine dining service perfectly and was supported by the rest of the service team.
The real reason to visit the culinary school is the food itself. The three course prix fixe menu is laced with words you may have heard on the Food Network, if you watch it. There are a few choices in each course and they take the entire order at once "so they don't inundate the kitchen." This is a common practice for serving larger parties and for culinary school restaurants. It helps to expedite the service and to help the server time the meal appropriately.
For the first course, I chose Blue Crab Ravioli with a Sweet Pea Sauce and Blue Cheese. The soft ravioli and blue crab worked very well with the sweet pea sauce. Add in some light blue cheese crumbles and the dish gained the punch that was needed to an otherwise bland flavor profile. It was a finely balanced dish that was a perfect starter.
Next, I chose Trigger Fish with Sweet Potato Puree and a Piquillo Pepper Sauce. The sweet potato puree was divine, but the spiciness of the Piquillo pepper sauce proved a little too spicy for my taste, but went well with the fish. The trigger fish was cooked very well and was perfectly portioned.
Finally, I selected the daily special dessert of Strawberry Sorbet with Vanilla and Almond Biscuits. This dish was flawless and really finished the meal with a huge smile of satisfaction. The fresh berry flavor and the nuttiness of the biscuits was spot on. It simply tasted like summer.
Overall, the meal was very good. The service was textbook and even though it is a place of learning, the staff was well versed in etiquette. A three-course meal prepared by some of the area's future chefs for only $15 is never a bad deal in my opinion. The price includes a beverage and all of the gratuities go to the school to fund future programs and expenses. I would recommend planning at least 90 minutes for lunch, but it's worth the trip given the high quality of food.
When you eat at 181 Palmer, and I hope you will, you have to remember that it is a school first and foremost. The staff/students/instructors go to great lengths to make you feel very well taken care of, and I'd say they do a great job of it.