Prix fixe dining takes The Tippling House wine bar to a new level
By Wendy Swat Snyder
Photos by James Stefiuk
The Tippling House is connecting with customers from its enclave in Charleston's Elliotborough neighborhood in a way that many forward-thinking restaurant owners are beginning to embrace. The traditional dining model is being rethought post-pandemic, and in many cities, a host of hybrids have emerged with one common theme: services that are community-driven.
A wine bar with a mission—The Tippling House strives to make both adventurous and familiar varietals accessible to imbibers who run the gamut, from enthusiast to novice. To that end, a restored 19th century living room opens up twice weekly, seating 18 diners for a prix fixe pairing menu that's both a celebration of and education in all things food and wine.
Husband/wife team Carissa and Matthew Conway have poured heart and soul into The Tippling House, which opened in 2021 offering an intimate bar scene with wine by the glass and half bottle, wine-worthy bites and a grab and go window folks could access from an alley off Coming Street.
“We do really well with the wine bar,” says Matthew, an American Sommelier Association certified sommelier. “But I wanted an opportunity to get all the food-friendly wines on the table. The dinner series allows us to present wine within the context of food.”
The wine dinner menu, created by executive chef Sean Clinton, offers four courses consisting of two small plates each: an amuse-bouche, first course, second course and dessert.
“We offer great quality food, an innovative wine list and a handful of sommeliers,” notes Matthew. “It's a one-on-one experience the diners really appreciate—myself, plus two other sommeliers and chef Sean—we make an enormous effort to make people happy, to keep the experience exciting, fun, unique.”
After graduation, Matthew was enlisted in 2004 as sommelier at Café Gray in New York, the first eponymous restaurant opened by legendary four-star chef Gray Kunz. In 2008, he partnered with restaurateur/ chef Marc Forgione at his Manhattan restaurant (also eponymous) as beverage director, where he and Carissa met. When restaurants started closing in 2020, they joined family in Charleston for what was planned to be a brief respite. They never left the Holy City.
Carissa, a Johnson & Wales alum with a B.S. in sales, meeting and event management, joined the team at Leon's Oyster Shop as its full-time event planner, while Matthew went in search of a property to house their future venture.
“We love hosting people in our own home,” says Carissa, “So why not do it for a living?”
They fell in love with a historic Charleston single house in bad need of repair and restored the building, peeling back decades of plaster and paint to expose the original hardwoods and a brick fireplace—the dining area's centerpiece. The couple chose a soft color palette of sage and off-whites to evoke a cozy ambiance throughout the small property.
“We wanted to make it feel like you're in our living room,” notes Carissa.
“I spent 20 years in Michelin star restaurants,” said Matthew. “We wanted the excitement without the stuffiness—for the experience to be fun, exciting and engaging.”
The evening my guest and I visited for its prix fixe dinner, that's exactly what we found—a fun combination of staff and guest energy; all in all, an engaging communal vibe.
The menu of wine-loving dishes chef Clinton designed for the evening consisted of Lowcountry Cup oysters, marinated burrata, a grilled pear salad, rotolo, flounder, chicken, a comté cheese plate and panna cotta.
Local purveyors the kitchen sources from include Growfood Carolina, Lowcountry Oyster Co., Crosby's Seafood Co. and Tarvin Seafood.
We were guided expertly through the wine list, making choices as we rotated through the savory and sweet elements of the courses. Our first bottle was Patricia Raquin Bourgogne Chardonnay—a delicious white that paired well with the shellfish and chicken.
The oysters, fresh from the water, we were told, just hours ago, spoke for themselves. Next out was the burrata with a charred tomato jam that, with its sweet profile, stole the show.
I love any fruit on the grill, and the pear salad was no exception. The sweet charred fruit, salty prosciutto, and spicy arugula greens all came together under a tangy green goddess dressing.
The fried halloumi, a Middle Eastern cheese, was a warm, salty little cheese bite Clinton says is his favorite part of the salad.
By the time the rotola arrived, we'd switched to a full-bodied red wine. A play on the homey lasagna, the fantastic pasta dish was stuffed with ricotta, broccoli rabe and bits of sausage—and was all about technique.
“I spread out the cooked pasta sheets, roll in the filling, let them set overnight, and give the portions a quick sear before plating,” explains Clinton, whose degree at the Culinary Institute of America sent him to Italy for a more immersive culinary and winery education.
Next course: A perfectly cooked piece of flounder paired with a tangy pickled raisin relish, enriched with a stroke of cauliflower puree and brown butter that was an exercise in balance on a bed of couscous.
Vadouvan, a French-style curry, raised another notch to the chicken dish—which had already received high marks for its super crisp skin and tender meat within.
“The chicken is brined in salt, vinegar and a basic pickling spice and air dried so the skin dries out,” explains Clinton. “Then it's just seared and roasted.”
Roasted carrots, chickpeas and spiced yogurt completed the picture-perfect dish with a bit of a Middle Eastern vibe.
We switched back to our white burgundy when the comté cheese came out, plated with a flavor-forward jam made from figs—one of my favorites when in season here in the Lowcountry.
The panna cotta was a rich splurge following the lighter profiles of the earlier courses—the not-too-sweet custard was a well-received ending to the meal.
With a supportive local community and strong connections throughout the industry, Carissa says The Tippling House is considering doing a winemaker series: “We'll have a winemaker come in with three wines we'll offer as flights, with snacks prepared for each by our chef—more people than we'd realized are craving that one-on-one experience.”
The Tippling House
221 Coming Street