The Villa of Mysteries is the inspiration for Muse, a restaurant and wine bar in a restored home on Society Street.
In the year 79, the volcano Vesuvius erupted and buried the city of Pompeii. Under this sarcophagus of ash was a villa, remarkably preserved, right down to frescoes on its walls. Thought by scholars to be the location of an initiation rite of some kind, one can enter the chamber and observe the sequence of frescoes depicting a woman engaged in a ritual with Dionysus.
All of this portends well for a wine bar, as Dionysus is the god of the vine and celebrations called bacchanalia were "wild and mystic festivals" where the ancients were know to party hearty.
Muse has embraced this Mediterranean "muse" in a comprehensive fashion - from its frescoes, grape cluster wall sconces, Pompeian red dining room, faux painted plaster walls, ceiling medallions and Ravello ceramic dishes.
The soothing decor, candlelit tables and pillows that cushion your lower back on the banquettes give testament to the time and care the restaurant's owners spent fashioning Muse.
In a similar vein, chef Jason Houser has cruised the Mediterranean superhighway and has shopped the Silk Road and the Spice Route for the items on his menu.
Our dinner began with an "amuse" from the chef - a small shrimp, halved, served on a bed of cumin-flavored orzo.
Warm, semolinalike bread sprinkled with sesame seeds followed with an herbaceous and peppery olive oil for dipping. The catch in the back of your throat after anointing your bread tells you this was quality olive oil.
Seared manchego - sheep's milk cheese from the land of Don Quixote - blood orange, nutty baby arugula and snappy pistachios ($10) came together in an impressive salad.
Botifarra sausage, savoy cabbage, crispy potato and Dijon creme fraiche ($10) marry a Catalan specialty pork product with a French mustard and dairy product.
The Basque pepper, espellete, brings heat to grilled squid, capers and olive oil ($9); local shrimp ($10) are partnered with fennel and Romesco sauce, a ruddy, pestolike condiment traditionally used in Spain on seafood.
The sumac rubbed duck breast with Medjool dates, madeira onions and pomegranate jus ($9) was exceptional. This deep red spice, used to add tartness to a dish, and as a beverage before the lemon got to Rome, brings sour notes to the sweet dates. Nutty Madeira poached onion strings, along with bright pomegranate seeds and the reduced juice pooling as a thick "molasses" on the plate, round up all these flavors with a final finish of duck cracklings. The chef showed the "right stuff" in this dish.
Pastas are equally off the beaten track: butternut squash risotto with braised cipollini ($13), gnocchi with bolognese sauce ($14), mushroom tortelloni in truffle broth ($16) and a refreshing maltagliati with lemon ricotta and pesto ($12). This pasta means "torn" or "badly cut" and traditionally is tossed into a soup. Chef Houser's version flavors the dough with cocoa and, in an agro dolce manner, sauces the dish with lemon-infused ricotta and basil pesto.
True to a restaurant anchored by a sea theme, the majority of entrees are seafood. A loup de mer ($26) is fried whole, served on a bed of leeks and cooked down to an essence of silken sweetness. The dish gives new meaning to surf and turf. The fish was topped with fried artichoke leaves, and the plate was painted with what was called artichoke bisque. More foam and froth, there were no bisque elements to be tasted.
Chicken breast and leg confit with braised eggplant and Cerignola olives ($18) takes hearty flavors and tempers these with slow cooking, accenting the dish with olive bits, plum tomatoes and garlic.
Lamb tenderloin ($26) is served with feta polenta; a hanger steak ($23) with fava bean and potato puree.
The culinary geography of this kitchen is first rate, and the cooking skills will not disappoint.
Save room for dessert.
A chocolate tart is served with espresso gelato, mascarpone is the base for the cheesecake and the limoncello parfait ($7) that we ordered casts three small rounds of delicate perfumed ice on a fillo disk topped with powdered sugar and raspberry halves. Hannibal never had it so good.
The menu will change with the seasons, and we hope the permissive culinary cartography that first evidenced itself this winter into spring will find an equal muse going forward.
The service is smart, the menu is inventive, the kitchen has competence and one truly "revels in the palate" as the owner and chef request.
Muse, Restaurant and Wine Bar
Neighborhood favorite/wine bar
Address: 82 Society St.
Costs: Appetizers $9-$10; salads $6-$10; pastas $12-$16, entrees $18-$26; sides $6; desserts $7
Bar: Full service bar, 100 wines by the glass, wine tastings.
Hours: Bar opens at 5 p.m.; dinner service 5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Decibel Level: Moderate to animated.
Vegetarian Alternatives: Yes.
Wheelchair Access: Yes, first floor.
Parking: Validated parking.
Reservations: Highly recommended for weekends.
Smoking: No smoking.
On The Web: www.charlestonmuse.com.
Restaurant Facts: Rating criteria include quality and presentation of food, service and ambiance, while taking into consideration the type of restaurant - elegant, night out or neighborhood favorite.