The “Holy City” Charleston in Southern Carolina is a rising star as a tourist destination. Â It has, for the first time, won the Conde NastÂ Readers’ Choice Award for the best city in the US, pushing funky San Francisco from the top.
That by itself would not pose enough justification for me to visit Charleston, however there is the food…
Last year, when we were holidaying in Mauritius, my me and my boyfriend obsessed about this article in The New Yorker, which was the sole reason that, 12 months later, we ended up in Charleston. Â This article described the incredibly cooking of Sean Brock, a Virginian born chef in his early thirties covered in tattoos, who is executive chef at the Charleston restaurants HuskÂ and McCrady’s. Â Mr. Brock is not only reviving lowcountry cuisine (what The New Yorker calls “once America’s greatest cuisine”), but also goes out of his way, working with historians, geneticists and local farmers to find and reintroduce lost vegetables, herbs and grains some of which have not been eaten since the 19th century!
Sean Brock opened McCrady’s, his experimental fine dining restaurant with influences from molecular gastronomy in 2006, shortly followed by Husk in 2010. Â Husk is a very chilled and low-key affair, going back to basics and perfecting what is good about Southern cuisine using onlyÂ locallyÂ sourced ingredients. Â It’sÂ Â down to earth menu changes twice a day, with dishes created from whatever food isÂ availableÂ and fresh on thatÂ particularÂ day. Â This concept and the love and devotion for Southern food and ingredients was enough for Husk to earnÂ the Â Bon AppÃ©titÂ best new restaurant in the USA award. Â In addition, Sean Brock has been nominated outstanding chef of the Year 2012, Â Hungry in London is keeping her fingers crossed for him!
During my short stay in Charleston, I tried both,Â McCrady’s and Husk, and I loved themÂ equally.
McCrady’s is located in anÂ four-story Georgian house built in the late 18th century. Â It is atmospheric, Â generous andÂ welcomingÂ and the food is amazing value for money. Â 4 courses for $60 per person and, if you dare, a 12 course menu forÂ $125 per person
The starter of Warm Salad of Charleston Vegetables was fresh, aromatic and lovely, and consisted of greens I have never seen/tasted before. Â I loved the Roasted Beets and Ambrose Strawberries, who would have thought that they go so well together? Â The sweet flavour of the beets and the strawberries was perfectly complemented by anis and fresh herbs. Â We probably would not have ordered theÂ Rutabaga Soup if we had known that rutabaga is a kind of turnip. Â Thank god for our sweet oblivion, as this creamy soup served with clams, sheep milk’s yoghurt and benne (sesame) was truly divine.
This vegetable feast was followed by the Fish Course. Â The Mahi was as good as it gets and showed off the skills of this gifted chef. Â The perfectly cooked fish covered with a wonderfully balanced herb and seed crust was served with a stunningÂ kumquatÂ and carrotÂ purÃ©eÂ and roasted carrots. Â Exceptional also the Grilled Mako Shark which arrived bedded on a tangy and garlicy pickled rampÂ hollandaise. Â Ramps, if you are as ignorant as me, are a type ofÂ wild onion native to North America and taste wonderful. Â This dish was completed by my beloved sunchockes (US for Jerusalem artichokes). Â I did not like the Grilled Octopus. Â The whole dish was too sweet and unbalanced and the combination of Â parsnip hazelnutÂ purÃ©e, truffles and cocoa did not work for me at all. Â One misguided dish out of 12 is not a bad result though!
My memory starts to get a bit blurry with the meat course as we indulged in several bottles of beautiful Californian unoaked Chardonnays. Â TheÂ Trio of Boarder Springs Lamb consisted of 3 different cuts of succulent lamb served with a garlic puree and sea island purple cape beans. Â Don’t ask me what exactly these beans are, I only know that they tasted lovely. Â A success also theÂ Duck Aged and Roasted on the Bone with the meat cooked to absolute perfection. Â I liked McCrady’s take on risotto, using pine nuts instead of rice. Â TheÂ Tornhill Farm’s ChickenÂ came withÂ oats (oats in a fine dining restaurant? risky, but if worked!) and little truffle dots. Â I am not sure about the presentation of this dish…
Some space left for dessert. Â I thought theÂ Dark Chocolate Ganache was nice butÂ unmemorable. Â TheÂ Ambrose Carrot Cake was magnificent and moist, served with a scrumptious orange bitters ice cream.
A highly enjoyable meal in vibrant atmosphere and I am so sad that Charleston is so far away. Â Seriously, I would go back there all the time.
- Food:Â 9/10
- Service: 8/10
- Ambiance: 8/10
- Value for Money: 9/10
- Verdict: Â Stunning cooking, inventive ingredients and superb value for money.
Slightly hungover from all this unoaked Chardonnay, we found ourselves at Husk for lunch the next day. Â Husk couldn’t be more different from McCrady’s and you would never suspect the same executive chef. Â Until you have tasted the food that is. Â Just like McCrady’s, Husk knows how to do flavours and similar to McCrady’s you Â find yourself with your eyes closed, mesmerised by the simple but stunning cooking. Â Husk is devotedly Southern, going as far as banning all non-local ingredients from its kitchen and is apparently not even usingÂ olive oil!
Have you ever had buttermilkÂ biscuits? Â Let me assure you that this Southern speciality is one of the best things I have ever eaten. Â Fresh from the oven, fluffy and light (texture, not calorie-wise) you eat them with creamy butter and you are in heaven.
We started with the quintessential traditional Southern dish – Fried Green Tomatoes (8). Â I have been intrigued by the concept of eating unripe tomatoes since I saw the movie Fried Green Tomatoes as a child, and finally it was my time to satisfy my curiosity. Â ToÂ prepareÂ this dish, slices of unripe tomatoes are breaded and fried until they are heated nicely but still retain some firmness. Â For me the sourness coming from the tomatoes together with the crispy and salty batter worked very well and I can understand why this dish is so popular. Â Husk served its green tomatoes with another Southern speciality, Pimento Cheese. Â I was not keen on this heavy spread with chunks of cheddar cheese andÂ mayonnaise.
The Kentuckyaki glazed Pig’s Ear Salad WrapsÂ (8) were anÂ acquiredÂ taste. Â Beautifully presented crunchy pig’s ears were immersed in a whiskey based glaze giving a smoky flavour to the dish. Â For me, the flavour was too overpowering and I was quickly sated. Â The Cornmeal Fried TroutÂ (8) however was great. Â Succulent fish covered in crispy batter went very nicely with the fresh buttermilk dip. Â This is comfort food at its best.
All three mains were stunning. Â After having eaten the HUSK Honey Ham SandwichÂ (10) I have been spoilt for life and will never be able to enjoy a normal ham sandwich again. Â Husk’s combination of mild and crispy ham, smoked cheddar and green tomato pickles clearly is the pinnacle of ham sandwiches. Â Even better the HUSK Cheese Burger (10), which was the best burger I have ever had. Â Period.
The lastÂ entrÃ©eÂ was again a Southern one. Â The Cornmeal dusted CatfishÂ (13) was elevated to a higher culinary level by smoky and rich butter beans and stripes of Â saltyÂ wood-firedÂ cabbage. Â It doesn’t look very pretty admittedly, but it was good!
Best new restaurant in the US? Â I don’t know about that and I don’t care. Â I loved the food at Husk, its stunning flavours, its simplicity, and its novelty. Â Sam Brock is theÂ ambassadorÂ of Lowcountry cuisine and he deserves all the praise for making this rich and generous cuisine known to food lovers all over the world.
- Â Food: 8/10
- Service: 7/10
- Ambiance: 7/10
- Value for Money: 8/10
- Verdict: Southern cooking at its best, food that makes you happy.