"George Washington ate here," McCrady's chef Sean Brock told me as he gave me a tour of the massive building that is the center of his varied culinary activities. During the new President's tour of the fledgling United States of America in 1791, George Washington did, indeed, eat at McCrady's, then, as now, a prominent dining location in the city of Charleston, S.C. At that time, though, McCrady's stood on the waterfront. The restaurant (then a tavern) didn't move, though the waterfront was later extended away via landfill, leaving some functional but less attractive buildings between modern McCrady's and the Charleston waterfront. While Washington dined with some of the area's most prominent citizens, a cannon stood underneath the window and was fired each time a toast was made to the President so that the rest of the Charleston citizenry could toast him too! While Washington enjoyed a lot of pomp and circumstance and probably ate pretty well, one thing he could not have enjoyed was the cooking of Chef Sean Brock. Too bad for him! I'm pretty sure George Washington would have been a fan of Chef Brock.
Sean Brock first came to my attention as one of the more creative young chefs in this country, able to apply cutting edge culinary technique to create compelling new dishes. As I became more aware of Chef Brock in his career, it became apparent that while, he does indeed do just that, he does much, much more. Brock is also an ardent culinary historian and preservationist who actively engages in work to find and continue heirloom seeds and heritage stock, especially of those items of particular importance to the culinary history of South Carolina like the Ossabaw pig, a descendant of the Iberico pig, which purportedly came from Spain with the early Spaniards and the grain called benne, the precursor to modern sesame. Brock doesn't just use these and other heirloom products in his kitchen. He raises and grows them on farms belonging to the restaurant in an effort to make sure they are preserved. Sean Brock is not just a farm to table chef, as laudable as that itself is. No, Brock is a history book to farm to cutting edge table chef. Brock is amazing at taking heritage ingredients, treating them with respect, and bringing out their best using an alchemist's combination of traditional and contemporary techniques and approaches. Once I tasted his astoundingly delicious and novel approach to the Southern classic, "shrimp and grits" at last year's Star Chefs ICC, it became a priority for me to finally make it to McCrady's in 2010.
The main dining room at McCrady's is spacious, but warm and elegant without being in the least bit stuffy. When I asked Chef Brock before dinner for advice on what I should wear, he said, "wear whatever you want that makes you comfortable. It is all about having fun and enjoying yourself." Indeed, when we arrived at the restaurant, there was a wide variety of dress, but it was evident, throughout the evening, as I observed those seated around us, that people were relaxed and enjoying themselves.
I may not have dined at McCrady's with the same pomp and circumstance as George Washington, but I did get to experience Sean Brock's amazing kitchen talents. Starting with some champagne, Chef Brock brought us out an amazing treat – his old Southern style house-cured ham made from Yorkshire/Duroc pigs raised by Chef Brock. According to the chef, one can see the age of the pig by the amount of fat. This one was 18 months old and served with some pickled peaches. What the dish lacked in culinary showmanship, it made up in abundance with passion, skill, virtuosity and sheer deliciousness. I have never experienced a finer American made ham and rank it only just below the finest jamon Iberico de bellota that I have had in Spain. Like the Spanish Iberico de bellota pigs, Brock's pigs were also acorn fed. The flavors were deep, nutty, slightly smokey and profound. The fat and meat were silky and unctuous. Brock started with a bang – not by employing contemporary fireworks – but with ancient, nearly forgotten, traditional technique and food.
The next dish was an indication that Chef Brock had not given up on contemporary creative cooking techniques. In a stunning interpretation of a classic Caprese salad, Brock served white currant tomatoes with a powdered mozzarella, basil flowers and a generous pour of Armando Manni olive oil. It is difficult to improve such an iconic dish. With great mozzarella di bufala or fiori di latte or burrata, summer's peak tomatoes, impeccable basil and top quality olive oil, a good Caprese salad is in my estimation an essentially perfect dish, however, Brock, much like Ferran Adría and his "spherical olive" somehow managed to improve on perfection. The tomatoes, glorious, both sublimely sweet and still tangy, were peeled and bite sized. The basil flowers added enough basil flavor while also supplying a touch of contrasting color. The Manni olive oil was simply beautiful, but it was the powdered mozzarella that truly elevated the dish into one that made me shake my head in awe and admiration and just sit and ponder what I had just eaten. Like Adria's olive, the flavor of the mozzarella was amplified, but it wasn't the flavor of any old mozzarela. It was the flavor of mozzarella perfection. In addition to the depth of flavor, the textural contrast it afforded to the juicy tomato and the voluptuous olive oil provided everything one wants in the mouthfeel of a dish.
Throughout the dinner, while my wife and I were enjoying the expert wine pairings of Sommelier and Beverage Director, Clint Sloan, our son, lucky (and amazingly good) boy that he was on this trip, was once again the beneficiary of some creative non-alcoholic mocktail pairings. He started with a McCrady's "lemonade," which consisted of fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices with soda water and agave nectar. Other pairings included a cucumber and mint "slushy" tpped with ginger, a raspberry and apricot cola with Coca Cola, apricot foam and fresh raspberries. a non-alcoholic Bellini, strained milk with muddled bananas and a hazelnut and graham cracker crumble on the rim and cranberry juice with soda and basil. He was happy.
It wouldn't be summer without a gazpacho. Brock's take was quite original and tasty containing crab and summer fruit along with herbs Brock picked himself just before service from the herb planters located directly outside the entrance to the restaurant. The delicate, but sweet crab was complimented by the watermelon, cantaloupe, blackberries and raspberries and balanced by a light acidity in the gazpacho. The dish received a resounding two thumbs up from my son. The dish was well thought out and handsomely constructed. The pairing with crisp, herbal, melony Gruner Veltliner 2008 from Heidler worked very nicely. A low alcohol wine at 11.5%, it was very food friendly.
South Carolina represents some of the most northern reaches of the tropics in the United States. In addition to being home for alligators and palmettos, its waters come up with fish more often associated with Florida or the Caribbean, such as grouper. We received that fish with courgettes, cucumber, bonito and what tasted like a little kimchee underneath – adding a little bite. The fish was cooked beautifully and was delicious. Abetting this was a South African sauvignon blanc from 2009 from Beyond in Cape Point. The wine had good acidity that picked up the acid in the pickled vegetables.
For the next course, Chef Brock brought out some beautiful black truffles on a stone and a truffle slicer. He told us a story about how a friend of his in Tennessee figured out a way to grow black Perigord truffles and how he was able to get another friend in Australia to grow them too. The truffles, Chef Brock brought out were fresh from Australia, where they are currently in season. He generously sliced some of the wonderfully fragrant black orbs on top of our next dish, seared scallops with raspberries beets, spinach and a smear of truffle sauce. As wonderful as each of the components on the plate were, this was the one dish all evening that did not equal or surpass the sum of its parts. The scallops were perfect, sweet and tender and each of the other elements were well prepared and of superior quality, but with the exception of the truffle and the scallops, I preferred eating the elements separately rather than together. The paired wine, a lovely 2009 rose from the Cote de Provence did its best, but this was the one disappointing dish of the evening, all the moreso because of the exciting introduction from Chef Brock.
The next dish was a bit of a surprise. It was another dish featuring grouper, but it went in a totally different direction than the first grouper dish. While the first grouper relied on an acid backbone, this one had more butter and vanilla flavor components. It came with chantarelles, corn and South Carolina crayfish. Though I was surprised to receive a second piece of grouper, I was not disappointed since they were both outstanding and so different. Unlike the acid-rich sauvignon blanc, this grouper was paired with a classic, oaky Chardonnay from The Russian River Valley, a 2006 Zio Tony Ranch from Martinelli. On its own, this style of chardonnay doesn't generally thrill me, but it worked beautifully with this dish.
What is a tasting menu without foie gras? Brock provided a dish that contained a cold terrine of foie gras plated with compressed pineapple, hazelnut crumble, puffed rice, cilantro and spiced tea, a variation of a dish he presented in June on his blog, Ping Island Strike. Prior to the meal, Chef Brock told me that every dish is constantly evolving with nothing staying the same over time. This relatively recently developed dish provides a good example of that. The changes do not appear to be major, but they are present. The shape of the terrine has stayed more or less constant as has, I assume, the composition of the terrine itself. The compressed pineapple and puffed rice remain as does a version of spice tea, but the cashew of the original dish appears to have morphed into a hazelnut crumble. In the meantime, cilantro leaves seem to have given way to stems. Not having had the original version, I can't comment on whether the dish has improved or simply changed. I can, however, state that it is a marvelous preparation as it was received and I have no doubt that the original was as well. Chef Brock told me that he likes to change and tweek simply to keep things interesting and to continue to explore. A "fruit garden" of a wine, the 2003 Gewurtztraminer "Hugel" proved a lovely companion.
I love sweetbreads, any sweetbreads if they are reasonably well prepared. I am a sucker for them so it was not a stretch for me to swoon over Sean Brock's Sweetbread's with wild ramps and morels. I was surprised to still be eating wild ramps and morels in July, but I wasn't complaining as they were quite delicious. The sweetbreads were fried crisp on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. Washed down with Chateau des Tours Vin de Pays Vaucluse 1997, a mostly grenache based wine from the southern Rhone made by the same winemaker as Chateau Rayas.The wine was silky, fruity and well matched.
Sloan's wine pairings were spot on. Like our meal at Town House, the wines were not individual blockbusters, but they were all interesting and they were all very good.
With the previous course we had entered the red wine phase of the meal. The next wine poured, 2005 Carema, a nebbiolo based wine from Ferrando in Italy's Piedmont was rich and spicy and begged for something profound to dance with on the palate. Neither the wine nor I were disappointed. Perhaps my favorite course of the night, the free range pork with red fife wheat berries, local soybeans, pine nut crumble and watercress stems provided a brilliant symphony of flavor and texture. The medium rare pork reminded me of Iberico pork tenderloin in Spain, with an incredible depth of flavor, while also being supremely tender. I could eat this anywhere and anytime. The dish also epitomizes Brock's approach to agricultural preservation and a sense of local terroir married to contemporary technique.
Like what he has been doing with pigs, Brock has recently started getting into raising his own sheep, a breed of hair sheep, Katahdin, that was originally bred in Maine during the last half of the twentieth century from sheep that came there from the Virgin Islands. Hair sheep do not need to be sheered, are greatly resistant to parasites and are particularly suited to hotter climates, something that caught Brock's attention. Hair sheep like the Katahdins, also, according to Brock, have a reputation for being milder in flavor than wool sheep, though according to a Hair Sheep Workshop at Virginia State University, that has not actually been corroborated by the limited scientific studies or controlled taste tests currently available. Having recently culled their first harvest, we were beneficiaries of it. Brock served lamb belly that was poached sous vide then roasted and served with sheep's milk dumplings and peas. The lamb was still redolent of "lamb" flavor, which I like, and combined well with the dumplings and peas along with a bit of mint and other flavorings. It was paired with a lovely, deep Valpolicella from Brigaldara. By this time, the three of us were starting to fade, especially our son, who had held in like it would be his last meal. When asked how we were doing, I regretfully had to ask that they start winding down the meal.
We still had one more meat course to go, though. Brock served this last fully savory course with the intent "to focus on one vegetable." The kitchen was serving the last of the farm's carrots with short rib of beef with carrots and marrow. The sauce, composed of marrow combined with carrot juice, was poured over each of our plates by Chef Brock. The richness of the marrow and the sweetness of the carrots amde a decadent richness that was amplified by the beef. This was a course that deserved less packed stomachs than ours, yet it was still delicious, especially washed down with a glass of 2007 cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley's Twenty Bench.
After a palate cleanser of sprite melon cubes with mint, we had a small composed cheese course of La Serena cheese with peach mostarda, house-made wheat thins (made with heirloom wheat) and parsley. La Serena, a soft cheese from the Extremadura Region of Spain made from the milk of Merino sheep, is coagulated with rennet from cardoons in a fashion very similar to that used for the making of its more well known nearby cousin, Torta del Casar. Like the casar, La Serena is a flattish "torta" generally "spoonable" when fully ripe. Creamy and complex, the cheese on our plates wasn't "spooned" onto the plate nor was it runny. It did, however, make for a marvelous cheese course with the mostarda adding a little spice and sweetness. A glass of Warre's 20 year old tawny port was a welcome addition to the course.
I was sorry that we would not get to taste more desserts, but we simply couldn't. The first dessert, yuzu curd with Carolina blackberries and toasted meringue was delightful with pure yuzu flavor, lovely blackberries and a few other supporting accents. It blended well with a glass of Muscat de Baumes-de-Venice 2007 from Domaine de Durban, titillating us with what might yet come if we had the stamina. Alas, we only had the stamina for one more and with my son's penchant for ice cream and having seen it come out all evening, we had to have the ice cream and sorbet sampler, a variety of flavors scooped onto mini cones and served in a lucite holder. We received nine flavors to share, one more refreshing the the other. They included from the rear left to right, vanilla wafer, coffee toffee, lemon poppyseed, chocolate with chocolate nerds, chantilly melon, blueberry vanilla, grape, lemon thyme and cherry. How could one have such a variety of ice cream without a little ice wine? No, that wouldn't have been civilized, so we had a glass of 2006 Reisling from Peller Estates on Ontario's Niagara Peninsula. Beautiful.
At the end of the meal, we were once again about the last people left in the house. Sean Brock and McCrady's wonderful General manager, André Guillet sat down with us for a chat and a drink, which, could not have been anything else but a touch of Pappy Van Winkle's numbered Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I had never had this before. Its smoothness and depth were a revelation. After many thanks and a warm goodbye, we paid our check and thankfully walked back to our lovely hotel, The Planter's Inn, the restaurant of which was formerly home to Sean Brock earlier in his career.
In addition to walking off a few calories, the walk back gave us a chance to stretch out and reflect back on a meal and a restaurant that required much reflection. We were treated to an amazing tour de force of a meal that highlighted Brock's passions of farming, food preservation and creative cooking, all in a restaurant of historic significance. There are not too many restaurants still around that can legitimately claim that George Washington had eaten there and of those still around, none are serving up food like Sean Brock is. I can say that with certainty, because the reality is that no other restaurant in the country, whether George Washington had eaten there or not, is serving up food like Sean Brock is. Sure, there are other restaurants tending their own farms and even restaurants tending their own farms to create a personal, creative cuisine. Manresa in Los Gatos, California immediately springs to mind as a prime example. It too is a unique restaurant. What makes Brock different is his dedication to finding and preserving the lost or nearly lost traditional foods of the South and especially South Carolina's Low Country and using them in ways respectful of tradition yet in ways like no other. McCrady's under Sean Brock and his team is a restaurant very much of its place, yet unlike any other restaurant anywhere. It is a place where one can truly get a taste of both the Old South and the New South and do so in the same bite. McCrady's is a very special restaurant and Sean Brock is a very special chef.I think George Washington would have been thrilled.