The last time I had been in Charleston, Husk was a gleam in Sean Brock’s eye. He knew where and what it was going to be and when he spoke about it it was with great excitement. Chef Brock made his initial reputation by cooking Modernist cuisine and he did it quite well. That last time in Charleston, we had a wonderful dinner at McCrady’s, his seminal restaurant that combined a strong sense of history with a decided modernity. He was still utilizing modern techniques, but he had begun to mix those techniques with those from the past and nothing excited him more than rediscovering the delicious and mostly lost old ingredients of the Old South such as the original form of sesame that had been known as benne and had all but disappeared until resurrected by Brock and Glenn Roberts, the founder and visionary behind Anson Mills. Husk was going to be a natural extension of his passion for the historical ingredients of the South. In fact, his idea was to use ONLY ingredients for cooking that had actually been produced in the Southern United States. Brock’s enthusiasm was infectious and I already knew the level of his talent and skill. I knew as he spoke about it that Husk was a restaurant that I was going to have to get to.
That feeling was reinforced time and again once it opened as my wife had the opportunity to return to Charleston several times before I could. She loved it as did some very good food friends including Bonjwing Lee, Chuck Eats, Leslie Kao and Tomo Kurokawa, who famously, all visited together during a trip to the South that also included Town House, Curaté and a few other places. The reports kept coming and my determination grew. Finally, the right opportunity arose this past fall, when I simply had to get to Charleston to experience Cook It Raw. There were other restaurants in Charleston that I wanted to get to too, but Husk was the one that I HAD to get to and it was so good, I went twice.
It’s fitting that Husk is located in an Antebellum mansion.. Like it’s sister restaurant, McCrady’s, it blends a sense of and respect for history with a modern culinary sensibility. They are, however, sufficiently different restaurants that it is worthwhile to visit both.
Where the space at McCrady’s is open and large, the dining spaces at Husk are smaller and more intimate. Both are beautifully appointed and comfortable.
I was tucked by myself into a table on the ground floor of the multi-storied restaurant. It had plenty of space, which turned out to be quite necessary. I was quickly handed a glass of Virginia cider, a nice dry cider from Foggy Ridge.
The cider was downed quickly, in time for the arrival of the cocktail that I had ordered upon seating. This was nice and dry.
Before too long, food started filling the table. The rolls were warm and smothering like a favorite aunt. The butter was a microcosm of southern food – a bit sweet and nicely porky.
With the arrival of the first dish, it was quickly apparent that I was not going to go to bed hungry that night. The first platter to come to the table was the justifiably famous glazed pig’s ears served on lettuce wraps. These were glazed with Kentuckyaki, a Teriyaki glaze made in Kentucky using old bourbon barrels. Like much good barbecue, these were sweet, but not over the top with sugar. The sweetness was enough to enhance the richness of the ears, which was further rounded out by the clean flavors of the crisp lettuce and the mild acidity of the pickled cucumbers. This was fun, crisp and delicious.
Coosaw Cup oysters from nearby Lady’s Island had been lightly roasted on the wood fire with a compound butter of house made Bloody Mary mix made with thirty-two different ingredients. These were magnificent and in terms of quality reminiscent of the wood-fired oysters at Acme in New Orleans.
Of course these items required the proper liquid partners. For the pig’s ears, I was poured an Austrian Gruner Veltliner, which also added a bit of dry acidity to help the overall balance of the dish.
The oysters begged for a nice crisp Chenin Blanc and that is what they received.
Bold flavor was a characteristic of all of the dishes at Husk and no dish more so than the Capers Inlet clams poached in spicy preserved tomato broth with sweet corn, mizuna and crispy chicken skins. This dish was a powerhouse of flavor, all of it impeccably balanced. Like all of the other dishes of the evening, this was neatly and attractively presented, but not with the attention to fine visual detail that one might expect to find at a twelve seat tasting menu den. This is neither a criticism nor a bravo, as both styles have their place. Rather, it is more of a description of the style, which fits the food and the location. Husk is a bastion of Southern culinary bravado and a knight of Southern flavors and food. The detail is in the conception and cooking more than the presentation. The dish was washed down quite nicely with a local porter. It was one of my favorites of the night.
Pimento cheese is a Southern classic, that like much of the classics of mid and southern Italy, derives from la cucina povera. This was a southern bruschetta and there wasn’t anything subtle about the flavors, especially as they were abetted by crispy bits of Benton’s Tennessee ham. They are bold and they are tasty.
Cornbread with bacon is pure Southern decadence. When the bacon comes from Allan Benton in Tennessee, it is that much better. When the cornbread with bacon from Benton is prepared in a cast iron skillet by Sean Brock’s crew, it just can’t get any better than that.
Sommelier Matt Tunstall kept me plied with a variety of interesting and tasty pairings throughout the evenings I visited.
My main course, cornmeal dusted catfish, was a prime example of Brock’s commitment to quality producers of traditional Southern ingredients. Embellished with fried cabbage and peperonata, the dish really featured some of the finest uses of Southern corn. The cornmeal coating on the catfish was a great vehicle to elevate the bottom-feeding fish to new heights, especially when resting on a bed of grits. But as the bacon in the cornbread wasn’t just any bacon, these weren’t just any grits. These were Geechie Boy grits, which have developed a deserved reputation for outstanding product. This was a dish that warmed my soul with wonderful, full flavors, excellent textures and just plain old happiness. I was already full, but it didn’t matter. Is there any better sign of a great dish than that?
I really was too full for dessert, though, especially after gorging on the catfish. All of my stomachs’ real estate had been pretty much taken. I could barely dent the desserts, but had to try them. These were both well conceived, prepared and very tasty treats that, consistent with the rest of the meal, reflected the region with verve and elan. Unfortunately, dining by myself on the first night, it was all I could do to even taste them.
Husk is truly a restaurant of the South, but it isn’t just for southerners. It is a restaurant for everyone. The food at Husk is all about intense flavor and craft. It makes one think about where food comes from, both literally and historically. It isn’t art in the sense that Picasso (or the Adrias) work is art, but it can be construed as art in the way that Grandma Moses or other folk artists can be seen. Husk is a special restaurant that combines unique interpretations of historic and heirloom products with a contemporary sensibility. It is the unusual restaurant that is attractive to all sorts of restaurant goers from simple eaters to Slow Foodies to worldly vanguardists and more. It should be a must for anyone visiting Charleston and along with a few other restaurants (including Sean Brock’s other Charleston restaurant, McCrady’s) is a specific reason TO visit Charleston.