It is with great exhilaration that I reflect, quite often, back to my meal at Husk this past spring as one of the best meals that I have had all year and one where I reconfirmed, through a state of absolute bliss and visceral exuberance, that good food is my joie de vivre. However, it is also the experience that I curse with equal intensity, for the gastronomic climax that I reached through Chef Brock’s cooking was one that came too early in the year and has since spoiled all succeeding 2011 dining experiences for me, for very few to date have come even close to arousing me in the same manner. Not being able to fly right back to Husk has added to this frustration, causing even bitterness and cynicism as I find myself sighing over dozens of uninspiring restaurant meals that don’t measure up to the Husk barometer, still in search of reliving that feeling of pure innocent triumphant joy with truly delicious food.
Thus it came as no surprise to me when last week, this 1 year old restaurant in a beautifully restored 1890′s building in the center of Charleston, SC was crowned The Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit magazine, another well deserved recognition to add to the impressive list of its charismatic executive chef, Sean Brock. After working as executive chef of the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville he took his other current position at McCrady’s, the oldest restaurant in Charleston, where his beautiful innovative cuisine earned him the coveted 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast.
To complement McCrady’s modern cuisine, the newer Husk (which is literally right around the corner) celebrates the tradition, history and identity of Southern cuisine. With his ‘Make cornbread not war’ slogan and his left arm intricately tattooed with rainbow colored vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes, corn, pumpkins and onions oh my), this Virginia raised chef is on a campaign to rediscover the type of hearty and soulful cuisine that his grandmother made- capturing the scents, the flavors, and the very essence of comfort food cooked in a Southern kitchen.
Sean Brock is the heart and soul of the Husk operation, honoring locally sourced south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line ingredients (‘if it ain’t Southern, it ain’t coming in the door’, he has said) and transforming them into delectable plates of good old home cooking mixed in with a dose of artistic sensibility and grace. Brock is a Southern boy after all, the kind of gentleman that takes you in with open arms and gives you a friendly slap on the back with a hearty cackle as he gives you the best meal and the best time of your life. Before you know it, you’re flying high on the most insane food coma as he pours you a shot of bourbon with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and just like that- you are forever hooked on the Brock charm.
It was on a warm and slightly muggy April evening that I met this bigger-than-life chef at Husk, walking into the gorgeous 2 story restaurant with my friends Ulterior Epicure, Chuckeats and Lesley, not knowing that the dinner I was about to have was going to change my life. It was seconds after we sat down that Sean Brock appeared, with a beaming smile from red cheek to red cheek, that signature infectious laugh (never have I heard a more jolly laugh), and a bottle of moonshine for the welcome. Real Southern food, he said, is a culmination of African, French, English, Spanish, Native American and even Asian influences, a complex product of years of trade, immigration, agriculture and history.
Our first step into the Southern cooking tour started with a plate of Capers Blade oysters, harvested just 15 miles north of Charleston, drizzled with buttermilk ramp sauce and a 6 month aged Moscatel vinegar made in-house. We slurped down the beautiful oysters as we reveled in Brock’s story about Earl, the farmer at Cruze Farm in Knoxville, TN who milks his Jersey cows and churns the buttermilk that was used to make the ramp sauce.
Then came the crispy fried pig ears, unanimously one of the table’s favorite dishes of the evening, soaked in a dark tangy vinegar so potent that the fumes almost singed some of the hairs in my nose and I succumbed by responding with a large pool of saliva in my mouth. The crunchy ears were studded with a preserved butter bean chow chow, made with a recipe from the 1800′s, and wrapped in lettuce leaves for a handful of delicious perfection.
‘Here in the South we use whole animals’, Brock said, as he came over to present the next course of head cheese that he made by curing, poaching, then gently rolling into a cylindrical shape, much like a pancetta. Dressed with Texan olive oil, arugula from the Husk garden and aromatic shavings of Charleston Meyer lemon rinds, these thin slices of pigs head made the most magnificent metamorphosis in a matter of seconds. Bright pink and white marbled wheels of solid pork melted into translucent sheets of glistening liquid fat at room temperature, which then, subjected to the warmth of my tongue, instantly vaporized into a flavorful porcine gas.
Being the Southern gentleman that he is, Chef Brock personally presented each course to us, his dynamic storytelling and roaring laughter being the extra touches to our dining experience that made it a priceless memory. ‘We harvested 1600 lbs of tomatoes from our garden last year!’, he exclaimed, barely able to contain his excitement- so the Husk staff preserved tomatoes, lots of tomatoes, and we got to sample the goods in the Spring Garden Vegetable Soup course. There were ramps, herbs and flowers, all from their 100 acre farm in this comforting bowl of soup, a colorful celebration of spring in a cup, but it was the accompanying cornbread that took our breath away.
Made with cornmeal, buttermilk, eggs and Benton’s bacon fat (with an emphasis on the fact that there is no sugar or flour in Brock’s version) and fired up in the wood burning oven in a cast iron skillet, this cornbread was further augmented with a generous brush of lard and a sprinkling of Florida’s finest salt. Never has cornbread been so sexy, unapologetically saturated with the richness of scrumptious pork fat but still maintaining that signature grainy texture, tasting even better with a splash of Husk hot sauce.
Then we got another heavy dose of Benton’s bacon, at which we rejoiced with joy unspeakable for there is no single food more soulful than bacon, this time to bring a salty depth of flavor to the wood fired clams served in a Dutch oven with eggplant, a ‘sausage that my friend made’, wood fired fennel and heavily peppered slices of bread. We were introduced to a novel Southern delicacy, samp grits, finely cracked kernels of corn laboriously made by hand by only one local artisan, like fine sand at the bottom of the pot soaking up the best of the flavorful juices.
Peas, pea shoots, pea flowers and mint from the Husk garden painted a canvas of bright chlorophyll green, a delicious study in sweet and bitter flavors against the accents of locally grown benne seeds, sesame seeds that find its roots in Liberia and were introduced to 17th century colonial America by West African slaves. The intricate wreath adorned the most impressive and exquisite specimen of soft shell crab that I have ever had- a meaty, powerful and succulent thoroughbred unlike any other.
Locally caught Charleston sheepshead, line caught with fiddler crabs, sat on a bed of corn and squash succotash while a tomato gravy, made from Brock’s grandmother’s recipe with preserved tomatoes and a cornmeal and butter roux, seduced us with wholesome spoonfuls of sweetness.
We also had Virginian Kathadin hair sheep, more subtle than the meat from a wool sheep, presented in a meatloaf with alternating layers of leg meat and paté on a garnish of butter braised cabbage, Reverend Taylor butter beans and red pepper sauce. It was a wonderful arrangement of meat that reminded me of how this animal is really supposed to taste like- robust, grassy and mighty.
Husk’s Black Bottom Pie was a creamy sensation, a dessert with layers of buttermilk custard, chocolate mousse and smoked Tennessee chocolate nibs sprinkled on top for that Southern accent (smoking makes everything taste better, and chocolate is certainly no exception).
Have I mentioned already that anybody walking through the doors of Husk are at risk for falling prey to the Brock charm? It begins with that jolly smile followed quickly by his bellowing laughter so jubilant and playful. Then his unique ability to tell a captivating story, rich in prose and deep in knowledge about every local ingredient and tradition of flavors that all together define Southern cuisine. One taste of his food will make you a fan. One entire meal will make you a believer. What Sean Brock is doing at Husk is a reflection of Southern cooking in its most purest form. And it is a meal to remember, one which becomes permanently etched in your memory center with powerful associations of taste, smell and sight, and one which simultaneously becomes carved in your heart as one that made you feel happy and nourished.
So when he pulled out some apple pie moonshine from his never ending bag of tricks at the end of our meal, we blithely obliged and took some shots, not knowing that this was the last bait to reel us in before fully succumbing to the Brock charm. Somehow we ended up at the Husk Bar next door and shared some incredible Pappy Van Winkle’s reserves, thrown in with an eye catching demonstration of a perfectly round 8 ball ice sphere and a specialty ‘Julian’ cocktail. It was some time later that night, that we were yawning and smiling at the same time, knowing that another shot of whiskey would kill us, yet unwilling to end one of the most magical evenings of our lives. Crazy, some may say, but I call it Southern hospitality.
76 Queen Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Random trivia: Did you know that one-third of Mexico’s sesame seed crop is exported to the US and purchased by McDonald’s for their sesame seed buns?