Brunch at Husk- Charleston, SC

Nothing says Southern hospitality like a slice of pecan pie, served up with a dollop of freshly whipped cream and a heavy dose of love.  When that pie is served at the end of a meal by Sean Brock, you can smile like a lottery winner and know that you just experienced one of the best darn meals that you’ve ever had.  That’s how he finished our dinner at Husk earlier this year, still fresh in my memory as if it were just yesterday, a fascinating glimpse into the history, culture and flavors of Southern cooking.

Chef Sean Brock is a coveted 2010 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast and runs the kitchens of two restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina- Husk and McCrady’s- and if you spend a little time with him you’ll quickly see that this Dixie sensation is pure heart and soul.  He wears his pride on his sleeves- quiet literally, a vibrant collage of vegetables tattooed on every inch of his upper limb from wrist to shoulder- and summons the plentiful bounties of regional ingredients to create a most spectacular and memorable menu at Husk.  ‘If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t coming in the door’, he has said, and he indulged me with vinegar spiked crispy pig ears, buttermilk drizzled Capers Blade oysters, cornbread cooked in bacon fat and soft shell crab studded with pearly benne seeds for an unforgettable dinner that special evening.  It was later that night, somewhere between a glass of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve and his signature laugh (the most infectious jolly guffaw that has ever graced this earth) that he invited my party to come back for brunch, and we happily accepted with great honor.

Husk is all about Southern food, and Southern food done right, using only the best of the south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line ingredients cultivated and raised by local farmers.  Brock is a Southerner himself, born and raised, and he has the gift to unlock and extract the true flavors from each ingredient, creating dishes inspired by his grandmother’s cooking and channeled by his creativity.  That evening he mesmerized us with the magical flavors of farm fresh vegetables layered with preserved ones, the allure of pickled legumes juxtaposed against the puckering acidity of homemade vinegar, and the alchemy of smoking chocolate.

Thus we found ourselves on the second floor balcony of his 19th century restored building-turned-restaurant, basking in the warm sunlight to a chorus of chirping birds for Sunday brunch just 3 days after our epic dinner at Husk.  It started with a classic plate of biscuits and gravy, moist buttery squares of black pepper biscuits drizzled with a thick blanket of cream infused with chunks of Benton’s sausage.

One of our favorite dinner courses made an encore for brunch, wood fired clams with Benton’s bacon, only this time sans samp grits and instead, with fingerling potatoes, sweet field peas and a beautifully savory cream sauce that we gulped down to the last drop with spoons and bread, for it was the best clam chowder of the South.

Then there were spicy maple pig ears, glazed chewy cartilage piled high on a slice of seared Anson Mills buckwheat scrapple just waiting to be bathed in nutrient rich liquid gold- the lighter gold of Hollandaise, and the deeper vibrant orange lava that oozed from the glorious farm fresh poached eggs.

The soft shell crabs that Brock procured for Husk that season were particularly magnificent and regal specimens, appearing in our dinner with a vibrant green pea sauce and that morning for brunch, deep fried with a thick slice of toast topped with melted Tennessee cheddar and a fried egg.  Refusing to take a back seat to this hearty crab ‘Monte Cristo’ was a Surry sausage and fingerling potato hash on the side, salty, savory and equally satisfying.

And how about them fried chicken and waffles, the ultimate Sunday brunch (or late night, depending on your lifestyle) comfort food, a most satisfying combination of juicy bird with warm toasted waffles and a shot of sweet maple syrup.  Husk’s version was supreme- crunchy golden batter encrusting moist dark meat, served right out of the fryer to release hot steam at the first cut.  Splashes of Brock’s signature Husk hot sauce gave it the finishing touch, kicking the flavors up to transcendent Southern proportions.

I remember Brock mentioning his cheeseburger at the time that he invited us over for brunch, but it didn’t quite register with me then.  Cheeseburger, here in the South, for brunch?  At Husk, yes.  Benton’s hickory-smoked bacon is ground straight into locally sourced grass-fed beef and made into thin double patties that are seared in his wood-fired oven.  Then they’re topped with gooey American cheese that melts patiently, slowly, right down the sides, spiked with pickles and some secret sauce, and snuggled right between a pair of soft buns.  ‘It’s probably my favorite thing in the entire world,’ Brock has said affectionately of his cheeseburger, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had to split this bacon-infused delight 4 ways with the others, it would be mine too.

One mustn’t leave Charleston without sampling the grits- the pride, joy, identity and lifeline of the South- and who better to prepare them for us than our very own chef who has been cultivating heirloom grains and seeds in a preservation effort to revive antebellum crops?  At Husk we savored a beautiful serving of yellow Anson Mills grits, creamy, rich, hearty, a little coarse (just how I like them) and happily doused with butter.

Cruze Family buttermilk pancakes as wide as the plate came fluffy and moist, cooked evenly through to the center for that same delicious first and last bite, with a trio of sweets to brighten the palate-  candy red Florida strawberry compote, vanilla whipped cream and Virginia maple syrup.

It was a peaceful and warm Sunday morning in downtown Charleston when we had this meal, a brunch to remember over endless laughs and good conversation with like-palated friends. Southern food, we were learning that weekend, through other meals at McCrady’s, Townhouse and Scott’s BBQ, is a tradition steeped in an extraordinary history of labor and love.  What a thrill to be able to nourish my soul with the flavors of the South (bacon, grits, fried chicken and pig ears!) and the essence of Brock’s soul food.  This brunch at Husk is a meal that I will always- always- remember, one of the best darn meals that I’ve ever had, cooked with love, served with care and finished off with a slice of pecan pie.

Husk
76 Queen Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
(843) 577-2500

Random trivia:  No one is quite sure of the true origins of Chicken & Waffles, one commonly thought to be of Southern origin, but food historians trace it back to 1938 at Wells Supper Club in Jazz Age Harlem.

Dinner at Husk- Charleston, South Carolina

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.

The first strawberries of the season were tossed with mint and plated with milk ice cream and peanut cake, while a simple slice of delectable pecan pie worked its charm like a sweet Southern Belle.

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.

Husk
76 Queen Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
(843) 577-2500

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?