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.
76 Queen Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
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.