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?

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Riva


IMG_3605Fraiche in Culver City is one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and it even won praise as Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant Pick for 2007.  Chef Jason Travi and his wife Miho really established themselves at this wonderful restaurant that still brings in the crowds.  I’ve been a huge fan of Travi’s food from the time when he spearheaded La Terza restaurant on 3rd Street (which is now gone.  Gino Angelini, Travi’s mentor at La Terza, just reopened the space this past weekend as Minestraio Trattoria).  I was really excited to try Riva, Travi’s new digs in Santa Monica.  I went in with an open mind, despite mixed reviews on Yelp and Chowhound.

Riva means ‘shoreline’ in Italian; it features more seafood, and is only a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.  The interior features high ceilings, large mirrors on the walls, an open kitchen, and a large bar-  simple and elegant like most other nice restaurants in LA or NY.

As soon as we were seated , the first thing we all noticed was the deafening noise level.  Hands down, this was the noisiest restaurant that I’ve ever been too.  I felt like we were at a bar or a lounge.  Halfway through the meal, I got so tired of leaning in, shouting, and saying “What?” all the time, that I just zoned out of the table conversation.

The menu has 4 categories: Crudo, Appetizers, Pizza, and Entrees.  Crudo means ‘raw’ in Italian and Spanish, and it generally refers to raw slices of seafood dressed in olive oil, sea salt, and some type of acid (vinegar or citrus juice).  Depending on how it’s arranged or dressed, it’s fancy sashimi, ceviche, tartare, or carpaccio.  This concept of Italian sashimi became popular when Mario Batali succeeded in doing it well at his NY eatery Esca many years ago.  Riva makes them with fluke, geoduck clam, cuttlefish, sea bass, tuna, and other sea creatures.  We ordered the scallops that came in a citrus oil dressing with bread crumbs and red peppers.  It was good, but a bit bland and lacking in acidity.

Scallop crudo

Scallop crudo

I ordered the house made Testa Rossa from the appetizer menu.  Testa is head cheese, which is a cold cut meat dish made from the head of a pig, calf, cow or sheep.  The head of a freshly slaughtered animal is carefully cleaned and prepped, then it’s simmered in a large stockpot for hours until the meat falls right off the skull.  All of these juicy tender bits of meat along with the stock, are refrigerated to set in pans or molds to make a terrine, or rolled into a large sausage.  The collagen from all of the cartilage and bone marrow of the skull gives head cheese that gelatin-like consistency when cooled.  Head cheese is usually eaten chilled or at room temperature so that all of that wonderful collagen doesn’t melt.

Testa Rossa

Testa Rossa

The testa was garnished with radish, mint, lemon and watercress.  As you can see, theirs is a rolled testa (looks like a slice of pancetta), as opposed to a terrine with chopped up bits.  It was heavy in fat content and low on meat, which went well with the tart acidic garnish, but somehow I was left unsatisfied.

We ordered the Nizza pizza with black olive, anchovy, sweet onion, capers and thyme.  Riva makes thin crust pizzas.

Nizza pizza

Nizza pizza

Our server told us that the pizza is made without cheese, but if we wanted it with cheese, it was an additional 2 dollars.  I wish they would either not offer the cheese option if the cheeseless pizza was their original inspiration, offer the cheese option gratis, or indicate the $2 cheese option charge on the menu.   Was I being too picky or is it the noise level getting to me?  Well, we did order the pizza with cheese.  The pizza was well done, and the crust was done the way I like it- crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside.  The flavor of the toppings came together nicely and it made for a nice shared appetizer.

For main entrees, we ordered the monkfish, lamb, and seafood bouillabaisse.

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca on a bed of potato puree, spinach and pancetta, with a sage and marsala sauce.

Lamb Spezzatino

Lamb Spezzatino

Braised lamb in a tomato sauce over a bed of three color cauliflower and creamy semolina with a hint of smoked cheese and parsley gremolata.  I didn’t taste the monkfish dish, but the lamb dish was fantastic.  The lamb cubes were very tender, and each bite had so many layers of flavors- the rich and robust tomato flavored lamb stew, followed by the creaminess of the semolina, with a smokey cheese undertone, finishing off with the tart freshness of the gremolata.  I wanted to order that dish but since somebody else was getting that, I decided to go with something else for variety.  I regretted this decision.

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Fra Diavolo is a tomato based sauce with garlic and hot peppers, frequently used for pastas and seafood.  According to the menu, my dish was supposed to have a half lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fregola sarda.  Fregola sarda is a toasted Sardinian pasta, and it looks like pearl sized cous cous or tapioca, only much denser.  My dish was okay- the tomato sauce lacked richness and flavor, and the lobster meat was spongy.  I was so bored with my seafood dish that I didn’t even realize it was missing the squid until I was almost done with it.  Instead, it had a few chunks of tasteless unidentified white fish.  I informed my server about the missing squid, and she apologized for the kitchen screw-up.  Sigh…

Another turn off with the seafood dish was that the half lobster came with a fully intact large lobster claw, and they gave me a large silver lobster cracker.  I was very surprised that this seemingly upscale restaurant would expect their customers to get their hands and clothes dirty trying to crack a lobster claw doused in tomato sauce.  I was wearing a white silk blouse, and was not about to ruin it with bright red tomato splatter.  Sigh…

There’s an entree item on the menu called Costata di Bue per due, prime rib for 2.  The table close to us ordered it.  They bring a big chunk of prime rib from the kitchen and the maitre d’ slices it on a rolling chopping block in front of you.

Prime rib

Prime rib

I think I was the only one who noticed that the maitre d’s jacket kept brushing up against the meat.  Yuck.

I was hoping that Riva would redeem themselves with dessert, but they loved letting me down that night.  I was so excited to try their Tiramisu, but I was told that they were out.  How can you be out of a dessert option?  That’s crazy.  The others got carrot cake and gelati.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake

Carrot cake with pineapple sorbet.

Gelati & sorbetti

Gelati & sorbetti

Butterscotch gelati and peach sorbetti.

I was so let down by this point that I didn’t even have the motivation to try these desserts.

Despite my excitement about trying this restaurant,  I didn’t have a good dining experience at Riva.  I was thoroughly disappointed with the quality of the food, the poor service, and the low caliber of the staff.  For $90 a person, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of service and food.

The best thing about my dinner was the wine.  We had a wonderful 2005 Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano.

Riva is supposed to be strong on their crudo dishes and pizza.  My advice for you- go to Japanese sushi restaurants for good raw fish, and Terroni or Pizzeria Mozza for better pizza.  If you’re looking for a good dining experience in Santa Monica, take your loved ones to Anisette.  And if you’re still keen on trying Travi’s food, stick to Fraiche.

http://www.rivarestaurantla.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that Oscar Best Actress winner Halle Berry ate raw fish so she could throw up on cue and look authentic doing it while filming the movie ‘Perfect Stranger’?  Now that’s dedication to your art, girl.