There's something about Charleston. It's a small, charming, typically Southern city on a Peninsula between two rivers that converge and feed into the Atlantic. Its pace is as languid and flowing as the locals' drawl. Even the way they pronounce their hometown echoes this: Chaaahhhlston, emphasis on the "ahhh."
It's a town full of dichotomies: as charming and European as it is steadfastly American and conservative, firmly rooted in the past, but with a young population and a dynamic culture and arts scene that's moving the city swiftly into the future. It's full of classic Federalist architecture and churches aplenty, though its colorful "Charleston single" homes (one bedroom wide, long, with plenty of balcony and porch space to capitalize on any breeze) are built for the semitropical climate and rampant bourbon-soaked socializing of its residents. Its past is marred by its prominence in the propagation of the slave trade, though it's also historically known for its religious tolerance, particularly to minorities like Jews and Huguenots. It's where the Civil War began, quite literally, at Fort Sumter, though it's as peaceful and civilized a place now as you'll find in this part of the United States.
I love the south, I went to college in the south, and I know a lot of amazing people who hail from the south, including the state of South Carolina. Perhaps all of Charleston's dichotomies are what make this small southern belle of a city so interesting to me. Maybe that's why I've felt its pull for so many years. Nah...it's the food. The low country cuisine. Particularly the shrimp and grits. And the ham. Make that all pork products. And the fried chicken. And the fried anything. And the pickled, spicy, savory, sweet, delicious cooking of the Southern tradition. The whole country has been abuzz this past decade about the restaurant scene in Charleston. And I needed to get a taste for myself.
Where did I start? With Sean Brock, of course. One of the city's top toques and a staunch Southern foodways proponent, Brock owns both McCrady's, for many years an upscale staple in downtown Charleston, and Husk, a newer, dressed-down southern restaurant with fun, rustic charm and some seriously good food coming out of its kitchen. Brock believes in keeping things local, procuring from producers whom he knows and trusts, and looking to food history and products and dishes of a past era to inform his cooking. This is evident in the care he takes composing a dish, plating a dish, and in educating his serving staff as well so they can communicate this information to the diners.
Our first night in Charleston we had a very enthusiastic and informed server (who was also a UVa. alumna with an English degree, much like yours truly!) at McCrady's, who walked us through her favorite dishes and ones about which we'd inquired, steering us towards a very delicious set of appetizers. We had the bay scallops over hominy, with butter peas and red mustard, and the sweetbreads with Appalachian red corn puree, green garlic and a lovage foam. Our fish courses were delicious and light, particularly the trout with brassicas (cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cabbage) and meyer lemon gel. The meat courses were a study in small portions of rich, densely flavorful cuts -- and not about making the protein the center of the dish, both literally and figuratively. Brock plates his food like no other chef I've encountered, often setting the proteins or the "main" of the dish off to the side, and letting what are often considered "sides" take center stage on the plate.
The Wagyu beef coulotte with smoked potato puree and wild mushrooms was delicious, deeply tasty, and tender as could be. And the duo of Berkshire pork -- braised and seared belly, and tenderloin -- was marbled and crispy and tender in all the right places, with an interesting pumpkin brunoise (tiny dice) cooked various different ways and tossed together. The accompanying balsamic reduction and truffled honey sauces were the high and low notes of acidity and sweetness to both cut the richness and enhance the pork. Dessert was a local affair, too, with the better dessert a "frozen parfait of grits" -- that is, hominy ground so fine as to become a cornmeal powder, cooked like smooth creamy grits and then frozen like a semifreddo. This was served on a wild blueberry sauce and topped with a whisper-thin cornmeal biscuit, pressed into crispy perfection.
Husk is so immensely popular that the only meal for which I could nab a reservation was for lunch on Saturday. The line was out the door, regardless. It's a relatively casual spot, and a wonderful place to while away a few hours for brunch or lunch on a weekend, particularly if the weather is mild with a nice breeze. The outdoor balcony tables upstairs were made for that. But the inside dining rooms are warm and homey, too, a comfortable place to work your way through Brock's tasty menu. Drinks are given their own menu, so beyond the wine list, there are a few craft beers, as well as house-made cocktails featuring southern booze, like the "A Yard Too Far" with vanilla and ginger macerated bourbon, pecan orgeat, and pecan bitters: strong and smooth. Also of interest is the extensive cider menu, a reflection of a drink-making tradition that at one time outpaced beer production and consumption in the U.S. As for food, Husk will only work with ingredients that come from the South. Period. Of course, this leaves the kitchen with a lot to work with. The menu changes pretty much weekly, so you may or may not come across the same dishes we did, depending on the season and the creative whims of the kitchen.
We started with some tasty smoked chicken wings with a honey mustard glaze, peanuts, and cilantro. Asian-Southern. That was accompanied by a "Southern Panzanella" -- a typically Tuscan bread and vegetable salad here using cornbread croutons and a roasted red pepper puree.We went with some fairly "traditional" dishes as mains, but they were prepared in quite non-traditional ways.
Husk's version of shrimp and grits was a lot of smoke: there were the shrimp and Geechie Boy (local) grits, but also spring onions, sweet peas, homemade cotechino sausage, all brought together in a smoky tomato broth. Served in an earthenware pot, this was an earthy, soupy one-bowl meal that would work for breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner. I also had a perfectly-prepared cornmeal-crusted catfish fillet -- not something I'd usually select from a menu, mind you. But this was light, with a thin but crunchy crust encasing a firm, white flaky fish. This was nestled on a bed of sauteed cabbage, red beans, and a roasted Appalachian tomato sauce. It was so much more flavorful than I could ever make it sound, but just know that this is the essence of simple ingredients coming together and shining in a way that is much greater than the sum of their parts. A side of broccoli in a vadouvan curry sauce (a French-Indian hybrid) with shallots was just the shot of green we needed among the seafood and starch.
Some suggestions for where to stay and what to see while in Charleston? I highly recommend the lovely Vendue Inn for a cozy, authentic, warm welcome and possibly the most comfortable king size bed I've ever slept in...and the fireplace, exposed brick walls, chandelier over the bed, and the wood beam ceilings didn't hurt. It's a gorgeous place to retire at the end of a long dinner and some post-prandial drinks, perhaps at the super-casual pub next door, The Griffon. Or try The Gin Joint, another small spot around the corner serving handmade Prohibition-style cocktails and "nibbly bits" to line the stomach. There are plenty of bars and local spots with live music, and East Bay Street south of the market is chock full of places to drink, eat, and listen.
The Gibbes Museum of Art is a nice choice for art enthusiasts, with mostly American pieces, many relating to the South and its history. Try a carriage ride from any one of several companies offering them, many leaving from North Market Street. They'll give you an overview of the city and its layout so you can check out points of interest later, on foot. Speaking of on foot -- which is, by the way, the best way to see much of Charleston's downtown -- the Waterfront Park (Vendue Range at Concord Street) is a lovely stretch along the Cooper River where you can meander on a waterside path, look out over Charleston Harbor, visit the two famous fountains including the iconic pineapple fountain, and take a break in a shaded swing looking out to the water. Head to the southern tip of the peninsula and take a stroll along The Battery, where the gorgeous homes of Charleston's elite overlook the convergence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers. It's a great place to jog or walk a dog, or just soak in some southern spring sunshine.
More delicious dishing on Charleston to come...
2 Unity Alley
76 Queen Street
19 Vendue Range
18 Vendue Range
The Gin Joint
182 East Bay Street
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting Street