Name: Husk Restaurant
Address: 76 Queen St. Charleston, South Carolina, 29401
Ph: 843 577 2500
Chef: Sean Brock
Hours: Lunch: Mon-Sat 11:30-2:30. Brunch: Sun 10-2:30. Dinner: Sun-Thu, 5:30-10, Fri & Sat, 5:30-11. Bar: 4-close, daily.
Walking down by the water in Charleston, South Carolina, it’s hard to think about anything other than old money. Towering over you are the remnants of the South’s golden years, when Charleston was a city of wealth and power. Three and four story mansions, replete with giant patios and cast iron decorations dominate the street, and they are incredibly beautiful.
It is fitting for a town that does revel in the idea of the old South. They are a city proud of its history and heritage. Tour the various historical buildings and you will find how few places were more important to the US War of Independence, whatever those New Englanders might say, and the locals are very gratified about this fact.
However, you walk down some of the other streets in this town, King Street for example, and you see other elements of modern Charleston. Gourmet sandwich shops, locally sourced organic burgers, vegan pizza joints and endless bars with rows and rows of micro-brewed beers cram in with vintage clothes shops, screaming hipster paradise. This is a town on the front edge of a lot of the major food movements of the moment. And while it can get pretentious, when done well this sort of food becomes very exciting.
At Husk, a new star in the US fine dining scene, these two lines of thoughts intertwine. Chef Sean Brock is aggressively local with his sourcing, only using ingredients from the southern states. From his beef and fish through to even his olive oil and salt, everything must come from the South. Taking it even further, every single ingredient used on the menu has its provenance listed on a huge blackboard when you come into the lobby. Even though it is beginning to be seen as fashionable, I still find it exciting to see such dedication to one’s producers.
Of course, none of this would matter if the food wasn’t any good. You can have all the philosophy in the world, and search for the best produce you can find, but if you can’t cook it properly, if you can’t get the flavour from it, then what is the point?
Thankfully, Chef Brock has no issues on this front. The level of cooking matches the quality of ingredients to deliver some incredibly impressive food.
As a disclaimer, I must note that on top of being a solo diner and coming from Australia, the kitchen discovered that I was a food blogger. As such, the Southern hospitality went into overdrive, and I was laden with free food. I don’t believe that the extra dishes swayed my opinion of the restaurant, as I feel that regular readers would know that if i didn’t like a place, I would say so, regardless of whether I paid or not. But I felt that I should mention it.
The South are proud of their oysters, and while they can’t really compare to Australian ones, they still do deserve praise. Here they were lifted by some pig jowl mignonette, which brought some fattiness into the equation, and some sharp, fresh grapefruit. Clean and simple, as a dish it typified the deftness of touch that most of the food here had.
The sense of balance was shown again in the lettuce wraps of crispy pigs ear, sweet marinated cucumbers and pickled spring onions. This was salty and fatty from the pig, with sharpness from the onions and some real spice from the cucumbers. A real mess of a dish to eat, but showing serious harmony of flavours, and of textures, with the crunch of the ear against the soft cucumber. It also demonstrated yet again that there are few bits of a pig that don’t make great eating.
To go a little heavier, some local clams of wonderful quality were wood fired and served in a rich, deep broth of rye beer, with shiitakes and kale. While the clams were arguably a little tough, the intenseness of the beer broth was the most exciting thing about this dish, giving you a real slap in the face. It was warming, but it would also wake you up. I know there wasn’t a sip of it left by the time my bowl was taken away.
Also, Chef Brock’s intention of demonstrating where Southern produce is at the moment has few clearer examples than the surprising presence in this stew of amazing quality fresh shiitake mushrooms, locally grown in South Carolina. It’s not just about what has always been here, it’s about what can be here, and this was one producer to seriously deliver.
One thing that the US, and the South in particular, is famous for is large servings, and when my main of a duo of pork came out, devouring all those complimentary starters seemed like it may not have been the greatest of plans. Sitting atop a massive pile of “BBQ” farro, roasted red peppers and fried cabbage were two pieces of pork, one a huge cube of pork hock terrine, the other a slab of very slow braised belly. As slow cooked belly pork should do, this was soft and fatty, falling apart and delivering a layer of savouriness over the reasonably sweet vegetables, while the terrine gave dense, rich piggy hit. All was tied together by the surprising touch of peanut, just in the occasional bite. Peanut seems to be a real trend ingredient in the US at the moment, and with good reason. If I had a complaint, it would be that the terrine was a little dry, but that could be forgiven in such an impressive dish.
Two sides represented Southern cooking tradition past the provenance of the ingredients. A dense, moist cornbread with a touch of bacon was a solid accompaniment, particularly with a little butter, but it was the ridiculously decadent grits that stole the whole meal for me. Grits are like a coarse polenta, and are the base of half the breakfasts in the South. Often topped with shrimp, or with gravy, here they are made with truly appalling amounts of cheddar and butter, as well as bringing in some umami with the addition of mushrooms. Stunning, and still good heated up the next day for breakfast (I couldn’t finish it, but was loathe to leave it).
Dessert was pie, in this case caramel pecan pie. Rich, sweet, sticky, and everything that this classic should be. Interesting was the suggested matching bourbons with the dessert, a suggestion that I took up readily.
Everything at Husk delivered. The food was exceptional and fun, the service was casual but efficient, and the room was beautiful, being in a late 19th century complex updated with style.
But at the end of the day, the thing that excites me most is still the reasoning behind this place, and how it is reflected in the food. This is someone using locavore principals, but not necessarily for environmental purposes (although I am sure that was a consideration as well).
Instead, it is based on pride.
Here is a chef who has gone, I live in the South, and we have great produce, so why do I need to look any further? It is someone taking such pride in where they are from, and what that place can do, that he is celebrating and promoting it in the best way possible. And that absolute Southern pride comes through in the food, and in the entire feel of the place.
It’s enough to make you wish you were a Southerner, too.
Addendum: Charleston on a roll.
My search for great sandwiches was helped along by an Australian chef working in Charleston (thanks Morgan) who took me to the Tattooed Moose, a dive bar of dreams. A slightly extreme number of stuffed animals surround this bar with a solid selection of beers and spirits, and a world class sandwich list. While not necessarily iconic to the region, the “Lucky #1” Sub (BBQ braised pork belly, kimchi, salad, wasabi mayo, sweet red chili sauce) was a hit, while the Lowcountry Cuban (roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, sweet and spicy green tomato pickle, and spicy brown mustard toasted on a buttered roll, served with Mojo sauce to dip into) is an early contender for the best sandwich of the trip. I bit into this and nearly started to weep. Served with a side of duck fat fried and you’ll be in heaven. Healthy? Not for the heart, but definitely good for the soul.