Thursday, November 29, 2012

Husk - Charleston

It’s hard to know where to begin with Sean Brock and Husk. Like most people interested in food, it’s been rather difficult to ignore the press he and his devotion to southern heritage cuisine have been receiving. It’s not often that a chef wins a James Beard award and is covered by Steingarten, The New Yorker, the New York Times, wins best new restaurant from Bon Appetit, and even gets a few plugs from a little Charleston based outfit called Garden & Gun (here & here). While I can't say that it's undeserved, I couldn’t help but wonder how much true substance was behind this wall of hype. Although I could spend hours reading about local ingredients, heritage breed animals, heritage plants, and the like, seeing and tasting is believing and I had the good fortune to be back in Charleston with a lunch reservation at Husk with my name on it.

Why lunch reservations for a restaurant like Husk? It’s simple; since I was unable to secure a reasonably timed dinner reservation, I opted for the next best thing, lunch. With time to spare before that evening’s wedding, it was one drive from Kiawah Island and finding a spot in a parking garage before I was soon seated at a table for one for lunch at Husk.

Like so many good meals, this one began with a cocktail.
Taken from the Charleston Preservation Society, this Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch was a refreshing mix of California brandy, Jamaican rum, peach brandy, Black tea, lemon juice, and raw sugar.                                       

Normally the bread is a forgotten course but the butter and a recent experience force me to mention it.
The bread at Husk, while excellent in its own right, was secondary to its dressing.
Normally I would be bowled over by the mere mention of pork and butter but after an excessive experience with the stuff at Carnevino, I was wary. Thankfully, Brock and his team had a steady hand with their honey pork butter. Sweet with just a little more lip smacking texture than regular butter, it was miles ahead of Batalli and his crock of whipped lard.

Knowing that my visits to Charleston are few and far between, I decided to make the most of this trip to Husk and go completely overboard in ordering by starting with crispy buffalo pig ear lettuce wraps.
It’s interesting to imagine where buffalo pig ear with sweet vinegar marinated cucumber, red onion, and cilantro fits into Brock’s idea of exclusively southern products and ideas.
Regardless of the southern status of this dish, the intensely satisfying crunch of the crisp pig ears dispelled any qualms about its providence.
As loutish as it may sound, these lettuce wraps, to me, were the best parts of a buffalo chicken wing, the vinegary heat and crunch of freshly fried skin, combined with a distinctly pork flavor. Amazingly, the cucumber, red onion, and cilantro not only compounded the crunch of the pig ear and lettuce, they also provided a tempering effect to the heat of the buffalo sauce in a flavor oddly similar to ranch dressing.

Although it may be a full blown cliché at this point, I still enjoy seeing a restaurant take a new and creative look at an old and decidedly simple dish. In this instance, I’m referring to the HUSK fried cheddar bologna.
Even though my grandmother never bothered with the cheese studded variety, I still remember the sizzle of fried bologna when she would cook a quick meal. Of course, she never used a thick, homemade bologna like this.
Pan fried till smoky and charred on the edges, this bologna was dense and greasy but it had an odd mix of textures. While some bites were silky and delightful, the majority was overcooked and a bit chalky. Any novelty and goodwill this dish may have had quickly faded and I was left with a plate of overcooked emulsified meat.

If I had to pick one dish as the highlight of meal not to mention the highlight of Charleston, it would have to be the SC shrimp and grits.
A distinct departure from the Tabasco dominated flavors of Hominy Grill’s version of the iconic dish, these shrimp were complimented by tomato braised peppers and onions, okra, and surry sausage.
Each component of this dish was a standout: the Surry sausage carried a good snap to the casing with a flavor similar to un-smoked andouille, the shrimp were perfectly cooked and a bit spicy but well balanced with brininess, and the tomato braised onions and peppers were rich and dense with their inherent flavors.
When combined, this plate of shrimp and grits was a celebration of late summer supported by a warm, sublime taste of tomato.

Hardly a dish unique to the South, it’s still hard to turn down the promise of a well made cheeseburger.
If the allure of gratuitously melted cheese isn’t enough to weaken your willpower, patties made with bacon might do the trick.
Unfortunately, there was a downside to a bacon beef patty, Husk will not serve a burger cooked less than medium rare.
As you might expect the patties weren’t dripping with juiciness but the smoky flavor of the bacon helped things along. Regarding the other burger components, the buttermilk bread bun was perfectly sized for the patty, a little tangy, and well suited to the overdose of beef and cheese. While I may have had better burgers and even a better bacon burger, the Husk cheeseburger was still an above average choice.

Simply because a cheeseburger can only be better with a side of potatoes, the Husk cheeseburger came with a side of fried potato wedges.
I’ve never been a fan of potato wedges, preferring the crunch of Belgian style frites over the pillow texture of a wedge, but these potatoes made a good argument for accepting the wedges into the fold. Piping hot and with a fluffy texture, the only downside was a heavy-handed approach with the salt.

If there’s a better way to test the mettle of a southern restaurant than cornbread, I can’t think of it.
Brock doesn’t pull any punches with his cornbread, made with Benton’s bacon and served in a cast iron skillet, this side has the chops.
There’s not much I can say about this cornbread that doesn’t come in the form of praise. From the well seared and golden brown crust to the salty taste and not too crumbly interior, this could well be the poster child for southern cornbread. If there was one downside, I decided that this cornbread didn’t mesh well with the honey pork butter, but that’s no matter, it’s good enough on its own.

Leaving the Queen Street building, I began to think about Sean Brock and Husk’s notoriety. I had wondered if it was all earned or completely overblown. After this lunch, I had little doubt in my mind that Sean Brock is doing something special at Husk. There may have been a cheese studded misstep but on the whole, my meal at Husk was a celebration of southern cuisine (low country in particular) with local and seasonal ingredients. While I feel that a full dinner would have been a better introduction to the Brock’s world of food, any restaurant that makes cornbread that well and makes me crave crispy buffalo pig ears is doing a few things right.

Husk Address & Information
Husk on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hominy Grill - Charleston

There’s certain feeling of elation when you receive a wedding invitation in the mail, particularly when it’s a couple you’ve known since day one. However, happy as I was to be invited to the ceremony, I was equally excited to see their choice of city, Charleston, South Carolina. Some may call it a problem, I simply call it planning ahead but after reserving a hotel room, the first thing I did was begin to research where to eat. 

While I was researching, I found it hard to believe that is had been four years since I was last in Charleston. In that time, I’ve had little more to do than salivate over the mountains of food press the city has garnered. With Sean Brock of Husk leading the charge of the kitchens and John T. Edge, Garden and Gun, and the food magazines providing the ink, the low-country city has more than secured a reputation as a food lovers’ destination.

Speaking of Husk, while that may have been my first choice for Friday dinner, a 10 pm reservation forced me to keep looking. Scanning through various blogs, chowhound threads, and major magazines, it seemed that if Husk was number one, Hominy Grill was never far behind. While scrolling through YouTube, I found an episode of No Reservations where Bourdain attempted to finish a mountain of biscuit, chicken, and gravy called The Big Nasty.  With that my mind was made up; a phone call was made and soon Hominy Grill was my Friday dinner destination.

If there was one thing I had underestimated it was the time it takes to drive from Kiawah Island to Charleston. It’s not the distance or the speed limit; it’s getting stuck behind a driver who decided that 5 mph below the limit is just too fast for his blood. 45 minutes or so after leaving the island, I was ready for a drink and to see if Hominy Grill could live up to its fame.

After a short wait and playing audience to a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of “pescaterian”, I was shown to my table and greeted with a cardboard tray of boiled peanuts.
Even though I’ve never been much of a fan of boiled peanuts, these groundnuts were a fine example of the breed. Served warm, these peanuts were juicy and not too salty. Tender and meaty, there truly was just enough salt to highlight the natural peanut flavor.

Good as the boiled peanuts may have been, I pushed them away in an effort to save room for the two trademark Hominy Grill dishes, the shrimp & grits and The Big Nasty. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a misunderstanding as both dishes appeared at the same time. Forced to choose one to fully enjoy, I started on The Big Nasty and let the shrimp & grits begin to cool.
When presented with a fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese, high-rise biscuit and sausage gravy, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Trying each component on its own, it was the sausage gravy first. Creamy and with each bite carrying a lingering pickled pepper & vinegar tail, there was hot sauce at work with this mix of sausage and gravy.
Usually the weak point of any dish, this piece of fried breast meat was juicy and an able player in this dish.
As for the high-rise biscuit, it was a thick, dense, and a bit floury. Nothing too special on its own, it worked quite well with the fried chicken and sausage gravy. All together, this is certainly an above average chicken and biscuit, but I’m not too sure about its status of as a “50 Best Southern Foods” side dish.

While I was working on my biscuit and gravy, my waitress had noticed the untouched shrimp & grits. Telling me they were best fresh from the kitchen, she offered to bring me a fresh order when I was finished with The Big Nasty. Once I was done with chicken and biscuit, a fresh order of the house specialty shrimp and grits was brought to my table.
Piping hot and brimming with shrimp, mushroom, scallions, and bacon, this was what I come to Hominy Grill hoping to find.
With the cheese grits acting as a canvas for the shrimp and the aromatics, the flavors really had a chance to bloom.
Sadly the shrimp were boiling hot and overcooked but when combined with the vinegar laced spiciness of the other components this dish worked decently well.
Despite the occasional sand vein, I was more concerned with the overwhelming hot sauce flavor. My waitress later revealed the kitchen used Tabasco and judging from the flavor of the dish, they weren’t shy about it.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in my meal at Hominy Grill. While I wasn’t expecting a low country epiphany, I wasn’t expecting a dinner presented by McIllheny either. The Big Nasty, for all the hoopla surrounding the biscuit, was surprisingly mundane. Nothing particularly wrong with it but I’d put the Cathead biscuits from Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford to be an equal if not superior choice. As for the shrimp & grits,  this version, forgetting the overcooked and sandy shrimp, relied too heavily on the vinegar flavor of Tabasco. With a lunch at Husk to look forward to, I still had hope for this Charleston trip, but Hominy Grill wasn’t getting things off to a good start.       

Hominy Grill Address & Information
207 Rutledge Avenue, Charleston,SC 29403 // 843.937.0930 // Hominy Grill Website // Hominy Grill Menu                                                                                
Hominy Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Jaco's Tacos - Jackson

I often wonder what goes into the process of naming a restaurant, particularly when the name includes that of a dish. Does the name imply that that particular dish is the best thing on the menu, did that dish initially help the owner gain notoriety, or is it something as simple as a pleasant rhyme ? While I can think of examples for the first two, Sushi House Hayakawa and Yakitori Jinbei come to mind, I can’t help but think that Jaco’s Tacos fits in the third category. At least that’s my opinion after a few lunches at one of the newest State Street restaurants.

As you might expect with a “Tex-Mex” restaurant, lunch at Jaco’s Tacos began with chips and salsa.
Thin and sweet, this salsa had touch of cilantro and just enough lingering chili heat to let you know something was there.
Where there’s salsa, there’s likely to be queso as well, this version was equipped with the optional chorizo. Tasting remarkably similar to velvetta and rotel, a fair amount of dark, smoky chorizo complimented this dip well.
What do you use to enjoy these bowls of queso and salsa? A heaping basket of fried tortilla chips that have been dusted with more of that sweet chili powder, it’s a tried and true combination that delivers here as well.

Before moving to Jaco’s namesake, I wanted to see the only seafood appetizer, the shrimp brochette.
Ideally the bacon would shield the shrimp and a smoky and salty element to the jalapeno mango cheese filling; in practice, things didn’t work as planned.
Even with bacon wrappings and sweet and spicy fillings, it’s hard to completely cover overdone, chalky shrimp.

It was then time for Jaco’s raison d’être, the tacos, starting with a combination plate of grilled steak and Mojave pork.
Pico de gallo, onions, a handful of cheese, these tacos arrived completely dressed with the usual toppings but I did miss the fresh avocado slices you get from Taqueria la Guadalupe.
While there was a fair amount of nicely charred steak on this taco, it was fairly dry on its own, but when combined with the condiments, it became a well-seasoned base for the taco.
If there was a surprise in the tacos, it was the sweetness of the Mojave pork, but much like the steak tacos, when combined with the pico de gallo and other toppings, things worked decently together.

The two chicken tacos were more of a mixed bag.
Before, the meats had been lackluster on their own but played well with the toppings, but with the chicken even the best meats couldn’t stand up the abundance of heavy toppings.
The biggest loss on this plate was the grilled chicken as this was one of the few instances where breast meat was juicy and boldly seasoned. However, any chance the chicken had to save this taco was crushed by a mountain of onion and cheese.
Taco number two was a different story.
With a thick, clumpy, and unseasoned batter, this fried chicken made the thick tortillas a doughy and unappetizing mess. Even scrapping off the toppings, every bite of this taco was onions, cheese, and dough, but if there is one upside, at least the chicken wasn’t dry.
After two separate encounters, it seems that Jaco’s Tacos is just another entry into the list of Tex-Mex restaurants in Jackson. If you want a place for margaritas and cheese topped banality downtown, Jaco’s Taco is your place, but for a decent taco my money is on the local taquerias.

Jaco’s Tacos Address & Information
Jaco's Tacos on Urbanspoon