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

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