It's safe to say that the opening of Husk has been the most anticipated and hyped of any new Charleston restaurant in years. The buzz around this venture from the Neighborhood Dining Group, which also operates McCrady's and Queen Anne's Revenge, has been driven by the growing celebrity of Executive Chef Sean Brock, who has headed the kitchen at McCrady's since 2006 and took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2010.
Josh Ozersky of Time christened Brock "The Grand Lama of Lardcore" and announced that Husk "might just be the Next Great American Restaurant." Garden & Gun dubbed it "The Most Southern Restaurant Ever," and food writer John T. Edge, after cautioning himself about praising a restaurant before it opened, went ahead and said that Husk "promises, once and for all, to get Southern cuisine right."
This sort of press sets high expectations, particularly because of the compelling concept behind Husk. Brock has boldly declared that he will prove Southern food is the best food in the world, setting a firm challenge for himself and his crew: using only ingredients grown or produced in the South.
A huge chalkboard dominates Husk's entry hall, displaying the evening's ingredients and their sources. Local purveyors — like Raul's Seafood, Thackeray Farms, and Mepkin Abbey — are amply represented, but so are farmers and artisans from as far north as Virginia and Kentucky and as far west as Texas. Brock and his team are themselves producers, growing heirloom varieties both for us in the restaurant and for seed preservation on a 1.5-acre patch on Thornhill Farm in McClellanville.
Brock now splits his time between Husk and McCrady's, while Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes, a veteran of McCrady's kitchen, runs the daily show at Husk. But don't expect to find at Husk the same foamy, floral, high-concept plates that characterize McCrady's. And don't expect a purist's attempt to replicate the classic dishes of the American South either. Husk is a celebration of Southern food but not necessarily Southern cooking, and Brock and Grimes gladly employ whatever tools and techniques — traditional or postmodern — they have at their disposal.
Husk is, however, the logical extension of the "blow-out buying" practice that Brock initiated several years ago at McCrady's, a concept that turns traditional kitchen management on its head. Rather than deciding first on a menu of dishes to be served and then ordering the ingredients, they start with their purveyors and the ingredients that they have available and then figure out what to do with them. Each day there's a flood of fresh items — meats, fish, vegetables. And then there's the pantry, where they turn not just for staples like grits and flour but for all sorts of canned produce, pickles, sauces, and smoked meats. Whatever's leftover they save for later.
Other notable things they're doing at Husk include breaking whole pigs down into everything from pork chops to pork rinds; using muscadine grapes to make a balsamic-like vinegar; fermenting their own hot sauce from more than a ton of chiles; and canning 800 pounds of San Marzano tomatoes a Tennessee farmer was preparing to plow under because he couldn't find a buyer.
It's a bold and challenging approach. But what's most interesting is the food that winds up on the plate.
A regular on the firsts or appetizer section is a "Tasting of the Finest Southern Hams" ($14), which seems carefully calculated to show that traditional Southern meats are every bit the equal of the famed French charcuterie. The standard presentation is followed, with meats arranged counterclockwise on a stone tray with pickles, condiments, and butter-soaked crostini in the middle. But the crostini are made from cornbread, the pickles from green tomatoes and ramps, and the meats are all artisanal Southern country hams, which are splendid enough to merit the charcuterie treatment. For me, though, the best bites on the plate are the condiments, especially the powerful bread and butter pickles with their spicy tang reminiscent of a shrimp boil, and the splendid pickled ramps, which have a deep sweetness lying beneath their oniony bite.
Some appetizers seem designed primarily to grab attention, like the "Southern Fried Chicken Skins" ($5) — big pieces of chicken skin battered, deep fried, and served with a tiny cast iron skillet of honey — and the creamy, orange-tinged pork butter that's served with the canvas sacks of tender buttermilk benne-seed dinner rolls. It's a smooth, savory mixture that tastes pretty good on the soft rolls, but, apart from the novelty of spreading lard on bread, it's hardly superior to butter.
The deviled eggs ($1.50 each) are a different story. These are prime examples of how top-quality ingredients and method can make an ordinary dish remarkable. Cut across the equator so they're taller and thinner than the standard church potluck variety, the eggs have a yolk mixture with a deep yellow color and a rich, slightly tangy flavor made a little smoky and spicy from the house-smoked paprika that's sprinkled on top.
Brock has declared that Husk is about putting the spotlight on the ingredients and the people who grow them and having the chef step aside. But my favorite dishes are the ones where the chef takes a more active role in transforming indigenous ingredients into a fully composed dish, like the stuffed quail. It turns up in various guises, sometimes as a first course (stuffed with sausage and Tennessee foie gras, $13) and sometimes as a supper selection (with oyster stuffing, mustard-glazed sunchokes, and bok choy, $24). My favorite incarnation was stuffed with cheddar bologna and served as a first with red peas and leeks ($12). Seared crispy brown on the outside, the dark, sultry quail, the bologna, and the cheddar all meld into a single delicious slice — the kind of dish you eat slowly to savor each rich, complex bite.
Similarly noteworthy are the Carolina Gold Rice middlins ($13), a delicate risotto-style dish with local shrimp and wood-fired mushrooms tucked inside delightful creamy rice that's heady with chervil. Or the "Tongue and Tail" terrine of beef ($12), a cool, savory wedge of beef beside a pile of mizuna (an arugula-like Japanese green) and an arc of bright, subtly flavored dots of yellow ramp-chervil purée.
The big wood-fired ceramic oven in the kitchen imbues Husk's food with the essential Southern flavor of wood smoke. The skillets of cornbread ($7) are baked in it, imparting a subtle edge that hints at what fireplace-baked cornbread might have tasted like in the old days. The massive wood-fired chicken ($22) — a regular "supper" (entrée) selection — is served with wood-fired turnips, cider-braised cabbage, and marjoram jus in an addictive blend of juicy sweetness and earthy smoke. That same smokiness sneaks into other dishes, too, like the fried catfish ($22), by way of the smoked tomatoes that, along with firm limas and field peas, compose a rich Southern succotash. The dark, smoky flavor from the succotash in combination with the pure watery notes of the catfish is simply heavenly.
Winter vegetables appear in abundance right now. A single dinner menu one December evening included swiss chard, beets, parsnips, bok choy, cabbage, zucchini, squash, collards, turnips, eggplant, and leeks. In many cases, these things that come alongside are the most remarkable parts of the plate. The sweet, tangy tomato compote, for example, outshines the beef cheeks ($23), as tender and succulent as they are. The full year that the McCrady's and Husk teams spent pickling and canning the seasonal explosions of produce is now paying off in a dazzling display of traditional preservation techniques that deepen and enhance nature's flavors. Apple conserve and satsuma jelly brighten a plate of chicken liver and Tennessee foie gras ($8), and green tomato pickles top the fried catfish filets. The tiny bits of pickled peaches that decorate the salad alongside the wood-roasted Ossabaw pork belly ($11) are sweet, intense, and perfect.
Amid such splendid notes, when something clunks, it's really noticeable. The sliced potato confit served with the beef cheeks seems plain. The creamy collards with Husk's own house-cured bacon ($7), a side shared among the table, seems like a Southern take on the traditional creamed spinach, but the cream and the smoky collards don't play together nicely, and it feels like a wasted opportunity, considering the elemental and intense flavors of traditionally cooked collards and their pot liquor.
But any such quibbles dissolve when the dessert menu arrives. These creations, the work of pastry chef Nathan Richard, interpret traditional Southern desserts, intensifying their flavors and blending sweetness with the taste of Southern liquors, as in the "drunken" pound cake with rum syrup ($7), an upside-down apple cider cake with bourbon ice cream ($8), and a chocolate chess pie with Herbsaint cream ($7). Powdered sugar-coated benne beignets come with a tiny skillet of smoked lard caramel. It's something of a stunt but a delightful stunt, for the silky, smoky caramel is unbelievably tasty and addictive. Equally compelling is the black bottom pie ($7), made in a small Mason jar with layers of chocolate mousse, bourbon vanilla cream, and crumbled molasses shortbread cookies. In a nice twist, each dessert is paired with a recommended bourbon, and the bourbons work quite well with the sweet confections.
At lunch, the menu is slimmed down but still offers many of the same entrées as at dinner plus a few lunchtime additions. The Husk cheeseburger ($10), Brock's homage to California's In-and-Out Burger, has two thin beef patties topped with melted American cheese on a fresh-baked bun. The beef is from local peanut hay-fed cows, the Benton's bacon is ground straight into the meat, and it's cooked in the wood-fired oven for an extra touch of smokiness. The same splendid bun — still warm from the oven — is used for a barbecue sandwich ($11), which depending on the day could be pork belly, lamb, or beef brisket. Both burger and barbecue come with "chipped potatoes," four or five thick potato disks stacked in a column. They're golden and crispy with a sprinkle of salt and herbs on the outside, soft and fluffy inside, and, somehow, manage to hold their heat and taste even better as the meal passes.
All of this focus on pure Southern foods occurs in a setting that is absolutely stunning. The Neighborhood Dining Group took a vacant white mansion dating from 1893, as well as the small brick building next door, and gave them a multimillion-dollar renovation. A small brick courtyard with a burbling fountain sits in front of broad, inviting steps that lead up to the house's white-columned piazza, and the tall windows are ablaze with white and yellow light. The dining rooms on the first and second floors have gleaming reclaimed wood floors and the original double-hung windows. Large, colorful paintings over the fireplaces' marble mantels and long neutral curtains with magenta floral designs give the room a modern, stylish elegance, while brown leather-backed chairs and bare wood tables with tan napkins and woven placemats maintain an earthy minimalism.
Brock has said his goal is to keep Husk democratic, which includes holding entrée prices under $25, and, I assume, a deliberately more casual approach to service, too. The waiters and waitresses are dressed in blue Dickies shirts, brown aprons, and khaki trousers, and they have an informal, friendly style with diners. On all of my visits I found the waiters and waitresses to be quite knowledgeable about the food, able to answer questions and make good recommendations.
Against the splendid setting and ambitious plates, though, that service strikes me as a little too casual and incongruous. On all my visits, there were notable lapses in the timing: too-long pauses between courses, drinks arriving long after the desserts with which they were specifically paired. We experienced similarly slow service in the bar, too, where the cocktail waitress seemed overwhelmed by the crowd.
Husk's bar in the small, detached brick outbuilding next door to the mansion is worth notice in its own right. It's a more rustic room, with exposed brick walls and rough-hewn wooden beams over the bar downstairs. Upstairs, exposed wooden rafters support the planks of the slanted roof over a room tight with red leather chairs and small tables and ottomans. The cocktail list includes a selection of pre-Prohibition classics, like the Whiskey Daisy and the Corpse Reviver No. 2, as well as Husk's own Southern twists on traditional drinks, like the Fire in the Orchard, an old-fashioned spruced up with smoked apple juice, Applejack brandy, and pickled jalapeño, and the Walterboro, a dirty martini made with boiled peanut pork jus and house-made peanut orgeat (a sweet syrup).
More than anything, the Husk bar is a temple of bourbon, with more than 50 varieties arranged on the shelf behind the bar, including a rare hand-picked barrel of Pappy Van Winkle. The varieties get served in stubby rock glasses over a single big chunk of clear ice or — even more dramatic — over a single handcrafted ice sphere. Small chalkboards list a tempting array of bar snacks that include those delightful deviled eggs, pickled shrimp ($8), a dollop of pimento goat cheese ($5), and a rope of the most chewy, smoky, and complex beef jerky you'll ever taste ($1).
So what to make of Husk, an intensely Southern restaurant that has consciously set the bar very, very high for itself? For me, the final judgment comes down to this: Each time I've gone home after a meal at Husk, I couldn't stop thinking about the food and — despite having put away a full array of appetizers, entrées, desserts, and miscellaneous tidbits like deviled eggs and jerky — still wanted to go back immediately for more.
Brock, Grimes, and company may well have established the high-water mark of the New New Southern cookery, the Lardcore movement if you prefer, taking this historically informed, regionally centric monomania for ingredients about as far as it can go. Already Husk has become something of a destination for hardcore foodies across the country, prompting special trips to Charleston for the sole purpose of eating there. Noted chefs are coming to town, too, to see what the fuss is about. (As I was writing this, David Varley of the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., tweeted, "Husk better win [James Beard Foundation Award for] best new restaurant. Most important project for real American food by far.")
Will the tiny cast iron skillets and the fried chicken skins get tired, or will this Southern hipness stay hip? It seems immaterial, since there is so much genuine delight in the full sweep of the food: those pickled ramps, the bologna-cheddar stuffed quail, the red peas. They validate that taking the time and effort to grow your own produce, butcher your own hogs, study old recipes and techniques, and to pickle and preserve is all worth it in the end. And they announce that a major new restaurant has arrived not just in Charleston but on the national scene.