The soul of a vanished world; a restaurant review of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina.
Husk resides at one of the most beautiful interiors in Charleston, one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The restaurant is nothing if not ambitious and it would appear from the press that its reach does not exceed its grasp. Some critics have called Husk the most important restaurant in America; Bon Appetit calls it the best new one. Its chef, Sean Brock, has gotten one of those endless (eleven pages anyway) encomia that The New Yorker bestows on the great.
Much like Heston Blumenthal at Dinner in London, Brock derives his dishes from the region and the past. Blumenthal mines the manuscripts and cookbooks that emerged from early modern England; Brock scours the eighteenth and nineteenth century ones kept in the kitchens of the south. There is, however, a difference between the intentions of the two. While Blumenthal transforms traditional recipes through modern technological technique (Brock does the same at McCrady’s, his other acclaimed restaurant in Charleston) that is not the way of Husk. Its goal is simpler and pure.
76 Queen Street
The restaurant intends not only to preserve early southern foodways, but also to revive and when necessary replicate lost crops and vanished breedstock. He forages (a man of his time) for feral plants, purchases as well as grows landraces, raises heritage breeds of pigs and hopes to interbreed the iconic Ossabaw from the Sea Islands with Berkshire and Tamworths, two of the classic English heritage breeds.
Other than alcohol, and the alcohol is artisanal when feasible, Husk buys nothing in prepared form. If, for example, you order a gimlet, the bartender will mix one for you with fresh lime and simple syrup (made inhouse); Rose’s lime juice is barred. This particular example may err on the side Thoreau over Smith, but the principle at stake is worth pursuing anyway.
Again other than alcohol, all that Husk buys, it buys in the south, although Bourbons and other southern whiskies also abound behind the bar. It is located in an outbuilding beside the restaurant and it is cozy and welcoming. Barstaff is earnest but not pedantic. They like to explain at length what they do and why, and to this listener the conversation was engaging. It goes two ways; when the Editor confessed that she likes off-dry Madeiras chilled, one of the bartenders expressed surprise and then curiosity before pouring a glass to place in the fridge. He also poured a Rare Wine Company New Orleans Sercial on the house, and that stuff retails for at least $65 a bottle. The inventory is as impressive as the largesse; not many places anywhere stock the full range of Rare Wine Madeiras.
Across a brick walkway, the restaurant building dates from the late 1800s but its spare and soothing interior inhabits the Federal zone. Tables are big and widely spaced, so that sound levels are convivial but not funereal as in some upscale restaurants. Service is deliberate but not dilatory; you will not be rushed but neither will you wonder whether the kitchen is in the weeds. Staff is serious, and a little pedagogical. They are eager to explain the Husk philosophy and arrive armed with short lectures about the constituents of every dish, but tend to assume that their diners are ignorant of both subjects, which can verge on annoying. They also tended to become stressed under even moderate pressure.
The trope of terroir extends to the organization of the wine list; categories include clay, limestone, slate and the like. Unless you are a geologist, and perhaps even if you are, the categories are irritating; you may know grape varietals and growing regions but are unlikely to study dirt. Our waitress was candid in confiding that her customers found the list awkward and we agreed; it took too long to locate the options we considered. Good and reasonably priced bottles that fit the food do lurk there, however, if you persevere.
If Husk sees itself as fulfilling an educational function, it is hardly pedantic about the food. Charleston often seems over restored to the point of parody, as though the entire historic peninsula were encased in too many coats of polyurethane. Not Husk; Brock and his kitchen understand that authentic foodways are not static foodways. The menu therefore lists bok choy and goat cheese along with all the butter beans, forage, ham and grits.
Brock and his crew must be nimble because the menu at Husk is not posted until the shoppers and forager return that same day. Nimble they are; preparations are often surprising and never rote. Early southern foodways adapted British traditions and techniques to new world foodstuffs and conditions, and the food at Husk reflects that fact. Before Husk, we had not encountered soft shell crabs served with green peas, their shoots and mint broth; a sensational English solution to the classic American ingredient. Reflecting the same lineage, ‘crispy pork rilletes’ reminded us more of potted pork rolled into balls; they too were memorable, deep fried and flanked by pickled peach. Lettuce enveloped pig ears in a sort of homage to southeast Asia, unintended or not.
It turns out that farro was widely cultivated around Charleston in the antebellum age of agricultural experimentation; at Husk it accompanied wood roasted quail with red eye gravy and the ensemble was as good as it sounds.
More invention; a ‘lamb terrine’ included stripes of belly and looked more like a layer cake than pate; we wondered whether the kitchen had lifted a leaf from McCrady’s and glued it together with transglutaminase. And, then, of course, to pork. On our visit its source was Bev Eggleston, part of the EcoFriendly Foods network of pastured meat producers. Prestigious restaurants vie for consignments of Eggleston pork and butchers who carry it brag; further evidence of the integrity that informs the decisions at Husk.
It embarrasses the Editor to admit the Eggleston pork tasted like pork the way it always tastes, whether sourced from the farm, bought from the butcher or found in a reputable supermarket. Perhaps this is a peculiar gustatory blindspot; during a dinner based on the use of a whole Ossabaw pig at the late lamented Savoy in New York, she did not discern much difference either. Not to say the pork at Husk was not good. It was, and was perfectly cooked.
The Editor does not often order dessert, but curiosity and what came before propelled her toward gluttony; she might be forgiven, for desserts at Husk are sublime.
Husk may not be the most important restaurant in America, and may not be the best of the new, but it is impressive and can legitimately stake both claims. A bonus; the place is relatively reasonable and much cheaper than McCrady’s. If you manage to score a reservation, and you will not unless you plan ahead, you should go and will want to go again.