I have wanted to eat at Sean Brock’s restaurants since I read a lengthy piece about him in The New Yorker. Coincidently, MagoGuide had never visited Charleston, a city frequently mentioned along with New Orleans as the quintessential southern gastropolis. So when the MS Buxcoast (see Traveling by Freighter) docked in the capital of the Palmetto State, we decided to spend a week in late June exploring the city and sampling its cuisine. This post is a review of Husk, one of the two Sean Brock restaurants we visited while in Charleston (see McCrady’s: a Transition in Progress? for the other review).
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Rostra rating: 3.5
Husk is Brock’s casual restaurant and bar, recently cloned in Nashville Tennessee by The Neighborhood Dining Group, which supplies the capital for Chef Brock’s restaurants. Chef Brock is famous for his schizophrenic approach to cuisine. Husk is a realization of that part of his culinary personality shaped by historical and geographical zealotry with respect to the sourcing and authenticity of ingredients. His motto is “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.” Chef Brock’s other culinary persona derives from avante guard molecular cuisine, and is manifested in his flagship restaurant McCrady’s.
The Husk Queen Street structures date to the late 19th century and both have been extensively renovated. Michael Shewan’s design largely succeeds in fusing ornate, rustic, and modern features into a dining space that is relaxed and convivial while retaining just a hint of Charleston’s antebellum swagger. Rhett Butler would definitely enjoy carousing at Husk’s before decamping for Grace Piexotto’s Big Brick Brothel.
Husk Bar, like the restaurant, is a two-story affair. The downstairs bar is more interesting but is rather confined and quickly gets crowded. Seats at the bar are premium real estate, while the rail along the wall is far less comfortable. The bartenders also manage customer traffic since a natural bottleneck forms at the door as entering patrons halt in their tracks to assess seating opportunities. The upstairs cocktail lounge is roomy with very comfortable chairs and sofas but sadly lacking in mixologist watching opportunities.
We ended up in the cocktail lounge drinking Spanish and Greek wines by the glass, both of which were very good. Wine is evidently not subject to the strictures applied to other ingredients at Husk. We also sampled the best boiled peanuts and pickled jalapenos I ever ate. The peanuts were not as soft as others I have eaten from the can bought in gas stations throughout the south. They were both messy and flavorful—MagoGuide’s ideal for bar food. The jalapenos were a cross between bread and butter pickles and hot peppers, a very refined take on Koolickles (dill pickles steeped in Kool-Aid for six weeks–a Mississippi delta delicacy). We saw evidence of other quality bar food dishes, to include great looking burgers. It is entirely possible to make a meal out of the bar menu at Husk, and many patrons seemed to be doing just that.
I was into the briny bowl of peanuts up to both wrists when I spotted Simon Majumdar a couple tables away. He also dinned at Husk with two companions, but we were not seated anywhere near him. We were on the second floor while he probably had a VIP table on the first with a great view of the open kitchen and nice additions sent to his table. I make this point not as a whining wannabe TV foodie personality (although that’s probably true too), but to point out that MagoGuide reviews are designed to let readers know what to expect from a restaurant if you do not happen to be a member of the fooderati or a well-known regular diner. Most people read reviews prior to dining at an establishment for the first time, so it is important to know how the hoi palloi are treated rather than a known high-profile reviewer on the fourth or fifth visit.
The best thing about the restaurant space is the floor. The beautiful late 19th century hardwood has been reclaimed through extensive sanding and sealing to a soft golden brown with black accents. The renovation also harmonized the rather blatant collision of Queen Anne and Victorian styles that define the structure by making extensive use of exposed brick walls as well as the original windows and doorways. Rustic table settings with pottery plates worked well with the heirloom floors and uncluttered internal and external dining areas.
Service at both the bar and restaurant was excellent throughout the evening. For example, the air conditioning was dialed in perfectly in a town that is usually either too hot or too cold. Our waitress was knowledgeable, friendly, and efficient.
In order to sample as many dishes as possible, we ordered first courses and sides. The meal began well with buttermilk icebox rolls served with butter infused with honey and pork fat. The rolls were exemplars of their southern genre, but the butter was exceptional. It was served at room temperature, which brought out the honey and pig fat, a delicious low country take on schmaltz.
A salad of arugula, white peaches and nectarines, candied pecans, Asher blue cheese, pancetta di testa, and honey vinaigrette worked only because of all the supporting characters. The pancetta di testa was fantastic in flavor but puzzling in nomenclature. Our waitress said it was made from hog jowls, so why not call it guanciale? The fruit, nuts and cheese made for a nice contrast in flavor and texture with the pig candy. The main ingredient, however, was disappointing. The arugula was bland, lacking the peppery assertiveness to stand up to the rest of the ingredients. Guess they don’t grow real rucola di silvatica in the south.
A selection of house cured meats from Justin Cherry as well as Husk pickles and mustard served with grilled ciabatta cemented Brock’s artistry with all things porcine. The bespoke charcuterie was as good as anything I have eaten in Italy, Spain, or France. In addition to cured meat, pickling and canning are clearly Husk strong points.
Fire roasted Sewansecott oysters with herbed chicken “butter” and spicy pepper mash gave MagoGuide a chance to evaluate Brock against an obvious rival, Donald Link of New Orleans. Like Brock, Link is an evangelist of dirt-to-table dining and regional ingredient purity. His restaurant empire also boasts a gastronomic flagship and attendant down-scale picket ships. The first oyster was a little overcooked and tough, but after that they were all perfectly roasted. Their shells were conveniently unhinged and the oysters completely loosened making them very easy to eat. The oysters themselves were plump and the liquor formed by their juice and “chicken butter” with a nice spike of heat from the pepper mash was delicious–actually better than the oysters themselves. But I think Chef Link does a better job than Chef Brock with roasted oysters. Perhaps the Virginia oysters were not as flavorful as the Louisiana variants, but Link’s were more robust in terms of heat and buttery mouth feel.
Grilled snap beans with garlic, fresh lemon and Espelette (a pepper of Basque origin grown somewhere in the southern USA, one supposes) reinforced Art Smith’s dining rule that side dishes actually define a restaurant’s cuisine. The beans were crunchy/smoky with a nice little hit of heat. The garlic and lemon added to the depth of the flavor profile without getting in the way of the beans, which were the stars of the dish. A very nice approach to snap beans, which are often over or under cooked.
Japanese eggplant with ember roasted shiitakes and sweet peas supplied additional proof of Chef Smith’s culinary corollary concerning sides. The dish was unctuous and sweet; the peas gave it a bit of needed texture. The eggplant had been cooked in some kind of fat to achieve an olive oil-like mouth feel, I would guess either butter or lard or a combination. This dish was a perfect contrast to the beans.
Buttermilk chess pie with whipped cream and strawberry compote was good but not great. If pig is Chef Brock’s strength then deserts may be something of an Achilles heel. While folks do indeed eat everything but the squeal in Dixie, it is dessert, sometimes disguised as breakfast but dessert nonetheless, that has always been the queen of southern cuisine. Therefore this lapse in the kitchen’s repertoire is puzzling to say the least.
Eccentricity is not confined to Husk’s kitchen, the som is in on it as well. Matt Tunstall arranges his wine list by soil type as opposed to country or varietal. I found that I like his approach as well as his taste in wine. For example, Tunstall has Occhi Pinti’s SP 68 on offer. Having just spent over a month tasting around southeastern Sicily and determined this small vineyard to be the area’s finest, I was impressed. The cost, however, was an outrageous $72 (but only $70 at McCrady’s). Having bought this wine at the vineyard, in shops, and in restaurants I can state unequivocally that despite shipping costs and Janet Yellin, Husk is getting a huge mark-up on that wine.
We drank a 2012, California-Lodi-Borden Ranch-Nyers “Vista Luna”(quartz) Zinfandel with our meal. The wine had a raspberry nose followed by tons of red berry fruit and a long finish. There were two problems with this wine, however: 1) the tannins were hard as nails, requiring several more years of bottle age and 2) one of our wine glasses had a funky fishy smell which ruined the wine in it and had to be replaced. The bottom line is that while I like Tunstall’s categorization scheme, I am not such a big fan of his pricing nor the care with which wine drinkability and state of the glasses are assessed.
Despite his driving passion for southern cuisine, Brock is adamant that he is not operating a culinary museum. Husk “is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food,” he exclaims on the restaurant’s website. The problem is that I did not really know what that quote meant when I read it, and having eaten at Husk, I still don’t. I suspect that Brock is involved in launching new restaurants and/or other projects (e.g., a Mexican themed restaurant adjacent to McCrady’s on East Bay Street), but if the chef were at least paying closer attention to the operation of his two extant kitchens I would have left Charleston with a much better understanding and respect for his cuisine.
In the end Husk was a nice casual restaurant with a few stand out dishes, but it was not to McCrady’s as David Link’s Cochon is to his Herb Sainte. Maybe that is because Charleston is not New Orleans, but the “reality” of Brock’s nouveau southern cuisine needs more of a punch in terms of robust flavor profiles that would make his rustic dishes worthy of his fanatically regional/seasonal sourcing and historical culinary zeal. At the very least Chef Brock should spend more time inculcating his sous chefs/chefs de cuisine in the southern traditions and leading edge techniques that have earned him numerous culinary accolades so that diners can enjoy his food when he is not in the kitchen.