McCrady’s bills itself as “the amalgam that is new Southern fine dining.” Like Chef Brock’s (or more likely his publicist’s) description of the cuisine at his other Charleston restaurant Husk, I really do not know what that means. MagoGuide decided to find out and descended on McCrady’s the night after we dined at Husk (see Husk: Fame Takes Its Toll for that review). We did not ever really find out, but we did encounter a celebrated fine dining establishment in the midst of a rather chaotic transition, the end-state of which is still very undefined.
McCrady’s began serving libations and comestibles in 1778. The tavern soon became famous for its cuisine and famous patrons. George Washington enjoyed a 30-course meal at McCrady’s in 1791. The structure hit a rough patch in the 20th century but was saved from oblivion by a major renovation in 1982 that landed it on the National Register of Historic Places and Landmarks. In 2006, the restaurant was acquired by The Neighborhood Dining Group, which brought in Sean Brock as partner and executive chef. Numerous accolades, awards, and the inevitable TV exposure followed.
We started out in the ornate dark wood bar. Bartender Lane was a very good mixologist who spent a lot of his time chipping ice from fist size rectangles. He explained that McCrady’s bought their ice from an ice sculptor because it looks perfect and if it is hand chipped it melts at the desired rate (slower) than machine-made ice.
Lane’s real strength, however, was marketing. He had all the foodie patter down pat and did not waste any time on ephemera such as the World Cup or Charleston’s Deep South allure. He jumped right into pitching the menu, emphasizing the specials, and in general maximizing the amount of ducats he could squeeze out of a cover.
Lane explained that McCrady’s had recently overhauled its menu, going from a 25 to 35 item a la carte selection and from an eight course-tasting menu to four courses with a choice of two to three dishes per course. The change had been implemented in order to “cut down on waste” (Mago translation: very few takers on the tasting menu or the more expensive/creative a la carte choices). The eventual goal, according to Lane, was a single eight course tasting menu with no choices once the four course intermediate stage had won the “trust” of McCrady’s clientele.
He emphatically urged us to order different choices for each course and share them so as to get the most out of the menu. Lane was also keen on an additional meat course to take advantage of the Wuygu beef special ($30 supplement for the beef entrée or $50 for a separate dish). Finally, he explained that we could start our meal with a set of five snacks for $20 per person (the price for these “snacks” has doubled over the last year), which were basically bite-sized versions of the first four courses on the old tasting menu. Since Team Mago was there to review the restaurant, we decided to take all of Lane’s suggestions except for the Wuygu beef, which for some reason just did not seem to fit into the “amalgam” of nouveau Southern cuisine (whatever that is).
The restaurant itself is a very nice space situated in the arcade stalls beneath the old Long Room of the tavern that serves today as McCrady’s private dining space. The arcade’s brick arches and walls are set off by glass barrel vaulted partitioning between the bar and the dining area. The stark and basic chandeliers, however, seem out of place and a bit cheap. Perhaps they were all that The Neighborhood Dining Group could afford after splashing out for a Baccarat crystal chandelier in the private dining area.
As with Husk, service at McCrady’s was impeccable. The hostess that fetched us from the bar was achingly hot and our waiter Kyle was nice, friendly, and ready for the marketing hand-off from Lane. The first thing the staff did was to swap Team Mago’s female spousal unit’s white napkin for a black one, which went better with her outfit. Nice touch, but it was not long before we both felt that less ice and couture and more focus on the cuisine would have been a better use of everyone’s time.
We began with the spendy snacks
The sweetbread (as in one, fried) was slightly overcooked and over-breaded. It should have been creamy on the inside with a thin crispy shell, but it wasn’t. A big surprise was the house-made Copa. The night before we had enjoyed a splendid selection of bespoke charcuterie at Husk, but this effort was far too salty and had an unpleasant lardy aftertaste. Cauliflower custard with sustainable caviar from Georgia (!) was the best of the nibbles, very good, rich, and salty with a slight crunch from julienned shallots. The oyster with mignonette sauce was unimaginative and the vinegar in the condiment overwhelmed the oyster. Sweet green tomato with lardo took second place amongst the extortionate appies. The tiny tomato was heated and then overlaid with a very thin strip of excellent lardo. The sweetness and acidity of the tomato worked nicely with the partially melted lardo.
We chose the offered wine pairing ($40 each), so this and the following wine descriptions are rather generic. With the snacks we were served a sparkling rosé from Califronia, which went very well with the food. It had raspberry Starburst fruit with a way long finish.
Cantaloupe, basil, radish and buttermilk ricotta salad: This was a refreshing starter but little more than that. The radishes were a nice touch, but the dish was under-seasoned, in particular it could have used freshly ground black pepper. I guess trust includes the absence of salt and pepper on the table. The dish was served with a Brooks, Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc/Muscat/Riesling/Gewurztraminer, “Amycas”, Willamette Valley-Oregon, 2012: the brass and grass worked with the cantaloupe and buttermilk ricotta.
South Carolina shrimp, tomato, fennel, and caraway: the shrimp were overcooked and over-salted, but the sauce was quite good—shame about those local wild caught shrimp. The pairing was an Alfred Merkelbach, Riesling-Spatlese, “Urziger Wurzgarten”, Mosel-Germany, 2012. The wine’s coriander nose followed by mango and nectarine fruit paired nicely with the dish.
Grouper, red cabbage, purslane, and black truffle: the cabbage and the vinaigrette brought out the flavor of the grouper and worked well with the texture of its crisp skin. The grouper was slightly overcooked and the truffles were missing in action (truffle oil in the vinaigrette? no visible evidence, or taste for that matter). The pairing for this dish was a LIOCO, Carignan, “Indica”(Rosé), Mendocino County-California, 2013. The wine had decent acidity, but the fruit was very faint. It could not stand up to the big flavor profile of this dish.
Snapper, summer squash, baby leek, kaffir lime and tarragon: This was a one-dimensional gastronomic punt. The summer squash salad was excellent, and the fish perfectly cooked but inexplicably served plain with no accompanying sauce. Lane said that the chefs spend a lot of time figuring out a protein to go with the rest of the dish after they have fully developed it. They should have spent more time on this one. The paired Nikolaihof, Gruner Veltliner, “Hefeabzug”, Wachau-Austria, 2012 worked well with the dish, nice acidity, lots of citrus fruit, and a long finish.
Aged duck roasted on the bone, carrot, parsnip, parsley and orange: the duck breast was excellent, perfectly cooked with a very robust flavor, but the confit block was overcooked and dry. The carrot and parsnip medley was delicious. Another bad pairing was served with this dish in the form of a Marcel Giraudon, Pinot Noir, Bourgogne-Chitry-France, 2013. The wine was a loser with washed out cherry fruit and a middling finish. A much gutsier pinot, or even a zin, was needed to stand up to the duckitude delivered by the on-bone roasting technique. Shame on the som!
Duo of Berkshire pork, potato, eggplant, bell pepper, and thyme: this dish confirmed that Chef Brock’s enduring strength is pork. The loin was perfectly cooked, juicy with smoky nuances. The pork belly had great flavor but was slightly overcooked (a real execution problem in the kitchen, or a carry over issue with the expediter/server interface, which manifested itself throughout the meal). Again the vegetable medley was excellent. The pig pairing was a home run, as one would expect from a wine rated 91 by Robert Parker. The La Rioja Alta, Tempranillo, “Vina” Alberdi, Rioja-Spain, 2007 sported traditional Rioja berry fruit on the nose and the palate with a lingering spicy finish. They should have served this wine with the duck (and the fish and the shrimp and the snacks) as well.
South Carolina peach tart, peach sorbet and elderflower: this was a very nice dessert composed of a semi-sweet peach tart and a frozen deconstructed peach cobbler, very Brockian. The som got a bit more redemption by pairing La Spinetta, Moscato d’Asti, “Bricco Quaglia”, Piedmont-Italy, 2012 with this dessert. The sparkling semi-sweet wine complimented the semi-tart tart while cutting the creamy mouth feel of the sorbet.
Frozen parfait of grits, geranium and preserved dewberry: another great dessert from the new southern cooking hit parade. Nice textural and flavor profile differentiation between the gritcream and the grituille, and that little dab o’dewberry made the dish. The wine, a Brooks Winery, Late Harvest Riesling, “Tethys”, Eola-Amity Hills-Oregon, 2012, not so much. The choice of a very sweet dessert wine added nothing to an interesting desert. The dewberry in particular meant that the wine basically got lost amongst all the other things going on with one’s taste buds.
Brock’s partners in The Neighborhood Dining Group appear to be trying to increase margins at their existing restaurants to fuel their expansion. Although all the tables were full on a Wednesday evening, you get the feeling that McCrady’s had not been making money under the old menu scheme and that The Neighborhood Dining Group wanted a way to lock in profit as well as streamline food production in the kitchen—an eight course tasting menu with no choices, after all, is expediter heaven along with a license to steal (assuming you keep your cost of food under control, which is the one area where The Neighborhood Dining Group seems to excel).
Right now, however, there is a lot of retooling going on in Brack’s Charleston restaurants. Consequently, the cuisine at both Husk and McCrady’s seems to be suffering. In the end, for the prices charged at McCrady’s (the four course menu is $65 per person and the only dining choice available–then the add-ons start) you expect the food to pop. It didn’t. In fact, with the exception of desserts, Husk serves better food at much more affordable prices. Team Mago gets the less-is-more philosophy of Brock’s cuisine, but fanatical sourcing is only half the game. McCrady’s kitchen needs to bring it’s A game for execution, but Chef Brock’s attention seems to be elsewhere these days.