Tuesday, March 5, 2013

McCrady's - Charleston, South Carolina

For at least a couple years, I've been building a proposed itinerary for what I call the Grand Southern Dining Tour. At its most elaborate, it would go up Florida's east coast en route to Charleston, South Carolina,[1] keep going to Raleigh, North Carolina,[2] then possibly head further north to Richmond, Virginia[3] before detouring west to Louisville, Kentucky,[4] then work back the long way to South Florida by way of Nashville, Tennessee,[5] Asheville, North Carolina[6] and Atlanta, Georgia.[7]

Of course, that's never going to actually happen. I just don't have the time to devote to such a lengthy dining and driving agenda. But maybe it can be done in bits and pieces. My first step in that direction was a short visit to Charleston before the New Year, and the first reservation I booked was at McCrady's.

If you've paid any attention to the national food media the past few years, it is extremely unlikely that you've not heard of McCrady's and its master of ceremonies, Sean Brock. More than any other chef, he's been the face and voice of the "New South," what Josh Ozersky, with his knack for coining a phrase, dubbed "Lardcore" cooking, bringing modernist sensibilities and techniques to traditional Southern ingredients.

But what makes Brock's cooking so special is not that he understands how to use xanthan gum and liquid nitrogen. It's that he understands how to do something truly special with food: make it tell a story. At McCrady's, and perhaps even more so at his newer restaurant, Husk, he weaves a tale of the South Carolina low-country and the surrounding areas: the history, the traditions, the products of the land and sea.

(You can see all my pictures in this McCrady's flickr set, or click on any picture to enlarge.)

Part of what makes that story so compelling is how deeply Brock has ingrained himself into its telling: he raises his own pigs and cures his own hams. He farms some of the produce that is used in his restaurants. He's a dedicated seed saver who has personally helped preserve heirloom varietals that are part of the South's culinary heritage. He literally has a cornucopia of local products tattooed on his arm. But it would all just be a history lesson but for the fact that Brock's food is also flat out delicious.

We visited both McCrady's and Husk on our four-day Charleston visit. I was glad we did. Though they both bear Brock's indelible imprint, they are different restaurants: Husk somewhat more strictly faithful to the Southern idiom, McCrady's less constrained to the genre.

Here is the tasting menu we had in late December at McCrady's, in a warm, inviting dining room imbued with the glow of a crackling fireplace:

(continued ...)

The meal started with a series of snacks. First, a few curls of house-made coppa, gorgeously fat-marbled, intensely porcine slivers of cured pork collar. Next, more delicate and subtle, a leaf of sheep's sorrel commissioned to serve as a vehicle for dollops of paddlefish caviar and creme fraiche. The fresh green tartness of the sorrel was echoed in the lactic tang of the creme fraiche, balanced against the briny roe.

Crab is a mainstay of lowcountry cooking: there are nearly two dozen crab recipes in the "Charleston Receipts" cookbook first published by the Junior League of Charleston in 1950. This little "parfait" with layers of cold picked crabmeat, silky horseradish cream and vividly flavored celery ice is not in there, but was a great three-note composition, each bringing a different texture and flavor to enhance the others.

The first course listed on the tasting menu is a perfect example of dish as story. Oyster roasts are a Charleston tradition, usually involving bushels of them steamed open over a wood fire. How do you bring that experience into the restaurant? At McCrady's, they put the hot embers right in the bowl, with a Caper's Blade[8] oyster nestled on top, glazed with melted country ham fat and speckled with elderberry capers. The bowl is brought from the kitchen covered, and its unveiling at the table releases the heady aroma of smoke and sea. Our server explained: "The kitchen wants you to smell what they smell." Me too.

There was less tradition and more whimsy at play in the next course, a composition of sea urchin, kohlrabi, nasturtium leaves and kumquat slivers in a little puddle of vegetable broth. These were very clean flavors, but it was one of the only dishes that didn't really resonate.

Swordfish, grilled, still pink in the center; cabbage, both grilled and also a silky cream of its fermented juice; and an artful splatter of a dense, viscid black truffle sauce, two earthy elements in harmony with the sea.

Some chefs resist the notion of a "signature dish," out of fear of being typecast or pigeonholed. Brock embraces it, calling his "Charleston Ice Cream" "the dish that changed the way I look at food." His own words:
this very well be my favorite dish that we have ever served at McCrady’s and maybe my career. this dish is simple in appearance, but it tells an incredible story. Before we serve this dish we tell the diner about the importance of rice in Charleston during the rice era….which I believe was somewhere like 1700-1927….lots of speculation there of course….but regardless, the story is fascinating. it often helps people realize how a foodstuff can influence and help shape a culture. when you tell a story like this before a guest eats a dish their perspective changes completely…especially while sitting in an 18th century tavern in the middle of Charleston…..this is usually difficult to achieve….to truly have the full attention of the diner. but this dish is different….there is a connection between the room, the staff, the history, the city, the future and the diner….people love this kind of thing…i love this kind of thing…this dish is a journey thru the history of eating in Charleston.
the rice is served in the middle of our tasting menu….its always everyone’s favorite course….it IS pretty damn delicious….its pretty amazing how you can taste care, how you can taste intention, how you can taste respect, how you can taste hard work, how you can taste sacrifice, how you can taste true happiness…and how you can taste wisdom and lessons learned…well, at least I think its amazing…food taste better to me when those words are rolling thru my mind…sometimes these moments happen in your life and they can seem more important than they really are……but this is what makes this journey so fulfilling I suppose…….you never know what the future holds….
Yes it was my favorite course - of the evening, and possibly of the past year. Yes it was pretty damn delicious. It's all true, and then some. The rice, infused with bay leaf and butter, cloaked with delicate greens and flowers, still tastes resolutely of itself, and carries in each grain a few centuries of a city's history. This was the platonic ideal of rice dishes.

Though the South may be known for its love of the pig, Brock's love of vegetables may be at least as strong. Earthy salt-roasted beets (and a few raw shavings) were matched with sunny satsuma (in segments and a purée), a dusting of cocoa the deep bass note to the perky treble of fresh fennel fronds.

There would, of course, still be pig after all: a tranche of juicy pork loin, plated with turnips, beech mushrooms, kale leaves, and a sauce of the juiced greens. I wish I could find a better way of saying it, but there was something so "straight from the farm" about the flavors of this dish: just really clean, pure and hearty, each component tasting unabashedly of itself.

Even more so: duck, aged for several days and roasted on the bone, a fat slice of it served with perfectly rosy flesh and equally perfectly crispy skin. It was paired with creamed farro,[9] a garlic emulsion, and fermented walnut "miso," all of which were nice, but frankly irrelevant: this duck was incredible, maybe the best I've ever had.

Simplicity remained the order of the day as we moved into desserts. First, a creamy cold satsuma ice cream, spiked with eucalyptus and scattered with crispy brown butter crumbles. Next, a jasmine-cured egg yolk, nestled in a puddle of a creamy white chocolate pudding, dusted with sumac, decorated with nasturtium flowers, a crispy cookie, almost like feuilletine, riding sideboard. A beautiful closing to a beautiful meal.

I would be remiss in not mentioning how every other aspect of our meal - the service, the wine, the pace, the atmosphere - was just as good as the cooking. We passed on the wine pairing and instead went with half-bottles each of a white and red, a Hirsch Grüner Veltliner Heiligenstein (2010) and a Domaine Joseph Voillot Volnay Vielles Vignes (2009), about which the wine director was almost as enthusiastic as we were. I always appreciate a list with a good selection of half-bottles. That same enthusiasm is shared by the entire staff, who were warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable.

In retrospect, one of the things that stands out most about our meal is that through a dozen courses and snacks, not a single dish had more than three or four primary components. And yet nothing felt "simple" or minimalist. There is a confidence to Brock's cooking on display in every plate. This is what it feels like when a restaurant is at the top of its game.

McCrady's is, if people whose tastes I usually trust are to be believed,[10] one of the best restaurants in the country (and I would not disagree), yet it's a surprisingly easy reservation: if you wanted to go there next week, you could book a table at just about any time of your choosing.[11] If you're looking for somewhere to start your own "Grand Southern Dining Tour," it would be a perfect launching point.

2 Unity Alley, Charleston SC

McCrady's on Urbanspoon

[1] About which more will follow here.

[2] Poole's Diner, Lantern in nearby Chapel Hill. But before either, a lunch pit-stop at Rodney Scott's BBQ in Hemingway, SC.

[3] Peter Chang China CafeThe Roosevelt, Pasture, The Magpie.

[4] Proof on Main, 610 Magnolia, The Silver Dollar, The Blind Pig, Rye, Garage Bar, and of course some bourbon sampling. But first, maybe a pit-stop at The Red Hen in Lexington, VA or Local Roots Cafe in Roanoke.

[5] Catbird Seat, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, Hog and Hominy.

[6] Curate, The Admiral.

[7] Holeman & Finch, Empire State South, Eugene, The Optimist.

[8] Clammer Dave's clams and oysters show up on menus all over town, and for good reason. I usually prefer oysters from colder waters, but this oyster could cause me to rethink my preferences.

[9] The farro is another of Brock's grain reclamation projects.

[10] For further reading: ChuckEats - "McCrady's - Seeds of Muse and Obsession"; and ulterior epicure - "around the world in 18 plates".

[11] This is surely at least in part because the newer and more casual Husk is one of the hottest reservations in town.

No comments:

Post a Comment