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:

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

CSA Week 9 and its Uses

I have been seriously derelict in reporting on my CSA garden shares from Little River Market Garden this season. There are no excuses: my farmer, Muriel Olivares, somehow managed to keep things going even while giving birth to a beautiful baby girl right smack in the middle of the season. And she's even added more variety to this season's harvest, including new items like edamame and fresh ginger along with the usual panoply of greens, cabbages, heirloom tomatoes, root vegetables and herbs that we got last year.

So why haven't I done a single CSA post yet this season?

Well, it's partly because when you have tomatoes like these, there is no recipe that can possibly improve on them. You wash them, and then you pop them in your mouth like candy. Maybe halve them and salt them, drizzle them with olive oil if you must. Sure, I could do something more clever than that; but I don't. Even when I cook lately, it's been pretty simple stuff. Assembling a salad or braising some greens does not make for great reading.

Still and yet, I enjoy writing these CSA posts when I get around to doing so, and I especially like giving props to Muriel for the great things she does at Little River Market Garden. So here, then, is what happened to part of the latest garden share:

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Odd Couple Dinner - Daniel Serfer and Brad Kilgore at Blue Collar

That's just an example of the good-natured ribbing going on between chefs Danny Serfer and Brad Kilgore in the week leading up to their "Odd Couple" dinner at Serfer's Blue Collar restaurant. Why "Odd Couple"? Well, Kilgore is the culinary Felix Unger: before coming to Miami he worked at high-end Chicago places with a constellation of Michelin stars: Alinea, L20, Boka and Epic. When he was sous chef at Miami's Azul, Andrew Zimmern dubbed him "Wall Street" for his slick style and slicked-back hair. Yes, there are probably tweezers in his knife bag.

That would make Serfer the culinary Oscar Madison. His style is exactly as the name of his restaurant, tucked into the still-slightly-dodgy Biscayne Inn on Biscayne Boulevard, suggests: it's upscale diner food, straightforward, hearty, and if it's a little sloppy, well who cares? It'll still taste good. Truth is, Serfer's done the fine dining thing too, with several years at the now-closed Chef Allen's before opening his own place. Now he's cooking the food he wants to cook, and that people want to eat, as the popularity of Blue Collar will attest.

So when Brad and Danny decided to do a dinner together - possibly with some prodding from The Chowfather (who also "curated" some liquid refreshments) - "The Odd Couple" was a natural spin on it. Each chef ended up doing their own take on five different proteins, with desserts contributed by pastry chef Soroya Caraccioli (a/k/a Soroya Kilgore, who happens to be Brad's wife). It was a really fun meal where each chef stayed faithful to his style.

(You can see all my pictures in this Odd Couple Dinner flickr set).

Though the dinner wasn't billed as a competition, it's pretty much impossible to avoid comparisons, especially when eating the dishes side by side. So here's my take on each round, with some Iron Chef style commentary along the way (for another scorecard - and a really funny one - check out Chowfather's post on the Odd Couple dinner):


Right out the gate, both chefs were resorting to secret weapons. For Danny, it was a mini Portuguese muffin, something I've previously described as "the love child of an English muffin and brioche." It's the standard vehicle at Blue Collar for his great burger and the off-menu "Corben" sandwich. Here, it was the base for a "po'boy" of pulled stone crab meat, a smoked trout roe tartare sauce, all dressed with lettuce, tomato and onion. I didn't get a good picture, but I did get a good taste, and this was a great little sandwich.

Brad, meanwhile, went immediately to the nuclear option: bacon. A slab of cured and braised pork belly was the base for a mound of stone crab dressed in an uni-ricotta emulsion, topped with shavings of bottarga and snipped chives. I'm a sucker for pork and seafood combinations, and for uni, and for bottarga, and this was delicious, but I think Danny's po'boy did more to highlight the taste of the stone crab itself.

Round One: Danny.

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