One of my New Year’s resolutions was to further explore the cuisine of the American South. At that time, I had already started planning a trip to visit family in Charleston. People had talked about Charleston as a food town and I had read some about Sean Brock, McCrady’s, and Husk. I had also read stories from John T. Edge going on about Bertha’s. Besides those brief forays I knew very little. I had a few cookbooks that I referenced frequently. A short visit five years ago when I had food that was the Southern equivalent of what you would get on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It was a pleasant atmosphere and inoffensive food. I didn’t see the wonder in Modern Southern cookery. Topically, I was intrigued, but skeptical. I loved the romantic idea of Low Country Cuisine and how it tied to my wife’s family history. It made me feel connected to both her and to a history that goes so much deeper that I knew at the time. However, outside of a few major dishes, I really had little idea of what it was. I knew about Hoppin’ John, collard greens, grits, and fried chicken. I knew nothing about okra soup, lima beans, giblet rice, and the like. Research would help open those doors, connect the dots, and see that the places like Husk, McCrady’s and Martha Lous weren’t that different.
What I found in my research was that Charleston is a town where you have access to fantastic food and more recently fantastic ingredients, but you have to parse the places that you hear about, but are mediocre at best from the places the really bring it regardless of the press. There seem to be tons of places you hear about in travel and food magazines about whom food people in Charleston roll their eyes. As a resident of Chicago, I completely understand. People come here and beg to go to Giordano’s and Gibson’s. Eyes roll.
In Charleston, everyone had an opinion and no two were the same. After making reservations at Husk and McCrady’s, I spent two solid months of attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff. I had a list of about ten places to try, based on trusted voices – mainly found via twitter. I had few expectations for the weekend food-wise, but I was extremely excited to see how it would turn out. Part of me was expecting a caricature of Southern Food – a Foghorn Leghorn of food including grits, fried chicken, and collard greens on every corner. In the end, what I learned was that Southern Food was not one single thing, but rather a combination of history and ingredients, not a checklist of key dishes.
We landed Wednesday morning to sunny weather and 80 degrees – a far cry from what we had left in Chicago. We made it to our hotel, dropped our bags and walked South on King Street towards my father-in-law’s house. Charleston, on lower King, oozes history and charm. Colonial buildings housing shops are everywhere on the narrow street. As I knew that I was spending more time eating than normal, and eating many things that I do not typically allow, I spent a good deal of time running the streets. What I found were nooks and crannies of Charleston that humbled me to no end. Houses with gardens that, in March, took my breath away or porches that I would give a finger to have access to for a year. I ran along the battery, down Rainbow Road, across the Ravenel Bridge and back, and through the market. These moments were precious not only because it allowed me to see that back alleys and each corner of Charleston and burn off most of the prior night’s dinner, but because it allowed me to plan the day’s meals and reflect back on the time spent in prior days categorizing stops as can’t miss, don’t bother or somewhere in between. Some of the highlights are below.
Heirloom Books - Just a few short blocks away from our home base was Heirloom Books. Heirloom is a bookstore featuring cookbooks, new, used, rare, and vintage, and one of the few in the world. On the shelves were some amazing cookbooks that I had been looking for, but the one that caught my eye that I had been looking for over the past months was “Notes From a Kitchen“.
“Notes From a Kitchen” is an epic book looking into the creative process of a group of highly decorated chefs including aforementioned Sean Brock. It has yet to be released outside of several stores and directly from the publisher. It was not cheap, but given that this beast clocks in at nearly 25 pounds, shipping costs make buying it local nearly a bargain, even at its high price. I considered holding out for the signed special edition thinking that it would show up at the Wine and Food Festival that happened to coincide with our visit (leading to chance run ins with George Mendes, John Besh, Ken Oringer, Celine Tio, Marco Canora, John T. Edge, etc.), but the regular edition is already the most expensive book that I own, so I opted to stick with the regular version with only a touch of regret.
Getting your hands on a book like this is just one of the reasons that not having a bookstore like Heirloom in Chicago is infuriating. Ordering vintage cookbooks from Amazon is impersonal and in some cases risky especially considering the cost of this book. Getting specialty books is nearly impossible, but I walked into Heirloom and my wishlist doubled in size immediately. I stopped by three times during the first day alone and over ten times over the weekend. This place is a treasure.
McCrady’s – Since Husk opened, Sean Brock’s “other” restaurant has gotten far less press than the almost overexposed, Husk, but the story a few years ago was about Sean Brock’s love for molecular gastronomy and how McCrady’s was one of the finest restaurants in the country. With Husk getting all of the press, people sleep on McCrady’s, but seeing the menu for the nights leading up to our dinner, I could see that while Brock and chef de cuisine, Jeremiah Langhorne, were including Southern ingredients, but doing so in a fine dining environment.
Before dinner, we sampled the best bourbon in the world, Pappy VanWinkle, the 20 year in particular. Moreso than in Chicago, Pappy seemed to have a firm foothold in Charleston and, with one of its biggest advocates in Sean Brock as the executive chef, the variety available at McCrady’s and Husk is plentiful. The 20 year Pappy served as a kick-off to a great visit and a tremendous meal.
At McCrady’s, you have multiple options for dinner. The two options spotlighted were the four course tasting menu and the the chef’s tasting menu which was closer to sixteen courses. You could order a la carte, but if you are at McCrady’s, why would you do that? Had the party been up for it, I would have chosen the chef’s tasting and backed off of the wine, but as it stood, the four course dinner was selected. Between the six of us, we would be able to try most of the menu.
There was not a clunker in the bunch and the dinner showed remarkable restraint, subtlety, and technique. One of the major highlights was the beef tartare served with a cylinder of cured egg yolk and beef tendons puffed like chicharones. This dish took a simple dish like tartare and expanded the contrasts of flavors and textures. It was a special plate of food. Another great dish was the octopus served with parsnip, hazelnut, charred fennel, cocoa, and black truffle. This was a really unexpected dish that covered the gamut of flavors. The sweetness of the octopus and parsnip and the savory qualities of the truffle were balanced by the bitterness of charred fennel and cocoa. It was a dish more nuanced than I can describe here. Next was the wagyu flat iron steak with whey poached leeks and hay roasted celery root. This was the dish that really got the table excited. I am not much of a steak guy. Rare does a steak raise my eyebrows. This one did. It was cooked perfectly, but the feature that drew me in was the whole puffed farro crust. With the soft textures of the vegetables, the crunch of the puffed farro was a great touch. I would be remiss to not mention the chocolate ganache dessert with pine, barley, and malted milk. It took a course that, to me, is kind of a throw in and turned it into a conversation piece and one of my favorite bites of the weekend. Really, really interesting and complex dish with multiple textures, temperatures, and flavors rather than sweet on sweet on sweet.
After dinner, we got a great tour of the building. We learned that George Washington was a visitor to the building in its earlier usage as a tavern and as we walked back to our hotel, we discussed our favorites to realize that we all liked different things best and how everyone tried new things, but did not feel intimidated by the preparations despite great complexity. To me, this shows how successful the dinner was when it hits each diner in their own sweet spot, pushes their boundaries, but doesn’t make anyone, despite their dining experiences, feel out of their element. That is what McCrady’s was to me. A fine dining experience that was expertly created, but not one that was showing off technique for technique’s sake. Serious food without taking itself too seriously.
Martha Lou’s - There is a pink shack sitting outside of Downtown that serves what I believe to be the finest Soul Food that I have ever had. While to an outsider, like myself, this place appears to be intimidating. From the inside, Martha Lou and her daughter treated my ladies and me like family. We walked in and looked into the kitchen. It was not unlike the kitchen of my great-grandmother. A four burner stove with pots jammed atop bubbling away. We sat down not knowing what to expect. We asked questions which were answered warmly. We laughed and joked. Our girls smiled and opened up.
The four of us shared a plate of fried chicken with okra soup, lima beans, and collards as well as a fried pork chop, giblet rice, green beans and mac & cheese. There was absolute silence from our girls for the first time in days and my dining partner and I playfully shoved one another’s arms from the dishes to get ourselves the best bite.
While all extremely delicious, the three dishes that stood out to us were the giblet rice, the okra soup, and the most amazing fried chicken that I have ever had. The giblet rice is simply rice cooked with chicken giblets and comes out a light shade of brown. The flavor is carried by the fantastic rice, but accented by the giblets. With the sticky and sloppy texture this would make a tremendous dressing on a Thanksgiving Day table. As it stood, our older daughter ate nearly all of it. The spoonfuls that we got, we loved. The okra soup would qualify as the best thing eaten in months in a normal quarter. Okra, tomato, and aromats in a bright red stew. It was one of those dishes that will make you slouch into your chair and sigh. This soup was truly a joy and one of the highlights of the trip. Finally there was the chicken. This is the chicken that alters minds. It simply is better than whatever you consider to be the best chicken that you have tasted. The crust was intensely crunchy and crispy and seasoned heavily with salt and pepper. The flesh was meltingly tender and perfect.
As we paid and left, I wandered up to Martha Lou and gave her a hug. It must happen a lot to her as she was not shocked by a complete stranger carrying an 18 month old girl walking up to her and hugging her without warning. I was taken with how we were welcomed and how her food took a family of four thousands of miles from home in a pink shack sitting laughing, pushing, shoving, and having that singular communal moment that is so rare. Two days later, if I had to pick a meal, a single meal, to repeat in Charleston, this would be it. It was not the best meal of the trip, but it was my favorite by a mile.
Husk – The single restaurant that I have wanted to visit more than any other in the world since visiting The French Laundry last June has been Husk. Husk is Sean Brock’s second outpost that explores Southern Cooking and, more specifically, Southern ingredients. At Husk, Brock uses only ingredients from South of the Mason-Dixon line. Nothing else comes in the door. At the heart of the matter, the ethos reminds me of Mado. However, Husk has been blessed with not only a longer growing season, but the distinct advantage of being able to match available local ingredients and a local cuisine that naturally goes with the ingredients. Brock has sparked new Southern cooking by demanding great heirloom ingredients, in some cases growing them himself, and the experience at Husk, a walk through history with modern twists, is really reflective of the resulting momentum that he has created.
Not everything at Husk is straight from Charleston Receipts, style-wise, despite the entrenched commitment to Southern ingredients. In fact, none of the dishes are. Dishes like buffalo pork ear lettuce wraps would be about as far from the 19th century Southern table as any other dish, but the dish still tastes Southern to its core. Like at McCrady’s, we literally tried 80% of the menu at Husk and were so impressed by the food and atmosphere that, to a person, everyone enjoyed their meals Husk better than McCrady’s despite leaving McCrady’s the night before in awe.
Making our way through all of the first course items, all amazing, we loved the Smoked ribs with Peach BBQ sauce, the crispy fried chicken skins, and the brown oyster stew with ham stock, shittakes, and kale best, but the real stars of dinner were the main course of the bacon jam topped catfish dusted with cornmeal over pickled beans, charred romaine, and pureed cornbread that my wife and I split along with some Benton’s bacon cornbread. Every dish that came out was greeted with oohs and ahhs, but this main course was a fantastic marriage of flavors. The crispy catfish married so well with the pickled beans and romaine. The bacon jam and pureed cornbread combined to make a smokey, sweet, smooth base for the dish that reminded me of Chris Turner’s smoked polenta from our New Year’s feast at Butcher and Larder.
The desserts, and again we tried all of them, were really an exploration of the history of Southern sweets in more of a traditional sense with my favorite being the lemon pie in a jar. They were delicious and satisfied in a much simpler way, without being dumbed down.
Something to note that I uncovered walking around town the next night just needing something casual for dinner after staying back with the girls while they slept, Husk’s bar serves food. The burger is available at the bar and with no need for reservations, it was almost like it was meant to be. The burger was the best thing that I had at Husk over the two nights. It wasn’t fussy, but it was amazingly delicious and without pretense. It was about as great as a burger can be. Lacy edges, oozy cheese, and a soft bun. It is a groaner, in all of the best ways. Sorry Eddie Lakin, there is a new best burger blocking my arteries.
Husk was unlike any restaurant that I have been to. My best comparison is, as I mentioned before, Mado, but that comparison falls short in that Mado matched Midwestern ingredients with Mediterranean flavors – the place was awesome, but the match was not perfect, as I do not know if there even is a Midwestern cuisine. People would joke about cream of mushroom soup or portion sizes, but aside for general casserole/hot dishes, there is not much in terms of cuisine here. Mado had great ingredients (for a short growing season) and a great cuisine, but they weren’t match and it was likely difficult to fit tab A into slot B for Rob and Chris, whereas Husk’s match seems natural.
Husk is serious about its principles without being stuffy in the least. The food is amazingly well done – interesting without moving towards novelty – and tremendously fun. There was interactive food, but the consistent them was that it was all delicious and all complex combinations of flavors, textures, and temperatures without being obscure.
You could eat at Husk ten times and never get bored and likely never have a bad plate of food. Having visited the restaurant that I had been looking forward to most (and doing so twice), there was not a microgram of let down with either experience and, in fact, both exceeded expectations and sits squarely atop my dining experiences.
Two Boroughs Larder and Dave’s Carry Out – I group these two together because they are next door neighbors in an off the beaten path neighborhood on the Northwest side of Charleston and deserve to be visited together. They have little to nothing in common besides location and their preparation of good food.
TBL is a new place with old school sensibilities. It acts as both a grocery selling local products as well as a restaurant serving Asian inspired nose to tail food. After eating a ton in the prior 36 hours, we kept it very light and ordered each of the sides. Each were excellent with interesting and bold flavors, but the real standout was the roasted caulifower with sweet chili vinaigrette and capers. The cauliflower was roasted with some crusty brown bits. The capers and chilis really create a punchy sauce to a dish that satisfied my cravings for something a little less “American”.
Alternatively, next door in a blue corner shack is Dave’s Carry Out which served fried food, shrimp in our case, with standard sides. This place is not Martha Lou’s, but brings a lot of goodness. The shrimp was lightly battered and fried, tail on. The light hand on the batter made these crispy crustaceans for me. These were not the cakey fried shrimp served everywhere else. The hot sauce that came alongside with the collards and lima beans made this styrofoam plate lunch one to remember.
Pairing the shrimp meal with the sides from TBL made for the best one-two punches of the weekend and provided a little bit of lightness in a week most of the food was pretty heavy. Next time that I visit Charleston, I will be hitting up TBL for a much deeper dive.
Hannibal’s – On Saturday, we trekked out to Bertha’s, a classic Soul Food outpost outside of Charleston, to find that it took the weekend off. Disappointed, we checked in with a local source with the highest pedigree to see where to get good Soul Food on a Saturday and that we like Martha Lou’s and wanted to try a new place. We were steered to Hannibal’s on the Northeast side of town. This humble diner was in a rough part of town, to be sure, but was friendly as could be if a little skeptical of us.
We ordered a good amount of food, but the two things that absolutely can not be missed are the mac & cheese and lima beans which were the best sides of our soul food lunches (excepting Martha Lou’s okra soup). For comparison’s sake, we ordered the fried chicken and pork chop which were both a notch below Martha Lou’s, but the sides were downright amazing. After the second shot a a fried pork chop, it became clear that it is not my favorite. Nothing against either place where I had one, but the thin pork chop fried left me wishing that I had gone with double chicken or perhaps fried fish.
Hannibal’s doesn’t get much mention among the soul food elite (Martha Lou’s, Ernie’s, Bertha’s, Dave’s) in Charleston, but the strong showing in the sides department should put it among the best. Certainly at least as good, if not a little better than Dave’s.
Cypress – This is where a great trip, culinarily speaking, turned into my greatest trip. From a national perspective, Cypress does not get a fraction of the attention that Husk or McCrady’s gets. It doesn’t get the love that SNOB, FIG, or Hominy Grill gets, but damned if the best charcuterie that I have ever had did not come from Craig Deihl and Bob Cook at Cypress.
Cypress is a 2011 Good Food Award winner for the Cypressata, but the good stuff doesn’t stop there. With a full walk-in on the second floor looking like the meat version of the Gardens at Versailles, it was clear from a quick walk around the cooler that the charcuterie experience would be amazing, but I had no idea until the last of it was gone, how good it would be.
As we got our two boards (yes, two) and went through each portion one by one, we sighed and twisted and smiled and laughed as each one seemingly out did the last. There was the lardo studded caraway saucisson, where in place of fatback 8 month cured lardo was set in it place along side caraway. Then there was milano, the aforementioned Cypressata, the pepperone, the lamb mortadella, the finocchiona, the pate, the coppa, the culatello, and the 100% lamb salumi, which was the lambiest sausage that I have ever had. There were a bunch of others that are lost in a meat haze.
The spreadable plate featured the best nduja that I have ever had. Spicy and incredibly funky, it was good enough for each of us to take turns scraping the corners of the cazuela sopping up the remains. Finally, there was something that I had never seen before – spreadable finocchiona. It was a riff on nduja, but instead of fiery Calabrian chili powder, the seasoning was the same as a finocchiona, but amped up such that the spice could be carried by the mostly fatty forcemeat. My wife loved this one the best and, if it weren’t for the lamb salumi which narrowly edged it, it would have been mine as well. For the charcuterie lovers reading this, Cypress needs to be extraordinarily high on your lists of places to visit. Having been to Boccalone less than nine months ago, I can confirm that Cypress is better. I can not imagine Salumi in Seattle beating this either.
On top of everything, Chef Deihl has a program that gets his charcuterie into the marketplace as part of a Artisan Meat Share. Think CSA for those unafraid of fat and salt. After he told me about this program, I could not pass it up, so I borrowed a duffel to carry the share onto our flight home and headed back to Cypress to get a share. I am looking forward to sharing the meat share among those who would appreciate it to show what is going on, charcuterie wise, in Charleston – which is simply amazing.
The completely amazing Cypress charcuterie experience capped off one of the most fun vacations that I have had in a long time. Visiting Charleston, dining well, and enjoying the historical wonder of the smallish colonial town was just what the doctor had ordered – a slower pace in a friendly historical town with perhaps the finest food on both ends of the dining spectrum. It was simultaneously inspiring and humbling in all sorts of respects and made me realize that Southern, and more specifically Low Country, cooking is not only varied, nuanced and ultimately delicious, but appears to be what I would answer to be the definitive American Cuisine. There are dishes from regions around the country, but nowhere else in America is there cuisine that is so firmly entrenched in their ingredients as in the South.
No single place is perfect. We had a couple clunker meals and Charleston could beef up on their ethnic cuisine and their coffee culture, but all that said, I have never eaten as well in a single weekend in my entire life. Going into the weekend, I was a believer in Low Country cuisine, but even after spending just a long weekend in Charleston, I appreciate the integrity in which the Southern, Low Country American food that I experienced was so deliciously prepared and I look forward to diving even deeper into those traditions.