Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Charleston - Worth a detour off the Interstate

   Sure, it’s a slight detour, not a special journey, when you’re hugging the coast, driving North, against better judgment, away from warm Gulf waters, abundant with sweet shrimp, and towards Toronto’s grey winter skyline. So, not quite midway, we break off 95, through swamp and low country, to Charleston’s 19th century town houses, and to a new American food mecca.
   And food is why this detour. If you’re reading this you likely already know that, you likely already know what’s happening here. What’s happening is Sean Brock, chef, modernist and anachronist, as likely to cook you a two hundred year old recipe with heirloom vegetables in a wood burning oven as he is to stabilize a puree of those same vegetables with methylcellulose, and his two restaurants Husk and McCrady’s. The New Yorker has profiled him, Charlie Rose has interviewed him, he’s been the toast of Manhattan’s culinary scene and yet his restaurants are 750 miles away. Quite an accomplishment in a city that thinks that a trip to Brooklyn requires an overnight bag. Brock is day two, though. 

   Day one is a late arrival and check in, and a walk across the street to Cypress. What’s striking here about the restaurants is the space they’re afforded. In Toronto, where chefs cook on electric stoves in broom closets, this kind of space is unfathomable. Cypress has three dining rooms – a formal one downstairs, a lounge bar upstairs (where we ate), and an adjoining private dining area, with room left over for a giant kitchen with a wood burning grill and ample space to cure their own meats and charcuterie. And yes, charcuterie is what this meal is about. Ham, salami, pates  and terrines, grilled bread and some excellent Nduja (but hey, Brandon Olsen, if you’re reading this, your Nduja is better), followed by cheeses. Very good stuff consumed among Charleston’s sweater vest crowd (they look surprisingly dapper – wealthy and white, possible Santorum supporters the weekend before Newt’s final, false revival). Afterwards, Bar Husk, Brock’s bourbon-centric bar, another miracle of abundant space, located in the carriage house adjacent to Husk proper. A better bar is hard to imagine. More bourbon than you could hope to try, barrel aged cocktails, sherry - Charleston was a sherry town and McCrady was the sherry guy - from sweet to dry, beer and wine, unpretentious, carefully weathered, friendly, and comfortable.

Morning is good for a coffee and a walk and walks work best when there’s a destination and, to complete the circle, that destination is coffee. Hope and Union is located in a modern annex to an older building in an arty area north of the College of Charleston. Very good; a pour-over drunk on their porch and a slight gustatory trick: caffeine an appetite suppressant, the kind that wears off when you walk into Husk for lunch, excited and very, very hungry. (Here, I’d be remiss not to mention that for those who want more from a weekend than to stuff themselves silly, or for those that want a new outfit for dinner, the Billy Read store around the corner from Husk has some of the finest, most interesting clothes in the South.)

     Husk is Brock as a writer of historical fiction. Like the great Parisian restaurants make you, for a moment, feel like French aristocracy, Husk imagines the moneyed American South as better than it ever was – a place where all are welcome to break bread in a wealthy friend’s mansion, freshly manicured for its Southern Living cover shot.  Heirloom varieties of grains and vegetables, some though extinct but found by foragers and now re-cultivated by Brock and other obsessives, in heirloom recipes, like corn bread, cooked in a skillet with Allen Benton’s remarkable bacon, five ingredients – cornmeal, eggs, baking soda, baking powder, and buttermilk (okay, and the bacon and salt)  and no sugar. It is perfect. Not the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but the least improvable. If you don’t like this, you don’t like cornbread and I can’t help you. Fried green tomatoes are served with pimento cheese, caramelized onions, and more bacon. A bright, acid crunch with spice and cream, as vivid as food gets. Mains and desserts considered in the same vein – duck confit with oatmeal, cornmeal crusted catfish with chow chow, shrimp and girts, oatmeal pie, and squash bread pudding among other things. Grains feature prominently, adding a rugged earthy character to the food, enlivened by vegetables and clean technique. It all seems unreal. The mythic south Brock is creating here almost certainly never existed. The fiction of Husk is a South of easy grace and agricultural bounty, a dreamy, pastoral place that lies apart from the things that we Northerners find uncomfortable. Brock’s fantasy is a gorgeous lie and one hell of a restaurant.

     McCrady’s is almost as good. It’s both more ambitious and more traditional. The room lacks Brock’s careful eye and attention to detail.  Southern Living would find this place much less interesting. Brock is not the creator of this place, merely the guy who picked it up by the scruff of the neck and made it matter. It’s obvious why as soon as the first plate is set down: the food is meticulous. An edible forest of beets, slowly roasted over embers, tastes earthy and sweet while, across the table, a coddled egg sits, barely firm, among heirloom red beans. Next, clams and oysters with fennel and saffron are punchy and vibrant and Spanish. Mahi mahi is the Caribbean on porcelain and linen. Fresh and firm, the fish is kissed with sweet potato and blackening spices. Finally, aged birds – wood pigeon is hung for two weeks, baked in hey, and served with beets, chocolate, and fragrant Carolina gold rice, duck is dry aged and served with turnips. Desserts are of the same modern, tweezery character. Small things treated with high technique and well tempered flavours. Walnut cake had the same rustic feel as the Husk desserts, but had been run through an haute cuisine machine. While a eucalyptus panna cotta and another dessert of chocolate mousse with beet gelee gives us untraditional flavour combinations in a tight, clean, modern way. 
    Together with Husk, McCrady’s tells the story of Brock’s optimism. Husk is the story of the best South we could ever imagine. McCrady’s is a message about how the future of our restaurants should look – technology is not used to replace or obscure, but to give beautiful, unique, and very old things a newer, brighter sheen.  The coddled egg is made as perfect as it can be in the immersion circulator, cooked neither too much nor too little, its best performance given on every plate, every night. Innovation cast not as the lead but as a humble supporting cast member.

     In the early twentieth century, rich Parisians used to drive from Paris to the Cote D’Azur in their brand new motor cars. The trip, cars being what they were then, would take days and, rich Parisians being rich Parisians, needed to stop along the way to eat. So, in order to sell tires, Michelin decided to help them out with a food guide. One star meant a place worth stopping at, two, a detour, three, a special journey. Even today, most Michelin three star restaurants in France cluster along the road from Paris to Nice. Of course, no one takes the motor car down and, for those who do, the trip can be done in a day. Meanwhile, gastronomes make special journeys by airplane, to Roses and Roanne, San Sebastian and Copenhagen. But us ambitious snowbirds, young and old, heading South for a long Christmas break, can share something with those old Parisians: a detour off 95 to a place that, if I’m really being honest, is probably worth a special journey on its own.

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