Last week I was traipsing all over South Carolina for work, a trip that took me almost a thousand miles across five cities. But I don’t mind too much, as an opportunity to dine Charleston and hit the beach in Savannah (Tybee) leaves one with few complaints. On my journey I look for a lot of “road food” and hole-in-the-wall type of places in small cities, but Charleston always has the most exciting restaurants, and this year was no different. I eagerly looked forward to my meal at Husk, the new-hotness, hyper-Southern restaurant from James Beard winning chef Sean Brock.
If you follow food (and let’s face it, you’re reading a second-rate food blog, you must be a fan), you’ve heard about Husk. They only use ingredients available South of the Mason-Dixon line, local and micro-production purveyors are used whenever possible, and long-lost heirloom grains from the Civil War era have been revitalized in their kitchen. All set in a highly manicured version of your grandmother’s dining room. I’d call it Southern comfort food wearing a Billy Reid vest and a bow-tie.
Much of my intrigue started around their Bourbon heavy cocktail program, so on this Wednesday evening visit I started with the Julian cocktail. They had to change bourbons because they were out of the Van Winkle (15) they had been using, oh well. It was very well balanced and refreshing, though I did drink it in about the same amount of time it took to make it. Did I mention it’s already a steam bath in this part of the country? And it’s only April.
The bar (which is in a building off to the side of the main restaurant) only offers a limited snack menu, and the main restaurant doesn’t have a bar, so I had to put my name down for a table for one. I don’t enjoy dining at a table by myself, especially as I often feel the server is disappointed when they instantly realize they won’t be making quite as much in tip. This evening was no exception.
While I waited almost an hour for my name to be called, I had another cocktail and ordered the trout dip. The dip was nice, but the sweet and crisp homemade wheat thins won me over.
The bar was also featuring “Surryano” ham, which I sampled, and was quite good. I’m not sure if it’s worth the premium over other Southern artisan hams, but it’s still much less expensive than Italian ham options. The bar does rotate producers; I was told they had just finished a Caw Caw country ham.
Once I had settled nicely into my buzz, the restaurant called over to the bar to let me know my table on the front patio was ready. Having only six tables or so, this open air porch on the second level was the prime spot for what had turned into a very nice Carolina evening. After quickly ordering a glass of Sancerre from the quirky, soil type categorized wine menu, I selected the soft shell crab and the clams as starters. I guess the kitchen wasn’t told this was for one person, as they brought both appetizers out at the same time, so I had to quickly decide which one I’d eat while the other went cold. Starting with the hot, fried crab made sense.
I did enjoy the crispy, large offering of crustacean and would order it again, but I’m a sucker for soft shell crabs. There’s something savage about eating them, I feel like a cruel giant among the ocean dwellers as I rip through their soft exoskeletons with each bite. Looks like you should have found a better place to shed your shell, my poor delicious friend.
The wood fired clams with pea shoots and country ham in a parsnip broth was my other selection. It sounded damn fine on paper, but the broth was salted past the point of being edible. I picked out the clams, but can’t say I enjoyed those either due to the contact with the broth. I considered sending it back, but I didn’t see my server until my entree came out.
As I was unaccompanied, I was provided with ample time to take in the scenery and the crowd at Husk, and I can’t say I was really enjoying that. There was one guy at the large table at the end of the patio in flip flops and a t-shirt who was hammered and was yelling and cursing loudly. He thought he was quite hilarious, as did his two lady friends, though they did try to quiet him down when he became especially loud.
I don’t feel like I’m one to get too bent out of shape about that sort of thing, but I do believe he was bothering everyone on that side of the porch as it made it difficult to for them to converse at a normal level of volume. That didn’t affect me obviously, but I was sitting facing his direction, so I had nothing to do but sit there and watch this jackoff for an hour. Occasionally he’d try to crack jokes to people at tables next to him or attempt to hug waitresses…it was fairly annoying. Due to all of the press and the local familiarity with this type of cuisine, is this the sort of crowd Husk gets day in and day out? God I hope not.
Which brings me to my main course – Fudge farms pork chop with Caw Caw pig ears and blizzard grits. Cooked to perfection, this large hunk of amazing pastured pork was inexplicably doused in hot sauce. I guess I get a pork chop/hot sauce connection, but that’s something I’d expect on a greasy-spoon fried pork chop sandwich. The spicy vinegar aromas were so strong, it’s all I could smell and taste through the entire dish, ruining my potential love affair with this swine. I did think the pig ear and pole bean salad and the large, vinegar laced grits were brilliant.
I pushed the uneaten portion of the pork away from me, and my server quickly took it away, mentioned some desserts, but I wasn’t really listening as I’d had enough then she brought the check. I walked back to my car a few minutes later, slightly dejected. I understand the excitement of Husk, that what Chef Brock is doing is seminal, the importance of local products, and I love the suppliers they support, but the miscues were disappointing. I really don’t care too much about how local the shellfish is if I can’t eat the dish because it was too salty. Know what I mean?
I guess one could chalk it up as a bound-to-happen aberration on an generally spotless record of execution – not everyone’s perfect. That’s something a true critic would quickly discover through numerous meals, but I’m just a traveler who gets to pass through Charleston once a year. And as someone in that position, a bummer of a visit like this definitely leaves an over-salted, over-porked, over-spiced taste in my mouth.