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17 January 2013

Tonight's Episode: The South Has Risen; Where Do We Go From Here

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I hate Southern cuisine. Stop, don't tar and feather me! My mother is Scottish so I didn't grow up with grits (in fact my first taste of that particular Southern staple was in a county lock-up, but that's a story for another day). My experiences with Southern food either ranged from the lard on lard fried evil that Paula Deen (and anyone else who over saturates the drawl) has been hawking on the gullible masses, or the bland and overcooked, under-seasoned mush that seems to pass for food in large parts of the South. But change has been in the wings. A New South has been gaining momentum. Young, dynamic chefs with a passion for the ingredients and techniques of REAL Southern cooking are pushing their way to the front. If you have watched any Food TV in the last two years you would know that the man at the absolute forefront of that movement is Husk Executive Chef Sean Brock.

Now Chef Brock has been at the top of my list for a while now, at the helm of über-modernist McCrady's , but his jump to national acclaim came with the opening of Husk, a restaurant where the Mason-Dixon line isn't just an abstract concept, but an absolute demarcation line. Every ingredient is sourced from the confines of the South, from the Manchester Farms quail, to the Keegan-Filion farms beef, to the Texas olive oil. The techniques used are a blend of the cutting edge, global inspired and the super-traditional. His famed corn bread recipe is a hand-me-down from his Appalachian heritage. Where some restaurants may be an ode to Southern cuisine, Husk is a psychotic, mentally deranged stalker whose entire house is a shrine to the staples of Dixie.

Husk is located in the heart of Charleston on Queen Street. I recommend parking just around the corner on Chalmers if you have good shocks, since this cobble stone street is one of the most beautiful in the city at night. Walking up Queen you find Husk next door to Poogan's Porch. The dichotomy of the two restaurants couldn't be any more stark. On one side you have the long established favorite of society and the tourist sect. This is Martha Stewart and Southern Living. This is the South that bores me to tears. On the other side is the trailblazing young pup, the favorite of Damn Yankee foodies and young Southern locavore hipsters. This is Anthony Bourdain and Garden & Gun. This is the New South.

Take the humble pig ear. I've only had it two ways: boiled until tender on a sandwich or crispy like a cartilage pork rind. At Husk you can see it prepared as a lettuce many different preparations based on the day. Today it was with a charred scallion BBQ glaze with toasted peanuts and shaved apple. The crispy pleasant pop of the pig ears with that sweet and subtly Asian glaze is a thoughtful, balanced, and totally unexpected bite. The Girl, not usually the most adventurous of people, found them delightful.

What is more classic than potato soup? How about ramping up the spice level, then cooling it off with a pork belly marmalade. Okay, maybe someone should tell me what the heck a pork belly marmalade is other than FREAKING DELICIOUS. The Girl is a spice sensitive person, and the spice is to the nose running level. She cleans the bowl.

The wonderful thing about Husk, and the biggest headache, is never knowing what the menu will be. It's changed twice a day and based on whatever product is available. In the entryway is a massive board of the farms Chef Brock sources. That is how The Girl ends up with a petite waygu sirloin with smoky beef sausage (pictured right).  It just happened to be the best product available that day. This is the kind of dish that will roll your eyes to the back of your head. I honestly think it was better than my Tennessee pork shoulder with crispy belly, though the smoky butterbean "Hoppin' John" may have been the single best bite of the night.

Now I'm not saying Husk is perfect. The acclaimed corn bread isn't our cup of tea, far too dense. The portion sizes are, in all honesty, TOO big. This place needs a gluttony couch for you to lay on as you slip into a meat coma. What I am saying is Husk fully embraces the farm-to-table ethic, places the South on a pedestal, and dares you to say a damn word about how polenta is so much more refined than grits. And it does so with a smile and a glass of Pappy van Winkle in hand.

The bigger question Husk raises is; what is next for Haute Dixie? Can this cuisine translate to a global scale the way other cuisines have? The inevitable variations and bastardizations will change the ingredients and the presentations, the flavor profiles and techniques, but will the SOUL remain? Will the integrity remain the farther true Southern cuisine is removed from its African slave roots? As long as we look to chefs who embrace the South heart and soul such as Sean Brock to lead the movement and not just exploitative hacks like Paula Deen, there is a chance.

The Scores:

Ambiance: 4/5
Food: 9/10
Service: 5/5
Value: 5/5 (This was during the Charleston Restaurant Week 3 for $30, not regular pricing)

Overall: 23/25

Husk on Urbanspoon


  1. Sounds like I will have to give Husk another chance. The spicy potato soup sounds wonderful. I went to Husk with my girls' dinner club over a year ago, and most of us were not impressed (which was disappointing given everything we had read about it). I had a chicken dish which was so tough you could hardly cut into it. Mostly I remember how horrible and slow the service was (and we are used to 2-3 hour dinners). Actually, we've tried a new place almost every month for over 8 years now...and this ranked in the bottom 3 (along with FIG and SNOB). Maybe I'll give it another go 'round. I'm hitting Stars (again) this weekend...the kale salad and truffled pot pie is delish!

    1. I purposely waited for everything to settle down after the Year of Husk. When a new restaurant is suddenly thrust into that kind of national acclaim, I feel it effects the food. I wanted to give it enough time to recover from that initial push to live up to the press. The service was easy and smooth, and if anything a touch too fast. We finished three courses in less than two hours which is quick for us



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