Husk, located in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, was named the best new restaurant in the country for 2011 by Bon Appetit magazine, just the best of a host of accolades earned by chef Sean Brock (formerly of McCrady’s). I had lunch at Husk, which isn’t the full experience (with a very different menu from what they serve for dinner), but loved their local-seasonal-artisanal approach to traditional southern cuisine.
Husk has a giant blackboard right by the podium showing where the restaurant obtained all of its main ingredients, from proteins to dairy to eggs, with most sources quite local, in either South or North Carolina. I overordered a little, but rational portion sizes meant I didn’t end up with a ton of food left over. The catfish, lightly dusted with cornmeal and quickly panfried, served over a broth of tomatoes, several beans (including lima beans), and pea shoots, was superb, easily the best catfish I’ve ever eaten, with none of the ‘fishy’ flavor most people would associate with that fish, instead playing up what a mild, slightly sweet-tasting fish it can be when sourced properly. The skillet of bacon cornbread was also superb, rich, crispy on the bottom from the skillet and the bacon fat, with flecks of bacon throughout; this may have been gauche, but I found it quite useful for dipping in the tomato broth underneath the fish. For dessert, Husk had a special item, a blueberry crisp with local berries, a very thin layer of buckwheat granola on top, and a quenelle of lemon ice cream; overall the dish was far less sweet than most desserts, with a tangy/sweet combination that kept the blueberries at the center of the dish.
Service overall was very attentive, if a little peculiar. When I told the server it was my first time at the restaurant and asked for her recommendations, she actually recommended the cheeseburger, saying it was “the best thing on the menu.” That may be true, but is that really what I’m here for? I’ll get a burger at a great burger place. I went to Husk for the chef’s innovations in southern food. And I hope eventually to get back there for dinner, preferably with a few months’ notice so I can actually get a reservation.
A few weeks back, I had a postgame meal in Durham at Vin Rouge, another discovery from Bon Appetit because the restaurant had participated in a charity dinner in Raleigh that was covered by the magazine. I tweeted at the time that their bacon confiture – a bacon, onion, brown sugar confection served with thick slices of country bread – was on the short list of the best things I have ever eaten, and I admit I haven’t stopped thinking about the dish since then. It overshadowed the meal itself, trout amandine that was slightly overcooked in the kitchen and became very overcooked on its way to me because the trout – the whole fish, or about two meals for me – was still folded in half and thus continued to steam itself until I opened it up. The mashed potatoes on the plate, however, were divine, with God-knows-how-much cream/butter and a perfectly smooth texture. As a wine bistro, Vin Rouge doesn’t have much of a beer selection, which isn’t so much a complaint (did I expect anything different) as a comment for those of you who, like me, prefer barley to grapes. I will return, just with a different choice of entree.
Kiley McDaniel and I went to Charlotte’s Customshop last night at the suggestion of a reader (I apologize, I don’t remember who passed it along). Their concept is great – local sourcing, in-house preparations (such as duck- and chicken-liver pate) – but the execution wasn’t there last night. The braised pork belly had great color on the exterior and the ale and cider reduction was a perfect complement, but the meat was tough and some of the edges of the belly were actually charred. The roasted half-duck special had a crispy skin dusted with Chinese five-spice powder, but again, the meat was overcooked and tough, refusing to separate from the bones. They have a solid selection of charcuterie items – we went with Speck, Manchego (with honey), and drunken goat (with quince paste) – and the bread pudding (with sliced apples and caramel sauce, albeit with some over-roasted walnuts) was generally strong. With ingredients this good, the finished product felt more disappointing for the lack of execution because it could have been phenomenal with a more deft hand.