Friday, November 19, 2010

Husk Remembers When


Time changes everything. Or, maybe not. A friend of mine remembers working with Sean Brock a decade ago when he was still a Johnson and Wales student working double-time as a cook at Sweet Grass Cafe, a humble southern comfort food joint. She called the 2010 James Beard winner "fried chicken boy" because he loved Southern Culture on the Skids and enjoyed throwing it around at their concerts. She remembers how "excited" he was when he left to start a new job at the celebrated Peninsula Grill. Kind of makes you smile, doesn't it?

As a restaurant critic and long-time observer of Charleston's ever evolving and increasingly delicious restaurant scene, I remember when Sean Brock first stepped up to the chef plate at McCrady's, in the wake of much lauded local chef, Michael Kramer's departure. Just in his 20's at the time, it had to be a significant challenge, but Brock pulled it off. Still flexing his southern muscles, the West Virginia native worked a lot of foams, froths and sous vide technique into his work at a time when no one else in Charleston was doing it. His culinary identity was a little jumbled, but never his food. McCrady's, to this day, remains one of Charleston's very best restaurants. Brock's exploration and evolution and talent are three of the biggest reasons why that is so.

Yet, at the just-opened Husk Restaurant, Brock's newest baby, all fried chicken boy's passions and experimentation pay off in a 100% perfect and pure southern way. At Husk, Brock's come home to the heart of southern cuisine and is breaking ground in ways that could safely be called revolutionary, if not super human. Brock's mantra and his mission is to create a new Husk menu daily using only ingredients produced and raised in the South. On the side, he grows his own heirloom plants from seeds he's rescued, tended and loved to ensure precious crops and southern traditions are not plowed under the deadly tills of mass farm production. Let's not forget the heirloom pigs he feeds, slaughters and cures, and the fact that he has a wife he adores and a life, to boot. Yet, when he was beaming down at his smoked bacon cornbread at the soft opening I attended a few weeks ago, he looked like a little boy that had just gotten first prize at the school fair. So excited, and ebullient and jubilant was he. Kind of makes you smile, doesn't it?

Brock's passion oozes from every lovely pore of Husk. Situated in a lovingly and painstakingly restored single house on sleepy Queen Street, its decor is polished with exceptionally tasteful southern love. Just like the food, there is nothing cliche in the decor. No gingham, no chintz, no frills. Hard pine floors, muted, earthy tones, and gorgeous ceiling to floor draperies dress the setting. Dried okra pods in a vase full of stone-ground grits are the organic, lovely center-pieces while cloth, grit-fragrant, grit bags house some of the most decadent salt and benne studded Parker House rolls you could ever hope to eat.

An adorable, miniature brick kitchen house is the sleek and sophisticated-yet-still country bar. Brock pays homage to all of his well-vetted artisinal suppliers on his ambitious daily menu. A huge blackboard at the front of the restaurant repeats the theme. I'm happy to see that Brock and his team have scaled back a bit on things since the soft-opening. The man, as hard as it seems to believe at times, is a human and there are only 24 hours in a day. Gone are the "snack" options - small matter because similar options are available at the bar. It frees up time for attention to the food - and that is what outshines everything at HUSK. Above all, it is the reason to go.

I could go on and on about all the things I sampled last night when I was there - such as the sublime Cornmeal Dusted Triggerfish (pictured) on a Potato Puree that flirted with butter and fennel in the most delicious way, but there is no point. Today's menu will be altogether different. I predict that's all that's ever going to change at HUSK. Brock's brought the South home, to where it's always been best, rooted closely to the earth and heritage cooking. HUSK's only going to get better from here. Reserve your seat today. The wait's only going to get longer.

Husk Restaurant
76 Queen Street, downtown Charleston
(843) 577-2500
www.huskrestaurant.com

4 comments:

Helene said...

Going the day after Thansgiving with my friends from Atlanta who are coming down for the week!
Can't wait!

Richard Berg said...

Great view of what looks like a great place. Major Yummies.

Sandy said...

Great article!

About Holly Herrick said...

Words barely can describe this whole experience. I'm glad you're all going to go there to enjoy it yourselves.

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like couponmom.com) which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like couponmom.com with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site (harristeeter.com) , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"


Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.