(McCrady’s Exterior; Taken from Restaurant’s Facebook Page)
McCrady’s is Sean Brock’s fine dining venture. It opened in 2006 and is now recognized as the 10th best restaurant in the country. Brock was raised in rural Virginia and while his culinary style is predominantly Southern, he both revises typically Southern flourishes and incorporates elements associated with other cuisines. As I am familiar with the general goings-on of the national culinary landscape, McCrady’s had been on my radar for a long while and it was with great anticipation that I made a reservation for March 17.
The exterior photo above conveys the environment surrounding the restaurant: it is located in an alleyway and the building and streets feature a mix between cobblestones and different varieties of brick. The palm tree at the far left injects a Southern feel that gestures toward the tropical climate. However, the signage—bearing the McCrady’s title and an old-fashioned lamp—is Colonial-era in style and initiates a historical self-consciousness that represents a foremost trope of the restaurant. The building itself is centuries old and George Washington once dined in it during its initial iteration as a tavern. Developing a restaurant in an old, historical building poses a real dilemma; one cannot just impose their cuisine on the environment as that would establish a potentially irreconcilable disjunction (see Acadia in Chicago), but at the same time it is equally destructive to attempt to recreate an experience from centuries past as that would fail to recognize and appreciate the way in which the diner’s subjectivity has been shaped by gastronomy in the present moment. The quest to create an experience that balances past and present—through harmonizing the setting, service and cuisine—defines McCrady’s as dynamic, singular, and challenging—a worthy combination.
Upon arrival, we checked in with the hostess and were led to a two-top along the far wall, under a large painting of a city (presumably Charleston). The artwork was notable for its autumnal color palette and thick brushstrokes. These colors were echoed throughout the space; one of the walls was painted burnt amber and the dividing wall separating the dining room from the bar featured stained glass. In the center of the room a thick chandelier radiated an orange light and actually made the room glow. I generally consider Arrows (and Fore Street on a cold winter’s night) to be my favorite dining rooms, but the blazing color established a luminous intensity that made it arguably the most appealing restaurant ambience I have yet encountered. The ability to manufacture a sense of drama is an oft-overlooked aspect of the dining experience, and the interplay between light and color established a compelling affectivity.
McCrady’s offers two menu options: a four course prix-fixe and a twelve-course tasting. As we did not have more than two hours allotted for the meal, we selected the prix-fixe and supplemented an additional course, thereby effectively assembling a five-course tasting menu. The five courses totaled $75—an outstanding value given the quality of the ingredients and the intricacy of the dining experience. Our server was outstanding, armed with an exhaustive knowledge of the menu. He explained to us, for example, that their beef is sourced from Strube Ranch in Texas and is pure Wagyu. His enthusiasm for haute cuisine was evident and expanded beyond the confines of the south; after hearing that I was from Chicago, he stated that he someday hoped to dine at Alinea.
After placing our orders we were greeted by a young man wielding a bread basket. Two varieties were offered: a rustic Italian and a multigrain. Olive oil and sea-salted butter from a nearby farm were provided along with the bread. Both breads were similarly crusty and fluffy and were terrific in soaking up the sauces of the courses to follow.
My first course was a rutabaga soup served with capers inlet clams, sheep’s milk yogurt, kimchee and benne (a Southern sunflower herb.) It is pictured below. This dish was quite surprising as the textural and flavor interplay was more multifaceted than the more simple cuisine served at Husk, Chef Brock’s more casual venture. I am not familiar with yogurt-based soups and it was rich but much lighter than a cream sauce. The smooth richness of the yogurt was balanced by the acidity of the kimchee and the more savory clams. The benne imparted a nutty smell that was quite pungent yet also elusive since its taste was not especially impactful.
While our server cleared our plates I marveled at the efficiency of the multitude of servers moving about the room. The fluid circulation of the wait staff is one of my favorite aspects of the restaurant experience. When a restaurant has tight control over the service, it effuses a regulated dynamism. Indeed, the sight of the vast number of servers circulating is an appropriate metaphor for the restaurant as an object of study; restaurants are constantly in motion and are not a text that one can grasp in their hand like a book or fit within a tidy frame like a film or painting. The time spent between courses represents a sort of interstitial space within the meal, yet despite its apparent marginality it is relentlessly filled with activity. Even after consuming a given course, the meal continues; the restaurant experience is notable through paradoxically being both fluid and tightly constructed.
After a short wait, we were presented with the second course, which for each of us was a poached pullet egg, grilled asparagus, stone crab, and rosemary. A sauce of asparagus jus (its green color is obscured in the photo below) was poured tableside from a test-tube structure. The jus was quite pungent and largely nullified the necessity for the rosemary. As French cuisine perhaps loosens its grip as arbiter of culinary prestige, it is interesting to see the way in which restaurants borrow from the French emphasis on sauce. Where French cuisine is recognized for its heavy, cream-based sauces, the asparagus jus replaced richness with the more cutting flavor and aroma of fresh asparagus. The egg was prepared sous-vide at 63 degrees and its yolk willingly burst out upon contact with the fork. Grilling the asparagus was necessary in establishing a textural contrast with the soft egg and crab. In retrospect, this dish was light enough that it perhaps would have been more appropriate as the opening course.
Progressing onto the savory courses, my next course was a fillet of triggerfish crusted with herbs and vegetable seeds. It was served alongside roasted carrots, a kumquat-carrot puree, and wild fennel, the combination of which formed a tubular motif. This dish was a case study in the synaesthetic effect of tasting color. Just as people believe that there is an emotional resonance to color, I wonder whether a similarly counterintuitive relationship exists between color and taste. The orange coloration of the kumquat-carrot mixture (which the picture below does not do justice to) strikingly contrasted with the more restrained white-brown coloration of the fish and the white plate, and the vegetables generated a pungent, heady rush of beta-carotene that certainly made me wonder whether the dish had been conceived largely in order to fully exploit the sensorial capabilities—in this case, taste, sight, and smell—of the color orange. The prominence of color within the cuisine was enhanced by the prevalent color within the dining room, particularly the burnt amber wall and the autumnal palette of the painting next to us.
For the meat course, I selected duck, which was prepared two ways. In the left of the photo below, there is a pekin preparation involving a confit leg, while on the right is a sous-vide breast prepared at a roughly medium-rare temperature. The accompaniments were especially interesting. The bean-shaped items are in fact pine nuts, which the menu lists as prepared “in the style of risotto.” Pine nuts are not only more germane to the south than risotto but the way in which they are playfully disguised also confounds the customer’s expectations in a manner reminiscent of Alinea. In fact, our server informed us that Grant Achatz had strongly influenced Chef Brock while Brock staged at Trio years ago. While I love the crackling skin of pekin duck, the toothsome crunchiness of the pine nuts actually made me appreciate more the soft duck breast. This course was my favorite of the evening. While I try to avoid focusing extensively on an individual course as I feel it detracts from the overall menu progression, I appreciate the way this course really felt as though it were an item that would never be found on any other menu in the country.
For dessert we asked our server to send out whichever desserts he recommended. For me he brought Ambrose strawberries, strawberry sorbet, white chocolate, parsnip, and rye. The white chocolate took both a solid and liquid consistency. I did find that the parsnip and rye added savory heft and appreciated the adventurous complication of the canonical combination of white chocolate and strawberry. The dish’s free-form aesthetic is characteristic of desserts today, although (similar to the duck course) I felt as though the ingredient combination was novel enough that I would not find this dish anywhere else. I appreciated the restaurant’s application of classical ingredients (strawberry, white chocolate) utilized in uniquely contemporary ways; it established a dialectical interplay whereby all components resulted in a combination greater than the sum of its parts.
Michael was given a chocolate ganache cake, served with wadmalow pine, malted milk, and barley. The barley gestured toward the south in a similar manner to the rye in the strawberry dessert and its interaction with the malted milk created a welcome textural contrast. Labeling the preparation as a chocolate ganache cake facilitates a sense of surprise since the dessert’s familiar title belies the novelty of the component ingredients.
Along with the bill arrived a rhubarb pate de fruit. We requested copies of the menu, which were thoughtfully delivered in black folders bearing the restaurant’s name. After bidding farewell to our server and the hostess, we exited, working our way through the alleyway and back into the street.
One of the main achievements of McCrady’s is the way in which it stays regionally grounded yet remains ambitious. The pervasive deployment of Southern proteins and esoteric grains (even in each of the dessert dishes) exemplifies the acknowledgment of the regional cuisine, while the compositions and modern techniques establish a beneficially dialectical interplay between the modern and traditional and the national and local. McCrady’s relies on the past in generating its strong, haunting mystique: specifically, the very old-fashioned chandelier in the center of the dining room served as a constant reminder of the building’s historical grounding. Indeed, the history of the setting demonstrates the capability of history in influencing sensory perceptions. However, there is no hegemony between the modern and traditional—it is impossible to say whether the dining room is contextualized within the modern or that the modern is contextualized within the traditional.
The experience at McCrady’s also demonstrates the impossibility of assigning a cognitive, plot-based approach to restaurant reception. While many reviewers attach a standard theme or label to a restaurant’s cuisine, this is inadequate as it disregards the sensory interplay of the experience in its totality. Plot-driven accounts—usually consisting of clichéd narratives or descriptions that simply describe how each of the courses taste—overprivilege the diner and do not acknowledge the way in which the customer does not merely construct his opinion through his own subjectivity. Rather, the diner’s interpretation is partially manufactured by the restaurant (not just through the cuisine but also through the setting and service), in conjunction with the customer’s subjectivity. The restaurant is not a stable object; a visit to McCrady’s five years from now would no doubt yield a different interpretation. A restaurant is dynamic and inextricably linked with its customer; while it constructs a specific sensory experience, it is an experience reliant on interaction with the patron. Every dining experience is shaped by the meals that preceded it, and I look forward to seeing how my meal at McCrady’s will contribute to impressions of future dining experiences.