(McCrady’s Dining Room)
The issue of synchronizing each facet of the restaurant experience is something I feel is something of an impossible goal for a restaurant, and the central attraction of going out to eat involves assessing how close a restaurant comes to accomplishing this feat. In general, dining out is pleasurable, but I usually find that the cuisine, décor, and service operate as separate registers that never manage to unify. The search for a “perfect” dining experience is thus the quest to experience a meal in which all of the components are interesting in their own right while also interacting in a way that is mutually beneficial. With that said, in my experience no restaurant comes closest to this than McCrady’s, Sean Brock’s Southern fine dining venture in Charleston, South Carolina. My meal there in March of 2012 was one of the most satisfying I had all year, and so my brother and I trekked to Charleston to enjoy the tasting menu on January 4.
Our drive to Charleston took well over 3 hours, and this cannot be separated from my perception of the dining experience to follow. This may seem self-evident, but if I am driving 3 hours for a meal, the impact must be pronounced enough to compensate for the effect. At the same time, I also feel that the long drive can generate suspense and therefore punctuate the experience—in a sense, this is the very appeal of a destination restaurant. For myself, one problem with the Michelin guide is that it defines a destination restaurant in terms of the cuisine alone; when people take vacations, it is often so that they can immerse themselves in an unfamiliar and exciting setting, and the restaurant’s setting is crucial in satisfying this dimension. In sum, I would argue that a long drive gives the meal a higher ceiling, but also has the inverse effect of giving it a lower floor.
One area in which McCrady’s is different from other destination restaurants is that it is located in a back alley, almost as though it were improperly accommodated within Charleston’s city planning. At the same time, the alleyway distances the restaurant from the eateries on the main street and even though the entranceway is just a hundred feet or so from the street, the effect is great enough that it lends an air of gravitas. The building is well-known for being centuries-old, as George Washington used to entertain in the space. I think the rich history of the space would be intimidating for a restaurant, since they are invariably charged with creating an experience that is commensurate with the historical significance of the building. In this regard, the McCrady’s building exposes how the stakes for a meal can be immense simply due to the effects of the setting.
With a 5:15 reservation, we were the first to arrive and graciously led to our two-top on the left-hand side of the dining room. As I noted in my first review of the restaurant, McCrady’s has one of my favorite dining rooms, seamlessly synthesizing tradition and modernity. The exposed beams and stained glass retain the history of the space. At the same time, the tables and chairs are well-segregated and contemporary, imbuing a serious tone that respects the gravity of the space and avoids the potential for a touristy ambience. It is easy to imagine a kitschy experience that would strive to replicate an 18th century feel; such an effect would attempt to (paradoxically) manufacture authenticity, and it is to their credit that McCrady’s avoids this approach and manages to actually be more authentic in the process.
McCrady’s offers three menu options: a la carte, 4-course prix fixe, and our choice, the 8-course tasting. We noticed that Charleston Ice Cream, one of their best-known dishes, had been taken off the menu and requested it as a supplement along with the lamb entrée off the a la carte menu.
The first food to arrive was the bread service, served with butter and olive oil. The two options were ciabbata and benne seed, the latter of which was particularly remarkable.
The opening chapter of the tasting is a parade of “snacks,” coursed out in rapid succession. The first was a salt roasted beet, served with tangerine. It awoke the palate and foreshadowed the expressive use of beet in the courses that followed.
Next was a macaron-like bite filled with blue crab and apple; I appreciated the sweet/sour contrast but the flavors didn’t harmonize. The sweetest of the canapés, I think this would have worked best as the opening bite.
Our third canapé was pork rind with tarragon and chive, adding some salt and savory to our tasting progression.
The last of our opening bites was house-cured ham, aged for 31 days. It had a smokier taste than any ham I’ve had before and fluidly transitioned us into the ‘official’ courses.
The first course was Tennessee (paddlefish) caviar with sunchoke and sorrel. This dish was aesthetically remarkable, as the diced sunchoke mirrored the shape of the caviar, forming a symmetrical design that emphasized the sorrel puree at the top. Ordinarily, I would be lukewarm about receiving paddlefish caviar, but it was more pronounced than paddlefish roe I’ve had in the past. While higher-end caviar might have offered even more flavor, I actually preferred this preparation as it embodies a central component of McCrady’s cuisine: serving geographically specific variants of canonical high-end ingredients.
Our next dish was uni chawanmushi with radish and black garlic. Serving the radish with its leaf added a sculptural dimension to the presentation, as the dish appeared similar to a potted plant. My brother and I actually had a very similar uni chawanmushi dish at Charlie Trotter’s a year ago, and our server mentioned that Brock knows Trotter quite well and may have borrowed from him in devising this course. This turned out to be our least favorite course of the meal; the uni and custard were overwhelmingly creamy, and even the radish and garlic were unable to cut through the richness.
The third dish was a holdover from their New Year’s Eve menu, and our server mentioned that it had received particularly strong praise. On the left was abalone topped with brioche; the green droplets were cauliflower/chervil, while the caramel-colored ones were liquid foie gras. This was one of my favorite dishes in a meal filled with remarkable flavors; there was a great deal that could have gone wrong, but the flavors and textures struck a fine balance. The brioche and foie gras managed not to overwhelm the fish, and serving the foie gras in liquid form reflected a chef who is unafraid to play with textures in order to achieve greater coherence in texture and flavor.
Next was Charleston Ice Cream. We had ordered it as an off-menu supplement, although it was comped on our bill. I don’t understand why they took it off the menu in the first place since it is a dish that one simply would not find anywhere else. The dish is so named because it is scoopable. The server delivered it with a short history lesson concerning the Charleston gold rice, a grain that nearly disappeared but has recently been revived through the efforts of chefs like Sean Brock. The dish is fairly labor-intensive and involves cooking the rice several times with a mix of butters and spices. The most compelling aspect of this dish is the contrast between the appearance and flavor, as the white rice acts as a sort of costume shielding the complex mix of flavors engendered by the spices and butters. This dish was certainly one of the most interesting dishes I’ve ever had; the historical dimension was commensurate with the setting, making the dish a veritable case study in how to synchronize décor and cuisine.
Our first meat course was squab, roasted on the bone, with carrot. McCrady’s ages the meat for 6-7 days over an open hearth, and the presentation included breast and leg meat. The orange puree was carrot while the green was carrot pesto, and I found the most interesting aspect of the dish to be its use of color. More specifically, I would argue that the dish is an example of how McCrady’s uses more color than other restaurants, with a color palette that is substantially more saturated. This creates an aesthetic overload, a defamiliarizing effect that forces one to realize how diluted color usually is in restaurant dishes.
The next course involved some theatrics; chef de cuisine Jeremiah Langhorne emerged from the kitchen with our server to conduct a tableside preparation. After our server delivered our dish, venison with ground black pepper, banana and pumpkin puree, Langhorne extracted a hot coal from the pan and finished cooking our meat in front of us. He explained that his intent was for us to absorb the aroma of the meat cooking, and the scent lingered with us while we ate. This course made me thankful that we were the first in the dining room to experience this dish and the tableside finish that accompanied it. It is well documented that one of the drawbacks to restaurants that feature such theatrics (Alinea, for example) is that the drama is nullified when one watches other tables experiencing it first, and the impact here was significantly enhanced through getting to experience it before anyone else. Evaluating this dish is a bit like assessing a course at Alinea in that the taste is inextricably affected (and enhanced) by the tableside finish, but the ingredient pairing (particularly the venison/pumpkin combination) was inspired and did justice to the dramatic presentation.
Our final meat dish was a supplement we had requested: duo of Katahdin lamb with rye porridge and beets cooked over embers. This was a dish where each component was worthy of its own course, disrupting the canonical hierarchy that privileges meat over vegetables and starches. Cooking over embers is one of Sean Brock’s signatures, and I can’t think of any other fine dining restaurant that would serve rye porridge. Hidden in the picture are the rye porridge and the braised lamb, which rested beneath the beets. Cooking the beets over embers drastically affected the taste, making them much sweeter than normal and without the acidity that I usually appreciate. Still, preparing them in this manner complemented the lamb more appropriately. Ultimately, this was another course that was not only delicious but an example of something one wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Our server framed the next dish as Sean Brock’s challenge to the traditional tasting progression. He stated that Brock is routinely let down by the descent that usually takes place between the final savory dish and the pastry offerings, so he wanted to include a dish that would remedy this dilemma. The dish consisted of cabbage cooked in embers, curds and whey, and cranberry. It was helpful for our server to deliver this dish with the backstory, because it was seemingly quite arbitrary in its placement and could just as easily be in the first third of the menu. As someone who loves cabbage (one of my favorite aspects of winter is seeing cabbage on more menus) this was a highly enjoyable dish.
The first dessert course was cava sorbet with pomegranates and Chambord; our server described it as a play on a kir imperial. There were a number of different textures at work between the sorbet, pomegranates, Chambord syrup, and cava gelee, and this was my favorite dessert of the meal.
We were next gifted with a bonus dessert: a tasting portion of a deconstructed sweet potato pie that is featured on their prix fixe menu. On the right was sweet potato pie with meringue and on the left was spiced crème anglaise with benne seed. The deconstructed pie was delicious and struck a satisfying balance between the fruity dessert before it and the heavy one that followed.
The final dessert was one of the more striking dishes in a meal filled with arresting compositions. Titled “Chocolate, Espresso, Bronze Fennel, and Gold,” the dish featured dark, and white chocolate, with an espresso spoon at the base. The presentation was more sculptural than most of the dishes we were served; the “hut” was a creative motif through which to unify the different chocolate variants, and the fennel doubled to serve as “trees.” I always appreciate being served something that looks unlike anything I’ve seen before, and this was delicious and a satisfying ending to the meal.
One notable difference from our meal in March is that McCrady’s no longer serves a mignardise service. I think they are faced with a real dilemma when it comes to mignardise; with a restaurant that is so innovative, it would be something of a let-down to simply receive a canele or a macaron, so in a way it was preferable to not receive any closing bites. While I would like to see them add a mignardise service, I think it would have to be in the spirit of the rest of the cuisine, similar to how Moto ends the meal with the “acme bomb.”
Overall, this dinner was even more satisfying than our last one at McCrady’s, and it was my favorite meal I’ve ever had. I have never had a meal where each component worked in synch so successfully and the cuisine was almost uniformly outstanding. In most meals—even successful ones—every dish operates in a similar spirit and follows an identical theme, but the dishes in this meal elucidated distinct, fundamental themes of the restaurant. For example, the Tennesse Caviar dish reflected Sean Brock’s emphasis on incorporating regional high-end ingredients, the squab dish showcased the restaurant’s animated use of color, the venison dish highlighted their focus on the hearth, and Charleston Ice Cream emphasizes the restaurant’s sense of history. Meanwhile, our server was outstanding, showing pride in the kitchen while at the same time carrying an extended dialogue with us over the course of the meal. The net effect is that I have not been so overwhelmed by a meal since Alinea, and I find this meal to be even more successful since the service and setting cohere even more seamlessly with the cuisine.
Finally, an aspect of McCrady’s that deserves attention is its relationship with its sibling, Husk. Because they share the same Executive Chef, there seems to be a tendency to conflate the two restaurants, and I have read reviews of McCrady’s that incorporate Husk as though it were simply an extension of the restaurant. As someone interested in authorship, I place great importance on the personality of the Executive Chef but I think the tendency to use the two restaurants interchangeably is problematic in that they have vastly different ambitions. In this regard, it is important to remember that Husk bills itself as “A Celebration of Southern Ingredients,” while McCrady’s subtitle is “Inventive Cuisine Fresh From the Farm.” Husk’s ambition is much lower; where they set out to reproduce Southern fare and expose it to the world, McCrady’s is far more ambitious and actually interprets Southern cuisine in original ways, synthesizing it with other world cuisines and methods such as molecular gastronomy. Husk has a skilled and competent kitchen (I dined there in March), but their menu does not even approach the ingenuity of McCrady’s. For this reason, I hope that as Sean Brock’s fame grows, people avoid the temptation to refer to the two restaurants interchangeably and approach McCrady’s as a destination restaurant unlike any other.