Monday, September 26, 2011

Returning to My Roots...for the first time

Birthdays are funny things.  For me, no other day is filled with as wide a spectrum of feelings as September 24th.  Obviously there is excitement.  I think I will always feel that childlike bubbling over of "It's my birthday!  Did you know tomorrow is my birthday?!"  But then, reality sinks in and that big black rainy cloud moves over and bursts those "yay, its my birthday" bubbles and replaces them with "oh, yeah.  it's my birthday".  wow.  another year has gone by, and am I really that much closer to my life long goals...whatever they may be?  But alas, as fast as those dark clouds moved in, they are swept away and replaced with warm calming rays of sunlight.  Another year is ahead of me.  Another year that is untouched, and ripe with possibilities.

This year, I went back to my roots by spending my birthday weekend with my parents.  We loaded up the car and headed to Charleston SC.  It was my first time visiting the historic city but I am confident it won't be my last.  From the moment I heard about Husk Restaurant, I knew I had to go.  My parents recommended we make a weekend of it and go for my birthday.  Sold!

Never heard of Husk, you say?  Please.  Do yourself a favor and keep reading.  Two words:  Sean Brock.  The Executive Chef, and mastermind behind the keystone restaurant.  My ears perked up a few years ago when I heard Chef Sean Brock's name casually thrown out on the Food Network.  Sean?  The same Sean who used to live across the street from me during high school?  With cooking being one of my greatest passions, I immediately tuned in and became a Sean Brock groupie.  It was quite an inspiration to realize that someone I had known, had become such a successful chef.

Before long, Sean's name was everywhere.  I couldn't believe my ears when I heard he was a James Beard nominee.   But the surprises kept on coming as I read a few weeks later, he won!  What really won me over, however, was when I read about the creation of his newest restaurant, Husk.  It was as if all of my philosophies about food were wrapped up, and put into a neat little package called Husk.  Here, Sean offers a new menu daily, celebrating traditional southern cuisine.  If that weren't enticing enough, he only uses ingredients he can find below the Mason-Dixon Line.  Something else that sets him apart from the crowd, is that on his website and even on each menu, he celebrates the hard working folks who have brought the food from the farm to the kitchen and ultimately to the table.  Sean lists the farmers, fishermen, millers, etc. by name, who provide their goods, as well as links to their websites.  This is a service that is almost unheard of in the restaurant business.

If you can't tell, I'm smitten.  There wasn't a doubt in my mind, I HAD to go.

Walk with me for a few minutes, if you will, through the day leading up to, at this point, one of the most anticipated meals in my 33 years.

There were rumors of rain threatening my big day.  Not the metaphorical clouds I mentioned earlier, but REAL ones.  The ones that keep you from enjoying yourself in a town meant for walking.  However, look what greeted us as we headed over the bridge from Mount Pleasant to Charleston:
The day began with a walking tour of Charleston.  I came to the city, equipped, with my very own tour guide.
The rest of the tour requires no explanation from me.  Here are a few of the highlights:

 Below, is McCrady's, Sean's first restaurant:

From here, we went back to the hotel to rest, regroup, and recharge before the piece de resistance.  (Try not to read that with the same southern accent I hear when I say it.)

                                              Okay.  Without further ado, I introduce to you

And here I am, in front of the restaurant.  Errr...we decided to make my picture blurry on purpose.  To illuminate the restaurant, of course.

We began our dining experience at The Bar at Husk, which is actually in a separate building beside the restaurant.  I started with a Kentucky Kewler.

MUCH more relaxed now, we made our way over to the restaurant.  When we entered the welcoming historic home turned restaurant we were greeted with many smiles and the delicious smell of wood smoked goodness.  We were led upstairs into a dining room with a fireplace, beautiful artwork, and only four tables, which gave the homey feel of a family get-together as opposed to a common room for strangers to dine.  And the centerpiece of each table is comprised of corn, pole beans, and okra which Sean gathers from his farm and dries.  I mean seriously.  Could it be any more real?  Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the more elaborate centerpieces from the dining room.  The picture below is from the small table at the bar.  But you will get the idea.

We were greeted with warm, buttery yeast rolls with salt and benne seeds sprinkled on top.  This was served with creamy pork butter.  Yes, that's right.  I said...pork...butter. It is like the creamiest butter you have ever spread with a slight hint of bacon.  Delicious, but not for the faint of heart appetite.

Check out the menu here.  This will help you understand the challenging experience of trying to decide what to order.  In case you were wondering, for this occasion, we erred on the side of gluttony.
I started with Dave’s Wood Fired Clams with Braised Peppers, Tomatoes, Sweet Corn, Surry Sausage and Crispy Garlic Toast.  The chewy clams had a subtle smokiness that was complimented by the spicy smoked sausage.  The light tomato broth provided the perfect dipping sauce to the most delicious garlic toast I have ever had.  The toast was saturated with sweet, freshly-churned tasting butter.

For my main course, I chose SC Grass Fed Beef Tenderloin, Goat Cheese Creamer Potatoes, Grilled Zucchini and Eggplant, Oyster Mushrooms, Marrow Jus.  The fresh vegetables were light and crisp-tender which added just enough refreshment from the rich creamy potatoes and hearty tenderloin.  The flavors were brought together perfectly by the savory jus.
We ordered a couple of sides for the table,  A Skillet of Benton’s Bacon Cornbread and Baked Anson Mills Grits with Carolina Mushrooms and Tennessee Cheddar.  Sadly, I did not get photos of these.  They were eaten faster than you can say, "hold on let me get my camera."

We ended the evening with dessert.  We ordered two for the table and shared them.  The first, was sweet potato doughnuts with a bourbon caramel dipping sauce.  The second, an apple crisp with pecan crumble and maple ice cream.  Neither dessert was too sweet, nor too heavy.  They were an absolutely perfect ending to an already perfect meal.

As we sat around the table, letting the whole experience sink in, we had some interesting conversations.  We all agreed that the meal was fantastic.  Exactly what we hoped for and more.  However, there was a strange sense of familiarity about the whole thing that we had not expected.  "You know", my dad reminisced, "this cornbread tasted just like the way my mom used to make it."  "Yes, and the fried chicken skins, taste just like my favorite part of the fried chicken I would always pull off and eat first," I agreed.  We discovered that Sean's motto, "A Celebration of Southern Ingredients", hits right on the mark.  My family and I were raised in the south, and grew up on deliciously prepared "southern cuisine" brought fresh from the farm to the table.  In an age where this is all too often lost in the fast-paced, mega-mart land, I am so thankful someone has taken the time to  remind us where our food comes from.
We chatted with the waiter a bit before leaving, sharing with him our connection to Sean.  He shared with us the genuine care and respect that radiates from the core of the restaurant.  "Chef says when he's at McCrady's, he cooks with his head and when he is at Husk, he cooks with his heart," he added with a smile that came from within.

Yes, on this birthday, I went through my typical gamut of emotions.  However, this one was a little different.  I took a trip to a city where I had never been, to have a meal at a restaurant like I had never had.  So many first time experiences, yet it all felt very familiar.  Sitting at the table, surrounded by an atmosphere saluting those who work tirelessly to provide us with food fresh from the earth, memories came flooding back.  The joy and excitement my sister and I would feel when we finally reeled in that fish for dinner. The time-consuming, yet oh so rewarding job of digging potatoes, stringing beans, and plucking tomatoes from the garden to nourish us.  A bounty we would bring inside to Grandmaw to prepare in that way that only she knew how.

My first experience at Husk was, without question, a memorable one.  I enjoyed a meal reminiscent of my childhood, yet unlike any I have had.   This weekend I went back to my roots.  I went back, for the first time.

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