The fifth course on the tasting menu at McCrady's delivers a single Virginia oyster. It arrives in a bowl filled with smooth round rocks draped with clumps of green kelp, a cloud of steam swirling up and enveloping it all. You get just one sparkling bite out of the whole display, and the sensations begin before you even raise the oyster to your mouth. The fresh, wet aroma of the sea rolls up from the steaming kelp, merging into a briny punch when you bite into the oyster and ending with tart sparks from tiny finger lime orbs that pop like caviar beneath your teeth.
That encapsulates in a single bite the overall experience of the new McCrady's — high in concept, meticulous in execution, playing broadly to multiple senses but in a carefully orchestrated and internally consistent way.
It's an experience a decade in the making, and it takes place in the small space fronting East Bay Street that has housed several different concepts over the years. Moons ago it was McCrady's wine bar; more recently Minero, executive chef Sean Brock's foray into tacos and other Mexican street food that is still going strong in its new digs one floor above.
Now the small dining room is dominated by a big U-shaped black walnut counter, and when you first sit down on a high white-capped stool the setting before you is sparse. Instead of a mat, a stubby clear glass cylinder awaits, and it will soon serve as the base for a dozen plates that swoop in and out. A tiny bonsai tree is positioned between you and your companion — the first of many Japanese elements that echo Brock's passion for the modes of eating he discovered on recent visits to Tokyo.
At first you might not notice two long, dark brown tubes nestled among the branches of the bonsai tree. They're the amuse bouche: eggplant jerky that's quite unlike any eggplant you've likely tasted before — smoky and chewy but not tough, tiny but intensely delicious.
That sets off a parade of courses, somewhere between a dozen and 15 in all in a carefully orchestrated presentation that fills two hours.
A single platter bears three small opening morsels. A dark red ring of beet is dusted with cocoa and yuzu, and beside it is a delicate quail egg tart. Most impressive is the tiny cup of turnip tea, a superbly rich stock akin to miso. As is each successive course, this one is paired with a pour of wine — a crisp rose with decidedly vegetal notes — that not only draws out the flavors of the dish but adds its own intriguing layers.
Ossabaw pork with wild red bay and sorghum is followed by a tender sea scallop nestled beneath a layer of sea-like foam, dotted with bits of bright yellow sunflower. At the bottom of the dish is a thick, earthy swirl of brown butter accented with tiny bits of tart apple. The dishes strike familiar Southern notes — even uniquely Charleston ones — but at the same time they're blended with completely novel and unexpected flavors.
And that filled me with relief. In September 2014, I wrote what I thought would be my last restaurant review of my career, for reasons I explained in an essay for the City Paper's Winter 2015 Dish issue. At the time the Charleston dining scene felt adrift and lacking focus, weary of fine dining conventions but uncertain whether fried chicken or tacos or noodle bowls offered the path to salvation.
And then early in 2016 I looked up and realized that I didn't even recognize my own city any more, at least from a dining perspective. It wasn't just that new restaurants were opening and old ones closing — that's been the story for years. It was more the sheer volume of new arrivals, and the fact that so many of the names and faces behind them hailed from New York and Charlotte and all sorts of other exotic places.
So I signed up to review a couple of those new spots, with less than stellar experiences, and sampled a few others for which I couldn't summon up sufficient passion to write a formal review. But I closed out 2016 with dinner at the new McCrady's, and that was enough to salvage the entire year.
For me, the essence of contemporary Charleston cooking is found in deft, nuanced flavors, especially seafood combined with fragrant herbs and fresh local produce. The middle section of Brock's tasting menu fits that to a T. Three chunks of cobia — one roasted, one poached, and one grilled — are interspersed with brunoised Matsutake mushrooms around a pool of white sauce swirled with bright green peanut oil. An orb of "Charleston ice cream" (that is, tender Carolina Gold rice) has a single barely-poached shrimp perched on top and a garland of floral herbs. It's exquisitely delicate and creamy.
Those light, pristine flavors are balanced by earthier courses, like a strip of 65-day aged ribeye nestled beside a pool of sweet potato puree and dusted with black truffle. For much of the meal, two orbs of cabbage, exteriors charred almost black, hang by strings over the gleaming stainless steel range in the open kitchen. That cabbage is also aged, too, imparting the acidic sweet bite of fermentation, and it becomes the most impressive component on a plate of seared duck breast, a splendid contrast against the rich rare meat.
This layering of flavor upon flavor continues straight to the dessert courses, of which there are three — or maybe four, depending upon how you count.
It starts with a tease. A plate is placed in front of you with a little cup made of molded chocolate, which the server fills with lighter melted chocolate from a tube. While you wait for it to set, a second course arrives, and it's whiplash for a palate now primed to expect a sweet bite of chocolate: a small striped square that's half uni ice cream and half persimmon sorbet — two flavors not for the faint of heart. Orange, pungent, weird. Once you get past the initial shock, though, the flavors are a knockout.
Then back to the waiting chocolate cup, now topped off with a spoonful of banana, giving it a salty chocolate banana nut bread character. That's followed by a Foiechamacallit — a mashup of the Hershey Whatchamacallit bar (the most underrated of candy bars) with, well, I'm not sure what. There's crisped rice and foie gras enrobed in chocolate, a big blast of earthy, unctuous, fatty delight.
It ends with a delicate ice cream made of sea island milk served over gelled cubes of satsuma and a marshmallow-like swirl of tonka bean followed by a "breath freshener" that's basically a white drop in the shape of a Hersey's kiss, a chocolate mint tucked away inside.
The mint refreshes the breath, but it also closes the evening on a carefully calculated note. Despite the steady succession of courses and moments of sensory overload, you don't leave with a groaning belly and the urge to lay down in a dark room. Instead, you step out onto the East Bay sidewalk feeling satisfied and refreshed.
Much about this new McCrady's format is novel to Charleston fine dining. You buy your ticket in advance for $125 per diner (plus an additional $85 if you want wine pairings, which I highly recommend.) There are two seatings each on Friday and Saturday and just one on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sundays.
I've long fretted about the loss of formality amid our continuous slide into casual dining, but McCrady's pulls off a deft high wire act. You're greeted at the door with a flute of champagne, and you leave two hours later with a white goodie bag, a parting gift that includes an envelope of heirloom seeds from Brock's collection and a small tin of spices. You feel welcome, even pampered.
At the same time, you dine on a stool at a counter, watching cooks just a few feet away preparing your food. The servers are friendly, even chatty.
The balancing act carries through to the setting itself. The walls are old exposed brick, the ceiling above punched tin. A large framed picture of Charleston's brightly colored houses sets a decidedly local tone. But the kitchen — which occupies the back part of the room, separated from diners by only a low counter — is all gleaming stainless steel and tile, dominated by a huge flat-top induction range.
Perhaps the only thing that jars are the servers' uniforms — plaid green pants and matching vests over white shirts, perhaps delivered to the wrong restaurant by mistake. Not so with the music, which tends toward indie rock but is never loud or intrusive.
In August 2014, as I was retiring for the first time from restaurant reviewing, Brock was about to open his taco joint, Minero. He told the James Beard Foundation that his new mode was going to be "small, extremely fun, and even more affordable. No more serious restaurants for me."
Perhaps it's wise to take Brock's bold pronouncements with a grain of salt, at least when it comes to the long term, for now he's come around full circle. "I'm tired of making burgers," Brock told Brett Martin in a November GQ profile. "I'm tired of making fried chicken, I'm tired of making corn bread."
For years, McCrady's Restaurant was strained by the tension between the avant garde and the comfortable — the desire to serve an experimental, all-in tasting menu while also catering to those who just wanted a big steak. By decoupling the two modes, Brock has found what seems a promising path forward for himself.
Might it also it be a path forward for the Charleston dining scene in general, a return to the relentless, obsessive focus on technique and ingredients while still embracing the more casual contemporary mode? Or will it remain a small outpost off on the side, an adjunct for a few ambitious eaters while the crowds dine on oysters and bearnaise-oozing Tavern burgers in the larger McCrady's Tavern space next door?
I don't have an answer to that one yet. But for one brief night, at least, I felt like I had found my city again.