Over the past few years, I've revisited many of the restaurants that were once considered to be among Charleston's best. In the process, I've been consistently disappointed. In too many cases, the once-fancy decor seemed overly elaborate and dated, and the service seemed to have slipped toward the casual and amateurish side.
But more than anything, it was the food itself that seemed different: uninspired and uninspiring — a parade of ribeyes, bone-in chops, salmon, and scallops. It's not that the dishes were downright bad; they just seemed long on flash and short on flavor.
The more I've reflected upon it, though, the more I'm convinced that those restaurants haven't necessarily slipped in quality. Instead, Charleston's dining world has moved on, and by simply sitting still those restaurants have been left behind.
Husk Restaurant opened a little over three years ago. Admittedly, there wasn't one thing that Sean Brock attempted to do at Husk that was totally new. Chefs like Frank Lee and Mike Lata had long been cultivating a network of local farmers and fishermen to supply fresh ingredients. Ben Berryhill was cooking over wood, and Craig Deihl at Cypress and Anthony Gray, back when he was at High Cotton, were buying and butchering whole heritage hogs.
What made Husk different was that Brock rolled all those things into a single restaurant, taking what were once small-print items on menus — like the names of producers — and boldly affixing them to the wall. He made brash proclamations like "Southern food is the best food in the world" and declared that he would use no ingredient that was not produced in the region.
It worked. Husk hit like a bomb on the local scene. A dozen or more acclaimed restaurants have followed in its wake, embracing the ingredients-centric mode and transforming Charleston's cuisine in the process.
The local dining world is very different today than it was just five years ago. And so it was with great interest that I revisited two of our foundational restaurants. One, Charleston Grill, is the standard bearer of the previous generation of local fine dining, and the other, Husk, the once-young rabble-rouser, is now edging into maturity. I wanted to see how the experiences stand up from a diner's point of view.
Let's start with Husk. One of the features of the original menu, printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, was that it changed twice daily — once for lunch, once for dinner — driven by whatever ingredients were fresh and brought in by the purveyors that day.
But the market has its demands, and certain fanciful experiments have now become fixtures. These include the pigs ear lettuce wraps and the fried chicken skins (both $11), which now appear consistently among a shuttling roster of "firsts." Inside their cool Bibb wrappers, the long, thin strips of pig ear, glazed in a sweet mahogany "Kentuckyaki" sauce, are pleasingly salty and chewy, and they're dressed with a bright blend of marinated cucumbers, red onions, and benne seeds. From the first bite, it's all texture and tang. The fried chicken skins, drizzled with a General Tso's-style sweet-and-sour sauce, are crispy instead of chewy, but there's plenty of tanginess there, too.
Both plates are pleasant enough as novelty starters, but the real appeal seems to lie more in the concept — look, I'm eating pigs ears! I'm eating chicken skins, and they're fried! — than in the actual execution.
But then there are the half dozen Coosaw Cup oysters ($15) that arrive on a bed of salt, top shells closed in place. You lift the shell to reveal a wood-roasted oyster resting in a pool of thin, red Bloody Mary butter and draped with shaved celery. The first briny, slightly-smoky bite proves a genuine treat.
Even more impressive are creations that pull together a long list of Southern ingredients into a unified but surprising whole. A bowl of Carolina Gold rice middlins ($13) — the leftover bits, often called "rice grits," broken during milling — are topped with kimchi, shiitake mushroom, and long, twisting slivers of shaved carrot. Tucked inside are bits of tender grilled beef accented with black garlic, bright green peas, and a whole poached egg whose golden yolk infuses the rich, nutty rice as soon as your fork breaks it open. It's the kind of dish you savor slowly, each bite adding new complementary flavors that build into an intricate orchestration.
On other plates, one or two supporting elements suddenly step to the forefront with an unexpected punch. Roasted cauliflower from Ambrose Farms leaps out amid the kale and caramelized onions that adorn the bison short rib ($30), while the rich smokiness of shiitake consommé forms the perfect foundation beneath a pile of pole beans and peppers topped with roasted beeliner snapper ($28). Even side dishes, like the smoky butter bean and Carolina Gold Hoppin' John ($7), can pack a surprising wallop, thanks to artfully placed accents of herbs and citrus.
That's the new style. Just two blocks away, Charleston Grill has its own long-running crowd-pleasers, analogues to Husk's chicken skins and pig ear wraps. Their dominant notes, though, are those of luxurious excess: butter-poached lobster and the Charleston Grill crab cake. They were on the menu years ago when I first dined there, and they're still there today.
Plenty of other things haven't changed, either, like the elegant decor with dark brown walls and white tablecloths, a nightly live jazz ensemble playing along the back wall, and impeccably attentive service from Mickey Bakst's well-regimented front house team.
The menu format is exactly the same as it has been since even before Michelle Weaver stepped up as executive chef: four panels offering Pure, Lush, Cosmopolitan, and Southern dishes. But that format it turns out is plenty flexible enough to allow Weaver and her team to keep things up to date and moving ahead.
The Southern zone gives Weaver license to flex a few lardcore muscles with dishes like fried catfish with shrimp creole and rice grits ($32) and beer-braised collards with cabernet pig's feet reduction ($9). But these are exceptions. Most of the offerings don't seem particularly trendy at all, but it still manages to feel current and fresh.
An amuse bouche of a citrus-tinged cauliflower and beet soup, capped with a piece of crispy ham, starts things off with a tantalizing bite. The grilled octopus salad ($17), with marinated heirloom cherry tomatoes and lemon and parsley accents, is cool, bright, and supremely refreshing, a perfect embodiment of the Pure menu mode.
Far from seeming hoary, Charleston Grill's signature dishes are still impressive. The crab cakes are almost all crabmeat, spiked with lemony accents, and the only bread crumbs in play are the ones that dust the top and bottom to ensure a dark brown sear. The tomato dill vinaigrette that lines the plate underneath seems a bit dull at first, but then you hit a tart bit of supremed lime and it all pulls together.
I was leery of the butter-poached lobster and its truffle sauce, which sounds like an outdated concoction that will bludgeon you into submission with richness. But what arrives on the plate, while undoubtedly luxurious, is quite delicate in execution. The buttery truffle sauce and wild mushrooms offer subtle earthy contrasts to the sweet lobster and, in a deft finishing touch, scattered flecks of salt add sparkling little bursts.
Ultimately, we're left with the tale of two restaurants, one luxurious and elegant, the other a Southern Gothic thrill ride. It's easy to compare and contrast the two (white tablecloths vs. bare wood tables with placemats, prim flowers vs. a jar of okra pods propped inside dried black-eyed peas). And yes, foodies from all over still make pilgrimages to Husk and tweet the crap out of Brock's hyper-Southern plates, while Charleston Grill doesn't get nearly the attention that it used to.
But what seemed bold and radical about Husk just three years ago has since become the dominant mode in Southern fine dining — and in American fine dining, for that matter. Everyone's putting purveyors front and center, focusing on local and heirloom ingredients, cooking over wood, and using traditional pickling and preservation techniques to intensify flavor. It's almost a culinary fundamentalist movement, when you get right down to it. Throw out all the trappings and ceremony and get back to the essential core: the food.
It was a necessary reformation, but where do we go from here?
You almost feel compelled to come down on one side of the fence or the other. Is Husk a faddish, middlebrow faker and Charleston Grill where the real class is? Or is Charleston Grill a dinosaur that needs to amp it up with more pork belly, drop the 1,200-bottle wine list, and replace that live jazz trio with Drive by Truckers on an overhead sound system?
It's a false dichotomy, of course. I think our culinary future might be found in a fusion of the two, blending the passion for Southern ingredients with a little more attention to the overall dining experience. Local restaurants could continue to shy away from flashy, big-ticket entrees and focus instead on pure, intense small plates. And they might deep-six the more extreme novelty creations in favor of complex, highly composed dishes that meld five, six, and even a dozen distinct flavors into a unified whole.
Right now, though, putting Husk and Charleston Grill aside, that doesn't seem to be the way we are heading. We're spinning in many confused directions, casting off the trappings of formality, embracing "ethnic" cuisine, trying on dozens of different styles and influences like a confused teen, not sure who we are and who we want to be.
Are pho and bibimbap really the future of Lowcountry dining? There's nothing wrong with embracing external influences, but let's not forget that just a few decades ago we had abjured our own roots and determined that French and Italian were the only cuisines worth eating.
When we finally woke up in the late-20th century and reached back for our old traditions, we ended up creating a mythic pantheon of shrimp and grits, she crab soup, and — God help us — carpetbagging fried green tomatoes posing as the quintessential Southern dish.
Today, we stand in a much more promising spot. We no longer fear pork fat, and we've rediscovered wonderful things like Sea Island red peas and grits made from John Haulk corn. Within that framework, we can start to pull in the once-exotic flavors of places like Morocco and Korea and, instead of just trying to replicate them, merge them into a larger Lowcountry culinary style.
At the same time, we have a long tradition of elegance and luxury upon which to build future fine dining patterns, and it doesn't involve paper menus on clipboards or uncomfortable metal chairs.
I can't see the precise path forward, but I suspect it lies somewhere between the butter-poached lobster at Charleston Grill and that splendid bowl of Carolina Gold rice grits at Husk.
For me, at least, that's a pretty sweet place to be.