Husk's kitchen philosophy is, "If it doesn't come from the South, it's not coming through the door." It delivered to Charleston diners a cross-section of regional ingredients, some prepared with a mind to tradition (rabbit stew with dumplings, fried okra, corn fritters) and others straight from Brock's thunderbolt imagination (pig's ears lettuce wraps and fried chicken skins, both of which became menu mainstays). In May 2013 Brock and Neighborhood Dining Group president David Howard opened a second Husk in Nashville. The location wasn’t chosen simply because of Music City’s percolating dining scene. It was a return performance: Brock held his first executive chef position in the city.
The two Husks share many similarities, beginning with Victorian mansion settings, but the 550 miles between them has allowed each to develop distinct, rooted identities.
At lunch last month, the fried chicken skins ranked as the best I've had among my half a dozen meals at Husk over the years. A pile of them — plenty, but not too many — came on a knobby, hollowed wooden plank. The size of elongated peanuts, the skins first soaked in buttermilk and then passed through the smoker before their descent into the fryer. They were the least greasy iterations I could recall, and three of us gobbled them like poultry popcorn.
If the skins were definitive Husk, executed with such finesse under the watch of chef de cuisine Travis Grimes, then the rest of the meal framed the restaurant's evolving personality. Cornmeal-dusted catfish, bronzed in the spots where the fish laid flattest in the pan, sprawled over a mound of hoppin' John (smoky speckled beans with Carolina gold rice) and greens with their pot liquor. Apple and sage spoonbread was the stuffing for copper-skinned quail on a cushion of farro, butternut squash, and torn shards of mustard greens. A brothy take on shrimp and grits included peppers and onions braised in tomatoes (which still flourish well into the Lowcountry autumn), charred corn, and chorizo-like hunks of sausage. For dessert we polished off sweet potato chess pie surrounded by dollops of toasted marshmallow.
Brock, like many other chefs of his generation, rightly believes that Southern food need not remain mired in a past of plantation feasts or grandmas' specialties — that the quality of the products could be a springboard toward fresh combinations and ideas. So he might take country ham and use it in a vinaigrette for a shrimp salad or serve pig's tails General Tso's style with spiced peanuts. Some entrees would always be straightforward, modern plates (say, a lusty pork chop with bacony field peas and kale), and a Southerner could always count on a familiar totem or two, like rich, crisp-edged cornbread or boiled peanuts.
But I did love the more historical slant to this recent menu. Chefs often overlook the time-honored in favor of the novel, and it was gratifying to see what a skilled kitchen could do with homey and genteel dishes that so clearly evoked the region. Brock and his team approach the Husk menus like Buddhist sand mandalas: They build them and then wipe them away, starting anew the next day. Similar patterns may reappear, but the design is never quite the same. I know such a sharp gaze back in time isn't — nor should it be — permanent. I was glad to experience it as part of the repertoire, though.
Brock left Nashville in 2006 to take the job as executive chef at McCrady's in Charleston, a title he still retains. The origins of McCrady's as a tavern stretch back to 1788, but Brock yanked the menu into the new millennium by weaving into multi-course menus things like shrimp stock gelled into sheets and olive oil frozen via liquid nitrogen. These days, the overt modernist fillips have largely disappeared. McCrady's remains a restaurant where Brock and chef de cuisine Daniel Heinze can interweave seasonal Lowcountry bounty with a global notion or two; Husk Charleston, by intention, is more focused in its Southern identity.
The cooking at Husk Nashville synthesizes the whole of Brock's culinary personality. Without a McCrady's nearby, more complex aspects of his technical side winningly emerge. At a September dinner, fire-roasted gourds (yellow squashes, in this case) were arranged on a freckled ceramic plate with Malabar spinach, clumps of malted barley "soil," and potent black walnuts in two variations: as scattered pieces and in an inky vinaigrette with sorghum. The collage pulled from the Southern larder sure enough, but it spun the flavors into a delicious, alternate universe. Same with catfish grilled over coals and then slathered with a puree of benne (the African strain of sesame that arrived in America during Colonial times), dotted with raw slices of pole beans and benne seeds, and set into a bath of warmed tomato juices bright with lime and house-made fish sauce.
While in South Carolina I'd say an order of skins is mandatory, the compulsory order here is probably the vegetable plate. It resembled an Indian thali, arriving on a round wooden platter holding five bowls. They contained symphonic harmonies of produce: hushpuppies studded with sweet peppers; a salad of shaved zucchini with compressed watermelon and tomatoes compressed in raspberry-red wine vinaigrette; grilled squash in chili-lime vinaigrette; and a succotash that included sweet corn, red peas, okra, and garlic chives. For a little protein, a 62-degree egg whose yolk seeped into grits and bay leaf oil.
If I could only dine once more forever and ever at one Husk, I would have to head to Tennessee
While dinner service flaunts the breadth of the kitchen's abilities, lunch is the only time you can get the fried chicken. Oh, this fried chicken. Brock has been tinkering with the recipes for years, and he would only make it as an occasional, unannounced treat in Charleston. Making it is a labyrinthine process that involves secret spices, but this much we know: The chicken slowly sizzles in bacon fat, chicken fat, rendered country ham, and butter. The true marvel? In Brock's hands, what sounds like overkill comes off as understated, with rippling crust and a deep, heightened flavor to the meat. This bird is truly the word.
At both restaurants, the dining rooms sport handsomely worn hardwoods and wallpaper with silvery sunburst patterns. The bar in Nashville hides downstairs and, while welcoming, is certainly not a magnet like its Charleston counterpart. Both serve a righteous burger: The one in Charleston folds bacon into the patty and would probably win in a head-to-head match. But the cooking in Nashville is so all-in-one Brock that, if I could only dine once more forever and ever at one Husk (and I pray that will never be the case), I would have to head to Tennessee.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison