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Flash Gives Way to Elegance at McCrady's in Charleston

What would the founding fathers have made of bacon cotton candy? That kind of question hovered like a smokehouse haze over the sumptuous dining room of McCrady’s circa 2006, when Sean Brock took over as the restaurant’s executive chef. He brought modernist gadgets and obsessions, his calling cards from that era of his career, to a building with over two centuries of history in Charleston. Edward McCrady completed the construction of his tavern in 1778; George Washington reportedly drank his fill of ale in its second-floor banquet room. The structure, with its entrance just steps down a cobblestone alley off of East Bay Street, fell into disuse over the years and languished until a restoration in the 1980s.

Before new owners took over McCrady’s in 2006 and hired Brock, who’d graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston seven years earlier, the restaurant served amiable New American cuisine: pork chops with sweet potato puree and buttermilk onion rings, scallops with asparagus and hedgehog mushrooms, lemon poppy seed cake. Then Brock arrived and made some history of his own.

I remember my first meal there in 2007 as much for the people watching as for the food. Oh, the saucer eyes and fluttering brows among the Southern gentility when servers placed bowls of deconstructed she-crab soup on our linen-covered tables. We peered at a clump of crabmeat surrounded by gelatinized squares of roux and sherry. The server poured hot water over the ingredients and they alchemically converged into the familiar Lowcountry comfort. I can’t recall at that first meal if Brock spun cotton candy flavored with bacon or soy sauce or boiled peanuts, but they were all part of his repertoire then.

McCrady’s gave Brock the freedom of expression to become the food-world figure he is today.

The molecular wizardry subdued (though the hydrocolloids never completely disappeared) as Brock’s interests turned to farming and seed preservation and the New Nordic reverence for foraging and minimalism. McCrady’s gave Brock the freedom of expression to become the food-world figure he is today. When Brock’s Husk opened in 2010 and became an instant and enduring phenomenon, McCrady’s careened into a grand dame status — the mothership dedicated to Brock’s fine dining vision, the home base of glittery dinners for events like the Charleston Wine & Food Festival. It remains an admired restaurant, though it’s receded a bit from the national conversation.

Beef tartare with onion rings

So it gratified to return recently and find the kitchen producing shrewd dishes like pork crusted with four types of peppercorns (including Sichuan, for a flickering burn), overset with almonds made fluffy from grating and powdering them, and finished with crackly slivers of salsify jutting atop like sculpted serpents on a statue of Medusa. Lemon thyme leaves gave springtime zing to the earthbound flavors. The food still has an element of showmanship; the choreography now shows more restraint.

The food still has an element of showmanship; the choreography now shows more restraint.

Daniel Heinze is the restaurant’s current chef de cuisine, and he knows the Brock aesthetic exhaustively. He read about the transformation at McCrady’s last decade and moved in 2007 from his native Florida to Charleston. He’s been employed at the restaurant since, working his way up from line cook. For a couple of years, he traveled with Brock, cooking alongside him at scores of guest-chef dinners, and he took the reigns of McCrady’s kitchen last spring. The two communicate constantly but the menu ultimately belongs to Heinze.

At first he set meals as a four-course prix fixe but last month, in an effort to be more broadly appealing, the restaurant switched to a dual approach: An a la carte menu includes 14 or so dishes — some smaller and some larger, blurring the lines between appetizer and entrée — but now there’s also a $115 tasting menu comprised of three snacks and seven courses. I like the idea of ordering, say, a ham plate with red corn crackers and a salad of sweet potatoes and smoked trout in the bar area, ensconced at a two-top in an alcove lined with stained glass and an archway of ageless brick.

Peppercorn-crusted pork with powdered almonds and salsify; Mint powder-dusted angel food cake with sassafras ice cream and blueberry sorbet

I wanted the full measure of the kitchen’s abilities, though, so I went for the tasting menu. It delivered. Several dishes referenced popular trends but Heinze diverted them into fresh territory. House-made raw milk yogurt, blood orange vinaigrette, lime, and slivers of begonia leaves brought vitality to the tired beet salad genre. In a playful beef tartare, the pounce of anchovy and the crunch of croutons referenced Caesar salad; the dish came topped with pickled onion rings (sprinkled with chive and tarragon powder) for an additional wink at chophouse standards. And Heinze can certainly dream up his own masterstrokes. Wanting to work with lamb neck but finding the cut lackluster, he decided to cure the meat into a variation on pastrami. He paired it with red cabbage for the Eastern European nod and then dressed it with kumquat and marjoram for acid and herbal blasts.

McCrady’s doesn’t employ a pastry chef, but Heinze and his crew tackle desserts with unusual acumen. They had three, each better than the other: a strawberry granita flavored with pistachio and yuzu, a silky sliver of chocolate pudding glossed with banana caramel and covered with a rye crisp, and a gorgeous rectangle of angel food cake dusted with mint powder and flanked by sassafras ice cream (think root beer) and blueberry sorbet. It was mighty refreshing to find a savory chef approach sweets with some imagination and care, and one of many reminders that evening of why this timeless restaurant should stay very much on the Charleston radar.

Cost: A la carte dishes $10-$28; chef’s tasting menu (three snacks, seven courses), $115 per person. Wine pairings $80.

Sample dishes: Edwards Surry ham plate with red corn crackers and popcorn mayonnaise; pepper-crusted pork with salsify four ways, grated almond, and thyme jus; lamb neck pastrami with red cabbage, grilled shiitakes, kumquats, and marjoram; strawberry granita with yuzu and pistachio. The menu evolves subtly but constantly with the seasons.

What to drink: Carolyn "Cappie" Peete oversees the beverage programs for all the Neighborhood Dining Group restaurants (which include Husk and Mexican-themed Minero), but she still spends considerable energy on the wine list at McCrady’s, which was recently nominated for a Beard award. In ten packed pages it nails the essentials of a broadly appealing selection: wines by the glass in three- and five-ounce pours as well as high-roller sips delivered using the Coravin; half bottles that lean Old World; tempting grower Champagnes; Loires and Alsatians for the geeky bargain hunters; French standouts from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhone for the big spenders; and North American Pinots and Cabs in a range of prices and styles. Cocktails go bold; try the Incan Affair with tequila, Damiana (a Mexican herbal liqueur), lemon, aloe, and dill.

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