review: around the world in 18 plates…
Never has there been so much interest, never have I received so many emails or tweet requests to hasten the posting of a restaurant review as I have for my recent meal at McCrady’s. In fact, so intense has been the enthusiasm, so high the demand that I fear I’m unable to give the experience its proper due in what follows.
So, what is it about this restaurant and its young chef, Sean Brock, that attracts so much attention, that moves so many to action? Wherefore the popularity, wherefore the devotion?
Sean Brock is a chef whom people love to admire. He’s incredibly charming and funny, self-deprecating and humble too, never missing an opportunity to put others before him. Choosing work and play over sleep, he throws himself headlong into his pursuits, wearing multiple hats at once. He’s a Renaissance man.
But above all, he’s fiercely passionate. His enthusiasm is contagious, his capacity for life inspiring.
He loves to love. The objects of his affections are many: the South, his mother, and bourbon among them. So are his desires to feed others and make them feel special. Gush not over him, or his talent. Instead, he urges you to celebrate with him the wonderful world that surrounds us all.
And this is evident in his cooking, which is creative and soulful, instructive and precise. When you put as much energy and passion onto each plate as Sean does, what results can be nothing short of spectacular. This is why so many adore him.
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My recent dinner at McCrady’s with chuckeats, Miss O.M.G., and Tomo was one that was years in the making. And Sean approached it accordingly, dedicating to it a level of seriousness to match. He told us that he had been gathering ingredients – the tippy-top of what he could get – for months, a list that ran four pages long. And, as our desserts arrived towards the end of our meal, he revealed to us that he had been cooking extemporaneously, composing most of our eighteen dishes on the fly, having sketched out but a few of them a couple of hours before our arrival.This was Sean Brock, unplugged, unscripted, at play, inspired.
At this point, I don’t have to tell you that we were known to the house. Nor do I have to tell you that we were treated well. Service was spotless and we were thanked, and thanked again for making McCrady’s a part of our trip to Charleston.
Given these circumstances, can I evaluate our meal objectively? Let me try.
I acknowledge that our experience at McCrady’s probably wasn’t representative of what happens nightly. So, this “review” isn’t a comprehensive look at the restaurant or Sean’s cooking (none of my “reviews” can make that claim), rather, it only offers a slice in time, a snapshot, one meal:
Gin, exotic citrus.
19-Month Brock-Fed Ham
Whelks with Green Garlic
Pickled sea bean.
Razor Clams and Uni
Cucumber and Caper’s Blade oysters.
Charleston Stone Crab
Grilled asparagus, smoked ikura roe, and nasturtium.
McCrady’s bottarga, espelette, arugula, radish.
Scallop and Lobster
Popcorn, sorrel, and parsnip.
Poached and charred, with fennel, potato, and squid ink.
Lubina from Veta la Palma
Dave’s clams, Miner’s lettuce, green strawberries, smoked chicken jus.
Lardo and almond, licorice and preserved blueberries.
Bourbon, banana, salsify, and peanut.
Morels, ramps, garbanzo beans, toasted spices.
Kimchee, broccoli and farro.
Dried cherry, hazelnut.
Anise and citrus.
Foie Gras Poundcake
Buttermilk, passion fruit, and strawberries.
Malted barley, coffee.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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Whereas Husk is a diorama of the South, a love letter to Sean’s heritage, McCrady’s has no boundaries. It’s a playground devoted entirely to pursuing the best of what can be offered.
Having shown us his beloved region at Husk, Sean used this dinner at McCrady’s to take us on a tour of the world.
He gave us an Asian vignette in a bowl with sweet razor clams, oysters, and sea urchins bathed in a rich dashi, his depiction of a tidal pool. Despite the frozen cucumber snow, which was a bit too harsh – a sharp blast of cold that numbed the mouth against the delicate seafood – this was a deeply satisfying dish, pregnant with umami.
He sent us to Africa with a spiced lamb chop, musky and mysterious, with green chickpeas.
And, he paused a while in Europe with a couple of dishes, skirting the Mediterranean with octopus and potato, espelette and bottarga.
But be not misled. This meal claimed no throne of authenticity. This was not an attempt to present the world as the world is. To evaluate it in this way would be silly. Rather, the dishes that passed before us were a reflection of the world through Sean’s eyes and mind, a Southerner. Using mostly regional ingredients, he presented a brand of fusion unlike any other I’ve encountered.
Draped across that lamb chop were ramps and morels, products of the lush Appalachia, far from the arid plains of Africa from whence the roasty, toasty spices that dusted the plate. Yet the coupling was strangely intuitive, robust flavors from different lands that supported each other seamlessly.
His “beef and broccoli” with kimchee was part Chinese, part Korean, and incredibly delicious. Instead of white rice, there came with the delicious square of beef belly some farro, tender and nutty.
Was the juicy cut of squab wrapped in lardo and served with mustard greens, licorice ,and blueberries Italian or Southern? Possibly both, or neither – the flavors in this dish merged and morphed with each bite, leaving me to chase them in my mind for days thereafter. There was a meatiness, earthiness, and bitterness to this dish. But there was also a subtle sweetness from the residual sugars in the pickled blueberries from a vintage past, amplified by the licorice.
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Dishes ranged from the simple – like a board of waxy, house-cured ham from pigs fattened on a steady diet of acorns; and a single whelk served with creamy, green garlic sauce (think Green Goddess dressing) – to the complex – like stone crab with grilled asparagus, ikura roe, nasturtium, asparagus-chard “juice,” and a frothy foam made from chicken stock and bonito. But, regardless of how many ingredients appeared on each plate, there were always twice as many flavors, twice as much thought.
Among the many novelty ingredients that Sean used was house-cured “bottarga” made from the roe of local shad. This, he shaved over parts of flounder, including a jellied “cheese” made from the fish’s head. You’d think that the bottarga would be too pungent and the espelette pepper would be too spicy for the fish, but they weren’t. Together, they gave this dish a warm, coastal feel.
He exposed us to lubina, a fish that is sustainably raised in the fresh waters of Veta la Palma in Spain.* The soft, white flesh – not unlike bass – came with a rich chicken jus and meaty slices of green strawberries that inserted just the right amount of acid here and there.
There was whey, which Sean carbonized and spiked with gin and citrus. This was a dangerously easy cocktail to down.
And there was “Brockawattabaw” pork from a breed of pig that Sean is developing with Bev Eggleston, the legendary hog whisperer, who produces some of the most desirable cuts of ham available. Glazed and sticky with bananas and bourbon, this was swine Foster, with salsify and a peanut granola on the side. (In other words, this pork got “Brocked.”) Vaguely Creole, vaguely West African, this as unexpectedly delicious.
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My favorite dishes? Three of them stood out above the rest.
One was a kaleidoscope of fresh, baby vegetables and herbs drizzled with warm, velvety “kombu butter” at the table. Use your fingers, we were urged. The snap peas were so crisp, so sweet, the pencil asparagus so young, so tender; everything was incredibly fresh.
And at the end, there arrived a toasted slice of foie gras poundcake that served as the centerpiece of a gorgeous riff on strawberry shortcake, with fresh and dehydrated strawberries scattered about. The toasted poundcake aside, what I loved about this dish was the balance of sweet and sour that it achieved, with tangy buttermilk and passion fruit coating the whole. Sean told us that, for the cake, he substituted foie gras for butter, pound-for-pound. I must get the recipe.
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“Are you having fun, yet?” This was Sean’s chief concern.
Of course we were having fun.
Despite the fact that Sean appeared more serious (or, perhaps, more worn out) than two nights earlier at Husk, this meal was convivial and relaxed. After all, this was a playground. With most of our dishes being created and presented à la minute, there seemed to be no hard rules and no set script.**
While this meal was extraordinary for a number of reasons, the most amazing aspect of it for me was the level of sophistication Sean achieved in a free-form exploration of ingredients and cultures. Even “chocolate pudding,” which Sean said that he created on the spot, without forethought, was incredibly complex, with a daringly acrid coffee foam and crunchy “malt balls” made from barley. This was a next-level dessert.
Extraordinary as well was the dining room in which we sat, originally a madeira bar in the late 1700’s, when McCrady’s was first erected and opened by its namesake, a madeira importer.*** George Washington ate and drank here, along with thousands of others in the decades since. I’m glad to be counted among them, especially during what must be the restaurant’s golden era.
If Sean’s objective was to give us quick sketches of the world as he sees it, he succeeded immensely, and with amazing detail and thought. This, I suspect, is what Sean strives to achieve every day.
To Sean and his staff: thank you for feeding us, thank you for spoiling us, and thank you for staying up so late with us. I hope to tour the world with you again.
2 Unity Alley
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
* This fish was the subject of a TED talk by Dan Barber.
** From our table, which was next to a window, we saw cooks appear between courses to clip herbs from the window box garden, an interaction between table and kitchen that I don’t know was intentional, but was certainly lovely. For a couple of courses, we were poured two different wines to taste and test. One of these two courses was the “Octopus” course, with which was paired both an albarino and a blushing, Nigl Brut de Brut. Whereas I thought the albarino was the overall better pairing, the Nigl really magnified the flavor of the cilantro on the plate.
*** The restaurant is a sprawling labyrinth that seats up to four-hundred (or more) at once, including private dining rooms upstairs. We didn’t have a tour of the restaurant this time, but I look forward to seeing more of it next time.