Is Charleston, SC's Husk the Best New Restaurant in the U.S.? Bon Appetit Says So.
Husk's Southern Fried Chicken Skins
When Andrew Knowlton published his list of the 10 best new restaurants in the U.S. last month in Bon Appétit, it was met mainly with incredulity on the part of the dining public.
Husk occupies a handsome two-story house in the historic district of Charleston. Walk-in tables are on the upstairs balcony.
The list has a certain off-the-wall quality about it, favoring adventuresome places likely to have a lasting influence on the restaurant industry. But since the places were so new, I had no way to judge it, other than believing that M. Wells belonged on the list. How to test it? I decided to go right to the top and check out the number-one restaurant on the list, Charleston, South Carolina's Husk.
It helped that I was going to the Association of Food Journalists' annual convention there already. But the minute the tiny jet's wheels hit the tarmac, I was plotting how to get in. A call placed a few days earlier demonstrated that no reservations were to be had on the days I was available. Who could be surprised, given Husk's number-one ranking in Bon Appétit?
But I did learn that a handful of outdoor walk-in tables were available every day, assigned within the first half-hour to those that were in line when the place opened at 5:30 p.m. I went right from the airport to the restaurant, and was first in line. The restaurant occupies a white, two-story frame house that might almost be accounted a mansion. The place has an easy Southern air about it, even with employees dressed in tan slacks and blue shirts scurrying around. Seating was nicely spaced in a series of rooms on both floors.
The soft homemade rolls come topped with benne seeds.
The classic Bibb lettuce salad with buttermilk dressing spawns an expansive adaptation at Husk.
Imagine my surprise to find that the walk-in tables were right on the second-floor balcony overlooking Queen Street, the best seats in the house as the setting sun suffused the street with a pink glow.
The menu offers seven apps, seven mains (called "Supper"), and four sides. Local origin of ingredients is emphasized, and the names of the suppliers are often highlighted. The menu changes seasonally.
I decided to concentrate on apps, since I could get the most mileage out of my dining dollar, and form a better picture of the entire menu. My first choice was "Southern Fried Chicken Skins with Hot Sauce and Kennerty Farms Honey" ($8), reminding me that M. Wells listed a chicken-skin app served with mayo in its early days. This dish was exquisite, a huge pile of skins that had been soaked in buttermilk, lightly smoked in the wood oven, dusted with flour, and fried. The finished product was light as gossamer, and went well with its hot-sauce dip, which reminded me of Tabasco.
The next app was "Kurios Farms Bibb Lettuce with South Carolina Blue Crab, Soft Boiled Egg, Heirloom Tomatoes, Shaved Radish, and Cubed Buttermilk" ($12). Though this sounds like one or two ingredients too many, the components were presented in separate piles with the dressing on the bottom, allowing you to create a series of little salads by mixing two or three ingredients at once in a mouthful. The serving sizes were huge, compared with what you'd get in New York City for similar quantity, quality, and creativity.
The catfish supper on a ramped-up succotash, as the sun set and the lights flickered on.
The view from Husk's balcony
The bread basket contained fluffy warm rolls topped with sesame seeds (called "benne," the name given them by Africans who brought them to the South in the first place), served with whipped honey-butter warm enough to melt into the bread. Small details were expertly executed by the staff, and the service throughout occurred with military precision.
My entrée, at the suggestion of the waitress (who had moved to South Carolina from Minneapolis two years ealier), was "Cornmeal Dusted North Carolina Catfish with Creamy White Acre Peas, Wood-Fired Corn, Cabbage, and Husk Mustard Butter" ($22), the title of the dish continuing in the same narrative vein as the starters. The non-catfish ingredients resolved themselves into a juicy and creamy succotash in the bottom of the bowl, and "white acre peas" turned out to be small beans. While I didn't like this as much as I'd liked the apps, it was a wholesome and tasty feed, rich and light at the same time.
Other entrées included a local fish in the snapper family with heirloom squash, roasted red pepper, and tomato gravy; a pork chop with barbecue beans and ham-braised greens; and a chicken with charred turnips and boiled peanut jus, all of it in a very Southern vein. There were no vegetarian entrées.
It turns out that I'd been busted due to my own careless tweeting, or perhaps because I put my own name on the waiting list for tables when I first arrived, assuming that nobody would know it in South Carolina. As a result, a couple of comped dishes were brought out in the course of the meal. I made a point of paying for them anyway. These (pictured below) included a plate of the restaurant's excellent charcuterie, which proved as good as anything I'd eaten in Italy, and toasts served with local ham and the revamped pimento cheese of chefs Sean Brock and Travis Grimes.
Is Husk the best new restaurant in the U.S.? Based on my meal there, I'd have to say it's a strong candidate, synthesizing lots of contemporary ideas and adding notions of its own. Would it do well if it were located in, say, the Lower East Side or Cobble Hill? You bet! Especially at those prices.
Husk's charcuterie with mustard, all made in-house
"Grilled Crostini with Tennessee Cheddar Pimento Cheese and Allan Benton's Country Ham"
The pimento cheese laid bare
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