McCrady’s (Charleston, SC) – Ingredient Fetish

The South flies under the haute culinary radar but the rewards are proving to be worth the adventure. Restaurants like McCrady’s and Radius 10 (Nashville) are quietly developing a modern regional identity – borrowing from Alinea and WD-50′s it-could-be-anywhere cuisine – but retaining a southern flare and finish. And what better place than in the south where the hospitality runs circles around even the most expensive European restaurants?

To get it out of the way, McCrady’s blew my socks off. My expectations were high – Opinionated About raved about the restaurant last October, various online fora reports were exceedingly positive, and I knew Chef Brock moved in circles whose food I respected. In terms of “wanting to return”, it ranks very highest on my US list. Yes, it was that good 1.

The restaurant is a study in layers and contrasts – old and new – yet manages to incorporate it into something unique – “a sense of place” as Chef Brock says he is trying to achieve. The building sets a grand stage – built in the 1700s, it sprawls up, down, in, out, and around what seems like most of a city block – picture the Gangs of New York opening scene. With this setting, he could play alchemist or scientist, and both, as you’ll read, could be appropriate descriptions. The chemicals and laboratory equipment is rumored to be stockpiled in the back (I did not visit the kitchen) but the garden, and soon the animals, share the focus. An older, presumably conservative crowd, chows down on molecular food in a historic American city. The whole scene can be a bit incongruous at first.

I had read of the experimental nature of the food but it was the chef’s commitment to growing his own food, chronicled on his blog since last fall, that had me most intrigued. And here again we have this great juxtaposition – molecular chef and farmer. I don’t have the historical knowledge of Brock’s cuisine but I suspect the ingredients are fascinating him more than the chemicals these days. In fact, besides Manresa (whom Brock holds in very high regards) and Urasawa, I don’t know if there is anyone in the US that is as obsessed about the ingredients in their food. It borders on the fetishistic – which is perfectly fine in my book.

I would have given a full blow by blow of the food but I did my best Anthony Bourdain impression and got sufficiently hammered. Most of the dishes are pictured below and I’ll expound on them and the general themes they played into. I’ve included the full tasting menu after the post 2.

Charcuterie

Home-made charctuerie and butter are presented in the beginning. Farm to table – and all points in-between. Travis Grimes, a sous chef, prepares the charcuterie from Caw Caw Creek milk-fed pigs. The plan is to begin raising the pigs on the farm – feeding them vegetable scraps, heavy cream, and peanuts. Might I also suggest acorns? This was a nice beginning with liberal spicing – a theme throughout the meal.

Cherokee Purple, Olive Oil, Housemade Ricotta
The charcuterie was excellent but these tomatoes made me pause – the vegetable garden was certainly no vanity project. The tomatoes were intense, bursting with acidity and sweetness, among the best I’ve ever eaten. They may have been compressed, given the concentration of flavor. Ingredients and technique – coaxing the best attributes out of the flavors.

Zucchini, Meyer Lemon, Yoghurt, Local Shrimp
The lemon tinge, on the edge of being too acidic, balanced the sweetness and creaminess of the other ingredients. You couldn’t call it bombastic but it was clear the chef would not shy away from well-balanced big flavors – the spicing in the charcuterie, the intensity of the tomatoes, and the lemon in this dish.

Poached Scallop, Fresh Coriander Berries, Mango Vinegar
This was just a beautiful dish that hit every button for me. The scallops were cooked sous vide in olive oil and presented in a modern style. Again, some strong flavors that were quite balanced. Sublime.

Tuna, Miso Broth, Ramp Kimchee
At first, it might sound like another Asian fusion cliche but the ramp kimchee gave the dish a powerful, unique jab. The tuna quality was very high.

Coconut, Curry, Arctic Char Roe
I mentioned earlier that the chef ran in interesting circles and I would speculate this dish was born out of collaborative discussions. I first encountered a roe/ice cream dish while eating at Ideas in Food. The textural and taste contrasts are nothing short of genius – the pop of roe mixed with the creaminess of ice cream, followed by the salty and sweet interplay.

Ideas in Food Sourdough Ice Cream w/ Arctic Char Roe from Keyah Grande meal in Jan 2007.

Oyster, Ham Consommé, Cornbread
It would be hard to find a more haute southern dish than this – the mix of the oyster’s brininess and the consomme’s saltiness provided the backbone of the dish. Brock takes his ham seriously (can you say Alan Benton?) and I suspect it finds its way into more dishes than I realized. Nor would I be surprised to find his own ham on the menu in the future.

Wreckfish, Corn, Beans, Black Truffle
At long last, the Tennessee truffle – almost. My search is not over yet – these were Perigord black truffles via Tennessee via Australia. Tom Michaels, the Tennessee truffle guy, worked with an Australian farmer, where the weather was perfect, for the truffles in this dish. I was very skeptical when I heard of “the Tennessee truffle” but these (Australian) examples were abundantly fragrant. They were 80-85% of the best truffles I had in France two years ago.

Beef Short Rib, Spin Rossa, Pickled Morels, Smoked Hollandaise

Jamison Lamb, Farro, Carrots from our Garden, Merguez
How seriously does Chef Brock take his garden? He’s harvesting his own heritage farro! The lamb was among the better specimens I’ve had in the States – full of flavor.

Trefoil Cheese, Smoked Grapes ,Saba

Lemon, White Chocolate, Local Berries

Were there any regrets? Yes. Admittedly, I did not do my proper research before arriving. If I had, I would have absolutely requested his uni ice cream and foie gras pound cake!

McCrady’s is not a secret, particularly after Chef Brock was nominated for a James Beard award; but it could be called a treasure. As I mentioned earlier, my want to return is quite high. If I were making a top 10 US list, it would easily rank. If someone asked where they could go to experience something special and unique (in the US), it would make the top 5 list. And the restaurant should only get better. Why? The entire restaurant, and seemingly every employee, has bought into Brock’s vision – you can hear their excitement every time they talk to you – you can’t force, or buy, that kind of morale. It is also just Brock’s first year farming the garden; obviously, he should get better with each passing year. It won’t be long before the Europeans add Charleston as a stop on their culinary itineraries.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere” (in culinary terms of course) is an oft-heard complaint. It’s really not. One could make an excellent food trip with a few hours of driving each day. An example itinerary could be: Bacchanalia in Atlanta (on my to-do list), a 4 hour drive to Radius 10 (Nashville), 3 hours to Blackberry Farm (Walland, TN), 6 hours to McCrady’s, 5 hours to Skylight Inn (Ayden, NC) for the country’s best BBQ (as says my BBQ-loving friend), and 4.5 hours ending at Minibar (DC). Town House Grill (Chilhowie, VA), with the up and coming Shieldses, could also be an option. And the South can be serious fun. In fact, I may be so inclined to take such a trip later this year, McCrady’s being the centerpiece, of course.

- chuck

1 – Chef Brock and I have exchanged emails and messages through various online circles. I let him know I was coming in for dinner. We even shared a few drinks afterwards. None of this changes my high opinion of the food.

2 – The Full Menu

A Tasting of our Charcuterie
Charentais Melon from the Garden, Benton’s Ham, Balsamic
Cherokee Purple, Olive Oil, Housemade Ricotta
Zucchini, Meyer Lemon, Yoghurt, Local Shrimp
Poached Scallop, Fresh Coriander Berries, Mango Vinegar
Coconut, Curry, Arctic Char Roe
Tuna, Miso Broth, Ramp Kimchee
Beets, Strawberries, Hazelnuts
Oyster, Ham Consommé, Cornbread
Wreckfish, Corn, Beans, Black Truffle
Foie Gras Bacon, Pain Perdue, Blis Maple, Apple Butter
Suckling Pig, Dates, Turnips
Beef Short Rib, Spin Rossa, Pickled Morels, Smoked Hollandaise
Jamison Lamb, Farro, Carrots from our Garden, Merguez
Trefoil Cheese, Smoked Grapes ,Saba
Lemon, White Chocolate, Local Berries
Chocolate, Cocoa Crisps, Mascorpone
Petit Fours

  • http://www.alifewortheating.com Aaron

    Re: Foie gras bacon — I assume this was smoked, but did Chef Brock go for a bacon-like texture as well? And if so, how?

  • http://www.sygyzy.com sygyzy

    Thanks for the excellent review. I’ve been waiting for just this – Chuck @ McCrady’s. I am visiting Virginia in October and I am trying to figure out a way to tie in McCrady’s. Doubtful since it’s nowhere near VA. Back to plan A – Minibar.

  • chuckeats

    aaron – foie gras bacon has been lost in the ether – Sean did write about it on his blog: http://seanbrock.wordpress.com/2007/02/06/foie-gras-bacon/

    sygyzy – i know not everyone likes to drive but it’s only 7 hours away. of course, be careful – VA cops are rather notorious for a zero tolerance speeding policy.

    you could also check out Town House Grill – the name is misleading but the chefs are alumni of Tru and Alinea (and i’m adding this to the blog post too)
    http://www.townhousegrill.com/

  • http://www.alifewortheating.com Aaron

    Cool. Thanks for the link. I should’ve Googled it first anyway. Doing so taught me that a place called Lacroix in Philadelphia had the following on their menu at one point:

    Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras “Bacon” cornbread, ranch dressing

    I think I’ll stick with Chef Brock’s version.

  • Jane

    Thanks Chuck! Keep it comin’!

  • SamanthaF

    Lovely Chuck – your trip idea sounds interesting too…..

  • http://www.foodandbeermonger.com Alex

    It’s great to see you mention the Town House Grill. It’s such a great place.

  • Raymond

    Hey Chuck,

    I have been waiting for your review for McCrady’s Restaurant. It’s glad to see a chef farm with creativity with the likes of Mr Kinch of Manresa. Mr. Brock with his molecular play and search of the finest ingredients is a strong recipe for success. Mr. Barber from Blue Hill has the same attributes with the two chefs I mentioned, whoever it seems that Chef Barber is more advance in his farming but soon Chef Brock will do the same.

  • http://www.sygyzy.com sygyzy

    Chuck – Thanks for the tip about Town House Grill. I would never know about these places if it weren’t for you. I actually was super excited but it seems like it’s over 4 hours away from Richmond. :( That’s too far since I’ll only be in VA shortly for the wedding.

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  • http://www.letstalkcharleston.com/ Paul

    Excellent review and sounds like an awesome experience. Love what you do. Keep up good work. Here are some photos we took a week or so ago of Sean Brock and teh Ideas in Food gang. Enjoy! http://charlestonfood.smugmug.com/gallery/5301207_5ThcZ#323648757_QkTEt

  • James

    Chuck,

    I have staged at Mccrady’s three times, including the Ideas in Food dinner, and eaten there 4 times. I have had to drive 5 hours all 4 times. 3 from Asheville, NC and once from Durham, NC. I have never been disappointed. I would do it again in a second. While I don’t share your resume in dining trophies, I have eaten some amazing meals in the last 6 years. I would rate McCrady’s in the top three tier.
    Sean is not only a great chef, but also and amazing, selfless teacher.

  • andre guillet

    Chuck:
    After so many years in this industry I am honored to be working with Sean Brock
    as the General Manager of McCradys. Sean is one of the most passionate, creative, hard working Chef (farmer-charcutier-pig farmerI have ever met. Bravo to him
    Thank you for your great review
    andre
    It is a pleasure to run every dish in front of the guest and be so proud

  • stephen

    NOMA DINNER REVIEW, PLEASE!

  • http://verygoodfood.dk Trine

    Impatiently checking daily for your Manresa/noma write-up ;-)

  • chuckeats

    stephen & trine, i just returned from london & paris – noma/manresa coming up soon.

  • http://5starfoodie.com Natasha – 5 Star Foodie

    Chuck, thanks for visiting my site and your comments. I wish we had a longer stay in Charleston to try McGrady’s. Your review and pictures look great. Unfortunately for the second dinner we ate at Magnolias and were very disappointed. We wish we ate at McGrady’s instead. It is actually rated 3 stars, but from your review looks like it should be rated higher.

  • Teresa

    We recently moved to Charleston from DC where we lived one block from the mini bar(divine and always interesting). We were unsure of the adjustment to Charleston’s dining options but the Chefs at McGrady’s and Pennisula Grill have reassured us that we still have places to impress our palates and take our friends! Hope more foodies show up to dine here and support our top kitchens.

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  • http://www.eatfoo.com Barzelay

    Just ate at McCrady’s this evening. Unfortunately, Chef was not in house, but our meal was excellent. Every course was spot on, and we, too, got some freebies (charcuterie, etc.). I am staging there for four days starting Sunday.

  • chuckeats

    Good to hear Barzelay – I definitely want to make it back sometime this year

  • http://www.webaggression.com/ webaggression

    Since Chef Brock took over at McCrady’s it has been my favorite restaurant in Charleston and one of my favorites in the US. I wouldn’t sell Charleston short though. There are a number of great restaurants downtown. Suggest trying FIG or Fulton Five while there. Also, there are some hidden gems in the upstate of SC like American Grocery or Devereaux’s in Greenville.

    Great post! Thanks.

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