Charleston, South Carolina
Since Executive Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s in Charleston, SC, purposely gives credit to his purveyors on his menu, it’s no surprise that most everything that comes out of the kitchen truly tastes like it was harvested, fished or butchered earlier in the day. He and his Chef de Cuisine Jeremiah Langhorne have a way with vegetables in particular so if there are many unusual veggie combinations on your plate, pay attention because more often than not they, rather than the protein, are the star attraction.
McCrady’s and the food coming out of the kitchen is surprising – beautifully plated with imaginative pairings. I liked the space. The tables were far enough apart and the seating was comfortable. There is a formidable wine list here that you’ll want to look at in advance so you don’t spend the evening reading. They also have quite a few wines to try in both a tasting portion and by the glass, which is wonderful if you want to try some wines you might not be familiar with as you are making your way through the courses.
There are two ways to order here. A $125 11 course tasting menu or a more manageable (stomach and wallet-wise) four course menu for $60. When we walked into the restaurant for a 7:30 dinner reservation, only a few tables had food. I wondered whether the kitchen was backed up or whether everyone else had already finished eating. It appears it was a bit of a combination of the two, although initially I thought it was simply people eating much earlier than we are accustomed to.
The staff is highly trained and most importantly lovingly describe the food they are serving. Given the fact this restaurant is a foodie destination, it doesn’t surprise me that McCrady’s hires people who are enthusiastic about what’s coming out of the kitchen. Their spirit is invigorating.
Chilled tap or bottled water is offered as is a choice of multigrain or white bread. A small square dish filled with two small ramekins, one filled with butter, the other with olive oil were brought to the table. Since I already knew what I wanted to eat, my only hesitation was which wines to order given the expansive wine list coupled with the fact that Lynn and I purposely ordered different things to eat. Since I rarely see wines from Lebanon on any wine list, I thought a tasting of two Cabernet Sauvignons from that region would be a good place to start.
We ordered, we drank, we ate all the bread and waited some more. Normally I’ve found even if the kitchen is backed up, first courses are whisked out right away. Not here. And while we were comfortably seated next to each other, we were also right near the kitchen, so there was a lot of traffic walking in front of our table which was a bit distracting. Our first courses finally appeared; set down before me were some thinly sliced pieces of smoked ham on a bed of potato puree with some greens, a few morels, and grilled fiddlehead ferns. The ham had a lightly smoky flavor, not too salty, and the potatoes provided just the right amount of comfort food magic to be eaten with the crunchy grilled fiddlehead ferns.
Lynn had the grilled asparagus topped with a poached egg, a small dollop of crabmeat and a dark green sauce that was poured on the dish out of a container that looked like a test tube. Really. Since the sauce was rich and had a slight asparagus taste, I asked our server what else was in the “tube.” “Only grilled asparagus that had been pureed with salt and pepper and a touch of olive oil,” she said. Lynn thought the test tube pouring of the sauce was too gimmicky. I loved the idea and more importantly the sauce (which our server insisted was a vinaigrette but which I thought had a thicker consistency than that) had such a concentrated grilled asparagus taste that I thought it was a fun idea bringing the sauce to the table that way.
Between our first course and our fish course we had time to look around the room and the large bar area next to it. With the gas lamps hanging on the walls in the bar and the subdued lighting, the space is quite romantic. There didn’t seem to be as many people drinking given the scope of the wine list (the table next to ours shared a ½ bottle of white wine THE ENTIRE EVENING), but we made up for it since after we tried the Cab from Lebanon, we had a couple of glasses of Spanish Albarino, then ordered an Austrian Grüner Veltliner to go with the fish.
I love flounder. The flounder that was served to me that night though was uncharacteristically dry yet plated with two of the most exquisite carrots I may have ever eaten with a few dabs of an orange-carrot puree on the plate, too. What I thought were also a scattering of dill sprigs around the plate, turned out upon tasting to actually be the fronds of fennel which while it gave the dish an interesting licorice taste didn’t improve the overcooked fish any.
Lynn faired much better with the fried soft shell crab he ordered with some sautéed spinach, a few drizzles of a lemon sabayon and some wonderful butter-sautéed thinly sliced red radishes that were sprinkled over the entire dish.
I thought about mentioning the state of the flounder when our server inquired as to how our meal was going but decided not to; I was only two courses in and didn’t want the kitchen to think I was one of those customers who send everything back. Because I’ve never actually sent anything back!
Our meat courses were next – duck for me and lamb for Lynn. Two pet peeves which I’d like to mention (besides the long wait time between courses); the two other courses we had up to that point had been generous, our meat courses were not. My duck, a single sliced piece of perfectly cooked medium rare duck breast was nestled on a bed of pine nut risotto. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of the ”risotto” dish which is why I ordered it. Chefs Brock and Langhorne and their crew had indeed been able to do whatever you have to do to pine nuts to craft them into an utterly delicious risotto look-alike. Also on my plate was some duck confit that had been molded into a small cylinder shape (think California roll) yet with the crispy duck skin on top! Framing the entire masterpiece someone had piped in some green pea puree to literally make a box around the ingredients I was about to eat. So I did and realized that the dish wasn’t warm, in the least.
Lynn’s lamb, a small piece of lamb tenderloin and two other variations of lamb were on a bed of beans (described on the menu as Sea Island Purple Cape), with some wilted greens and intense mushrooms. His lamb was equally tepid. Now I realize that certain dishes are meant to be eaten at room temperature but surely not these two. I must have been frowning a bit when I was eating contemplating this thought because our server came over to ask if everything was ok. I decided to talk to her about the temperature of the dishes, so I did and she simply nodded and then disappeared. A few moments later, this comment brought the manager over to the table rather quickly who inquired whether the dishes might be warmed up? What? While I technically understood what she was offering to try and do, I didn’t quite know how that would work, it’s not like they could warm it up, they’d have to cook the duck and lamb all over again! I politely declined (after all I was halfway through my plate anyway), and instead waxed eloquent on the duck confit-as-sushi roll presentation. Luckily, she seemed amused by my interpretation of this dish and I realized I had made a good judgment call by not complaining about the overcooked fish. Perhaps in hindsight they’d used all the “heat” for the fish and not for the meat?
Just kidding. But here’s a quirky thing the restaurant does. Our last wine for the evening was a bottle of Robert Sinskey Cabernet. They started to decant the bottle which I thought a bit odd given it wasn’t very old or very expensive but apparently they decant all red wine that isn’t a pinot noir.
We finished our meals, plates were whisked away, and we lingered to drink our wine. The dessert part of the four courses had been ordered in the beginning which I know many restaurants do but which I’ve begun to dislike. What happens if halfway through the meal I decide I want a different dessert? Lynn, who nearly always will go for a cheese plate over a sweet finish, was very pleased with McCrady’s cheese plate that evening. Set before him was a generous selection of three cheeses, a Stilton, a lovely Brie and a hard cheese from the state of Georgia whose name I missed. More of the seemingly endless supply of pine nuts were sprinkled around the plate coupled with what appeared to be not slices of bread but rather chubby heels of bread. I thought the presentation worked though and the cheese (the few bites I could steal from his plate) was delicious.
My finish was a cornmeal cake which was served in bowl so big, it dwarfed the size of the dessert. Surrounding this humble something-Mom-would-make-but-better dessert was a lovely crème Anglaise sauce. I ate it with a spoon and didn’t offer to share. After all comfort food should only comfort the one eating it!
Besides the overdone fish course, certain food temperature issues and the delay between courses, this is some of the most creative cooking I’ve seen in a while. I really loved everything about it, and already thinking about ordering the tasting menu the next time around…