On Saturday, John and I got tickets to the third opening night of Chef Sean Brock’s restaurant, McCrady’s. And, we found a babysitter.
McCrady’s has existed in Charleston in several forms, currently McCrady’s Tavern and, through the wall on the opposite street, the new, more formal, very exclusive vision from the renowned local chef.
We’ve lived in the South for three years, and the only restaurant of Brock’s I’ve been to is Minero, the only suitable place to get tacos in Charleston. I love Minero for both the food and the atmosphere, a classier, downtown venue in a beautiful, narrow building gives it less of a Mexican food vibe, more of an upscale bar with the most creative taco selection in the south.
But I was surprised to learn that McCrady’s had taken over the building and Minero’s actually moved–giving his restaurant group a strange fluidity, appealing in a city that rarely changes form. Our seating was at 6pm sharp, doors open at 5:50pm. The babysitter arrived at 5 and we were on the road with about 20 minutes to spare.
Adding to our luck, we found a spot in a parking lot down the street and arrived exactly at 5:50 to a small crowd waiting outside. We took pictures and chatted awkwardly with several couples before they opened the heavy doors to check our reservations, hand us a glass of champagne (and a single virgin drink for me) and lead us to our seats.
Minero had been completely transformed. An open kitchen was set in the back behind a large family-style, rectangular bar with a narrow space in between for servers and sommeliers. Two tables towards the front set apart the group dining–which I quickly realized we preferred. Seated in a tight group felt more like a dinner party and less like a stuffy date at another out-of-our-league restaurant.
Our side of the rectangle faced two other couples and our seats were sandwiched between both a younger local couple and an older couple from North Carolina. Waiters, chef’s and the sommelier moved easily in the small space, prepping for our drinks and first course.
The tasting was a total of 15 courses, an optional wine pairing and a less-desired non-alcoholic pairing. John had selected the latter for me and decided last minute, after turning page after page of wine options sorted by counties–including Lebanon–to add the wine pairing to his.
A waiter came up to tell us our first appetizer was waiting, hidden in a bonsai tree between our glassware. The small tubular piece of eggplant jerky was tough, like licorice, but the saltiness was reminiscent of actual meat, and the small flowers lent a more thoughtful presentation. I was impressed. The first virgin drink came with it, a light cucumber, tarragon lime and salt blend.
John and I weren’t sure what to expect from McCrady’s. Aside from the French Laundry earlier this year–hands down the most incredible restaurant we’ll ever go to–neither of us have much experience with high end tasting menus and exclusive reservations. But the French Laundry had eased my fear of leaving hungry and unsatisfied–with it’s incredibly rich and elaborate courses–and we didn’t know if this experience would be similar or a more regional take on fine, creative dining.
Course two came out quickly, a palate cleansing pine needle aperitif (a word I previously didn’t know). How this icy, Christmas scented sorbet came to exist, and work, is beyond me, but it was incredibly light, and savory, just the perfect amount to prepare us for dinner.
By course three we’d realized McCrady’s is not for the anti-social. The layout creates a party, bar-like atmosphere, and the proximity of each couple makes the experience more intimate than we’d experienced at the French Laundry, where the quiet was almost deafening. Here, we were forced to interact, with our neighbors, the people across from us, the waiters, who would appear from both sides to talk, about the food, Charleston, family. It was everything you’d expect in the South, and nothing I ever pictured the South would be.
Course three was a two-in-one, a thin slice of beet with cocoa and lime and a quail egg tart, that I will always remember for it’s incredibly crisp and delicate crust. It was that perfect.
The Ossabaw pork was next, each dish getting slightly heavier, working towards the few main courses. I’m not usually a fan of pork, but the local sausage was incredibly flavorful and rich in spices and juniper. The drink pairing was green apple, lemon and salt. The juice combinations were matched so perfectly I never really thought twice about drinking juice at dinner, every flavor seemed to compliment the flavor of the food without taking anything away from it.
Unfortunately, course five went uneaten. Caviar with sunflower, brown butter and apple sounded good in theory, and, even though the waiter said the caviar was cured, I couldn’t get my pregnant stomach to test it. John said he wasn’t a huge fan–caviar has never really placed among his top favorite foods.
Next up was supposed to be a Virginia Oyster, but I got special treatment with a chopped celery, seaweed combination over dry ice and sea salt to enhance the deep ocean essence of the dish. The celery was incredible, salty like fish with the unique taste of the seaweed. It was one of my favorite dishes of the night, and not just because it was made especially for me.
The next juice to accompany the dinner was a celery root, green peanut, matsutake vinegar, celery bitters and peanut oil combination. I actualy don’t remember much about this one, I was so focused on the 7th course, Cobia fish done three ways, Matsutake and green peanut. The fish was wonderful, but what really stood out was how different each bite tasted. It was so light that it picked up the differences in grilling, poaching and baking, each with different hints of smokiness, wood and the soft peanut flavor.
John’s favorite dish was the Charleston Ice Cream with Charleston crab. We also got a moment to talk with Chef Brock, who said, while the dish looked simple, it took an incredible amount of effort to create. The crab was rolled into a log, nestled into white rice and a bed of the clear, glossy Charleston ice cream. It was spectacular, one of the best dishes on the menu and one that we both thought would stick around. And I think we appreciated it the most because it was the essense of Charleston–a classy and simple city by the sea with a multitude of underlying complexity.
The juice pairing also outdid itself, chamomile and hibiscus tea, shiso, lemon and fennel, a refreshing and slightly sweet combination to transition into a sea food section of the menu.
Roast duck, watermelon and onion were served next. I’m not a huge fan of duck, but it was hard not to enjoy the sticky seared meat. Really, the onion was the star of this dish-dehydrated into a crisp snowflake–an upscale and much more delicious version of a French’s fried onion crisp. I asked John if it would be inappropriate to ask for a basket of them. I’m not sure he was ready to drop another hundred or so for onions. The drink to accompany this portion of the meal was a sweet watermelon, asic, salt and hickory mix.
Aged beef with a sweet potato cake in black truffle sauce rounded out the main courses. I had to pass on the beef, it wasn’t well-done (pregnancy rules), so John had two servings while I ate the sweet potato–rich in the company of the truffle sauce. They then brought out a basket of bread–two slices–from North Carolina to finish the sauce. I wanted a full basket of that too. The drink was one of the most bizarre combinations I’ve ever had, but it worked. Sweet potato and orange juice, soy, vinegar, nutritional yeast and truffle oil. It tasted like the dredges of a stirfry, but was somehow went down easily with no bizarre aftertaste. But by this stage of the meal, I was feeling a little overserved on the drink front. My glasses were piling up and flavors intended for specific pairings were bleeding into new dishes. Although each juice was an incredible compliment, the sheer amount of drinking was a little overwhelming. I could have easily been satisfied with half the options, or at least half the portions.
At that point, they brought out the third to last dish to let it set in front of us. A small chocolate tart and huckleberry sauce, which tempted us at the end of the table while we were given Uni & Paw Paw in gold foil. This was the one dish I tried that I didn’t like, but a favorite of all of the waiters and sioux chefs. It was flavored with sea urchin, which either didn’t sit well or didn’t sound great, I couldn’t really tell. I tried to conceal mine in the gold so they’d take it away.
Finally, the tart. The waiter had me guess the ingredients in the drink that accompanied it, I guessed chocolate, cranberry and some sort of bitters. Which actually wasn’t that off from the berry, rooibos, cacao tea with chocolate bitters and maple. It reminding me of my favorite, light Numi chocolate tea. I liked the tart, a lot, but I wish they’d lightened up on the huckleberry sauce, which was just a little too concealing of the rich chocolate that we’d been waiting to set.
The next dessert course was the most beautiful, sea island milk ice cream, muscadine grapes that had taken on a jelly quality and a frozen sorghum flower. The whole combination was incredible and obviously went perfectly with the muscadine grape, sorgum, vinegar and lactart juice that ended the pairing.
The final tasting was a foi gras, strawberry and almond pop. John and I copied a couple across from us and took a pop picture, but I actually didn’t eat mine. I had to quickly google it under the table, but apparently pregnant people shouldn’t have fresh foi gras, which I actually didn’t mind because the thought of it was making my stomach turn. I also had to pass on the final mint because of the menthol, which was actually dissapointing because it sounded really refreshing.
By the last few courses, John and I were on a first name basis with the advanced sommelier, our waiter and a floater waiter, who kept coming by to check on us. The whole thing was incredibly comfortable and inviting, more like having a friend–a very talentended, renowned, famous friend–cook for you at an intimate party. And the food followed suit. Where French Laundry was fancy, McCrady’s was colloquial, and really spoke to the local food scene and particular American, seafood taste of the south.