You know those books that are actually two volumes bound as one, with covers at 180 degrees to each other, so you read one title, then flip it over and you have a whole other book? It would work to print this review of Husk in that so-called tête-bêche format, because there are almost two opposing stories in this single column. On the one side, there's the tale of a fabulous dinner at the Nashville outpost of chef Sean Brock's acclaimed Charleston nameplate; on the other, a much less inspiring saga of a disappointing lunch.
Our evening meal was nothing short of a bodice-ripper, a sultry, lips-parted love story of burning romance between a diner and her food. I am that besotted diner, and the food was a casually confident repertoire inspired by Brock's dual passions for culinary tradition and modern technology.
My meal was a page-turner with a plot so gripping I didn't even realize it was all a metaphor for something else. Everything just tasted so good that I didn't stop to consider the deeper homage to the history of Low Country agriculture and the migration of crops from Africa to the New World. Such themes shape Brock's selection of regional ingredients including rice, sweet potatoes and peanuts and his use of recipes such as a formula for rice cakes sourced from an 1881 cookbook, as well as the wine program focusing on organic and biodynamic wines from family vineyards.
While the ingredients may be of ancient lineage, the techniques used to prepare them are thoroughly modern. Take the cabbage that accompanies a duo of pork belly and loin. The menu says it's grilled. But it's far from a crisp wedge thrown on the embers: Husk's kitchen starts out by fermenting cabbage juice and pouring it into a hollow head of cabbage, then pressure-cooking it to force the concentrated flavors into the cell walls of the leaves. Then the dish gets smoked for 10 hours, resulting in a vegetarian-friendly medley of lactic and tannic acids that replicate the layered flavors in ham hock and pork jowl.
It's the kind of behind-the-scenes technology we've come to associate with Brock, who steered the venerable kitchen of Hermitage Hotel's Capitol Grille into the age of molecular gastronomy before he moved to McCrady's in Charleston in 2006. Since departing for South Carolina, Brock has expanded his culinary curiosity from technology to tradition. When we first met him in the kitchen at Capitol Grille, Brock was poring over the pages of chef Ferran Adrià's tome on avant-garde kitchen chemistry, whipping up juice foams, hot ice creams and homespun Pop Rocks. These days, he's more likely to be reading historic texts, exploring the sources and science of Low Country and Southern agriculture and working to elevate indigenous flavors with modern methods. In fact, Brock will trace the history of Southern ingredients and cooking methods in eight episodes of PBS's Mind of a Chef with Anthony Bourdain beginning in September.
Brock says his goal is to produce food that looks simple on paper and is simple in appearance but blows you away. At our dinner, the Nashville Husk team, led by chef de cuisine Morgan McGlone, met these goals in style and substance. What's more, the majority of first courses were $10 or less, while entrées ran between $25 and $29.
In lively rooms in an old but extensively updated house on Rutledge Hill, servers dressed in Imogene & Willie jeans and Butcher & Baker aprons provide easygoing but well-informed descriptions of innovative nonalcoholic concoctions, artisanal cocktails and appetizers such as clams with green garlic butter, bottarga and lovage; beets with soured buttermilk, sorrel, woodruff and grapefruit; and barbecued pig tails with smoked peach, peanuts and scallions.
The knowledgeable narration of crispy pig ears lured us to this show-stopping interpretation of handheld lettuce wraps. Our server described it sort of like this: Pig ears from Bear Creek Farm are smoked for an hour-and-a-half, then pressure-cooked in stock for 90 minutes to break down the cartilage. Next, they are drained, cooled, julienned and thrown into the deep-fryer, from which the strips emerge glistening bronze and with the toothsome texture of dry fettuccine. Tossed with scallion barbecue sauce or a version of General Tso's sauce, the strips are served on crisp fronds of local Bibb lettuce and topped with pickles from the inventory of fermented fruits and vegetables stored beneath the house.
Without exception, our dinner dishes elicited wonder at how simple ingredients could deliver such complex depth, from kale amplified with kale vinaigrette to shrimp and grits dotted with squid poached in shrimp stock and laced with tomato broth and an emerald swirl of laurel oil; from succulent bronzed curls of fried chicken skin bathed in honey, hot sauce and thyme to grits topped with a poached egg that bursts to coat the bowl in golden yolk. (The vegetable plate with chilled tomato soup, grits with poached egg, cauliflower with nasturtium, kale, and succotash, served on a hollowed disk of tree trunk, represents the first meatless meal for which we happily forked over $25.)
If we could edit one element of the evening, we would have approached the glowing house from the left-hand side, instead of from the front or the right-hand parking lot. That path, along sculpted parterres of herbs and vegetables, lined with espaliered apple and pear trees, whets the appetite for a meal laced with local lovage, thyme, woodruff, okra, squash blossoms, nasturtium, tomatoes and cucumbers. The path reaches a hidden door below the house that leads to a passage where house-cured charcuterie, fermented fruits and vegetables, and cocktail bitters are stored.
After the buttermilk pie and nectarine-damson plum pie rolled around and we repaired to the front porch to bounce lazily on the traditional Charleston seating known as a joggling board, we conceded that the hype about Husk Nashville is justified. We understood why the crowded dining room and bustling bar were dotted with chefs and owners from Nashville's "It City" restaurant scene.
But a few days later we flipped to the other side of our upside-down book: the less engrossing story of lunch. Not only did the midday meal fall short of Husk's lofty hype, but elements were empirically disappointing. The burger was undercooked and overcheesed, weeping with bacon grease. A deli sandwich of thin-shaved folds of salty ham lacked the promised fried green tomato. Our locally made reclaimed wooden tabletop was positively brown with buns, potato wedges, hush-puppy-shaped grouper fritters, and barbecue ribs with smoked peach, scallions and peanuts. We wiped our sauce-sticky hands with warm wet napkins (delivered in bowls of locally crafted pottery), then waddled back to the workday in a deep-fried-and-calorie-soaked stupor. We'd accept the blame for lack of moderation in our ordering, but beyond a butter lettuce wedge with bacon and a chilled tomato soup, there wasn't much on the lighter side.
Yes, the midday meal is a convenient and affordable way to explore the latest culinary phenomenon, where a wait for a prime-time reservation can be months. But the current disparity between lunch and the main event is so great that a discouraged lunch guest might not bother to return.
Until that imbalance gets adjusted, beware of judging this excellent book by the wrong cover.
Husk serves lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly and brunch on weekends.
So bummed Nuvo is leaving W Nash 'cause I will really miss that turkey/cranberry burrito,…
Provence makes a top split roll that would be perfect for that sandwich!
I'm looking forward to Boone & Sons, which the Wild & Local folks are opening…
I can see what everyone is saying. I guess what bothers me most about the…
@GrilledCheeserie, that's great news! We will do our best to be there!