Giddy in anticipation, I arrived at Husk Restaurant in Charleston on a warm Sunday evening. When I told the hostess I did not have a reservation, I could tell the response would not be in my favor. She tilted her head, blinked twice and smiled politely. It was the kind of reaction my southern friends have when they are about to say in a long drawl, “Aww… bless your heart.”
With James Beard award-winning Chef Sean Brock and Executive Chef Travis Grimes at the helm, the southern eatery has received rave reviews since it opened in late 2010, including the coveted “Best New Restaurant” designation by Bon Appetit and Southern Living in 2011.
The menu, inspired by the region’s low country and heirloom flavors, changes twice a day. Much of the produce is grown at Husk’s own 1.5-acre parcel of land at Thornhill Farm. Other items, including sustainably caught seafood and grass fed beef, are sourced from a laundry list of purveyors located throughout the south.
“If it doesn’t come from the south, it’s not coming through the door,” says Brock, who has even stricken olive oil from the kitchen. As he explains on the restaurant’s website, the resulting cuisine “is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food.”
A quick check of the menu online before my visit had me salivating over Deviled Eggs with Pickled Okra and Trout Roe, South Carolina Shrimp, and Choppee Okra Stew with Carolina Gold Rice and Flowering Basil.
Since I was traveling solo, I mistakenly assumed snagging a table would not be a problem. Even at popular restaurants in larger cities I can score an odd seat in the corner that no one wants. Sadly, the hostess would not budge. “I’m sorry, we recommend that guests make reservations at least three weeks in advance,” she said. Her smile still unchanged.
Disappointed but not deterred, I exited onto the expansive front porch and reformulated my plans. Next door, The Bar at Husk occupies the old kitchen building from when Husk was a Victorian-era home. Century-old exposed brick and rough-hewn beams made for a distinctly rustic, pub-like style. The tight seating and narrow configuration could have felt cramped and dark. Instead, the jovial neighborhood watering hole vibe was as intoxicating as the collection of over 50 bourbons on display.
Reservations are not required for the bar and the menu is edited down to upscale bar fare, including the iconic Husk Burger. I tucked into a corner next to a stack of bourbon barrels with “Charleston Distilling Co.” burned into the side. It was a perfect vantage point for some people watching as the bartenders paced back and forth with quiet precision.
A Barrel-Aged Manhattan was first on my list. Whiskey, vermouth and bitters are mixed and left to rest in a barrel for 30-days before poured over ice in a crystal beaker. With a handle of a long cocktail spoon, the bartender stirs rapidly to slightly dilute the spirits. The concoction is then served straight up by straining the liquid into a coupe glass and garnished with a bourbon-soaked cherry. The result was the smoothest, deepest flavored Manhattan I had ever tasted.
Since I was in Charleston, an order of pimento cheese was a must. The mixture of shredded cheese, mayo and diced red pimentos is considered the “pâté of the south,” and every restaurant I researched for this trip had some variation on the menu. Even my welcome basket at the Belmond Charleston Place included a pimento cheese dip and water crackers, paired with Flaco Cabernet Sauvignon.
While pimento cheese is not my first choice of spreads, my TN Cheddar Pimento Cheese Crostini topped with crispy ham and pickled relish was velvety and surprisingly rich.
My entrée decision was a no-brainer when I saw nearly everyone at the bar had a Husk Burger in their hands. Chef Brock’s highly-prized cheeseburger recipe was inspired by a drive-in his family frequented when he was young.
“What I remember most about the cheeseburger was the squishy bun and how wonderful it was to eat the double patty covered in gooey American cheese. This recipe is a tip of the hat to that burger,” Brock explained in a 2014 Food Republic article.
The burger – in its full glory – consisted of two 100% chuck patties infused with Benton’s bacon, and griddled with onions shaved onto the patties before topped with American cheese, bread and butter pickles, and Brock's own special sauce. When my burger arrived, it was the perfect kind of messy. Juices dripped down my hand as I squeezed the soft sesame seed bun to prevent the two patties from sliding out.
By the time I finished my meal, it was nearly dark outside. The gas lamps radiated a pale yellow and the air was crisp. I lumbered back to my hotel, full and burping with delight, mentally planning my return. Only next time I will make a reservation!