Wednesday, July 11, 2012

McCrady's Restaurant: Fine Dining in Charleston, SC

Iron Chef. About 10 years ago I discovered it and ever since I saw Hiroyuki Sakai, the Delacroix of French Cuisine, I knew I had to expand my palate and, someday, try food as innovative, as beautifully plated and as seemingly delicious. So, it's been a search that, up until our trip to Charleston, with the exception of a few dishes here and there, had been fruitless.

Then we ate at McCrady's.

Chef Sean Brock, of Husk, heads up this notable kitchen and the meal Lauren and I had there was the closest thing to an Iron Chef judge's table dining experience either of us have had. The food was thoughtful, creative, beautifully plated and, above all, spot on with every flavor on the plate.

You enter McCrady's from an alley off East Bay Street and it feels secret, almost like you're visiting a speakeasy or an underground club. Inside, the restaurant is warm and intimate, but roomy and filled with an anticipatory vibe. It seemed that the other diners, like us, couldn't wait to eat.
The alley entrance to McCrady's has a classic
Charleston feel.

Dinner at McCrady's comes in three forms: a la carte, a four-course prix fixe or an 11-course chef's tasting menu. We weren't prepared for the chef's tasting, so we went for the prix fixe.

I ordered the Strube Rance Wagyu Beef Tartare with a sous vide egg yolk, ramps and mizuna to start. Lauren opted for the Cucumber Gazpacho with blueberry "snow," shiso, olive oil and smoked steelhead trout roe.

Wagyu Beef Tartare.
The tartare was simply amazing. It didn't melt in your mouth, it atomized. A bite with the pork cracklin' and sous vide yolk was heaven.  The ramps, which I've had plenty, I grew up in West Virginia, were well prepared and imparted their savory, garlicky flavor to the dish in a subtle, welcome way.

Both dishes were plated beautifully - mine on a round piece of slate and Lauren's in a hand-thrown bowl - which is something that, with the exception of a few restaurants in Wilmington, we don't see often.

Cucumber Gazpacho.
The presentation of Lauren's Cucumber Gazpacho was interesting. The bowl came full of shiso, steelhead roe and blueberry "snow" (blueberries frozen in liquid nitrogen and pulverized), and the soup came in a tea pot. As the server poured the soup into the bowl, the lid fell off and into the soup. We felt bad for the server (she hadn't been there long) but her faux pas didn't put a damper on the evening.

We shared bites of our first courses across the table and agreed that while her dish was more creative, the tartare was the winner.

The second course, fish, was a tough decision. Everything looked good. I almost got the Charred Octopus, but it was served with "The Color Green" and I wasn't sure what that meant, so I went for the Grouper Crusted with Herb and Vegetable Seeds with lettuce cream, smoked goat cheese, courgettes and lemon thyme. Lauren ordered the Grilled Rudderfish with heirloom tomato, corn kimchee and chrysanthemum. 

Both of these dishes were fantastic. 

Lauren's rudderfish.
The corn kimchee had the right amount of heat and the rudderfish was exactly what rudderfish should be - buttery smooth and light on the palate. Frankly, the only disappointment on the plate was the sad, soggy little sliver of bread that came with it. By the time the dish arrived at the table, it had turned into bread shaped mush. Delicious bread shaped mush, but bread shaped mush none the less.

Grouper with lettuce cream. Yeah, you read right, lettuce cream.
I had no complaints about my Grouper Crusted with Herb and Vegetable Seeds other than I could have (gladly) eaten a second portion. The most curious thing on the plate - the lettuce cream - was astonishing. Somehow lettucy and thick and rich at the same time, we posited several theories as to how they made it.  This course was too close to call.

Lauren and I were impressed with the little things - the herb and vegetable seed crust, chrysanthemum and other fresh herbs and flowers - and asked out server about them. Turns out, McCrady's has a rooftop garden where they grow the herbs and many of the vegetables they use.

For our meat course, Lauren chose the Strube Ranch Wagyu Flatiron with English peas, yeast, wild flowers and toasted brioche creme; while I went for the Duck Aged and Roasted on the Bone with allium, sumac and African blue basil.

Again, two great dishes.

Lauren's steak was topped with herb flowers (from upstairs) and my duck came with toasted basil seeds and buds on the plate, all things we regularly pinch off our herbs and toss into the yard. In all, her steak was excellent, the peas and yeast were a good combo, the dollop of toasted biroche cream was mysterious and tasty, and the dish as a whole was worth ordering again.

My duck was another matter entirely.

This was the dish of the night. A medium-rare duck breast and a boneless duck confit with a medley of onions, sumac and basil. It was outstanding. The skin was crispy, the duck breast juicy and flavorful, and the confit, oh, the confit. I don't know where to begin. It was rich, for starters, but not cloying (as duck confit can sometimes get), and the sweetness of the onions cut it down and brought it back to earth.

Our dessert courses were as different from one another as they could be. I love chocolate, Lauren can take it or leave it; I love mushrooms, Lauren does not. My dessert was Chanterelles with Tennessee Dark Chocolate, Lauren's was not. She had the Heirloom Oat Pana Cotta.

Each of these desserts brought totally different things to the plate. Lauren's was a dish that elevated classic flavors (the milk and honey sherbet was killer and the panna cotta itself was fantastic) and mine was an exercise in the avant garde (at least for us). Chanterelles, chanterelle gelee, spicy chervil ice cream, powdered corn and luscious dark chocolate. We split again on the dessert course with each of us preferring our own.

We left McCrady's excited about food and planning to come back for the Chef's Tasting Menu. It takes three hours and is $125 a plate, so it's a long, and expensive, evening, but one we're looking forward to.

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