Great Southern cities deserve great Southern cuisine, but the two quintessentially Southern cities in which I’ve lived — Savannah and Chattanooga — have had a total dearth of great soul food.
Over the years, chefs have run from Southern cuisine. Maybe it’s because most Southern staples are just boring to cook. If that’s the problem, Husk in downtown Charleston has found a way to serve traditional food in a completely different way.
Husk was already creating a local buzz with a fresh farm-to-table menu that changes twice a day. Then last month Bon Appetit magazine, the monthly authority on all things culinary, named Husk as the nation’s best new restaurant.
So on my 30th birthday, I went to the Queen Street restaurant to put Husk to the test. At first bite, I became a complete Husk devotee.
Husk’s menu changes twice a day. Lunch and dinner offerings are based on what nearby farmers are growing. The fare is heavy with the Deep South staples – pork, catfish and shrimp – and it is intentionally heavy food. On our visit, the menu featured buffalo pig ear lettuce wraps ($10) as an appetizer and chicken with crispy cracklings ($23) for an entrée. A beef and mushroom entrée was the most expensive offering at $25.
To start, I enjoyed a marinated cucumber and tomato salad with arugula, tempura shrimp and buttermilk dressing ($12). The shrimp were big and juicy, fried just right. The tomatoes were perfectly ripe. It was a huge portion, served in a carved wood bowl.
My companions sampled fried chicken skins with hot sauce and honey ($8). Yes, you read that right. Husk’s menu is all about taste, and we all know the skin is the best part of fried chicken, so why not make it an item all to itself? These battered strips are delicious and not nearly as greasy as you’d imagine.
For the main course, I had Bev Eggleston’s pork with smoky field peas and butter beans ($24). Served with mustard greens and pickled peach jus, this roasted pork serving was tender and well seasoned. It created the perfect combination of textures and flavors.
My friends both had cornmeal-dusted North Carolina catfish with creamed lady peas, Maria’s scallions and fried cabbage and hot sauce butter ($22). I sampled their large catfish filets and found, like my dish, it was cooked perfectly and tasted great.
Our 10 p.m. reservation was the only slot available on a busy Saturday. Our server Nicala said Bon Appetit’s announcement has boosted Husk’s business, but service didn’t suffer. Nicala explained all the offerings perfectly and brought everything to the table promptly. Everything was piping hot and elegantly plated.
I was, however, disappointed in the unwelcoming bar staff, who didn’t appear busy, but took nearly 10 minutes to acknowledge our presence and take our orders.
But I will confess, the drinks there are great and Husk’s detached bar has its own food menu, which is an option for diners who can’t get a reservation. Cocktails are throwbacks, including The Blinker, a grapefruit, rye whiskey and St. Germain concoction that I’ve been dying to try again.
Husk is located in a huge renovated home between Meeting and King streets. The space is bright and open. Its honey-colored wood floors and white walls feel like an old farmhouse, but it’s modern décor lets you know the place is run by a new generation.
Husk’s bar, located next door to the actual restaurant, is cozy and warm. Its second floor features intimate spaces and plush furniture. The lighting, dark brick walls and wood floors add to the space’s charm.
Husk’s food is brilliantly simple. They have proudly created a menu that is unabashedly Southern. Heck, they put pork lard in the butter that comes with your bread. But in cities like Charleston, which are obsessed with being Southern, that type of menu needs to be at the top of the local scene.
There’s clearly an appetite for Southern food, so Husk’s business model is almost common sense. Unlike other Southern chefs, who earn praise and long lines simply for frying stuff and bringing it to your table hot, Husk goes even further with a re-imagined menu that focuses on fresh offerings.
Husk is more than worth trying, it’s the place we all should be recommending to out-of-towners as an example of good Southern cooking.