“So,” a woman in a gauzy silver sheath said, leaning conspiratorially over McCrady’s U-shaped bar. “Are we going for a Michelin star?”
The server deflected the question with polished references to inspiration and integrity, which satisfied the woman. She seemed to take his answer for a yes. In fact, there isn’t a Michelin guide to Charleston, so inspectors aren’t doling out stars around town. But that doesn’t prevent McCrady’s from angling for prestigious awards and international acclaim. To the 18 diners with ringside seats, it appears that’s just what the tasting menu restaurant is up to.
In the food world, there are certain things you almost have to do to win the really big prizes, such as the James Beard Foundation’s national Outstanding Chef award, which ought to be executive chef Sean Brock’s any minute now. You have to publish a cookbook. You have to appear at swanky food events, shake the right hands, pal around with the right people. And you have to somehow make clear that you are not merely a kitchen grunt who got lucky, but an artist devoted to your craft.
Have to, have to, have to: It could be McCrady’s motto. The food is at least as impressive as what McCrady’s served before Neighborhood Dining Group split the 10-year-old restaurant in two, creating McCrady’s Tavern in the former McCrady’s (see 11/10/16 review), and the current McCrady’s in the space that housed the original Minero. Which is to say the food is very impressive indeed: Brock has an uncanny knack for intuiting what makes a newfound ingredient special, and knitting it into a dish as though he’d been working with it for years. The green peanuts that lace a plate of three cobia cubes prepared three different ways, for instance, tastes at once fresh and irreplaceable.
But what’s missing from McCrady’s is any sense of spontaneity. In some regards, that’s understandable: When a restaurant requires each guest to ante up $274.05 just to secure a seat and beverages, everyone on the receiving end of that fee is bound to feel compelled to show his work (and McCrady’s is largely an all-his affair: There wasn’t a single woman among the 10 cooks and servers working the night I ate there.) Yet doing the same things the same way every time isn’t a breeding plan for the kind of responsiveness and warmth that many diners associate with hospitality.
Or, for readers just joining us in this paragraph, here’s the condensed version in Charleston terms: I left McCrady’s with an intense and unprecedented craving for French fries at Halls Chophouse.
Partly, the mood at McCrady’s is a function of the tasting menu format, which either you like or you don’t. In cities where the structure is more prevalent, most diners with the money to spend on such things already have decided if they’re comfortable with its contours. For Charleston, though, Brock is breaking new ground by serving a series of 15 delicate dishes at a predetermined pace. There is no time to linger over the unexpected meeting of uni ice cream and paw paw sorbet, because the people seated on the opposite side of the bar have already dispatched with the same, and servers are clearly anxious to drop the chocolate pastry. It sounds apocryphal, but when Brock was plotting McCrady's, he really did sketch out the experience in minute-by-minute increments.
Beyond the format, though, many of McCrady’s dishes register as semi-obligatory – which I freely admit sounds like a silly thing to say about a swath of eggplant jerky perched in a potted bonsai tree. But the commingling of nature and nutrients is a hallmark of tasting menu cuisine in the Noma age, of which Brock has sampled as widely as anyone: Tightly controlled Japanese cuisine was a driving inspiration for McCrady's, but so were dishes prepared outside of Asia. "I’m lucky I’ve gotten to eat all over the world," Brock says of the identifiable homages, adding, "I always keep this list of things that I don’t love about certain meals like that, one of them being the amount of time in between courses. Another one is too much explanation. I try to do the opposite of that."
Brock's distaste for table-side lectures is refreshing. Sometimes, though, appreciation hinges on backstory: A tufted rocking chair is just a tufted rocking chair until you learn Abraham Lincoln was sitting in it when John Wilkes Booth shot him. The same goes for the aforementioned fish dish, listed on the menu as "cobia, matsutake, green peanut." That terse description doesn't hint at the amount of time spent hand-peeling and juicing peanuts for a sauce ringed with lovage oil in a cloverleaf pattern so precarious that only the chef de cuisine is allowed to create it. Nor would the average palate pick up the teeniest bit of horseradish applied to minuscule piles of chopped peanut relish seasoned with shio-koji, which function as platforms for the carved matsutake mushrooms cooked in dashi; the flavor is so subtle that when Brock recently oversaw the recipe's re-creation on the West Coast, he praised the chefs for nailing the horseradish proportion, only to learn it hadn't been added yet.
It took Brock's team 30 tries to perfect the dish, which was originally intended as an exploration of all-white ingredients. Then Brock found room for lovage, his favorite herb. "I stepped back and realized: I just made celery with peanut butter," he says. Except rather than being garnished with raisins, this deceptively simple dish is finished with picked lovage leaves. McCrady's regularly adorns its dishes with flowers and herbs from a rooftop garden, crisp botanical touches that raise the game and contrast beautifully with the masculine brick-walled, well-lit room.
A single warmed Virginica oyster, seated in a mound of sea beans and presented with a spray of soft white smoke swirling around it, wears a virginal corsage of wasabi arugula blossoms that both grounds and elevates the sea creature dappled with aged sorghum vinegar. Crayon-bright pink and purple petals perform a similar service for the “Charleston ice cream,” a rice-based carryover from the old McCrady’s, here decked out with a pair of shrimp poached in shrimp heads and seaweed.
It’s no easy task to compete with a whole bunch of Bulgarian caviar, but a comely scattering of sunflowers is indispensable to the tart apple foam that undergirds it. For that matter, so is the component brown butter that couches the mountaintop flavors in luxury. A crowd pleaser to its core, the caviar was the dish that provoked happy sighs and spoon scrapes from my fellow attendees.
Even the flatware is meticulously chosen at McCrady’s: Each guest is issued a Middleton Made knife with the beef course, featuring a rib eye that's been taken apart and put back together without the stubborn elastin that stays chewy no matter how it's cooked (civilians refer to this collection of connective tissue as "gristle.") The resulting steak, tender and rich, is served in a pool of black truffle cream edged with parsley oil and studded with a foie gras-enhanced sweet potato puree. Presentation-wise, it's a close cousin to the cobia.
More visually distinct is a wavy and ridged patch of beet leather, mounted on an even darker-hued pedestal that’s shaped roughly like a hair dryer diffuser. The snack bleeds concentrated vegetable sugars, just as a quail egg yolk runs from a thin-shelled tart blitzed with superfine shavings of Parmesan cheese.
For engagement and surprise, though, nothing beats the spectacular set of wine pairings. Sommelier Cappie Peete Chapman’s inspired selections stretch and twist the flavor canvas at McCrady’s in all kinds of electrifying ways, starting with a Forchir Ribolla Gialla that appears around the same time as that egg tart. From the herbaceousness of Nikolaihof's biodynamic Gruner Veltliner to the lemon pie zing of a Ceritas Chardonnay, the wines lend a terrific energy to the tasting enterprise. When the evening ended promptly at 8:15 p.m., as choreographed, I was sorry we’d run out of courses for Chapman to run with.
When guests leave McCrady's, they're issued bags with a menu, bottled water and a small envelope containing "heirloom seeds from the private collection of Sean Brock," meaning if diners want to enjoy their parting gift, they'll need a trowel and a patch of land. It's the perfect symbol of a restaurant that sweats diligence.
Editor's note: There are no stars associated with this review, because the cost of the three visits required to issue stars was prohibitive.