The servers at Herd Provisions are strikingly confident.
If there’s any outward hint that you aren’t taking overwhelming pleasure in your wax beans, embellished with garlicky bagna cauda, or your Staub baking dish of heat-shriveled shishito peppers, a server will suddenly appear to recalibrate your misimpressions.
Invariably, the correction comes with a pointedly illuminating sentence. One server loves the beans because they were picked on the restaurant’s Virginia farm. Another loves the shishito peppers because of the earthy black garlic in the Japanese-style soy sauce applied to them. You’re all but explicitly advised to do the same.
Considering the servers’ knowledge of the menu, and their devout belief in it, I wasn’t sure how to parse the response when I asked on my first visit whether there was anything that I should be sure to order. Definitely, our server said, the not-to-miss dish is the spit-roasted cauliflower.
To appreciate the weirdness of that particular recommendation, you have to know something about Herd Provisions and its local history, which is longer than owner Alec Bradford intended.
A PR firm in February 2017 announced that Bradford, who had spent the past 13 years raising heritage cattle, turkeys and hogs on the outskirts of Blacksburg, Va., would open Herd in Wagener Terrace by summer’s end. According to the release, Bradford just needed to complete a butchering apprenticeship and host a few burger-centric pop-ups prior to throwing open his doors.
But construction is never uncomplicated in Charleston, so Bradford spent nearly 2½ years running a food truck and administering a meat CSA before he could welcome customers into Herd's sleek dining room, constructed on the site of the former Ark Lounge. The boxy space is fronted by a small butcher shop, which comprises a single display case furnished with vacuum-packed cuts.
At night, the case is cleared out, which disorients almost every diner on his or her first visit. The restaurant, including its host stand, is a good 20 paces from the closed and quiet shop, so a Herd experience often begins with a hollered and anxious “Hello?” Still, the entryway sets the scene: Herd is in the grass-fed meat business.
“I don’t want to characterize it as a steakhouse,” Bradford last December cautioned a City Paper reporter. “We’ll stand apart in terms of quality of meats, traceability of meats. ... There’s no place like what we’ll be able to do, especially with meats.”
And if you didn’t hear the word "meat" all three times that Bradford said it, Herd’s logo is a grazing Ancient White Park cow.
Yet when given the opportunity to endorse any of the dishes for which the pictured cattle gave its life, our server skipped over the tartare, the meatloaf and the poutine, and instead talked up a cauliflower steak seated in rich green pea puree. What’s even more interesting is the server wasn’t wrong; beef is not a strong suit at Herd, which has a tendency to wipe out the advantages of good raising with copious amounts of salt and strongly flavored sauces.
Armando and Esmeralda Cobian's restaurant doesn’t conceal its unwavering allegiance to fresh vegetables and fruit, avocado included.
By contrast, the cauliflower isn’t half bad (even if the $17 price tag is about twice what practiced produce shoppers are likely to feel comfortable paying. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, the average retail price for a head of cauliflower is $1.42 per pound). Smaller vegetable dishes, such as a corn-heavy succotash, are also enjoyable.
Plus, you can’t go too wildly wrong with chicken, the dominant element in the standout sandwich on Herd’s lunch menu. The insistent sweetness of a curried chicken salad, cloaked with white cheddar, is kept in line by Tiller Baking Co.’s excellent multigrain bread. Cut thickly enough to absorb the salad’s excessive creaminess, the Tiller loaf is a godsend.
It reprises its role at dinnertime, when the restaurant offers a $7 bread service consisting of sliced sourdough and a beef tallow cube that’s served aflame, saganaki-style. The idea is for the melted beef fat to mingle with rosemary, creating an instant compound butter alternative. Whether you find the shtick inspired or silly probably rides on whether you spent time before dinner at Herd’s handsome bar, which overlooks an as-yet unused back patio.
Chicken also figures into a flaky-crusted pot pie, which delivers comfort and garden vegetables in equal measure, and is satisfyingly warm to the core. It’s a nice match for Herd’s mostly New World red wine list, or lengthy selection of local craft beers.
Unfortunately, beyond those highlights, trouble spots abound. Herd has already parted company with its opening chef, Aaron Swersky, who was involved with the project from its 2017 start, so it’s possible the restaurant’s growing pains have been especially acute. (Alex Eaton is now in charge of the kitchen.) At least, that’s one plausible explanation for the leathery pastrami, which tastes of little more than salt. A bottom-round steak, paradoxically touted as “extremely lean and extremely flavorful,” was also tough and oversalted.
Even dishes that seem like gimmes are regrettably flawed. Poutine is done in by mild curds and flat-tasting short rib gravy with an off-putting stench. Puffed rice is an appealing addition to a pile of baby lettuces, one of two available salads (the summer salad we ordered never arrived), but the caramel corn tossed into a frightfully thin vanilla milkshake was small and seemingly stale.
It’s very trendy now for restaurant owners to say their highest ambition is to run a neighborhood place. In part, that’s because any decent restaurateur would be happy to see his or her customers a few times a week. But it’s also good form these days to shun anything that sounds like fine dining, so press releases name check “neighborhood place” with the same false modesty that causes Harvard grads to say they “went to school in Cambridge.” On the restaurant front, it all becomes suspect when truffles appear on the menu, and the cheapest cocktail is $15.
Herd, though, really is a neighborhood restaurant, most beloved by the people who live closest to it. In a tourist town, that’s no small thing.
Servers selling cauliflower is one tip-off that the restaurant’s already found a greater purpose than peddling sustainable steak. Another is the top-notch chicken wings, drippy with gochujang-kissed honey. The wings are served with homemade ranch and blue cheese dressings, both of which double as impressive dips for Herd’s workaday French fries.
Even better, the dressings are portioned out by the saucer-full. For true neighborhood place cred, you can’t beat that.