As we’ve mentioned before, we’ve kept a running list of all the Charleston-area restaurants we’ve tried since our first visit to the Holy City back in 2009. This summer, we realized we’d be hitting restaurant #200 right around our eleventh wedding anniversary in early August. So with some careful planning and unusual restraint (there are several new places we’re dying to try!), we decided to go big and celebrate both milestones with a meal at the new McCrady’s tasting room.
Billed as Chef Sean Brock’s idea of a perfect meal, McCrady’s offers only a tasting menu ($115), with optional standard ($75) or reserve ($160) wine pairings (or selections from a very extensive wine list), all served with laser-like precision over a span of exactly two hours. While we didn’t love every single bite of the thirteen-course meal and wished that certain aspects of the precisely-timed meal were a little more flexible, we found the experience to be an incredible foodie feast for both the eyes and the stomach.
UNI CUCUMBER: The meal started with a beautiful frozen amuse bouche, perfect for a hot summer day in Charleston: a multi-colored, Lego-sized block resting on a single sheet of gold leaf, nestled in a bed of ice. This one-bite starter was a colorblocked combination of uni (sea urchin roe) and cucumber, dusted with togarashi spice and topped with a single circle of nasturtium leaf. While uni usually tastes like a big gulp of ocean water, this had just a faint hint of salinity that grew as the flavors developed in the mouth. The heat from the togarashi spice strengthened in line with the uni, both of which were nicely cut by the fresh coolness of the cucumber. This was an extremely cerebral bite of food that set the tone for the remainder of the meal: beautiful, (mostly) delicious, and some of the most technical food we’ve ever eaten.
Wine pairing: 2016 MOVIA. PURO. PINOT NOIR BRUT, SLOVENIA. This delicious sparkling Pinot Noir is made just across the Italian border in the up-and-coming wine country of Slovenia. The bright red fruit flavor of old world Pinot Noir was well balanced with the wine’s crisp acidity, all supported by a backbone very reminiscent of a classic French blanc de blanc.
BEET, COCOA, LIME: Served on a circle of short spikes, the beet dish resembled a piece of dark saddle leather but was essentially a grown-up version of a fruit roll-up. At first tacky and very sweet, the strip of beet was absolutely reminiscent of the childhood treat. The sweetness faded quickly as tobacco and chocolate notes emerged, and the actual flavor of the beet played a supporting role in the entire dish. If these were sold in stores, we would always have them on hand. Whimsical, delicious and perfectly executed.
OSSABAW PORK, WILD RED BAY, SORGHUM: One long slice of heritage pork twisted around itself immediately brought to mind the serrano ham we ate almost nonstop on our recent trip to Spain. The pork was richly fatty, melting in the mouth in a sea of porcine delight. It was also glazed with a thin layer of sorghum syrup and dusted with wild red bay, both of which cut through the fatty unctuousness of the meat. This bite was classic Sean Brock in every sense, and we both wished the portion was much larger than the single beautiful piece we received.
CARROT TART: Described by our server as being an “all carrot tart,” this was an interesting take on a combination of three preparations of carrot: the shell of the tart was a single slice of a large orange carrot (cooked to somehow hold the shell shape), and the tart filling was comprised of mandolined slices of raw purple carrot nestled within a carrot gel. While beautiful, this was probably our least favorite dish of the night. The tart was slightly too big to eat easily in a single bite, but it didn’t have the structural integrity to be broken into multiple pieces. (Tyler’s attempt at a second bite resulted in a hand covered in carrot pieces.) The pure carrot flavors of the shell and raw carrot were excellent, but they were sadly outmatched by the strong sweetness of the gel. We appreciated the incredible amount of work and technique that went into the tart but just didn’t love the end result.
Wine pairing: PIERRE PAILLARD, LES PARCELLES, EXTRA BRUT, BOUZY GRAND CRU, CHAMPAGNE. This Grand Cru blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was an excellent follow-up to the light sparkling red. Darker in color and weightier than the first wine, it nicely complemented the silky richness of the Ossabaw pork.
SUNCHOKE, CLAMS: Next up was a dark, frosted glass bowl of sunchoke custard, topped with fried slices of sunchoke and a mystery green leaf (we forgot to ask what it was!). Hidden in the custard were chilled and glazed slices of Georgia clams. The custard was silky smooth with a very clean sunchoke flavor, studded with juicy slices of clams. The leafy garnish tasted exactly like lemon, which was a nice counterbalance to the richness of the dish as a whole. This dish was beautiful to look at and clearly cooked to perfection, but in our opinion it was one of the less successful plates of the evening – probably because neither of us is a big fan of either sunchokes or clams.
MAGWOOD SHRIMP: Three small but exquisitely cooked shrimp, served in a pool of savory broth and surrounded by dots of a deeply roasted tomato sauce, were our next course. The shrimp, one of the standout components of the whole meal, were cooked better than any we’ve ever encountered elsewhere. The richness of the tomato provided a nice backbone to the clean shrimp flavors, all of which were pulled together by the slightly warm broth resting beneath.
Wine pairing: 2016 THIBAUD BOUDIGNON, CABERNET FRANC ROSÉ, LOIRE. One of our favorites pours of the evening was this delicious and fruity rosé from the Loire Valley. A vibrant pink color in the glass, this wine revealed flavors of fresh summer strawberries that were nicely matched with an almost grassy undertone. The perfect summer wine, it evoked Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe.
COBIA, CORN, MARIGOLD: Three perfectly opaque slices of local cobia arrived atop a bed of brilliantly crunchy summer corn, all swimming in a bath of bright green marigold oil. Tiny snippets of tangerine lace (a delicate, feathery green) grown in McCrady’s rooftop garden garnished each slice of fish and lent additional depth and color to this vibrant dish. As with every other protein of the evening, the cobia was cooked to perfection, but everything played second fiddle to the amazingly sweet corn kernels. The only thing that could have improved this course was a slice of sourdough bread to sop up the remaining sauce.
Wine pairing: 2015 LEITZ, RIESLING TROCKEN, RUDESHEIM, RHEINGAU. Leitz’s Riesling, a blend from several vineyards, was a wonderful expression of German Riesling. Gripping acidity faded out to reveal hints of wet stone and bright citrus fruit. Racy and clean, this was an excellent match for the cobia.
LIMPIN’ SUSAN: Described as the “mistress of hoppin’ john,” this course was almost too beautiful to eat. The base was a layer of expertly-prepared Carolina Gold rice, the grain that put Charleston on the map 200 years ago. Known locally as “Charleston Ice Cream,” the rice was studded with various herbs and edible flower petals grown in the restaurant’s rooftop garden. This dish represented everything that makes the new iteration of McCrady’s what it is: heritage South Carolina product, expertly prepared and plated as art. This is food that fills the heart and mind…if not necessarily the stomach.
Wine pairing: 2016 MASSICAN, HYDE VINEYARDS, CHARDONNAY, NAPA VALLEY. A very expressive Chardonnay from the low yielding 2015 vintage, this single-vineyard white from Massican’s Hyde Vineyard was everything we love about the new, lighter Chards coming out of California. Rounded fruit notes with just a touch of richness paired well with the rice-based Limpin’ Susan.
AGED BEEF, SOUR CABBAGE, FARRO: Simply put, this was medium rare steak at its peak. A thick slice of Tennessee-bred New York strip, deeply red from edge to edge, was accompanied by “fire-threshed” farro encased in a single leaf of sour cabbage. We both ate every bit of the richly flavored meat, right down to the meltingly tender fat cap. The farro and sour cabbage were of course well cooked, but didn’t seem to add much to the dish as a whole.
Wine pairing: 2013 DOMAINE DU GROS NORÉ, MOURVÈDRE, BANDOL. Kermit Lynch is known for importing only the best, purest examples of French wine, and this Bandol red did not disappoint. The clay and limestone soil of Bandol gave great structure to the wine, with Mourvèdre’s expected dark fruit notes marrying well with the wine’s solid core of minerality.
RASPBERRY SORBET, SUMMER FLOWERS, FERMENTED HONEY: The evening’s pre-dessert was a refreshing scoop of raspberry sorbet. This was a nice, tart follow up to the richness of the steak and tasted only of perfectly ripe late summer raspberries. That said, the dish was not without ceremony – after setting down our bowls, our server asked “white or pink?,” pulled out a pair of kitchen shears and proceeded to cut the petals off the one of the chrysanthemums that had been serving as a table decoration all evening. This trick was wholly unexpected, and the vegetal bitterness of the flower proved to be a nice counterweight to the fermented honey blended into the sorbet.
CHOCOLATE, YAUPON HOLLY, BENNE: Before we received our sorbet, a server placed this dish on our tableside cart and slowly filled two chocolate shells with a steaming chocolate liquid. While we enjoyed the sorbet, the liquid cooled and solidified before being topped with five dots of benne oil and then served. What looked like a fairly pedestrian chocolate tart was transformed by the astringent bite of the oil. Not a combination we would have ever come up with ourselves, but it worked on every level and was a fantastic twist on a classic sweet.
“FOIECHAMACALLIT”: This was hands-down Tyler’s favorite bite of the evening: two chocolate candies on a bed of cocoa nibs, served on a plate adorned with dried wheat stalks. Our server told us that Chef Brock’s favorite candy bar is the Whatchamacallit (a chocolate candy bar with a crispy layer of peanut butter) and so he created this interpretation, adding a rich mousse of foie gras and topping it with a single crystal of flaky sea salt. This dish tasted of each of its components: dark chocolate, sweet peanut butter and the fatty, umami-laden depth of the foie gras. Every ingredient was delicious on its own but also served to elevate all of the other flavors. This single bite was haute cuisine at its best: beautiful, ambitious, technically perfect and delicious.
Wine pairing: RARE WINE COMPANY, HISTORIC SERIES – NEW YORK, MALMSEY, MADEIRA. A favorite drink in Charleston’s colonial era, our final pairing was a classic, nutty glass of Madeira. Made in a style intended to imitate the Madeira enjoyed two hundred years ago, the sweet viscosity of this oxidized wine was the perfect pair to the two chocolate desserts.
BREATH FRESHENER: The final bite of the evening was a house-made breath freshener. The ingredients were not revealed, but we both sensed that the light and airy menthol meringue was slightly cut with a dot of berry compote. It tasted exactly like a Listerine breath strip and did indeed freshen your mouth after the two hour meal. It was an interesting and no doubt difficult-to-execute dish, though we considered the “foiechamacallit” the true end of the meal and this merely a coda.
We absolutely enjoyed this meal and felt that it was well worth its very high cost. That being said, the experience was not above criticism, and there are a few things we think would have improved the evening. Other than the few not-our-favorite bites described above, our primary (though minor) complaint was with the timing. From start to finish, our meal was almost exactly two hours, and we could see patrons for the next seating being ushered to their seats as we were accompanied to a separate exit. While we understand that Chef Brock has choreographed the McCrady’s experience down to 5- minute increments, the end of the meal did come rather abruptly, and there was no offer of coffee or the ability to linger over any remaining wine. (While we opted for the standard wine pairings, McCrady’s wine list does include many heavy hitters in the wine world; we’d like to think that a table spending $1,000+ on a bottle of wine would not be shown the door at the two hour mark if the bottle wasn’t empty.) For a restaurant of this caliber and expense, some form of lounge would have been a welcome addition – a nice bar or leather chair where guests could finish their wine or enjoy coffee or a digestif would lend a final note of sophistication and relaxation to what was otherwise a beautiful, delicious culinary experience.
Overall, though, we left McCrady’s satiated, inspired and toting a packet of heirloom seeds from Chef Brock’s private collection that was presented with our check – a fitting conclusion to a meal that celebrated and elevated Lowcountry dining and that could be found only here in Charleston.
2 Unity Alley, Charleston, SC
Dinner only, Wednesday-Sunday (limited seating times; reservations highly recommended)