City Grit: A Taste of the Lowcountry
The tattoo'd arm you see in the photo above belongs to Sean Brock, a chef based in North Carolina, who operates two restaurants in Charleston: Husk and McCrady's. Sean was the inspiring lead on the meal I ate recently at City Grit and I was happy to find that one of the dishes served at the dinner came along with a dash of smoky broth hand-poured by the chef himself. His accent is thick and it twangs, country in feel if not for the nasal squeak that comes from his upbringing in Boston. He laughs with ease and was nice enough to say yes when I asked for this photo.
The location of the City Grit dinners is an old school on the edges of SoHo, and firmly within a retail store that sells vintage furnishings, lighting and expensive new clothes–made to look vintage. The fun of City Grit dinners is not knowing what you're going to eat, not having to select anything from a menu (other than wine) and getting to rub elbows with strangers. The space is cozy and, as we were seated at a long, shared wooden table, it may be true that I looked around for something to buy. The menu set at each place setting detailed the four courses, one per chef, and my hungry stomach jumped looking forward to the southern cooking.
The first thing I did was take out my phone to do a search for Geetchie Samp Grits. I knew what grits were but was at a loss for the other two words. It may come as no surprise that every link I found to click on were references to Brock's restaurants. And this is the point of Brock's cooking: bringing back the disappearing foods he ate as a child, working with local manufacturers to re-make the ingredients from his grandparents days and just plain celebrating the South. A few other ingredients like this from the evening were: heirloom hominy, Sea Island red peas and benne seeds (akin to sesame seeds).
Each dish of the night had an element I loved. The salad included crunchy bits that were the benne seeds. The little clumps of nutty crunch atop the the greens and beet puree added a nice texture change to what was otherwise a fairly straightforward salad. The second course, grits that tasted rich and creamy like risotto and sea breamy shellfish that tasted as if it just been plucked from the Emerald Isle. The third course featured the broth from Brock's teapot. It was a light dish with swordfish, greens and the red peas. The flavor was in the broth, delicate and smoky with a hint of peppery heat and a richness that probably came from a fatty side of meat. I wanted more. The last course, by April Bloomfield, was a supremely fatty piece of roasted pork. The pork was insanely tasty because of all of the fat that coursed through it–and I probably didn't need it. What I needed more of were the collard greens, helped along in their intense flavor by bushels full of rendered fat. The greens were so good I took some off of my neighbor's plate.
Dessert came and went. I ate it but regretted it instantly. But don't get me wrong, it was good. It was sweet–like all good desserts: bread pudding in a jar with layers of crumb and cream. I love southern food but there's a reason I don't eat it that often.
I left that night with a very full belly and a bottle of grape vinegar, a small gift from Brock and his kitchen. "Use it on collard greens," he said. Next up? Learn how to prepare collard greens.