Since the summer, there has not been a great deal that has drawn the attention of your Coastal Emperor and bid us to write. However, now that 2018 has come upon us, and with it new developments, were are returning to the internet to enlighten, encourage, and esteem the good people of Savannah and beyond.
The closing of The Florence last June nearly crushed my spirit and enthusiasm for the restaurant scene in Savannah. Places close and open all the time; great restaurants by nature are as ethereal as the food they create. Truly, the only thing you can really count on is that places will close. Even the longest running institutions eventually crumble and are forgotten. I know this, and yet I took The Flo closing personally and I needed time to distance myself and grieve. I travelled internationally, I return a few times to Atlanta, and I tried to gain perspective. During that period, other places I planned to write about closed (RIP Savannah's Fresh Catch Seafood) and, in their stead other restaurants rose to seek their fortunes in the Coastal Empire. One such place, Husk, has long been anticipated and now must be addressed.
I first found out about Husk's mastermind, Chef Sean Brock, through the great PBS series Mind of a Chef. Shortly thereafter he came to Atlanta do do a cooking demo and promote his excellent, gorgeously appointed cookbout Heritage. He showed us how to cook a few choice dishes from the book and then sat down to eat, sign his book, and chat. I brought up Savannah to him and he admitted at that time that he hadn't been down to visit, but was interested in seeing what was going on there with the recent opening of The Grey. I am therefore totally going to credit our conversation as what planted the seed in his brain that would later come to fruition as the fourth location of his Husk restaurants. You're welcome, Savannah.
The wife and I had been a few times to Charleston to visit the original location; one time on a whim just to get a decent burger (excursions that deserve a separate post). I've admittedly never visited the sister location in Nashville, and the Greenville, SC location opened just a few weeks before Savannah. That being said, we knew to a certain extent what to expect. The Husk philosophy is along the same lines of hyper-regionalism that didn't catch on with The Florence. That means every ingredient supposedly comes from the area, from local farmers and fishers, thus inspiring what the dishes themselves will be. If that is done in truth, then it does nearly guarantee a one-of-a-kind menu and dining experience that is pure Coastal Empire and Lowcountry. It didn't work for The Flo and their "celebrity chef", but this is the fourth go-round for Brock and Husk, so maybe they've got a better shot. The waiters, ours and the ones I eavesdropped on, were selling this hyper-regionalism hard. "This is your beef from So-and-So Johnson out in Statesboro. Those greens were hand picked by his wife this morning. That shrimp's name is Simon and we caught him loitering out back about an hour ago and mashed him into a mousse..." and so on.
Thinking that since the restaurant had only been open a week, we would probably need a reservation for a Sunday, I went ahead and booked us one. Of course, the place was half-empty in the downstairs dining room when we arrived and I remarked that Savannah is still Savannah. Since we came early to take photos and such, we went upstairs to check out the bar area. The upstairs is a converted ballroom of some kind with a large, very nice horseshoe-shaped drinking bar in the center and a also very nice raw bar opposite. The rest of the room is filled with some cool half-moon booths and other assorted tables. The walls have nice, locally inspired art on the walls and the whole room is lit by chandelier. They even had two flat screens at the bar showing the aftermath of the Minnesota Miracle. I assume you must be able to eat upstairs too, but when we asked to be seated we were led back downstairs.
The only thing on the menu that really intrigued me was a dish from the raw bar of blue crab and white beet borscht. The serving was a generous mound of fresh crab that was dressed in a "mace mayo". The server then poured the borscht on the side giving you the option to mix if you wished. Lastly, the diner is presented with a perfume atomizer filled with "pepper" sherry. It's a visually interesting idea, but I found after a few sprays that I just wanted to unscrew the top and pour the sherry straight on. Either way, it was a perfect dish. I'd never seen white beets, but their soup was delicious served cold and matched the crab perfectly. I would, and will, go back just to order that crab dish by itself.
The raw bar also had Bluffton oysters available at $3 a pop and a half-pound of local Georgia white shrimp for a steep $15 price point. They did look like good shrimps, but when a pound fresh off the boat is $10 max there's just no way for me to justify paying that price--even if they are "poached in deep sea salt water." Before the crab they brought us some house rolls that are made over at Gottlieb's. With the pork lard butter spread, they were the runner up for tastiest morsel. I'm inclined to go over to Gottlieb's and see if I can cut out the middleman.
As we were just there to get a feel for the place and sample a few things, we split a trio of Firsts and a skillet of "chestnut cornbread" and then eschewed ordering a main from the Supper part of the menu. Though, I was intrigued by the potato crusted whiting, so if it sticks around I might go back to give it a look. The three dishes we chose after our crab and bread were all heavy and not at all a good mix. Two were good dishes individually, and had great individual elements, but the third was the first dish in a restaurant that I've ever not even been able to finish--not at all because it was bad, so to speak, but rather because what it was just did not appeal to my palate. Let's start with the good ones.
The highlight of the three dishes was a turtle boudain in a sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) soup. The server said they got their turtle from a farm in Louisiana. If you look at the above picture you'll notice some green oil slicking the soup. It was made from local red bay that was, again, hand-picked that day by their nextdoor neighbor. The soup was good, but the turtle sausage was very nice. It's not often you see reptile on a menu in any form, so I had to go for it no matter what. They brought back the perfume bottle of sherry to go with the soup, but it didn't fit as well as it did with the crab.
The scrapple was good and tasted like fresh organ meats. It had a great crispy exterior but was more like pulled pork in the center than the creamier traditional stuff you get sliced and griddled at a diner in Philly. It went great with the dense biscuit and the apple butter and "caramelized" fennel. I just fail to understand why it was on the menu to begin with, because as far as I know scrapple is a yankee food from Pennsylvania. That seems at odds with the "Southern Ingredients" motto right on the sign out front.
The last dish I'll talk about already reads off the menu as being peculiar. A crepinette is like a patty-style sausage and this one was made with pork and oysters and bound together with shrimp mousse, according to our server. I probably should have steered clear of mixing pork and oysters, because honestly it did not work for me. Separately, they are gifts from God. Mixed together with shrimp mouse, they taste rancid. I wasn't much of a fan of the rutabaga mash either, but maybe because it was tainted by the sausage. I ate the lone oyster off the top of the dish, tried as many bites as I could to understand and appreciate what I had paid money for, but ultimately I had to give up and leave most of it on the plate. The wife wasn't a fan either. The cornbread, not picutured, had a nice nuttiness to it and was moist and dense in a way I've not experienced before thanks to the chestnuts. However, I still prefer the original Anson Mills cornmeal and bacon-crackling filled version at the Charleston Husk (the recipe of which is in the cookbook and subsequently has become part of my repetoire as well).
It will be interesting to see how things develop at Husk Savannah. Supposedly they will add lunch and brunch in February and with those services should come the famed (and Coastal Emperor approved) Husk Burger. When that happens, we will head back in for a reassessment. Until then, if you catch us there it will be upstairs eating that crab dish and some rolls.