The restaurant occupies a former storage area for the Gibbes Museum of Art, a block south of fashionable King Street. My father was stunned at the evolution of the once-battered space, though for me, the aesthetic was more dramatic inside the history-forward bar.
Sean Brock changes his menu daily, depending on what’s in season, and what’s available from local producers, who are listed in chalk on a massive spotlit blackboard near the hostess station.
My father instantly ordered a Skillet of Benton’s Bacon Cornbread ($7). The crisp-on-the-outside cornbread was flecked with smoky bits of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham and practically glistened due to all the pork fat. Even better, my father knew to request a ramekin of pork butter.
Yes, Chef Brock actually folds his butter with pork grease to spread on the complimentary sack of salt-dusted rolls, and lucky for us, on slices of cornbread. Five of us split a six-inch disc, which was plenty because the combination was so rich.
A Tasting of the South’s Finest Hams ($14) consisted of (clockwise) Benton, Siriano, Finchville and Newsom hams, each with a different hue and flavor profile. Husk serves the hams with buttery brioche toasts, whole-grain mustard sauce, and punchy pickles. Unfortunately, my brother ravaged the board before I could try every ham. If you’re with over three people, get two orders.
Our waitress said they sometimes use another smoky protein to garnish their earthy, slightly sweet Roasted Parsnip Soup ($12) but she likes Sunburst Farms Smoked Trout best. I can see why, especially when the trout also comes with its roe, brown butter crumble, crispy bits of trout skin and a drizzle of olive oil.
There are myriad ways to accent SC Quail ($14), but before the tiny bird took its final flight, it’s unlikely that it could have imagined what chef Brock had in store for its cavity. He stuffed the juicy, bronzed bird with coarse HUSK breakfast sausage and paired the dish with griddled Johnny cakes, KY sorghum (a sweet syrup made from an often Southern grain) and a single poached egg, whose yolk runneth over the other ingredients in the bowl. This was a rich starter with bold flavors.
Fried pickles are popular in the South. During my college days, at Vanderbilt, there was a place in nearby Murfreesboro called Toot’s (damaged during a storm, but still there) that offered fried dill pickles that tasted good, but were total grease bombs. I remember liking them, but Brock clearly has cornered the market on fried pickles. His Cornmeal Fried Bread and Butter Pickles ($6) were sweeter, thin-cut and crisp, with a tangy WV Ramp-Buttermilk Dressing for dipping’s sake. These were probably the best fried pickles I’ve eaten.
Considering how big we went with our starters, our entrees were relatively restrained. My Herb-Roasted Sheepshead ($24) consisted of firm white fish fillets stacked on turnips and oyster mushrooms, with vivid wood-fired peppers up top and a dazzling green watercress puree as the base. The dish was far from dazzling, but all of the ingredients were high quality and the chef represented them well on the plate.
Hagood Mills Cornmeal Dusted Flounder ($22) was more interesting, with a flaky texture and browned exterior texture. The bottom dwelling fish came with a hearty succotash of Southern peas, beans and spinach. A creamy base and a salty, crispy topping of HUSK Jowl Bacon (aka guanciale) completed a winning plate.
My father can’t seem to resist chicken, even though that often reads like the throwaway protein on most menus. Brock managed to elevate Husk’s Wood-Fired Keegan-Fillion Chicken ($22) by cooking the bird to a near ideal consistency, with a crispy, smoky skin and juicy meat. It also helped to have interesting accompaniments like cider-braised cabbage and sweet potatoes, Benton’s bacon and sage jus.
They had a number of seasonal sides, and we went for Acorn Squash, Wood Fired Brussels and Edisto Chestnut Hash ($7) served in cast iron dish with the crispy chestnut bits serving as a good accent, and the vegetables prepared well.
Pastry Chef Nathan Richard provided the five desserts. Sadly, he didn’t prepare the bacon donuts that my father raved about, but they did offer suggested Bourbon pairings.
Inverted Black Bottom Pie ($7) is based on a Meridian, Mississippi, classic – Weidmann’s Restaurant – that my brother and I have never been able to visit while the restaurant was open for business. Richard’s interpretation came in a glass jar with layers of TN Chocolate Mousse, Bourbon Vanilla Cream, Oatmeal Cookie Crumbles and chocolate shavings. This was good, but a little chocolate tends to go a long way with me, and it made me wonder how the “pie” would taste with a crus.
Our final dessert was the Anson Mills Oatmeal Pie ($4), made using oats from a famous South Carolina grain peddler that specializes in fresh-milled heirloom varieties. The cookies, probably too firm, framed house-made Creole cream cheese and arrived dusted with powdered sugar.
My initial meal at Husk supported the widely held belief that Chef Brock is a talented chef. The fact that he sources local products and credits contributing farmers is consistent with other progressive, magnanimous chefs. It also helps that he’s such a big believer in pork products.