Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shrimp & Grits: The Irresistible Seductress

Shrimp & Grits: My Version
Man, is it almost August already?  The kids got out of school at the beginning of June and suddenly I looked up and here we are more than halfway through it.  I've been keeping busy with work, travel (including a great family vacation to the Mid-Atlantic that I keep meaning to post pictures from) . . . and then a little family illness fun to boot.

I've also kept myself busy working on the City Paper's Summer Dish issue (coming out any day now), which mostly involves eating my way across the city.  Plus, as a follow up to my review visit to the Red Drum, I caught up with chef/owner Ben Berryhill and got the scoop on his new restaurant Next Door, which you can read here.

One thing from my interview with Berryhill that didn't make the City Paper piece was his take on shrimp and grits, which is another installment in a drama I like to call "Shrimp and Grits, the Irresistible Seductress." It goes basically something like this:

Young (or not so young) chef moves to Charleston seeking opportunity in a flourishing restaurant scene.  A true artist and dedicated to his craft, he defiantly declares that while he WILL immerse himself in the traditional food culture of his new city but he will NEVER, EVER serve that beguiling, evil recipe . . . Shrimp and Grits!

After all, what could be more cliched and trite? Does this city really need one more restaurant serving shrimp and grits?  No, it does not! our hero declares, and boldly stakes out a unique, original, and acclaimed fine dining menu.

The years pass, and delicious fresh shrimp flow in from local waters and appear on the chef's plates, and he's dishing up delicious heirloom stone-ground grits, too.  And then there's that fantastic, smoky artisanal bacon or sausage sitting right there on the line, too . . . and eventually, the temptation just overcomes him and the shrimp and corn and bacon merge . . . and there, on the menu, is that one item that he swore would never darken the pass-window at his restaurant: the diabolical SHRIMP AND GRITS!!!

Sean Brock of McCrady's and Husk was one of the most vocal holdouts against our city's staple dish, but he caved several years back and has since produced a splendid version at McCrady's, complete with grits from heirloom Jimmy Red Corn that are blasted frozen by liquid nitrogen before grinding, molded into a disk with shrimp, and topped with shrimp stock gel, sea-like foam, and colorful herbs and flowers.  At Husk, his version is a little more rustic but still fantastic, studded sometimes with Benton's bacon and other times with Surry County sausage plus wood-roasted tomatoes, braised fennel, and even a braised pigs ear.

Ben Berryhill told me a similar story.  When he came to town in 2005 and opened the Red Drum, he  was fresh off a twelve-year stint at Cafe Annie, the acclaimed pioneer of high-end Southwestern cuisine  in Houston, Texas.  Berryhill's plan (which he executed flawlessly) was to take traditional Lowcountry ingredients and apply his chile- and wood-grilled Southwestern style to them.  And, he was adamant that he would NOT  serve those treacherous shrimp and grits.

Ah, but the flesh is weak.  A few years later, he confesses, he "broke down" and created his own "Low-Tex" version.   The "Low" is fresh Lowcountry shrimp and Anson Mills grits, while the "Tex" is the venison sausage from Broken Arrow Ranch in the Texas Hill Country and the chile beurre blanc served on top.  And, boy, are they good.

Let those among us without sin cast the first stone.  One can fully understand the impulse for chefs to steer clear of the over-exposed, cliched local "specialties".  But, they all come around soon or later, and for one simple reason: the flavors of shrimp and corn are perfect together, and when you toss in a little smoky meat, it's absolutely glorious.

(I, too, have fallen.  I captured my version of shrimp and grits here some time ago.)


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