If you're not familiar with “Lowcountry cooking,” you soon will be. The cuisine comes from the French colonists who, after being expelled from eastern Quebec and the Maritimes in the 18th century, migrated south through Maine and the Carolinas as far as Louisiana. This year, Bon Appétit chose Lowcountry restaurant Husk, in Charleston, S.C., as the best new restaurant in America. Happily, this region is where Acadia, College Street's superb new restaurant, draws its inspiration from. The results are nothing less than spectacular.
The good times start to roll with the arrival of the pickle plate. Instead of bread, Acadia offers a changing selection of house-brined snacks – maybe there's okra, sunchokes and string beans or mini bell peppers, perhaps a boiled quail egg or a scattering of boiled peanuts.
Chef Matt Blondin (Senses, Colborne Lane) has created a brief carte: five starters, five mains and three sides. But what it lacks in magnitude, it makes up for in focus. Everything on it is appealing.
The first thing listed is Northumberland Strait scallops with chicken crackling, parmesan, watermelon rind and arugula. It’s a great place to start. A zaftig duo of scallops, seared to a golden-brown crust, are sliced open to reveal their pearly centres. Thin, crunchy shards of chicken skin seasoned with a house-made take on Old Bay seasoning alternate with shavings of parmesan. Semi-sweet and translucent chunks of watermelon give the dish an acidic kick, while a looping squiggle of arugula puree decorates the plate, adding colour and earthiness. It is a gorgeous dish both in terms of flavour and presentation, and the way the ingredients are incorporated is ingenious.
Prettier still is a starter of Chesapeake Bay crab. Carefully balanced atop a deep-yellow tomato chow-chow (a kind of pickled relish), the bi-colour crab meat is sweet and saline in equal measure. Puffy dollops of whipped buttermilk dot the plate like fermented marshmallows and wisps of chervil top the dish like a crown. Served in an gently warped ceramic bowl with a light, oil-speckled broth underneath, it's Carolina by way of Kyoto.
Such fastidious presentation could be interpreted as twee if the flavours didn't pack such a wallop. Acadia balances on that fine line between dainty and down-home, and that's precisely what gives the restaurant much of its energy.
The room itself is decidedly minimalist, evoking a kind of tidy beach shack with its clapboard siding, bare white walls and stone floor. Practically the only adornment is the soul-inspired soundtrack. The mix is by co-owner Scott Selland (Origin, Colborne Lane, Splendido), who runs the front of the house with the same attention to detail that Mr. Blondin gives to the kitchen.
Mr. Selland is also responsible for the terrific cocktail list. A couple of the drinks have a little asterisk beside them indicating that they contain nuts. Depending on the health of your immune system, this is either a warning or an inducement. In addition to aged rum, The Equinox, for example, contains falernum (a syrup made with almonds and ginger), coconut milk and “black locust.” That last bit is not some kind of swarming biblical insect, but an essence made from the flowers of the black locust tree. Garnished with a little clothespin holding a thin slice of coconut, the drink is as fun and luxurious as Christmas on a beach in the tropics.
The kitchen does mind-bending things with entrees. Nagano Farms pork ribs in a sticky reduction that tastes like root beer infused with the smoke of burning bourbon staves are served with a salad of cooked sorghum grains, about the size and heft of Israeli couscous, blended with even tinier puffed amaranth. Heartbreakingly tender milk-fed veal loin is served in a tiny cast-iron skillet with a creamy hash of sweet corn and a miniature fondant potato.
Perhaps nowhere, though, is the Lowcountry aesthetic better embodied than in the side dishes. Boudin balls are Timbit-sized sausage rounds dipped in batter and deep-fried until piping hot and crusty, served with a side of smoky roasted-pepper honey. The cornbread, still warm from the skillet and crispy around the edges, is served with what seems at first like an awful lot of sweet potato butter, until you try it and realize that a bite that's half butter, half cornbread is just about right. And, of course, there are collard greens, served in a thick glass bowl with crisp, pink pancetta rounds and licorice-infused cream.
There's no guarantee those exact plates will be available next week, or even tonight. Dishes are constantly being tweaked based on availability and whim. But with a kitchen firing on this many cylinders, that's probably a good thing.
One area that might benefit from a little more attention is the dessert list. The chocolate bar with burnt honey, candied satsuma and almond-milk ice cream is relentlessly rich, making the otherwise delicious ice cream just feel heavy. Criticizing the sugar pie for being too sweet might seem redundant, but scaling it down a bit would allow the golden raisins to stand out instead of being swamped by sweetness.
Cloying desserts notwithstanding, Acadia is simply the most exciting place to eat in the city right now.