Saturday, February 6, 2016

travelogue: three days of eating (and other things) in Nashville,Tennessee

My first report from our Southern road trip started with three days in and around Memphis, Tennessee. From there we hit the road to visit another city I'd never seen: Nashville. The contrast is striking: while Memphis feels a bit stuck in time, Nashville is booming. The city is experiencing rapid job and population growth, is filled with shiny new public works projects like the massive Music City Center, and the skyline is dotted with as many construction cranes as Miami in the throes of a building craze.

I was amazed to hear from one of our Uber drivers that the East Nashville neighborhood of our (pretty fabulous) AirBnB was, just five years ago, one of the roughest parts of town. You would never know. Now, it's filled with charmingly restored bungalows, third-wave coffee houses, boutique clothiers, a butcher shop, and several restaurants.[1]

After three somewhat BBQ-intensive days in Memphis, we were ready for something different. Happily, a place within walking distance of our home base offered just that: Little Octopus.

The restaurant is the product of husband-and-wife team Sarah and Brad Gavigan, who had previously used the space to run a pop-up called – appropriately enough – POP Nashville. POP was the testing ground for a ramen shop that's now made a permanent move to another location called Otaku Ramen (which we also visited, more below), and also hosted guest dinners with folks like Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn), Andy Ricker (Pok Pok) and Ryan Prewitt (Peche). Now it houses Little Octopus, which, coincidentally, is run by a chef with some Miami roots, Daniel Herget.[2]

Little Octopus serves up a long menu of mostly small plates, the overwhelming majority of which are vegetable- and seafood-centric. They are also entirely agnostic as to culinary genre: a Mexican style ceviche spiked with Worcestershire sauce shares space with Mediterranean sardines and a congee that starts in China but ends up who-knows-where, with smoked pumpkin, durian and shiitake mushrooms (it was one of the strangest things I've eaten in a while, but good).

Some highlights: fatty hamachi, block-cut like sashimi, served with a chunky romesco sauce, burnt bread powder and cerignola olives; juicy, crisp-skinned pan-roasted chicken, served over a vibrant salsa verde with a perky herb salad; those sardines, fat and fresh, simply grilled, dusted with bottarga, and drizzled with lemon and olive oil.

While I often seek out local flavor when traveling, not every restaurant needs to bleed the terroir of its immediate surroundings. This was good, fun food, and a welcome change of pace.

(You can see all my pictures in this Little Octopus flickr set).

Little Octopus
604 Gallatin Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee

The next day we checked out the usual tourist things downtown, including a peek at Ryman Auditorium and taking in a little honky-tonk at Robert's Western World. The highlight for me was Hatch Show Print, a letterpress print shop dating back to 1879, still operating and now situated inside the Country Music Hall of Fame. Lunchtime found us in the Gulch, which everyone talks up as a booming new Nashville neighborhood,[3] and also happens to be where Otaku Ramen recently established a permanent home.

The menu at Otaku is short and sweet: basically, four types of ramen, supplemented by a couple different steamed buns as "snacks" and a few rice bowls. The ramen was quite good. I'd be torn in picking a favorite between the "Tennessee tonkotsu," which featured a hearty, creamy pork bone broth along with confit pork, woodear mushrooms, black garlic oil and a runny egg; the restorative paitan ramen featuring a rich, cloudy chicken stock with chashu and greens; or the more traditional shoyu ramen with a limpid golden-brown chicken and dashi broth base.

For an extra $6, a lunch "set" will get you a bun and an "add-on" to your ramen bowl (i.e., an extra egg, a spice "bomb," or some karashi takana), which is money well spent. The hot chicken bun was pretty much a perfect little snack, the puffy clamshell bun holding a slab of juicy, spicy chicken along with some Kewpie slaw and a couple sweet dill pickles.

(You can see all my pictures in this Otaku Ramen flickr set).

This was an ideal lunch for a cold, blustery Nashville day.

Otaku Ramen
1104 Division Street, Nashville, Tennessee

(continued ...)

Other than perhaps Sean Brock's Husk, the first Nashville "destination" restaurant on most people's minds is probably The Catbird Seat, a chef's counter, multi-course tasting menu type setup that opened in 2011. The chefs who opened Catbird, Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson, both left in 2013 – Habiger to go to Pinewood Social (which is owned by the same group as Catbird, Strategic Hospitality), Anderson later that year to go to Minnesota.[4]

Catbird Seat was closed while we were in town, so Pinewood Social – an intriguing place in its own right – was as close as we were going to get. Pinewood is a gigantic 13,000 foot space built in a former trolley barn a stone's throw from downtown Nashville. It's a café, bar, and restaurant all in one serving breakfast (or brunch), lunch and dinner seven days a week, with six different variations on the menu depending on when you're there and where you're sitting. Plus, six vintage bowling lanes and, when the weather's more temperate, an outdoor area with another bar, a pool and bocce ball courts. The project is crazy ambitious in its magnitude, and has the look and feel of a place you'd want to hang out in all day.

(You can see all my pictures in this Pinewood Social flickr set).

If only the food were a little more ambitious.

The menu mostly plays it safe. Maybe the most interesting options among the starters are a choice of several different things on toast; the rest are made up primarily of dips and fried things. Main courses are equally straightforward: meatloaf, fried catfish, lobster roll, fried chicken. It's kind of a chef-y version of what you'd expect to find on a typical "ale house" menu. Which is perfectly fine by me, if you're executing it at a high level.

We blanketed the table with starters to share: a smoked trout dip with lavash crackers, hummus with Calabrian chilies, "Thai" spare ribs with a sweet chili glaze, an assortment of various toasts – smoked salmon with a red onion chutney, mascarpone and butternut squash, ricotta with country ham and pears, white cheddar with a bacon onion jam. Everything was fine; nothing was particularly exciting.

Ditto for the mains. Fried catfish was perfectly nice, a golden crisp shell encasing delicate, flaky fish; the shrimp and corn fritters were a tad gummy, the meager bit of slaw more of a garnish than an accompaniment. The lobster roll was generously stuffed and subtly dressed; the salmon, in a sort of stew of cranberry beans, fennel leeks and squash was, again, nice – like a blind date you'll never call again.

There was absolutely nothing striking or memorable about anything we ate, not a single dish where I'd say, "Yeah, I'd go back for that." In fact, if I didn't have pictures I'm not sure I'd even recall what we ordered. Instead, what I recall most is service that was as perfunctory and inattentive as any I've experienced on South Beach.

Despite bringing out several starters obviously intended for sharing (including the toasts served on fiddly little wooden planks), no share plates were provided. I very much enjoyed a barrel aged cocktail they called a "Reverse Tailspin" that included Strategic Hospitality's own Wathen's single barrel bourbon, vermouth, Campari and Chartreuse, but couldn't get anyone to pay attention long enough for me to order a second round. Our mains were brought out before we'd finished the starters (and obviously before they'd been cleared), and our server left it to us to figure out how to rearrange everything on the table to make room for them. Pinewood's website pitches itself as a "social gathering place" where you're welcome to "come hang out and enjoy," but everything about the experience felt like they were just trying to turn the table as soon as possible.

Pinewood Social is a very cool space; I wish I'd enjoyed our time there more. I knew better than to expect anything on the order of Catbird Seat, but still expected the food to make more of an impact; and for a restaurant with "Social" in its name, run by a group with "Hospitality" in its name, I sure expected more attentive, welcoming service.

Pinewood Social
33 Peabody Street, Nashville, Tennessee

The next morning, I was sent out by the family on a mission to retrieve breakfast. Fortunately, I didn't have to go far. Just a couple blocks from our AirBnB, around a corner off Gallatin Avenue, was Barista Parlor, a third wave coffee shop in a big converted auto shop.

(You can see all my pictures in this Barista Parlor flickr set).

It's got everything you would expect of such a place: beans from places like Counter Culture and Intelligentsia, brewed into coffees and espresso drinks using a variety of devices, by folks with thick beards. It's also got lots of decorative paraphernalia inspired by the space's original purpose, including a couple vintage motorbikes. But perhaps best of all, it's got a nice little breakfast menu including biscuits and egg sandwiches that use really tasty bacon and sausage from Porter Road Butcher around the corner (sorry, no pictures – they disappeared too fast). I returned to the house a hero.

Barista Parlor
519 Gallatin Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee

We'd still not gotten very far by lunchtime, but our inertia provided an opportunity to check another Nashville "must do" off the list: hot fried chicken. Hot chicken isn't exactly a new thing; its origin story supposedly goes back to the 1930's, when Thornton Prince, the great-uncle of the current owner of Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, came home from a night of womanizing and demanded fried chicken, which his scorned girlfriend, intending revenge, cooked with a big dose of hot pepper. Turns out he liked it, and a dish was born.

But hot chicken seems to be having a moment. There are now more than a dozen Nashville hot chicken specialists, someone recently mapped out several more such places outside of Nashville, and just last month KFC introduced its own version, for better or worse. The plethora of options doesn't seem to be hurting business: at the Hattie B's in midtown, we saw a queue about fifty deep stretching down the sidewalk a day earlier.

So rather than wait for hours, we looked for a more convenient option, and found it in Pepperfire Nashville Style Hot Chicken, also just a few blocks from our East Nashville home base. Pepperfire is part of the newer generation of hot chicken places, having opened in 2010. The menu includes the typical lineup – your choice of chicken parts, spiced to your degree of heat tolerance ranging from "southernfied" (no sauce) to "XX Hot!" (put the Charmin in the freezer now) – along with a couple of their own unique creations, like the "Peppercheese" (a deep fried "grilled" cheese with pepperjack), which when topped with a few chicken tenders becomes a "Tender Royale."

As for parts, I went with wings for maximum skin surface area, and also because they said it would only be about a 25-minute wait for wings or tenders, while breasts or legs would take 35 minutes (everything is cooked to order, though – pro tip – you can call ahead). For heat level, I went with "Medium," shying away at the last minute from "Hot."

(You can see all my pictures in this Pepperfire flickr set).

I'm glad for my cowardice – Medium was plenty hot for me. The coating positively crackles with spicy heat, the kind that starts on your lips before engulfing all of the inside of your mouth. It hurts, but it's also compulsively good. And so you try to swab your tongue with mushy white bread, temper the heat with ranch dressing, and then go back for more, again and again. It also happens to be really good fried chicken: cooking to order yields that ideal combination of crisp, craggy skin and steamy, juicy meat. I can't tell you it's the best hot chicken in Nashville; I can tell you it's great stuff.

Pepperfire Nashville Style Hot Chicken
1000 Gallatin Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee

I usually avoid holiday dinners at restaurants; the combination of set menus, amateur diners, and maxed out capacity rarely yields a good experience. But since we were traveling over New Year's Eve, there really wasn't any choice. And when I saw a reservation open at Husk, chef Sean Brock's Nashville sibling to his Charleston restaurant of the same name, I figured they'd do it right. My faith was rewarded, and we closed out 2015 strong.

Husk's NYE menu was a three-course affair which offered about five choices for each course. Before those arrived, though, we were brought an amuse bouche of thinly sliced Benton's country ham, unadorned but for a brush of coffee vinegar. Allan Benton's hams are pretty magical on their own, and the coffee vinegar offered the most subtle counterpoint of rounded bitterness to the salty, nutty pork. It was like an elemental version of red eye gravy, and it was a perfect bite.

(You can see all my pictures in this Husk New Years Eve flickr set).

I talked up the roasted Rappahannock oysters with bone marrow butter and Tennessee hackleback caviar a couple weeks ago in "best thing i ate last week," so let me talk about another appetizer here. "Royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel" is a really long way to say "shrimp 'n' grits." But that's OK, because it was the best version I've ever had. Royal reds are a sweet, soft deep water shrimp from east coast waters that rank among my favorite crustaceans, here doing double duty with their flavorful heads used as a base for the sauce. That deep, rich oceanic bisque was a perfect pairing with the creamy rice middlins (broken rice grains with a texture much like corn grits).

One of the things I love about Husk is that it functions as a sort of living history lesson; not just on account of Sean Brock's well-known dedication to preserving heirloom Southern ingredients, but also his resurrection of old recipes. "Ol' Fuskie Fried Crab Rice" is the kind of description that sounds like it's worth googling, and sure enough, it's an old Gullah recipe originating from Daufuskie Island, an island off the South Carolina coast accessible only by boat. Brock chefs it up with a dusting of dried crab roe, amplifying its flavors.

As is often the case, main courses paled a bit in comparison to the appetizers. My favorite – a bit of a dark horse candidate – was the pit roasted chicken, served with a rich liver gravy, an assortment of root vegetables, a swirl of parsley purée, and a crisp, flaky sheet of pastry which made the whole assemblage seem like something of a deconstructed chicken potpie. The Bear Creek Farm pork was, as our server cautioned us, rippled with fat – which would have been fine by me, except that one of our servings[5] wasn't adequately rendered, leaving the fat somewhat unappetizingly mushy and sticky. Opinions were divided on the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes dusted with sassafras that accompanied it (Mrs. F and I liked; Frod Jr. not so much). The highlight of a dish featuring a tranche of North Carolina trout was the intense seafood broth speckled with Florida clams and navy beans.

There were no divided opinions over the desserts, which were all excellent. A buche de noel offered a traditional, old school presentation paired with some new school, thematically appropriate flavors: nutty hickory ice cream, and toasty, smoky burnt marshmallow meringue. A shattered black cocoa pavlova, encasing a smoked cocoa nib and cherry ice cream, and a cascade of Olive & Sinclair chocolate syrup, was everything the "pavlova" we'd had earlier at City Grocery promised and failed to deliver. And the lemon tart, crowned with puffy tiers of burnished meringue, was a perfect classical dessert, brought up to date with a sneaky subtle infusion of green cardamom.

This is what Sean Brock does so well: breathes new life into Southern classics through attention to ingredient provenance, technique, and the occasional contemporary flourish. What a great way to finish off 2015. Next, to start off 2016 – off to Louisville.

Husk Nashville
37 Rutledge Street, Nashville, Tennessee

[1] As is usually the case, all this gentrification is something of a mixed bag. While I can't speak to what it's like to be a resident of Nashville right now – other than that our brief stay in East Nashville was an incredibly pleasant one – I can say that there is often a disconcerting sameness to these new projects. If you were dropped from a helicopter into parts of Nashville, you might not be able to say if you were in Nashville or Brooklyn or San Francisco other than by the southern accents.

[2] Herget is a Gainesville native who went to Johnson & Wales in Miami and worked at Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, Oak Tavern and La Goulue before heading up to Nashville to work with Sarah Gavigan.

[3] Despite some breathless reports, this is a neighborhood that's still in the transition stage. At present, anyway, it's not exactly pedestrian friendly, with big stretches taken up by storage facilities, auto parts stores and homeless shelters. And what's there, I found kind of underwhelming. Maybe I didn't dig deep enough, but much of it has a corporate chain feel: places like Cantina Laredo and City Winery, though there's also places like Arnold's Country Kitchen, Biscuit Love and Peg Leg Porker. The Gulch is home to Jack White's Third Man Records, but the shop carries only their own in-house releases and related paraphernalia, making it feel more like a shrine to all things Jack White than an actual record store, which I perhaps mistakenly expected it to be.

[4] Anderson later turned up in Chicago, doing a stint at Intro (the Lettuce Entertain You group's restaurant incubator which used to be L2O). Since then, Trevor Moran, a Noma alumnus, took over Catbird Seat only to leave at the end of this year, heading back to Copenhagen to work with Rene Redzepi on the reincarnation of Noma next year. Catbird recently announced that Chicago chef Ryan Poli is now taking over.

[5] Even though the kids have been subconsciously conditioned to not order the same thing, given the limited holiday menu they went against their training here.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! Nashville is an interesting place. We did the line at Hattie B's and it moved extremely fast. I felt the same about Pinewood as you(mind you this was all a year ago). It was also the only place where we we received some less hospitable looks for having a baby with us. Service everywhere else was wonderful and extra welcoming to the little one. Olive & Sinclair gave her a little sample and the owners of Peg Leg came to meet her when they saw her enjoying the pulled pork.