So before I get to the food, let me talk about the hotel that Minor League Baseball likes to force down the throats of the major league clubs (you know, the ones who make minor league owners’ insane profits possible) and the media covering the event, the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. You’re probably familiar with Hell’s Kitchen; this place is Hell’s Outhouse. I’m a pretty hardcore capitalist, and even I’m offended by the existence of this hotel. It’s enormous, large enough to get its own ZIP Code, with more wasted space than a banana plantation in the Yukon, and it’s overflowing with fake plastic trees and fake waterfalls and other crap straight from the mind of a designer who was clearly very, very mad at society when he came up with the concept. It takes about fifteen minutes to make a full circuit around the hotel, and can easily take upwards of twenty minutes to go from the lobby to certain guest rooms. Every restaurant and shop in the hotel is outrageously overpriced – $2.75 for a 20-ounce bottle of Dasani – and non-guests are charged $16 to park with no in-and-out privileges. There’s no central lobby area for the winter meetings’ standard evening congregations, and the hotel itself is located a good fifteen to twenty minutes from downtown or any area with non-chain sit-down restaurants. I’m tempted to go for a career switch, train as a munitions expert, bribe a county official to condemn the building before the meetings return to this scar on America’s landscape and culture in 2012, and (with the government’s permission, of course) blow the damn place to oblivion. I have yet to find a front-office exec, scout, or writer who likes the place. But hey, outgoing Minor League President Mike Moore loves it, so it’s been there every four to five years for forever now, and we may be stuck with it even after the door hits Moore square in the ass on his way out. Thanks for nothing, Mike.
First meal had to be quick, so I stopped by Fat Mo’s, a small Nashville-area fast-food chain along the lines of In-n-Out and Five Guys. The burger was excellent by fast-food standards, a wide half-pound patty with plenty of salt and some black pepper in it; it was well-done, of course, and it would have been nice if my “no cheese” request had been followed. (It wasn’t a big deal – I just peeled off the one slice of yellow crap.) Their French fries are very good, although not up to the hand-cut standard of the other two chains, although again Fat Mo’s gets credit for understanding the culinary value of salt. A burger and fries plus a bottle of water came to just over $6.
Whitt’s Barbecue shows up on a number of “best barbecue in Nashville” lists I found online, and their Q was solid. It’s a bare-bones joint and the menu is sparse. I ordered the cornbread dinner with pork, which comes with one side and fried cornbread, a Nashville specialty that elsewhere seems to be called a “corn cake.” The pork had a mild smoke flavor and no hint of dryness, meaning that very little sauce was required. The beans were fair, perhaps a bit too sweet, and the corn cake had a good crumb and savory taste but wasn’t very hot, so it had started to dry out.
Swett’s is a classic meat-and-three joint (which means you pick one meat item and three sides) in southwest Nashville that’s been open since 1953. Service is counter-based – you stand in line, get your order, pay at the end, etc. There’s a full list of items sitting on the top of the counter before you get to the food. They offer five standard meat items plus a couple of items from a list of five non-daily meat items, including pigs feet (not available the day I was there, darn it). I ordered the turkey and dressing, one of the non-daily meat items, as well as just two sides – pinto beans and okra – and baked corn bread (a muffin), as well as blackberry cobbler for dessert. The turkey and dressing was over-the-top good; I’m a sucker for cornbread dressing, and theirs was moist with a great mix of cornbread, onion, celery, and herb flavors, while the turkey was moist and the gravy was smooth with a good but not overpowering chicken-stock flavor. The pinto beans were classic southern-style with chunks of ham hock, while the okra was steamed (I was hoping for fried and didn’t see the okra before ordering it) and had little flavor. The cornbread was too sweet but had a good crumb; the cobbler was probably made from frozen blackberries and the cobbler dough was greasy, although neither fact stopped me from eating almost the entire thing.
The Yellow Porch is a sort of casual fine-dining restaurant on the southern end of town, with a strong emphasis on fresh ingredients, local ones if possible. The menu isn’t long but the dishes are layered – Calvin Trillin’s “something served on a bed of something else” expression comes to mind – and despite the obvious quality of the inputs, my meal didn’t add up. A perfect example of their too-clever-by-half philosophy is the oil served with the bread (which was, by the way, an outstanding soft sponge bread): Olive oil with chopped fresh herbs, with a pool of balsamic vinegar (might have been a reduction, but it wasn’t sweet) in the middle, with a small pile of fresh feta cheese in the middle of that. It was a taste overload, and the tart-with-tart combo didn’t work that well for me.
For the entrée, I went with grilled shrimp with “grits custard,” sautéed spinach, roasted red pepper coulis, and a “caraway spiced napa cabbage salad.” That last part, the cabbage salad, proved the undoing of the entire dish. The shrimp were outstanding, fresh, Cajun-spiced (but not blackened as the menu said), and the coulis was delicious. But in the center of the dish was a ring-molded grits custard, which was grits mixed with beaten eggs and what I think was parmesan cheese (not the real stuff) and baked. The texture was a bit odd, not firm like custard or smooth like grits/polenta. But the killer was the cabbage, which was shredded and drenched in white vinegar, which dripped down into the grits below it, rendering both items inedible. (Vinegar and parmesan cheese ≠ good eats.) To the restaurant’s credit, when I told the server that I was “disappointed” and explained about the excess vinegar, he took the entrée off the check.
For dessert, I had a slice of flourless chocolate-espresso torte with a raspberry coulis. The coulis was excellent and the texture of the torte was great, but it could have been darker. They get big points for having a wide selection of loose-leaf teas.
The next day’s lunch was at another meat-and-three with my comrade-in-fork, Joe Sheehan, who is also a frequent comrade-in-pork. Arnold’s Country Kitchen seems to be the consensus pick for Nashville’s best meat-and-three, and once we saw a diner with the pork barbecue on his plate, our lunchtime destinies were sealed. I paired mine with black-eyed peas and green beans. (Note: If the menu was posted somewhere, we didn’t see it, but there’s an image of it on their website.) The pork is a Wednesday special, and we picked the right day to go, because it was amazing, moist with a good smoky flavor, and the sauce had a nice molasses base without overpowering the flavor of the meat. The black-eyed peas sucked; there was no hint of ham hock or salt pork or, frankly, any flavor other than onions. The green beans were a little bit overstewed but otherwise solid. Arnold’s serves both baked cornbread and fried cornbread with every meal, and these were probably the best I’ve ever had, with no sweetness, plenty of fat in the recipe to keep them moist, and an absolutely perfect crumb. For dessert, I tried their “chocolate pie,” a thick chocolate pudding that tastes a lot like brownie batter topped with meringue. The filling was delicious and the meringue helped cut the richness of the filling, although the crust was too greasy and not very tender.
Last stop – with Sheehan, Kevin Goldstein, and Will Carroll in tow – was Calhoun’s, a Tennessee-wide chain of barbecue restaurants. They’re known or claim to be known for their ribs, so I went with the half slab with smashed red-skin potatoes and beans on the side. The hickory-smoked ribs were smoky but didn’t have a lot of hickory flavor; the best part was the top and end bits, with that indescribable pork taste and just the right amount of tooth. The mashed potatoes were good but generic – definitely made in a huge batch – and the beans were more like a chili than baked beans, which made a fan of Joe but was a little less of a hit with me. Pre-meal cornbread was on the sweet side, although the buttermilk biscuit was solid-average. They do get points for having Newcastle Brown Ale, which was about the last beer I expected to find in Nashville.