Nashville is awesome. If they had a major-league team there, I could live in Nashville very happily. The food scene is amazing, I hear the music scene is pretty good, the city is full of vibrant neighborhoods with distinct identities, and it’s growing – having a great university right in the city doesn’t hurt. It’s a shame its reputation has to be scarred by the proximity of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Gouging Center, but that’s well outside the city limits anyway.
The centerpiece meal of the trip was the new location of Husk, Sean Brock’s second outpost under that name after the flagship restaurant in Charleston. Like the original, the Nashville Husk is located in a converted house, but it’s roomier once you get inside and has a large bar area in the basement rather than in an adjacent carriage house. The menu changes daily, so what I describe here may not be on the menu even if you choose to go soon.
I went with a friend and because we were seated 15-20 minutes after our reservation time, we ended up with a starter compliments of the kitchen – Carolina rice griddle cakes with a pimento/jalapeñ cheese spread. The cakes were ridiculously good, with the crispy texture on top of cornmeal cakes (thanks to lots of sugar caramelizing in some sort of not-good-for-you fat), soft and steaming in the center, but not flat or dry like a lot of pancakes that don’t use much wheat flour. There was, however, a greater chance of Dan Vogelbach playing shortstop in the majors than there was of me liking that cheese spread. I contented myself with the Parker House rolls served as starters. That’s a traditional New England roll made with milk and baked all stuffed into a pan so that you only get a crust on the top and bottom, with the sides of the rolls all touching and coming out in a sort of square-like shape. These were the best I’d ever had, the lightest and the most flavorful, with the benne (we call them sesame) seeds on top a nice touch.
The pork ribs starter was meager at two regular-sized ribs and a runt, but the sweet/hot glaze along with a little crumble of peanuts stuck to the top was a winner. It felt a little awkward to eat ribs in such a nice restaurant – the only correct way to eat ribs is primally – but Husk prepared them in a way I hadn’t had them before, with plenty of bark on the top and texture contrast from the peanuts that, now that I’ve had it, I’ll miss the next time I have plain ol’ smoked ribs.
For my entree, I chose the grilled catfish, in part because I had a catfish dish at my first visit to the Husk in Charleston. The fish on my plate was incredibly fresh, as Brock is among the leaders in using high-quality local ingredients and making sure the diner knows where his food came from, but it was a shade too rare, so the top didn’t have much in the way of grill marks or the texture that comes from the Maillard reaction, while the interior was just a bit too soft. The deconstructed hoppin john, with the rice and beans cooked and served separately, was superb, with a citrusy flavor to the beans reminiscent of the Brazilian black-bean dish feijão.
I also tried a local beer, Jackalope’s Bearwalker Maple Brown Ale, where the brewers add maple syrup to the beer during the “conditioning” or secondary phase of fermentation. By this point, the remaining yeasts are working on the more complex sugars, so adding maple syrup, which contains mostly sucrose with a few monosaccharides as well, at that stage is … well, I’m not quite sure how that works, so if someone out there knows brewing chemistry I’d love to get an explanation. I do like the idea of adding sweet flavors where the yeasts will consume the sugar but the beer will contain the flavor so that you get the “memory” of the sweetness (associated with that flavor) without making the beer sweet.
Pineville Social is one of two Nashville restaurants nominated for a James Beard Award this year – the other is called The 404 Kitchen, but I couldn’t find it – and it’s as notable for its space as it is for its food. The restaurant itself is huge, in a converted warehouse of some sort with high ceilings and a giant, gaudy square bar in the center and six bowling lanes in the back. I managed to sneak in there for Saturday brunch before the Vanderbilt game that afternoon and tried the fried chicken and biscuits you saw on my Instagram feed that day. It was as good as it looked – perfectly fried hunks of chicken breast on a tender biscuit with a smooth, rich white gravy on top. There were no gimmicks, no hot sauce, no pickles, nothing that didn’t belong there. I actually never ate dinner that night.
Crema is a new coffee roaster located very close to Pineville Social Club, which uses their beans for its in-house coffee bar, and the locals seem to have caught on that Crema is very serious about coffee prep. They offer seven or eight varietals for pour-overs and two blends for espresso, and the baristas take their time to make sure each drink is prepared correctly. I preferred their espresso, which had great body and moderate acidity, to the pour-over I had with their Kenya beans, which was a little underextracted. According to one of the baristas, they purchase directly from farms, but their trade is truly direct only with farms in Central and South America, where someone from the shop is actually traveling to those estates. Based on conversations with one of you in the business, it seems like Crema was roasting and selling beans from last year’s harvest, which isn’t ideal but still miles ahead of what you’ll get at Corporate Coffee. This is also the first artisan roaster I’ve seen in a while with beans from Yemen.
I also ate two meals at Fido, one lunch and one breakfast. The latter happened when I called an audible; Buster Olney, who doesn’t like to talk about it much but actually went to Vanderbilt, recommended the Pancake Pantry, which unfortunately had a line at least 40 deep at 8:20 on that Saturday morning. Fido’s my favorite quick spot in Nashville, though, with a little of everything, cooked to order but served fast, including really good hash browns, and just a great lively vibe about the place. They also have a huge list of specials that is usually where I find my order, although on this trip I ordered off the menu twice as they had a lot of dishes with spinach, which I unfortunately can’t eat.