I ate really, really well in Nashville this week, which is what happens when you get the hell out of the Opryland Hotel, itself a testament to what happens when capitalism’s DNA mutates and reproduces out of control. Over the last five years it seems that Nashville has had a culinary boom, and I had more places I wanted to visit than I could have gotten to in a week.
Our first big group dinner was Monday night at City House, one of the most-recommended restaurants in Nashville by those of you who live there, and one of the most enjoyable meals I have ever had when you combine the food and the company at the table. Because of the size of our party, we were served family-style, which had the benefit of allowing us to all try more items. I thought two items really stood out above everything else: the belly ham pizza and the bread gnocchi. We tried all four pizzas on the menu, with the anchovy pizza the only disappointment, but the belly ham pizza with fresh mozzarella, oregano, and a pretty healthy dose of red chili flakes was incredible, from the light, almost cracker-like crust to the bacon-like pork to the bright, creamy cheese. The gnocchi, without potato as traditional gnocchi would have, were the best I’ve ever eaten (caveat: potato gnocchi don’t thrill me) and are served with a scant tomato sauce, braised pork butt, and grana padano (essentially Parmiggiano-Reggiano from cows near but not in that specific region). That’s the dish everyone was talking about the next morning. The octopus starter everyone’s joked about was just fair, cooked correctly (that is, not till it was a spare tire) but still not that pleasant a texture and without the powerful flavors to stand up to the fish. I loved the rigatoni with rabbit sugo and fennel, kind of like a duck ragout with big flavors from the aromatics and tomato. That night’s special dessert was a chocolate-peanut butter pie that would put Reese’s out of business.
Tuesday night’s dinner included at least 16 of us from the media side at the Pharmacy Burger Bar and Bier Garden, one of the best burger places I have ever visited. Their burgers are made with Tennessee-grown beef and served on stark white rolls that are as soft as potato bread and are custom-baked for the Pharmacy. They hand-cut their fries, including skin-on sweet potato fries served without that annoying sugar topping so many places use or any tricks to make them crispier, and they serve their own tater tots, which might have been an even bigger hit than the burgers. They also had a strong selection of regional beers, including the Nashville-brewed Yazoo Gerst Amber beer, so smooth it went down almost like soda and might be too mild for folks who are more serious about their beer than I am. As for the burgers, most of us went for their signature item, the Farm Burger, with bacon, country ham, and a fried egg on top, which is a top five burger for me at this point.
We ventured out to two new lunch places, Fido and Marché. Fido is related to the Bongo Java coffee shop and retains that coffee-shop vibe even when serving sandwiches or fish entrees like the trout special I ordered, along with a cinnamon cheesecake that Jonah Keri said was to die for and a chocolate-chocolate chip cookie that also really strong. Marche offers a duck confit sandwich about which one probably needs to say little more, because really, it’s some damn good duck confit. Molly Knight ordered a latte which was large enough to drown an orangutan. Both places were worth hitting again, especially because they gave us a chance to eat somewhat more healthful items in expectation of big dinners.
On the way to the airport I made a detour to revisit Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a meat-and-three place that seems to rate as Nashville’s best and where I had a great meal back in 2007. The meats change every day as do about half of the sides available; Thursday’s options included roast beef, while mashed potatoes and turnip greens (with ham hock) appear to always be options. One of the special sides that day was fried green tomatoes, about four-inch discs breaded with seasoned bread crumbs and quickly deep-fried. They’re not good for you – none of this is – but the salty-sour combo was surprisingly satisfying. For dessert, they offered four different kinds of pies plus a few other options. The hot pepper chocolate pie wasn’t very popular but I’d gladly eat that again – the filling had the texture of a dense mousse and the flavor of half-cooked brownies, and once you finished a bite, a warm heat took over from what I assume was cayenne pepper. A meat, three sides, bread (which I skipped), dessert, and a drink ran about $13 and I was full for the whole flight back to Arizona.
Finally, the headline meal of the trip was at The Catbird Seat, named one of the ten best new restaurants in the U.S. this year by Bon Appetit. This was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten, and one of the longest at over four hours and nine-plus courses. It’s a set tasting menu, and the food tends toward the experimental – not quite Alinea territory but along the same philosophical lines. All of the courses hit the mark save one, and I was challenged by a number of the dishes to rethink ingredients or flavors. If you’re not interested in a $150+ meal that goes on for days, feel free to stop reading here – that’s why I’m covering this last. Also, each dish comes with a wine pairing, which the sommelier introduces and explains in some depth, but as the group’s driver I skipped this part.
* The meal began with quarter-sized ‘oreos’ made of a parmiggiano cream or mousse sandwiched between two slices of porcini mushrooms, producing a gustatory dissonance as my palate kept expecting sweet. The point of this starter, other than just being playful, became evident later on.
* The first actual course was a trio of one-bite items, including a raw Island Creek oyster with kimchi and a lime foam, a “cracker jack” using shiitake mushrooms roasted until crunchy, and a rectangle of chicken skin baked until crunchy and topped with ground red pepper for a twist on Nashville hot chicken. That’s the first raw oyster I’ve ever eaten, incidentally – growing up on Long Island during a time when raw oysters were quite dangerous to eat, I had no exposure to them and had (have?) a long-standing bias against raw shellfish of any sort. The faux cracker jack was the best item here, combining the earthiness of the mushroom with the hint of sweetness and crunch you’d expect from something that looks like caramel corn.
* Second course was a diver scallop crudo, sliced thinly, served with their own dashi, smoked roe of Arctic char, crumbled chicken skin, lime juice, finely minced serrano chiles, soy sauce, and shiso leaves. As complex as that sounded, and even looked, the end result was perfectly balanced and nothing overshadowed the scallop itself. This was also one of the largest portions of the night.
* Third course was a soup of roasted sunchoke and caramelized yogurt, poured tableside over a quarter of an artichoke heart, shaved roasted fennel, black olive, black garlic, and a tiny bit of black truffle. Cooked yogurt is very much not my friend, but the texture of the soup was unreal, like double cream, and the roasted sunchokes gave it the appearance of a rich light-brown roux with hints of sweetness and a nutmeg-like spice.
* Fourth course was Arctic char with cream cheese gnudi, dill-infused oil, pureed Meyer lemon (rind and all, apparently), capers, and sorrel leaves. I love Arctic char, a fish nearly indistinguishable from salmon, but prefer it cooked a little past medium rare; this was practically swimming upstream. The gnudi, marble-sized spheres of (I presume) cream cheese with just enough flour to give them structure, had the texture of potato gnocchi and just a hint of the tang from the cheese so that they could soak up some of the dill flavor below them. (Gnudi means “nude” in Italian and refers to a filling cooked without its pasta wrapper.)
* Fifth course was probably the restaurant’s signature dish, roasted pigeon leg, served with the claw still on it, along with a celeriac ribbon, smoked butter, cured egg yolk, chestnut purée, and huckleberry reduction, with the last two items perhaps a play on peanut butter and jelly. Pigeon (usually marketed here as “squab,” for obvious reasons) was another first for me, here cooked rare with a flavor like that of a duck breast with a texture a little closer to a rare lamb rib chop. The chesnut purée stole a fair bit of the show, though, with the crisped skin of the pigeon also standing out.
* Sixth course was a large medallion of rare “Wagyu” beef ribeye with roasted Belgian endive, little spheres of Asian pear, roasted maitake mushroom, and walnut butter. This was by far the most generous portion of the night, but a little tricky to eat with all the components in one bite, in part because the beef, while tender, wasn’t quite that “like butter” consistency I’d expect from that particular cut. (There’s also a lack of labelling standards for “Wagyu” beef, but I’ll trust that the Catbird Seat is at least buying very high-quality inputs.) Getting a sphere of anything the size of a large marble on to the fork with four other elements is nearly impossible, even though the fruit’s mild sweetness was a perfect complement to the various savory elements. Great ideas here, but perhaps not fully executed.
* Seventh course was the one whiff for me, Rush Creek Reserve cheese with a curried granola, rose-water honey, and apricot jam. The cheese looks like mayonnaise and had a heavy, cheddar-y flavor that I simply don’t like. It’s supposed to be one of the best domestic cheese around, so I’m chalking this up to my specific palate and not the dish itself, although Jonah expressed his dislike of the curried granola, which I probably could eat by the bowl.
* From there we move to desserts, three plates although they’re listed on the menu as just two courses. Course 8A was a play on coffee and tea, with coffee ice cream, molasses cake, rooibos (red tea) foam, and a hazelnut and coffee crumb, just insanely good across the board, a dessert where everything was sweet but nothing was too sweet, and a great way to show off the complexity of rooibos’ flavor. (I happen to love the stuff, and especially like to drink it when I’m sick because it has no caffeine.) Course 8B was a maple-thyme flan-like custard cooked in an egg shell with a maple glaze on top and a single stick of bacon protruding from the top – an egg-and-bacon dish that implied there were pancakes on the plate that required the use of maple syrup.
* The ninth course was the most impressive dessert from an execution perspective: charred oak ice cream, vanilla cake, pineapple gelée, and bourbon balls – bourbon encapsulated in a very soft gel so they’d explode in your mouth almost on contact. The ice cream here was smoky but also had subtle flavors that reminded me of caramel, coffee, and of course whiskey, and its texture was as smooth as that of good gelato.
* Finally, another small plate of three Oreo-like items appeared, but this time, they’re sweet, with chocolate wafers and a vanilla cream. They don’t taste anything like the real thing, but speaking as a devout chocoholic, I appreciated the hit of bitter cocoa at the end of the meal.
Someone in Nashville asked me if I preferred the meal at City House or the one at the Catbird Seat but I struggled to compare them. City House is pretty straightforward upscale cuisine – recognizable dishes, done well from start to finish, using fresh, local ingredients with outstanding execution. You will also leave there stuffed. Catbird Seat is experimental and challenging; it isn’t food to be consumed so much as it’s food to be considered. Your preference would likely depend on what you prefer. Catbird Seat is doing things very few restaurants outside of New York, LA, and Chicago are doing, and that makes it the “better” restaurant, the place I’d absolutely take my wife for a special occasion or a client I wanted to blow out of the water. On the other hand, if my goal was to go have a boisterous meal with nine friends, which was what we did on Monday night, I’d take City House. You can’t lose either way.