Eat your way through Nashville

IAN FROEB
Last updated 05:00 19/04/2014

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Strong winds might blow through Chicago, and New York might never lay its head upon its pillow, but no city lives up to its nickname with as much gusto as Music City does.

From the tourist-thronged honky-tonks along Broadway to the street-corner busker armed with only a guitar, a dream and the Merle Haggard songbook, you can't walk 5 feet in Nashville day or night without finding an opportunity to watch live music.

Is Nashville powered entirely by twang? It often seems so. Pick a storefront at random and you can probably purchase a pair of cowboy boots there.

Pick a tour bus at random and follow it to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where you can see Hank Williams Sr.'s most beloved guitar, the military flight suit that Lee Greenwood wore at the peak of his "God Bless the USA" fame and a single high heel from Faith Hill's closet.

All of which is to say, food - or anything else, for that matter - won't replace music as Nashville's main draw.

But if you do come here to eat first and line-dance second, you won't be the first. Nashville has experienced a culinary renaissance over the past few years.

Its homegrown chefs and restaurants have gained national attention, while its burgeoning reputation has attracted chefs from nationally and even internationally renowned restaurants.

I made only a small dent on my list of must-try restaurants during a weekend visit. Still, I found plenty of reasons to pack your best pair of eating pants and head southeast to Nashville.

The most sought-after reservation in Nashville is the Catbird Seat. The restaurant sits only 20 diners at a time at a single counter around an open kitchen. Chef Trevor Moran - previously the sous chef at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world - and his team personally serve each dish.

Alas, a seat here was too difficult to score given my limited time in town. Fortunately, the Catbird Seat's owners recently opened Pinewood Social, a venue as sprawling as the Catbird Seat is intimate.

Located inside a former trolley barn overlooking the Cumberland River, Pinewood Social is a restaurant and a bar and a coffee shop and, oh yeah, a bowling alley, too. Plus, the owners are said to be planning an outdoor bocce court as well as a swimming pool.

I stopped by for a beer and what I'd planned to be a light late lunch, but the menu from chef Josh Habiger (himself formerly of the Catbird Seat) proved too tempting. I began with pork rinds (US$5/NZ$5.8), served hot and crisp from the deep-fryer and sprinkled with an adobo seasoning blend for an earthy, spicy kick. Habiger's take on a reuben (US$13) uses thinly sliced beef tongue as the meat, but it's the sauerkraut, as tangy and tasty as any I've eaten, that makes the sandwich.

Before Sean Brock ascended to the upper ranks of American chefs through his work at the Charleston, South Carolina, restaurants McCrady's and Husk, he spent three years as executive chef of Nashville's swanky Hermitage Hotel. Brock returned to Music City last year to open a second location of Husk, where he uses local ingredients to explore modern Southern cuisine.

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You don't need to know Brock's biography or philosophy to enjoy a meal here. The food is extraordinary without explanation, delicious and soulful. Even an appetiser as simple as Carolina rice griddle cakes (based on a late 19th century recipe) with a side of pimento cheese (US$10) was striking for the purity of its flavours.

For my second appetiser - yes, I, dining alone, ate two appetisers; I'm a professional, after all - I ordered a beef short-rib that had been ember-grilled, not braised, the cut's typical preparation. The meat was exceptionally tender and deeply beefy - better, frankly, than any steak I've eaten in recent years. And it was only US$14 (NZ$16).

Did this short rib overshadow my pork entree? Maybe a little. But the pork - a riff on a classic galantine that formed one tasty piggy orb out of long-cooked pork shoulder and sous-vide pork belly (US$28) - was excellent in its own right. Served with West African-style mustard onions over a succotash of butter beans and hominy, the dish was a master class in Southern cuisine.

If you can't get a reservation at Husk, you can still walk in and eat at the bar. Fair warning, though: Sitting at the bar, you won't be able to resist the restaurant's stellar selection of bourbons and other whiskeys.

For breakfast on my one full day in Nashville, I went to the Capitol Grille, the restaurant inside the aforementioned swank Hermitage Hotel. (The restaurant is equally swank, but the vibe at breakfast is laid-back.) I was following a recommendation from the food writer and Southern-cuisine expert John T. Edge to try the sock sausage (US$10.50).

Don't worry. No actual socks were harmed in the making of this meal. Traditionally, sock sausage is hung to cure in a muslin bag, rather than a casing. It's a coarser sausage, wonderfully smoky and peppery, and just terrific served, as it was here, on a perfect buttermilk biscuit with whole-grain mustard gravy.

After breakfast, I made the short drive across the Cumberland River into East Nashville to visit Barista Parlor. Set inside a cavernous old auto-service garage, Barista Parlor follows the same third-wave-coffee principles that St. Louis spots Blueprint Coffee, Comet Coffee and Sump Coffee do.

The baristas work on multiple pour-over-coffee stations and a Kyoto cold-brew tower and a wickedly top-of-the-line Slayer espresso machine.

Translation: I stood in a long line of elegantly hungover hipsters, but the cup of Sulawesi Toraco coffee (US$4.50) was worth the wait.

Nashville's iconic dish is hot chicken, and the consensus of the Nashville experts whom I consulted was that Prince's Hot Chicken Shack is the place to get it. Being the responsible professional restaurant critic that I am, I drove there for lunch (a 15-minute drive, give or take, north of downtown) without checking its hours first.

Prince's Hot Chicken doesn't open till 2 pm on Saturday. Sigh. I'll try again the next time I'm in Nashville. (Seriously, I'm already planning a return.) Still, I pass along the advice that everyone gave me: On your first visit to Prince's, don't order your chicken any hotter than mild.

If you want to eat at Rolf and Daughters, which Bon Appetit last year ranked as the third-best new restaurant in the country, you have three options: make a reservation weeks out; wait, possibly a long time, for one of the seats at the bar or a communal table reserved for walk-in diners; arrive exactly when it opens at 5:30 pm and grab one of those open walk-in seats.

I chose the third option and nabbed a seat at the bar, but I gladly would have waited a couple of hours for the rustic-Italian-influenced meal that followed from chef Philip Krajeck. An appetizer-size portion of bucatini with octopus, lardo and Calabrian chile (US$18) was the best dish of pasta I've eaten in years, a delicate balance of powerful flavours and perfect textures.

Even better was my entree, a deceptively straightforward dish of roasted chicken with garlic confit in a preserved-lemon sauce (US$21). It's a horrible food-writing cliché, but sometimes it's true: It was like I'd never eaten chicken before, so fully flavoured were both the white and dark meat, so perfectly accented both were by the garlic and preserved lemon.

In lieu of dessert, I walked a few blocks through Nashville's Germantown neighbourhood for a second, smaller dinner at City House. Chef Tandy Wilson is one of the pioneers of Music City's culinary boom, and his cooking fuses Italian tradition with Southern ingredients and techniques.

Stuffed as I was with pasta and chicken, I managed to enjoy an excellent wood-fired pizza topped with mozzarella and Grana Padano cheese, oregano, chilis and - the reason, of course, that I ordered this particular pie - housemade belly ham (US$15). As with Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, I plan to return here on my next visit.

Your trip to Nashville doesn't count unless you visit at least one honky-tonk. I'll leave it to the music critics and Nashville experts to guide you to the truly great, gritty spots.

Yet even as a wide-eyed visitor wandering Broadway, the city's bustling, tourist-trapped main drag, you can enjoy yourself. Head for Robert's Western World, a cowboy-boot emporium-slash-bar where there's almost always a good band playing and a few patrons twirling or stepping in front of the stage.

(Essential honky-tonk tip: Keep some $1 and $5 bills handy. Bands play for tips and will pass the hat several times during their sets.)

The beer is cold and cheap. (Fans of Yuengling lager, the Pennsylvania brew that inspires cultish devotion, will find it here.) A short-order grill sits right behind the bar, and if you're hungry - or if you need to soak up some of that honky-tonking - I recommend the fried-bologna sandwich.

Robert's Western World is never not packed with tourists, but on weekend evenings, especially if a Nashville Predators game or another event has just ended at the nearby arena, you might have to wait in line for a while to gain admission.

If that's not your style, go right next-door to Layla's Bluegrass Inn. It's not as flashy as Robert's, but the beer is still cold, and the bands tend to skew younger and, in the best possible way, a bit rougher around the edges.

It's the kind of place where when the bearded young turk snarls into the microphone, "We're going to play some Merle Haggard now if that's all right with you," even a Yankee such as myself - who knew nothing about classic country music before Johnny Cash started recording with Rick Rubin - will raise his bottle and let out a righteous holler.

IF YOU GO:

Pinewood Social: 33 Peabody Street, 1-615-751-8111.

Husk: 37 Rutledge Street.

Capitol Grille: 231 Sixth Avenue North.

Barista Parlor: 519B Gallatin Avenue.

Rolf and Daughters: 700 Taylor Street.

City House: 1222 Fourth Avenue North.,

Robert's Western World: 416B Broadway.

Layla's Bluegrass Inn: 418 Broadway.

- MCT

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