Nashville has a new reputation as the culinary home of uniquely Southern food.
‘Why would you want to go to Nash Vegas?” asks the woman next to me at the sushi counter of Charlotte Airport in North Carolina, where I am waiting for a connecting flight to Tennessee. Charleston and New Orleans would be much more fruitful for my purposes, she says.
This is not the first baffled response I have had since planning my food tour of “Music City”, which, with its country-music heritage, baloney-touting honky-tonk bars and landlocked location, has never been known as one of the United States’ culinary meccas.
Until now, that is. Because there is a new energy to Nashville’s food and drink scene that has been getting it noticed lately. It is being driven by a crew of home-grown entrepreneurs and creatives drawn to the city’s invigorated music scene (thank you Jack White) and laid-back lifestyle.
It is also driven by a new-found interest in Southern barbecue and soul food — currently starring on menus from New York to London — that has food scenesters raving about collard greens, pulled pork, chicken and grits.
Two days later, I am sitting at the wide wooden counter at the Catbird Seat (thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com), Nashville’s hottest culinary destination, watching two chefs assemble vivid, artful dishes with a mixture of balletic synchronicity and rock ’n roll swagger. The Catbird Seat is an open-kitchen restaurant where Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger cook in front of their 36 guests, personally delivering their creative, seasonal seven-course set menus ($100).
The two chefs have CVs spanning some of the world’s best restaurants: Alinea in Chicago, London’s St John, Noma in Copenhagen and California’s French Laundry. That is some form and it is palpable — both Anderson and Habiger have just been named best new chefs 2012 by the US-based Food & Wine magazine.
“To start, these are your snacks,” says Anderson, stretching out a tattooed arm and placing a long plate in front of me. “Hot chicken skin with dill, spice and Wonder Bread purée, corn bread cooked in duck fat with bacon cream, and a Northern Cross oyster with yuzu and cucumber.”
What follows is a procession of inventive, exciting, modern American dishes that meld traditional and cutting-edge techniques and incorporate Southern flourishes.
Among them is steak tartare with Arctic char roe, caper “butts” and chive flowers; grilled, braised pork belly doused in a “ramp vichyssoise” made from the intense wild garlic that grows so ubiquitously here; and, my favourite, a dish of wood pigeon with white asparagus tips and hay-infused caramelised yoghurt.
When I meet the chefs the next day at their favourite coffee shop — Fido (bongojava.com/fido.php) in the trendy Hillsboro Village neighbourhood, which has burgers from $9 — they look more like members of the bands Anderson managed in a former life than exponents of high gastronomy, with their checked shirts, messy hair and breakfast tacos. It is exactly this laid-back approach that defines the Nashville food scene.
“I think that being here allows us to have a lot more fun and keep it unpretentious,” says Habiger. “You can go to Prince’s [Hot Chicken Shack] or Monell’s and sit at a family-style restaurant with a bunch of people you don’t know and eat some amazing country food. It’s not like New York City, where it’s a race to get stars.”
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is a local institution that has been serving its scorchingly spicy Southern fried chicken (from $4) in the same location on the rundown outskirts of the city for 27 years. The chicken skin snack from the night before was inspired by this classic.
“It’s a Nashville staple, so we do a riff on that so it’s kind of familiar to people. They sit down for a meal and they’re getting something that’s just a tiny bit recognisable but really different as well,” says Anderson, whose favourite haunt is another restaurant that enjoys updating Southern traditions. City House in Germantown (cityhousenashville.com) is a buzzing, warehouse-style eatery where chef Tandy Wilson serves Italian-meets-Southern — crispy pizza topped with “belly ham” ($13) and catfish (another Nashville stalwart, $22) with a mustard, onion, horseradish and lemon marmalade “Jezebel” sauce.
Local lad Wilson, who opened City House five years ago, is often cited as having sparked the city’s food revolution with his new take on local flavours.
“Lots of people had married French food and Southern and I found those similarities with Italian food, which, like the food here, is about letting the ingredients speak for themselves,” he says.
“A lot of our nation’s food comes from European and African influences, but you see more things that are uniquely American in the south than anywhere else. Catfish is extremely Southern and corn bread we don’t mess with — it’s done in a very specific manner, in a large skillet, with lard and quality buttermilk. That’s as Southern as it gets.”
It is this notion of indigenous foods that inspires the progressive Southern cooking of chef Tyler Brown at the city’s Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel (capitolgrillenashville.com, daily specials $14).
I meet Brown at a 26-hectare farm 6km from his downtown kitchen, where the produce obsessive grows heritage vegetables, keeps bees and raises cattle.
“We wanted to grow in the old style,” he says from under a glorious handlebar moustache. “Different field peas that people have been growing in their families for years, heirloom corn, old varieties with a story to them ...”
At the restaurant he uses these ingredients to give a new twist to traditional recipes such as “dirty farro”, a take on Louisiana “dirty rice” made with farro, spices, carrots, country ham and sweet, juicy clams.
Looking back while moving forward seems to be rather a theme here. Proper old-fashioned sodas with house-made syrups, evil malted shakes and ridiculously tasty draught root beer are the thing at The Pharmacy (thepharmacynashville.com, burgers from $7) in the up-and-coming East Nashville neighbourhood.
Over the road at Holland House (hollandhousebarandrefuge.com, mains from about $20) a prohibition-style “refuge”, the barmen sport tweed waistcoats and shake creative cocktails amid vintage chandeliers and reclaimed furniture. This is where 30-year-old head chef Kristin Beringson crafts what she calls “simple farm-to-table food with a Southern twist”.
Her beautifully presented dishes include pulled pork flatbread with local apple and red cabbage-cranberry slaw, and sea bass with chorizo-saffron broth and skillet cornbread.
“Nashville is catching up with places such as Portland and New York. It’s exciting and it’s really fun to be in the middle of all this.”
My thoughts exactly — and that is just one of many reasons why you should visit “Nash Vegas”. — © Guardian News & Media 2012