VOL. 7 | NO. 49 | Saturday, November 29, 2014
In the Weeds
Treat Your Visitors to These Dining Treats
JENNIFER JUSTUS | The Ledger
Having been busy lately on a cookbook project, I haven’t been able to visit restaurants as often. So after my deadline, I worked on making up for lost time by hitting five restaurants in a couple of weeks.
While I didn’t choose the restaurants – letting fate and friends make the call – these places not only have different styles, they help give a snapshot of the dining scene in Nashville with a one-year-old downtown restaurant just hitting its stride, two highly anticipated new restaurants in The Gulch, a creative pop-up, and a mainstay of more than decade in East Nashville.
Here’s what I learned.
Chauhan Ale & Masala House
123 12th Ave. N.
Rumors began to swirl early in 2013 about Food Network “Chopped” judge Maneet Chauhan bringing an Indian restaurant to Nashville. And on Nov. 18, the doors finally opened.
Located in the old Rooster’s Barbecue space across from 12th & Porter (and formerly the Café 123 space), Chauhan, who grew up in the Punjab province of Indian, has turned up the heat in both flavor and décor.
While the brick walls and jewel-toned lanterns make for an ambiance that feels both comfortable and downtown swish, the menu reflects an India-meets-the-American South vibe.
We started with a Saffron-Cardamom Ale brewed especially for the restaurant by Cool Springs Brewery and mussels tikka masala in a creamy tomato-fenugreek broth best left for sopping with pieces of naan.
A beet-cauliflower croquette with black-eyed pea and collard curry followed as well as lamb with almond sauce (more sopping), tomato rice and lentil papadum. But the most creative presentation came with Chauhan’s “Ode to Nashville,” a meat and three stacked in a tiffin carrier, a metal lunch boxes popular in some Indian cities for delivery to workers midday.
After dessert, which included a chai tea service and Bhappa Doi Pot De Crème with hibiscus jelly, candied ginger and nan-khatai cookies, Chauhan visited tables with Chef de Cuisine Vasisht Ramasubramanian. She seemed in a celebratory mood to finally be welcoming guests, but this first was certainly worth the wait.
The Farm House
210 Almond Street
The bar at The Farm House on a Thursday evening brings together a merry mix of conventioneers and locals. Located in the bottom of the glass Encore building downtown, the restaurant helps root the place with its warm, wooded walls and hearty, comfortable food.
Chef/owner Trey Cioccia, a Wilson County native with Italian heritage, creates a menu that reflects his upbringing and stays true to a farm-to-table philosophy including dishes like pork belly carbonara. “I told all my farmers, anything you’ve got that you need to get rid of, we’ll take it,” he says.
But with a downtown dining mix that includes about 65 percent locals to 35 percent out-of-towners, he has the challenge of keeping two different audiences intrigued.
While the tourists at a Southern farm restaurant might expect the deviled eggs, which he offers with bits of country ham and chow chow, to pimento cheese, locals insist he keep some dishes on the menu for consistency such as the cornbread and his sous vide rather than fried version of a hot chicken.
Regardless of other new restaurants opening in the last year nearby, Cioccia said he celebrated his busiest week just after Labor Day and about a month before his first year anniversary in October. Perhaps indicating that the appetite for new restaurants has yet to be sated in town, he added that since that week, business has yet to slow.
While he “played it safe” with menu items in the first year of business, he hopes to challenge diners in the year to come.
Cioccia indicates that a new rabbit dish on the menu sold out over a recent weekend and a snack of pig ears, a dish that’s challenging to some diners, also did well. Cut into strips and served like fries, the crispy ears are tossed with a sweet and sour sauce.
And just like the mix of classic and newer dishes on the main menu, pastry chef Emma Hofland offers a comfortable old-fashioned blondie dessert as well as a dainty (and gluten free) orange cake chock with bits of rind lending texture and bright flavor.
700 12th Ave. S.
Shimmering light from a massive Bruce Munro fixture dangling from overhead cuts through the sexy dark of this new space at the bottom of the Terrazzo building in The Gulch.
On the night before its official opening, a DJ pumped tunes from a second floor nook overlooking the dining room and next to a glassed-in room of what seemed like endless rows of wine bottles. (It actually holds 3,000 for the restaurant and a private wine club.)
For sure, this spots feels more Vegas than Nashvegas with its grand but urbane air, clean lines and dark wood. A commissioned piece of art by Buddy Jackson stretches across the length of the open kitchen, but inside that bustling space, works the man who keeps this spot rooted in honest cooking.
Chef Salvador Avila hails from Columbia, Tenn. He brings with him a Mexican heritage and varied experience from City House, 360 Bistro and Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. The menu as a result includes many shareable plates such as grilled octopus with olives and orange zest as well as main entrees of grilled swordfish, steaks, house-made chorizo and lamb osso bucco with harissa.
At the party, Avila said he hopes the restaurant and its food bring to Nashville a “fine-dining atmosphere with the feeling of being at home.”
“Even though you dress up and know you’re going somewhere fancy, you get here and relax. And share. And get a little dirt on the table cloth and not worry about it,” he says.
Having a menu that brings together European and Latin vibes, it’s also clear that he drew from his time in Europe walking the Camino de Santiago through France and Spain.
“I picture people sitting down and sharing food and enjoying the moment,” he adds. “I see myself doing that when in Europe and Spain and cooking for strangers, and we’re all tired from walking 20 miles a day. I’d make this big meal, and we have time together and that feeling of community and sharing, I love that.”
And I can’t wait to return to Prima and share with friends, too.
604 Gallatin Ave.
The back room of POP Nashville, where the “Dinner and DJ” event had commenced, the decor includes not much more than stark white walls and a few strings of colored lights overhead. If you didn’t know the context of this space off Gallatin in East Nashville, you might think it a house party in your coolest friend’s garage. Or an empty gallery space in Paris. After all, the art in the room isn’t hanging -- it comes from the people who make up the party, the food on the plates, and on this night, DJ Dan Wilcox visiting from L.A.’s KCRW.
Sarah and Brad Gavigan opened POP Nashville in March as a space for Sarah’s Otaku South as well as special events and other pop-up restaurant ventures. Dinners have included a regular weekend event called Actual Brunch by local chef Dan Forberg as well as visits by highly regarded chefs such as Andy Ricker of Pok Pok in Portland and New York City and Dominique Crenn of San Francisco. Local pastry chef Tony Galzin hosted a pie-making demo recently, and Hayden Forsee hosted a dinner of Tapa y Paella on Saturday, Nov. 15.
But for the Dinner and a DJ event, the first in a series by the same name with a rotating group of DJs and menus, the food came from house chef, Daniel Herget. He moved to Nashville from Miami about three months ago and said he was drawn to the collaborative, open spirit of Nashville that he had not experienced in Florida.
And indeed, that spirit is alive at POP as it opens its doors for all types of cuisines. The chef served sumac-encrusted cobia over risotto as well as beef with smoked pumpkin puree, broccoli rabe and a dessert of mint financiers.
And with the cakes and plates barely cleared from the tables, a diner in crop top climbed onto one of the patio tables to dance as others passed around bottles of saki for swigging or pouring into white cups indicating that the night – and POP Nashville – are just getting started.
Margot Cafe and Bar
1017 Woodland Street
When we arrived at Margot Cafe, guests waiting for tables spilled out the front door, and took up every seat in the foyer and along the busy bar. Margot McCormack herself greeted us at the door.
“The polar vortex is coming,” she said, ticking off reasons for the busy brunch.
But inside, the energy of this happening brunch along with some spiked hot cider, perhaps, kept the place tingly warm.
We took our seats near the kitchen where servers and chefs moved in a nonstop motion delivering plates of poached eggs over polenta with lamb sugo and sunny side up eggs over grilled bread with arugula, bacon and parmesan.
While the menu at Margot always changes to reflect seasons and fresh produce, there’s comfort that comes in knowing that some items fall into familiar categories. The next to last item on the brunch menu usually offers a savory break from eggs (like a fried flounder sandwich on house bun with house chips) and the last item often presents a sweet treat like pancakes with house-made raspberry preserves.
As with those familiar patterns, Margot also has been a fixture in the neighborhood for 13 years having opened the doors long before East Nashville became a hot spot. If this brunch is any indication, the restaurant will be at it for years to come.
Just before closing for the day, bartender Brian Jackson finally had a moment to catch his breath. “It’s been busy since the doors opened on Thursday,” he says.
Given so much changing and so many additions in town, that’s a healthy place to be.
*In the food business, being “in the weeds” means being super busy. And that’s also how we would describe Nashville’s booming restaurant scene. In this column, Jennifer Justus, journalist, author and food culture writer, keeps us up to date on food, dining out and trends with bi-weekly reports from the table.