Since the late 2000s, Nashville has been luring in the food world with a spate of new restaurants that celebrate the traditional South but also blend in chefs’ pluck and global influences. Who got the banquet rolling? The region’s food writers point to Tandy Wilson and his City House, which opened in late 2007. He previously worked for Nate Appleman, then at Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena, California, and Margot McCormack, a Nashville chef who leans to French and Italian cooking but was also an early adaptor of the locavore credo. Wilson found his own space in a former artist’s studio on a quiet stretch in the city’s Germantown neighborhood. His first menus skewed Italian—charcuterie, pastas, pizzas—but soon wove in more and more Southern influences.
Now Wilson’s kitchen turns out best-of-both-world twists like a take on frico, the Italian parmesan crisp. This one uses potato as a textural base, with a Tennessee cheddar made of buttermilk broiled into a golden, crinkly layer of molten debauchery. Seasonal salads provide the caloric antidote. An early fall spread included pole beans and field peas with red onions and pickle dressing (the dirty martini as vinaigrette); half-moon zucchini slivers in tomato dressing with crunchy bits of bread somewhere in size between crumbs and croutons; and a simple, striking presentation of grilled octopus on a bed of cucumber slices with pickled chiles and mint.
Most winning among the entrees was catfish encased in toothy cornmeal crust, scattered with field peas, and lit up with lemon conserva and garlic.
Pastas arrived covered in webs of melting pecorino strands. Gnocchi fashioned from cornmeal startled at first: The chew was denser than normal, but I came to appreciate their affinity for the dumplings simmered with greens in the South. Rigatoni with lamb looked more squarely to the Mediterranean, with blasts of cinnamon and black pepper that recalled the Arab influences in Southern Italian cuisines. Tangy cottage cheese made from buttermilk provided a novel base for pizza, matched with shards of delicata squash for contrasting sweetness and red onion for sharpness.
Most winning among the entrees was catfish encased in toothy cornmeal crust, scattered with field peas, and lit up with lemon conserva and garlic. If the restaurant’s cross-current style sounds appealing, consider Wilson’s next-level Sunday Supper, when the kitchen truly lets it rip with earthy enticements like scrapple, trotter soup, tripe stew, and pizza topped with ricotta and okra.
The last time I ate at the Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel, a columned Beaux Arts building constructed in 1867, Sean Brock was in the kitchen. It was early 2006, and Brock, only 27 years-old, was deep into a molecular gastronomy phase. His modernist tasting menu was separate from the restaurant’s standard menu and could be requested only through Brock’s personal blog. Out came courses like sous-vide lobster on strips of cara cara orange peel (a server poured over hot water to release their fragrance) and pork belly steeping in wood smoke under glass. Gellan gum was used wantonly.
Brock departed soon after for McCrady’s in Charleston—and of course seven years later he circled back to Nashville with the second location of Husk—but few chefs had attempted modernist cuisine in the South. His then-psychedelic meal among the hotel’s grand arches and butterscotch lighting stayed with me.
Brown helps tend both the farm’s organic garden and a herd of Red Poll cattle that supplies the Capitol Grille with beef.
In keeping with the more recent Southern food renaissance, Tyler Brown, Capitol Grille’s current chef, channels his ingenuity into the land. In 2012 the hotel purchased 250 acres of countryside, which it named Double H Farms. Brown helps tend both the farm’s organic garden and a herd of Red Poll cattle that supplies the Capitol Grille with beef. His menu is necessarily broad in the way of most hotel restaurants (the style is billed as "Southern steakhouse"), but he and his team bring finesse to dishes like an herbaceous salad of corn, charred cauliflower, and cherry tomatoes at their bursting peak, or meaty quail with cranberries and pumpkin puree.
Southern food maestro John T. Edge turned me onto the Capitol Grille’s truest glory: sausage and biscuits at breakfast. The buttermilk biscuits—fluffy but not flimsy and with golden, buttery crowns—are textbook. But the meat transcends easy labels. It’s a variation known as "sock sausage," in which cooked ground pork seasoned with sage and chile flakes ages briefly in muslin before smoking under low heat for seven days. Tyler developed the recipe with the late Southern food and social justice writer John Egerton, and he serves the sausage sandwiched between biscuit halves in gravy laced with mustard to complement the piquant, campfire flavors. It beats the hell out of chicken and waffles.
ARNOLD’S COUNTRY KITCHEN
Before diving into Nashville’s buzzy dining scene at dinner, have lunch at one of its institutions. Jack Arnold bought the meat-and-three (as in, a cafeteria-style restaurant where diners typically order a plate that includes a protein and three side dishes) where he was employed in 1987 and grew it into the populist destination it is today. Arnold’s wife Rose and son Kahlil now largely preside over the place.
A Nashville friend suggested a rendezvous at 11 a.m.; I wondered why so early until I saw the trail of people winding into the parking lot by 11:30. By then we’d already moved through the line, our red trays crowded with plates. Pepper roast beef carved to order is the house specialty, as are the don’t-miss turnip greens simmered with ham hock. Other menu items like fried catfish, meatloaf, liver and onions, fried green tomatoes, and creamed corn rotate through the week. The old Southern yarn that "mac-and-cheese is a vegetable" definitely applies here. Plush yeast rolls will tempt, but cornmeal hoe cakes flipped fresh on the griddle evoke an even stronger sense of place.
Wisely, the restaurant positions desserts at the front of the line so you’ll nab one hungrily before you get to the savories. Peach pie featured ripe, end-of-the-season fruit, but its billowy white garnish wasn’t whipped cream. We badgered Kahlil Arnold about it until he brought out a refrigerated carton labeled "non-dairy topping." He said, "People love it so we’ve never thought to change it." Who’s to argue?
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison