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Scandinavian Approach Meets Southern Warmth at Nashville's The Catbird Seat

Trevor Moran arranged a few starry white onion flowers atop the plates he was finishing, and then he scooted them over to our group’s corner of The Catbird Seat’s three-sided, twenty-seat counter. “Tomatoes with very old ham,” he announced. To magnify their essence, Moran and his cooks lightly brined and dried the tomatoes for two days, until their color turned bloody but the texture remained lush. They shaved on grizzled specimens from The Hamery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; it looked like rousong (a.k.a. Chinese pork floss) and tasted, pleasantly, of mineral and funk. Tomato water flavored with tomato vinegar and lemon verbena oil created a fragrant moat.

Many elements, but their combined effect was direct: It embodied the moment in the South when balmy days yield to cool evenings, and the grassy smell of changing seasons floats in the air.

Pork with apples and matsutake mushrooms in chicken broth

Moran, a native of Ireland, has grasped the gist of his new home in a remarkably short time. For four years he cooked at Noma, working his way up to sous chef, before moving to Nashville. After apprenticing at The Catbird Seat for six months, he replaced departing chef Erik Anderson in January. Anderson—along with Josh Habiger, who left The Catbird Seat to help run the new dining and entertainment complex Pinewood Social (the two share owners)—earned raves almost as soon as the restaurant opened in 2011. They had stints at Alinea, Noma, The French Laundry, and The Fat Duck between them, and they created wizardly tasting menus that mashed local and global flavors with modernist wit. Their most famous creation was often the meal’s first bite: an ode to Nashville hot chicken in the form of fried chicken skin seasoned with sorghum, Korean chile flakes, dill powder, and a winky puree of Wonder bread.

Left: Cobia in sweet potato broth, Right: Ice cream salad with sorrel

The city’s restaurant boom has already detonated, but Anderson and Habiger’s daring achieved another level of cachet altogether. No one in the sweep of the country between Washington DC’s Minibar and Houston’s Oxheart had previously pulled off this kind of high-minded cuisine. It succeeded in part because Nashville is a city of performers. Two chefs preparing dinner center-stage in an intimate space and then delivering theatrical (and delectable) dishes to a counter-side audience? The format resonated.

Thrillingly, Moran stepped into the spotlight and has made the platform his own.

Thrillingly, Moran stepped into the spotlight and has made the platform his own. He bandies his share of culinary bons mots—whipped fondue spiked with PBR comes in a cone made from crushed bar nuts, a hillbilly homage to Thomas Keller—but he uses his Noma training to stunning effect. For tartare, he blends dry-aged strip loin with grains like quinoa, buckwheat, forbidden rice, and sourdough bread crumbs; dapples the mixture with blackberries for sour-sweetness and green peanut oil for richness; and decorates the bowl with citrus begonias that, beyond their beauty, also lend a rhubarb-like astringency. He simmers small potatoes just to the edge of tenderness, and then serves them in a broth buoyed with ale yeast from local Yazoo Brewing Company, thickened with smoked bread, and smoothed with crème fraîche.

Here, at last, is the restaurant in America that doesn’t get too caught up in the austere facets of the New Nordic aesthetic. Light, clean, subtle Scandinavian approach meets florid Southern warmth: This marriage of opposites will stick.

Our three-hour meal blazed by in a hum of interactivity. The cooks kept us engaged in descriptions and conversations, but not so much that it distracted from the pleasures at hand—literally. Much of the food is eaten without utensils; it would have been wonderful if the staff had presented hand towels when the evening started. For a superb finale, pastry pro Kelly White assembled discs of moist cake arranged with last-of-the-season blueberries from Saskatchewan (far superior to most Southern blueberries, so I didn't mind the distance these traveled), elderflower spheres, and orbs of cucumber.

The cooks kept us engaged in descriptions and conversations, but not so much that it distracted from the pleasures at hand—literally.

A refreshing closer, but there was one more dish to come. Kartoffelkage is a Danish pastry. The word means "potato cake" but refers to the shape; there are no spuds in the original recipe. In a nod to his Irish heritage, Moran added it by whipping mashed potato as part of an airy custard that he piped into an tuber-shaped choux pastry glossed with marzipan. I usually wince at edible soil, but this number did look awfully cute sitting in a paper bag on a bed of crushed cookies with cocoa nibs, powdered trumpet mushrooms, and tonka beans. It was a spectacle worthy of the most insatiable Southern sweet tooth and yet tidily summarized all the influences thus far in Moran's ascending career.

Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North 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

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