Writer, food critic and StyleBlueprint friend Kay West is back today, discussing more about our fair city’s fabulous food scene!
IS NASHVILLE THE NEXT CHARLESTON?
Something that may have gone unnoticed in the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau euphoria (and everyone else’s head scratching) over Conde Nast Traveler’s pick of Nashville as one of the 5 Best Cities in the World to Visit in 2013 was another glowing come-hither to our town published in the Charleston City Paper, the Holy City’s terrific alt-weekly. Here writer Robert Moss asks if Nashville 2013 is poised to take the restaurant relay baton from Charleston 2012 and zoom to the top of the country’s food chain.
This is not just another glib “40 is the new 30, blue is the new black, grits are the new polenta” trend piece. Moss offers a thoughtful overview of the scene in both cities, though his insight into Charleston, where he lives, is more informed than that of Nashville. It’s an engaging and entertaining read and pays respect to Nashville’s rich food heritage. Yet I don’t necessarily agree with his statement that “2013 will witness the rise of Nashville, Tenn., as the South’s premier culinary city.” (Please, Butch Spyridon, hold your fire until I finish…)
Let me confess to two major holes in my personal culinary profile. 1) I’ve never been to Charleston. Tragic but true, and inexcusable given the easy access by car or plane. I’ll blame the overwhelming logistical responsibilities of single mothering. 2) I haven’t eaten at the Catbird Seat. Not tragic, but sad. I’ll blame the overwhelming fiscal responsibilities of single mothering.
Nonetheless, I have some creds to draw from when it comes to reflecting, analyzing and pontificating on edible matters. I spent my formative exploratory adult dining years in New York City, arguably the greatest restaurant town in the world. When I moved to Nashville in 1981, I cried when someone took me to The Spaghetti Factory after I told them I was craving Italian. Likewise my first piece of pizza from Mr. Gatti’s left me in the depths of despair. Until Shalimar opened in 1990, I drove to Atlanta for Indian food and contemporary fashion. I was among those crammed into tiny little Koto for the city’s first sushi when it opened in a grungy cinder block building at the foot of the Shelby Street Bridge. My visits back to New York were veritable gorge-a-thons; I was starved for something beyond the fern bar concepts like Ruby Tuesday and Friday’s, so popular and common here then (and, like bad pennies, back again). When I discovered hot chicken, first at Colombo’s and then at Prince’s, I was ecstatic.
I began reviewing restaurants for the Scene in 1992 and continued on a weekly basis through the end of 2006. I feel like the Nashville restaurant industry and I grew up together, and there were some definite growing pains the first few years. But I was fortunate to have a front row (or back against the wall) seat to watch the evolution and maturation of our town’s changing and maturing eating habits, fueled by independent locally and/or chef-owned restaurants; the explosion of the ethnic population in Nashville and the flavors, product and influences they brought us; and the growth of the local food movement, small farms, CSAs and satellite farmer’s markets. I often regret retiring from weekly reviews just as things were really heating up, but was content to find a more manageable monthly home in Nashville Lifestyles.
Though I was – and remain – perplexed by Nashville’s fondness for big chain restaurants (why Cheesecake Factory over Table 3? Why California Pizza Kitchen over Porta Via? Why Five Guys over Burger Up or Gabby’s? Why Maggiano’s ever?) over the last two decades, now there is far more to be proud and excited about than disappointed over.
The development of urban neighborhoods like East Nashville, Sylvan Park, Hillsboro Village, Germantown, 12South and The Gulch owes much to brave and under-financed restaurateurs and chefs willing to make investments of their own money, time and talents in uncharted territories; lately SoBro, Midtown and Melrose have followed their lead. Pop-up restaurants are all the buzz, and so much fun to catch solo-flying visionaries as they try out their ideas on curious and enthused eaters.
Nashville chefs including Tandy Wilson, Tyler Brown and those cats from the Catbird Seat (did I mention I haven’t been?) have garnished their resumes with some nice national press, and chef Kevin Ramquist keeps pioneering with independent F. Scott’s fresh and inventive menu in their 26th year. Locally-made buttermilk, beer, bourbon, chocolate, marshmallows, pasta, pastries, bread, butter, wine and cheese can fully stock a locally-sourced pantry, fridge and bar.
The Godmother of Nashville Kitchens, Deb Paquette, made a welcome encore on the street level of SoBro’s Encore building in the sleek new Etch, where her Moroccan-flavored dishes offer exotic alternatives to the earthy farm-to-table theme filling so many plates of late. Slipping in under the radar at the end of the year was Rolf and Daughters, the first restaurant in reclaimed Werthan Mills and the best reason to key 700 Taylor Street into your iPhone. Opened by Chef Philip Krajeck, who left WaterColor on the Gulf Coast for Germantown, R&D offers “modern peasant food” with Northern Italian and Mediterranean influences in a cozy brick and wood room.
Last January, ebullient chef Chef Bob Waggoner—who left Wild Boar in 1997 for the Charleston Grill—renewed his passport to Music City when he was challenged to steer the listing Watermark ship back on course. By all accounts he made quick work of the task and it’s smooth sailing again at The Gulch’s top tier restaurant. (On January 20th, Chef Bob, the Charleston Grill’s Michelle Weaver, Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad, and Watermark’s own superb Sam Tucker cook a four-course meal for Louie’s Kids that you should resolve to attend. Click here for details)
And speaking of ChuckTown luminaries, just as the first of the spring harvest is being pulled from the ground, Chef Sean Brock will be pulling back into town. What’s that, you say? Sean Brock? THE Sean Brock? The James Beard ‘Best Chef Southeast’ and creator of Charleston’s Husk, Bon Appetit’s ‘Best New Restaurant in America 2011’ Sean Brock?
If the name rings a bell closer to home, it’s because he was once ours. Nashville’s relationship with Brock can be timelined back to Valentine’s Day 2003, when the century old Hermitage Hotel revealed its $20 million renovation in a gala celebration that also introduced the 24-year-old culinary wunderkind to whom they had entrusted the hotel’s entire food operations and re-invention of the iconic, if slightly tired Hermitage Grille.
It was a bit of a rocky start. The local daily inexplicably sent their food critic to review the new restaurant that night—not only opening night, but Valentine’s night, every kitchen’s operations nightmare. Not surprisingly, her experience was uneven. Unfortunately, her negative critique was based on that visit, a write-up that was devastating for young Brock in his first post as executive chef in a very high profile position.
Brock famously overcame that bump, and in three years his mix of traditional southern comfort fare and avant-garde molecular gastronomy inspired a fervid local following and national attention as one of the most exciting (and obsessed) young chefs in the South.
It was only a matter of time before he left us, but the news in the early spring of 2006 that he was packing his knives and heading east was still painful. Not long after he bid farewell to his kitchen staff–handing over the reins to his sous, Tyler Brown, who has not only held the high bar but raised it–and unloaded his tubs of immersion circulators and chemicals in the kitchen of Charleston’s McCrady’s, that I got a call from the Charleston City Paper asking if I would write a piece on what they might look forward to from Chef Brock.
Despite the fact that it seemed like being asked by the boyfriend who just dumped you to write him a letter of recommendation to his new girlfriend’s family, I agreed. After all, I had spent three years eating his glorious food; I might as well send him off with a fond fare-thee-well. You can read it here: www.charlestoncitypaper.com.
After he left me, I mean us, I continued to follow the arc of his career–the stellar reviews for McCrady’s, the feverishly anticipated opening of Husk in December 2010 and its role in affixing Charleston as the epicenter of the Southern Food Movement, his own ascent to international celebri-chef, the countless awards. So of course, I was thrilled by the news last fall that his restaurant group will be taking over the Victorian mansion at 37 Rutledge St. (briefly the address of Andrew Chadwick’s) to open some iteration of Brockism. (Maybe he and Waggoner, who also splits his time between here and there, as Brock will, can timeshare a pied-à-terre.)
Is Nashville poised to be “the next Charleston”? Though it’s a flattering theory, I hope not, just as I never wanted us to be “the next Atlanta” or “the next Charlotte,” two below-the-Mason-Dixon metropolises often mentioned in years past as emerging southern cities to model ourselves on.
I’m as proud as any native to be distinctly and uniquely Nashville, a city where past and present contribute to now and next. In the 32 years I’ve lived here, I’ve been witness to the new Nashville emerging every day, every week, every month, every year, around every corner, in some surprising places—East Nashville, The Gulch, Nolensville Road, Germantown, 12South and, bubbling up, SoBro and Marathon Village. Eventually they weave themselves into the fabric of the old and new Nashville, and we are all the richer for it.
When it comes to dining trends and the next big thing, I found myself much more on the same page with Robert Moss in this article, where he ponders the proliferation of a broader pan-Southern cuisine that softens the distinctions between Charleston, Birmingham, Nashville, Memphis, Louisville, New Orleans and Atlanta into something more homogenized. He does not applaud that direction and neither do I.
From Prince’s Hot Chicken to Catbird Seat, from Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint to Margot Café, from Arnold’s Country Kitchen to Flyte World Dining, from Hacienda Taqueria to Sunset Grill, there is no place else like Nashville and we should celebrate that rather than emulate somewhere else.
And Sean, all is forgiven! See you soon in NowVille!
*Note: “NowVille” was coined by GQ in this article on Nashville.
For the last 26 years, Kay has been a freelance, professional writer for local, regional and national publications, as well as doing significant writing for the music industry. She continues to write features for the Scene (where she was the weekly restaurant critic from 1992-2007), as well as The City Paper, she writes the monthly restaurant column for Nashville Lifestyles and is Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com. She has written for TV Guide, InStyle, Glamor and USA Weekend. She has also written five books: How To Raise a Gentleman; How To Raise a Lady and 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know, part of the Gentle Manners series for Thomas Nelson; Around The Opry Table: A Feast of Recipes and Stories from the Grand Ole Opry; and Dani’s Story: A Journey From Neglect to Love.
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