Of course Nashville is famous for the music, and in fact the minute you step off the plane at the airport it is impossible to ignore the guitar motif that seems to be everywhere. However a lot of food writers and customers have noticed a marked improvement in the restaurant scene in music city the last few years, and on a visit a couple of weeks ago was more than surprised with the offerings.
All of the chefs I sampled are trying to do a multitude of creative things with their menus, and do not seem to be hampered in conforming to the surefire formulas that can hinder the originality of a restaurant. All of the restaurants visited had a real comfortable Southern ambience, with plenty of original art generously dotting the walls, and a relaxed atmosphere seldom scene in big city restaurants.
First up is a modern restaurant called Ombi, featuring two chefs creating some unique dishes. Kim Totzke seems to be the driving force here, and the 30ish woman seems particularly keen on foie gras and curries. The long bar is separated from the restaurant, creating a super atmosphere, especially for the eight course tasting menu for $75. It is also the only restaurant in Nashville with an advanced sommelier, and also a restaurant known for outstanding $9 cocktails.
A large appetizer of Curried Turkey Meatballs ($7), consisted of five of the little darlings served with Yoghurt Raita. Truffle Popcorn is another popular item here to start any meal, and others on our table tried the Cornmeal Crusted Oysters with a zesty BBQ sauce. Main courses here are equally creative, such as the Paella with Finfish and Shellfish in a spicy Tomato Broth over Saffron Rice or the Foie Gras stuffed Burger with Garlic Aioli and Caramelized Onions. Desserts are far more than afterthought here at $7, like the Chocolate Espresso Tarte and the Grand Marnier Crème Brulee. You can certainly eat well in Nashville.
The Sunset Grill in trendy Hillsboro Village, is full of Nashville’s movers and shakers having lunch, sometimes with their musical clients. The place also comes alive at night, and has recently been voted one of the best seafood restaurants in America by Spirit Magazine. It is also widely considered one of the top five restaurants in Nashville. However the Lump Crab Cake served with Ratatouille and Roasted Garlic Aioli was too mushy for my taste, and a better choice would have been the Duck Confit Cigar. This was served with goat cheese and walnuts in Phyllo Pastry, and ably accompanied Strawberry Port Jam and Horseradish Cream.
I much preferred the Voodoo Pasta, consisting of Chicken, Bay Shrimp and Andouile Sausage in a very spicy Black Magic Tomato Sauce with Fettuccini. Other interesting main courses on offer included the Avalon Acres Organic Half Chicken brined in sweet tea served with the wonderfully named Tennessee Buttermilk Cheddar tone Ground Grits, and Rosemary Beef Tips with Blue Cheese Bread Pudding and Aplewood Smoked Bacon. Round off a meal at the Sunset Grill with Jack Daniel’s Chocolate Pecan Pie and you will be set for the day. The restaurant is also well known for a superb wine list, and continues to be one of the places to be seen in Nashville.
The Acorn Restaurant is also a fairly new establishment, very eclectic in style and fronted by a chef who favors a mixture of dishes based on Southern favorites. Asian and Japanese food, Sea Food and Mexican. I tried the Grilled Salmon over Bourse Risotto, mixed Japanese vegetables all in a shrimp bisque and a Nicoise Olive tapenade. It mostly worked thanks to the bisque, and I wonder how my second choice of Hot Wasabi Green Pea encrusted Sushi-grade Tuna, pan seared on sweet Ginger Jasmine Rice compared. My fellow diner seemed to enjoy the dipping pool of Lemon Ponzu and Japanese Vegetables that came with the dish, so everybody was happy. Had to rush off to catch the Grand Ole Opry at the original venue of the Ryman Auditorium, and had to forego dessert.
A brand new restaurant that made a big impression is Mackes, located in a smart arcade in the Green Hills district, and the ultimate in relaxation. This is a very elegant restaurant that serves Southern Nouvelle Fusion cuisine, including totally unique sandwiches for lunch such as the signature Lobster that sells out every day, and a real steal for $12. The owner imported the chef from Ventura, California, and the change of scenery seems to have done wonders for him. Fruit or French Fries are served with the wraps, with the fries being the best I have tasted since visiting Feenie’s in Vancouver.
The Crab Cake Baguette ($13) was also a winner, two crab cakes with red onions and roasted red peppers, and just about the right size for lunch. The Mushroom Soup prepared with shitake mushrooms was freshly prepared allowing the mushroom flavor to come surging through. Desserts are excellent and prepared by a separate pastry chef, and it shows. Standouts include the key lime pie and raspberry cheesecake.
The place to try for breakfast is the Pancake Pantry, one of those places you have to queue up on weekends for about an hour before getting a table in the busy square shaped eaterie that has been a Nashville institution since 1961. Rumor has it that celebrities and country music stars have to wait in line like everybody else, but it seems highly unlikely that the likes of Faith Hill, Vince Gill or Dolly Parton would be doing that. It is more likely that they would be ushered in through the back door. Once inside they would be treated to a massive range of pancake and breakfast selections too numerous to mention, but try the Three Pigs in a Blanket, a humongous dish suitable for even the biggest eater.
Average price for a meal here is $7.
Mike HepworthDecember 2006