Worldeats — Nashville, Tennessee (Passport magazine)
Nashville may have a reputation for its music history, but any foodie or gourmand knows the restaurant scene is what makes the city truly special.
I have a weakness for Southern food. Give me buttery grits or a biscuit drenched in gravy, and it’s instant #foodporn. Southern food and I go way back; we have history. I grew up outside Atlanta, Georgia, where the Waffle House was my stomping ground as a teen. Raised in a Korean household, I ate ban chan and bulgogi almost every day and have no regrets. My mom was an amazing cook, but when she brought home a bucket of fried chicken, it was a miracle if the chicken bones survived. There was always a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce on the table at every meal, and it was mine. It would go on everything, especially when my mom cooked meatloaf with green beans or chicken-fried steak with sweet potatoes. It’s not far off the mark to say I learned to love food through Southern dishes. There’s a level of comfort and nostalgia with every meal, no matter where I am in the country, and it truly resonates with iconic chef Anthony Bourdain’s famous quote: “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”
Every time I plan a trip to Nashville, I arrange my itinerary around the restaurants I’ll dine at. Nashville may have a reputation for its music history, but any foodie or gourmand knows the restaurant scene is what makes the city truly special. Notable chefs have elevated Southern classics, yet you can still nom on nostalgic comfort food at a simple café. When I’m in town, I’m hashtagging #foodporn to an obsessive level, but it’s all warranted. Nashville offers some of the best Southern food in the country. Restaurants here also have heaps of personality, and foodies are treated with trademark Southern hospitality, which historically has revolved around a great meal. Nashville is also growing faster than any other city in the south, so visitors have more reason to eat their way through the city. Thompson, Westin, and 21c Museum Hotel have recently moved in, and Kimpton and Virgin are on their way. Complementing the expansion of the tourism landscape, the culinary scene (the real heart and soul of Nashville, in my opinion) gets better every year. It has the power to move you, inspire you and, like me, make you fall in love with food. From longstanding institutions to new, buzzing hot spots, the restaurants featured here are taking dining to the next level.
THE MOCKINGBIRD NASHVILLE
Nashville has the power to move you (quite literally), and, if I can’t convince you, Brian Riggenbach and Mikey Corona will. The gay couple from Chicago packed their bags, booked one-way tickets to Nashville in November 2016, and opened a restaurant, The Mockingbird. “We relocated to Nashville after a series of events that emanated from Brian’s debut on the Food Network’s Chopped (spoiler alert: he won!),” says Mikey. “One of the judges on the panel for his episode was a Nashvillian, Maneet Chauhan, who invited us to visit the bustling culinary scene of the South. We made a trip from Chicago to taste what we’ve been hearing about in Nashville, and we fell in love! It was very soon after the visit that we began planning our move to become part of the exciting scene.”
Brian and Mikey, who have been together for 13 years and married for 2.5 years, aren’t strangers to the restaurant industry. Mikey has more than 20 years experience (Brian, 16 years) and they owned/operated a successful catering company Yo Soy Underground Supper for seven years in Chicago. Their new venture, The Mockingbird Nashville, has quickly become a foodie fan favorite even though it’s only been open a couple of months.
In the vibrant Gulch neighborhood, the design of The Mockingbird Nashville is reminiscent of 40’s art deco with emphasis on rich woods, brass and stone, embellished with tons of greenery and flooded with natural light, so it’s already visually impressive. With their eye for art (Brian graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago with a focus on fine arts, and Mikey went to Columbia College Chicago with a focus on digital art), Brian and Mikey made the interiors warm and aesthetically commanding. They also commissioned an artist to fabricate an oversized, 3-D mirror in the shape of a bird’s head that is the focal point of the restaurant. Guests will also feel classic diner vibes, especially in the downstairs seating area (expect booths and banquets). From the upstairs balcony, you can get a (mocking) bird’s-eye view of the busy street below. “We wanted to take the neighborhood diner ‘feel’ and create an updated spin on classic comfort foods with global flavor twists,” says Brian. “The diner platform seemed to be the best to use as a jumping off point to add myriad flavors and give our unique culinary perspective.”
That perspective is the inspiration from their travels to Mexico, Europe, and India merging with their love for Southern food. “Unique” is an understatement when it comes to the imagination of their culinary creations. One of the signature dishes is The Bird is the Word, a fried-chicken dish where the country gravy is infused with homemade Mexican chorizo and brightened with a splash of cider vinegar. The perfect complement to the crunch is the soft mashed potatoes whipped with a housemade, roasted salsa verde. As someone who grew up eating Korean food, it was nice to see authentic Korean flavors merging with Southern flair (mishmashing is a Southern tradition, though I know Korean/Southern mishmash well from my upbringing). The Seoul Purpose takes a flank, bulgogi-style seared steak marinated overnight and served with a potato latke, topped with a fried egg and bulgogi jus. “It was paramount to make our dishes not only taste fantastic, but have a visually pleasing aspect as well. It is edible form and function!” says Brian.
Considering Brian and Mikey are one of very few gay restaurant owners in Nashville, The Mockingbird is destined to become a magnet for the LGBT community. They have already joined the LGBT Chamber of Commerce to get involved locally and make new friends, though that isn’t a problem in Nashville’s welcoming gay scene. “In Chicago we had quite a diverse following,” says Brian. “We hope to replicate that flock here as well!” 121A 12th Avenue. www.mockingbirdnashville.com
For a restaurant to have a strong impact on diners, it must aspire to serve great food that is a significantly memorable experience. This includes service, restaurant design, originality and a certain “wow” factor, and Husk goes the whole nine yards. Opened in 2013, Husk is that definitive Nashville restaurant where most foodies make a reservation before visiting (ideally, since reservations here are hard to come by on short notice). Husk is as glorious as it is important, and it’s credited for truly spearheading Nashville’s contemporary dining scene.
Executive Chef Sean Brock has a background most young chefs dream of having. He worked at AAA Four Dimaond Peninsula Grill in Charleston; AAA Five Diamond/Mobil Five-star Jefferson Hotel in Richmond; and AAA Five Diamond Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. He ran his own organic farm on Wadmalaw Island. He’s a two-time finalist for James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef, three times for Outstanding Chef, he won Best Chef Southeast (2010), and American Cooking (2015). When he opened Husk in 2011 (in Charleston), Bon Appetit magazine named it Best New Restaurant in America, and Esquire included Husk in their Best New Restaurants in America. He worked with Anthony Bourdain for season two of The Mind of a Chef on PBS. His cookbook, Heritage, is a New York Times best seller. Having a meal here isn’t just a dining experience, it’s being part of Sean’s legacy.
One of the most recognized chefs for elevated Southern food, Brock’s restaurant Husk is inside a historic, 1800’s mansion. It almost feels like a museum, but you can’t put a price tag on the Southern charm and precious décor. The design doesn’t take away from the dining experience, it enhances it. You feel transported in time thanks to its contemporary approach to Southern classics. The menu is an ode to Southern food history, and a testament to locally grown, farm-fresh, Low-country ingredients. Think sassafras-glazed pork ribs, perfectly seasoned, tender meat falling off bone, complemented with pickled peaches and Rev Taylor butter beans. A house-cured country ham is juicy and mildly sweet, served with acorn griddle cakes. You can’t not have catfish on a Southern menu, and cornmeal-crusted catfish, caught day of, is outstanding with sweet onion tartar sauce to play with flavor. Even the award-winning Husk cheeseburger with Bear Creek Farm beef and American cheese elevates the classic dish by grounding bacon right into the paddy. The toasted bun (buttermilk and benne seed) is steamed and pleasantly squishy. A special sauce mixes classic condiments (ketchup, mayo, mustard, pickles, and jalapeños), so diners don’t have to fuss with their own addition. There’s so much thought and love and execution put into the burger (only $14), it errs on masterpiece.
Perfectly refined and gorgeously plated, the dishes take comfort food to a level that doesn’t quite exist in Southern fare. It all goes down in an intimate (yet lively) atmosphere in a historic mansion. Now, that’s Southern hospitality, and right on brand at Husk. 37 Rutledge Street, Tel: 615-256-6565. www.husknashville.com
What makes an American city’s culinary scene often shine is the diversity of cuisine offered, particularly global influences. Ethnic food helps foster a destination’s identity, and it proves that cooks in the kitchen have exciting backgrounds from various walks of life. While Southern comfort food is the big draw in Nashville, ethnic food is also done well, thanks to a diverse community from multicultural backgrounds, which certainly has an impact on the food you eat. It’s exciting to see chefs explore international flavors, and even more so when they perfectly execute the cuisine.
Tansuo, which opened in March, is not only a great Chinese restaurant, it’s a bold adventure in East-meets-West cooking. Locals will be quick to say it’s the most authentic and “legit” Chinese restaurant in Nashville, and you can thank chef Maneet Chuahan for the exceptional dining experience. The celebrity chef who regularly appears on cooking shows and is a well-known author of cookbooks (not to mention that his popular dumpling spot, East Wind Snack Shop, in Brooklyn receives much fanfare). He made his Nashville mark with Chauhan Ale & Masala House, an award-winning, Indian inspired restaurant that gets plenty of love from locals who hanker for spice. Tansuo brings another arm of ethnic eats to Nashville. Tansuo(meaning “to explore” in Cantonese) is a lively spot reminiscent of China’s night markets and street food with elevated, contemporary Chinese cuisine, as well as impressionable décor where Chauhan brings his Asian heritage to the forefront. There’s a specific Feng Shui to the restaurant that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Nashville, including a purposeful use of circles (prominent in Feng Shui design), which represents “the circle of life” and breaks up angular structures. The décor feels like one large work of art with earth tones and warmth, and attention to the smallest detail (think: Abacus-structured railings and bamboo boards; artfully arranged stone tiles reminiscent of dragon scales; and handmade silk and bamboo lanterns for the perfect Zen ambience).
The dishes certainly impress, and that’s beyond the popular dim sum. The beef guy Lan, a mainstream American dish, infuses a number of spices, also introducing diners to Chinese broccoli and abalone. The perfectly seasoned crispy spring chicken is brined, hung, dried and stuffed with eel, roasted and bathed in oil, and carved to order. The gravy, a southern nod, adds a nice touch to the Chinese dish. What makes the meals stand out are bold, rich flavors, as you would expect for Chinese cuisine in general, but they’re also made with tons of love, which is apparent here, and a classic trait in Southern food. 121B 12th Avenue, Tel: 615782-6786. www.tansuonashville.com
I understand how cliché it is to say a restaurant is all about the experience, but a visit to Pinewood Social isn’t run-of-themill dining, and you’re not going just for the food. You’ll notice this as soon as you step inside the historic building, a former horse stable brilliantly transformed into a contemporary dining spot that demands your visual attention. The stylish aesthetics are Instagram-worthy (soaring high ceilings, neatly arranged tables surrounding a busy, central bar, low-hanging Edison bulbs for atmosphere). Just beyond the dining room, and part of the “experience,” is a modern bowling alley separated by a floor-to-ceiling window. Outside the left of the restaurant is a sun-drenched oasis of an outdoor garden (a magnet to the coolest cats in
towns), and a place that young parents tote their kids to the outdoor pool over the summer. It’s not unlikely to see Millennials with their laptops sitting in Pinewood Social’s café-style area (in the front), where a separate coffee/pastry bar serves up fresh brews and bites. At night, it’s also not unlikely for locals to saddle up at the bar and order imaginative craft cocktails conceived by award-winning mixologists. Pinewood Social went for the “lifestyle” jugular, and it’s been riding this high since opening in 2013. Locals and visitors alike come to dine, drink, work, and play.
Open all hours of the day (generally 7 A.M. to 1 A.M.), Pinewood Social isn’t just about being social. Chef Andrew Rodriguez expects diners to leave feeling inspired. With a background working at A Voce Madison and A Voce Columbus Circle in NYC, Andrew proves he can work magic with Southern food (also infusing his Italian background into several dishes). Mac & Cheese is actually an entrée here, a creamy creation with short rib, fontina, truffle oil, and breadcrumbs, and large format dishes (encouraging the social aspect) like fried chicken (in a bucket!) and meatloaf are crowd pleasers. The heaping portion of meatloaf, with braised collards and burnt apple, has distinct flavors with fried shallots and celery root purée. Among the highlights on the menu, the pastries are a stand out, like the rum raisin pie with orange whip cream and Bourbon caramel, and even the perfectly baked, double chocolate-chip skillet cookie will exceed the sugar rush you crave. Breakfast here is worth getting up early for. The Graceland is an interesting, sweet/savory dish with waffle, bacon, peanut butter mouse and fresh banana, inspired by the King and bringing all your favorite flavors into a nostalgifying (and delicious) dish.
It’s no surprise Pinewood Social is busy day and night. It’s part of Strategic Hospitality group, which has set a standard for dining in Nashville. Their portfolio of amazing restaurants and bars, like The Patterson House, The Catbird Seat, and Henrietta Red, have all garnered cult followings, without much effort. They’re reliable, affordable and bang out some of the more memorable dining experiences in town. 33 Peabody Street, Tel: 615-7518111. www.pinewoodsocial.com
GRAY AND DUDLEY
Hotel restaurants have come a long way in the hospitality industry, but they have been important to the dining scene in Nashville for decades. 21c Nashville, which opened in April, understands the importance of great dining, and it’s reflected in their restaurants across the hotel chain. While 21c Museum Hotels are known for their signature, world-class contemporary art museums, the restaurants are packed to the bone, serving up noteworthy dining in key locations like Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. One of the newer hotels to grace Music City, 21c Museum Hotel Nashville, in a historic 1889 Gray & Dudley building, pays tribute with its eponymous Gray & Dudley restaurant.
21c likes to bring people together (there’s plenty to discuss in their museums), and Gray & Dudley encourages social interaction with communal seating. Inspired by the Mediterranean, Executive Chef Levon Wallace takes his West Coast roots and blends it with Southern flare, cooking up dishes by traditional hearth cooking. Like most of the other restaurants, Gray & Dudley has given attention to farm-fresh, seasonal, market-driven menu, and diners will love playful plates like smoked catfish dip with house hot sauce and celery crackers, which is not only rich and flavorful, but who doesn’t love a good catfish dip? Shrimp noodles also reflect the fusion of Mediterranean, Southern and West Coast influence with jalapeño spaghetti, fennel soffits, and garlic-lemon crunch. Rather than fried chicken, Wallace focuses on a half-chicken with grilled bread, lemon, chicories, and pan gravy.It’s an explosion of global influences, which makes you feel like you’re dining at a California restaurant on the Mediterranean Sea under the Nashville sun. 221 2nd AvenueNorth, Tel: 615-6106400. www.21cmuseumhotels.com
This story was originally published inPassport Magazine.