Thursday, January 15, 2015

When Giants Stumble

All photos © 2015 Mary Brace
   One of Nashville's pre-"It City" culinary landmarks announced they're closing their doors recently, via an article in the Tennessean. Initially I felt the move reflected the restaurant's inability to remain competitive in the city's ever-changing landscape, but on further reflection, perhaps the choice to give our local daily the news scoop, rather than go directly to eaters via social media, reflects how Sunset Grill, like many of the best known and loved restaurants when I moved here in 1994, made a willing choice in not recognizing the changing nature of Nashville's population fluctuations and swells.

Admission: I never ate at Sunset Grill. Early on, my first summer in Nashville when I was still blissfully unaware and about to be informed about the town's unspoken dress codes, I wandered in and was immediately gobsmacked by how out-of-place my grungewear was amidst the lamé. Not that there's anything wrong with lamé (in Nashville): but it was pretty obvious I was in the wrong place. When my friend and I hit the ladies room to mull over our next move, a well-intentioned woman fixing her eye shadow suggested we try The Villager Tavern. We did. And there was much relief in the land.

I never went back to the Sunset Grill because it just wasn't my kind of place. The experience left the permanent impression that it was much more a social place than a fantastic food place. About a year ago I was preparing a database of Happy Hour specials around town, and was surprised to read Sunset Grill was integrating local/regional food sources. Perhaps it came too late, and the information didn't make it to the awareness of diners who support local food and who might have better supported the restaurant for doing so. The modern food movement of eaters who want local and organic along with excellent preparation, combined with Nashville and Davidson County's changing demographics creates a huge challenge to restauranteurs whose businesses have flourished in the past, simply by being in the city's main areas of commercial development. But considering how much of Tennessee is devoted to agriculture, in no way should the challenge be insurmountable.

Prior to the moves that made us an "It City," simply being downtown, midtown, Hillsboro Village, or Green Hills/Belle Meade meant nearly immediate access to a sizable population with plenty of disposable income. Restauranteurs didn't have to knock themselves out to present world-class meals as long as no one else was trying to meet the demand — and what demand there was, was mostly confined to their already established turf.

The first restaurant I found that challenged the status quo was Mad Platter, in Germantown. Well-prepared, minimally-processed food in an unpretentious setting where $50 bought you an evening meal that beat the socks off of the previously frozen stuff coming to the tables in Midtown and Hillsboro Village. Although the small core of Germantown was already gentrified at the time, Mad Platter was, for the most part, a "destination restaurant." There was nothing else in the area, yet. No Monell's, no Lazzarolli Pasta. No cupcakes. No Rolf. Meanwhile, in another part of town which was plenty developed, commercially, but home to few of the city's white middle & professional classes, La Hacienda opened on Nolensville Road and became a huge success story with a clientele that put Mexican day workers in the same lunch room as California-transplanted music industry players, on a daily basis. More and more wonderful ethnic restaurants of every kind and variety have increasingly lined Nolensville Road and its tributaries ever since La Hacienda opened in 1993.

And as I never went back to Sunset because of the social code, I know there are people in Southwest Nashville who never drive Nolensville Road, if they don't have to, for the same reason. Just, in reverse.

And then there's East Nashville, its explosion upon gentrification, and top notch culinary contributions. If you bought in early, you could have gotten a house for under $100k, easily, and if you bought in really early, make that $60k. $50k. And less. Even now, there are still plenty of homes running under $200k.

This is where the demographics come in, for real: although East Nashville real estate prices are now approaching insanity, after this month's mortgage payment there are still thousands more people under the age of 50 on that side of the Cumberland River who can afford a night out at Lockeland Table than there are in Hillsboro Village, where homes start at $350k. 

This trend is going to continue; as our population increases, it's going to have a growing percentage of diners with more experienced palates who can tell fresh food from frozen, and what was good enough to earn praise in Midtown in 1994 isn't going to make the cut if restauranteurs aren't willing to put the emphasis on what diners want in 2015.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sliding into The Slider House

It never hurts to walk into an eating establishment with low expectations, and mine certainly were on my first visit to Midtown's The Slider House. It rests on the ground floor of the building that houses the much larger Soulshine Pizza Factory, and shares an owner. I might not have made it in, at all, but my friend Rose Laycox, of What the Pho? had a MySceneDeal coupon so I was happy to be guest. It wasn't long at all before I returned as a paying client.

For apps Rose chose "Border Bites," fried onions & jalapeño peppers, and I ordered up the "Champagne of Beers Cheese Dip." I chose the wiser, as the queso was yummy and came with house-cut potato chips. The fried dish was nothing to write home about and its contents would probably have been more enjoyable sauteéd.

The sliders were a pleasant surprise for the most part. I opted for a Shotgun (cheddar on beef, with chili on the side), Muchacho and "Fanci Grilled Cheese" (smoked gouda, Swiss, cheddar, jack, and goat cheeses). I was expecting typical not-much-flavor burgers but these little guys actually did have the beef. It showed especially well on the Shotgun, but got overshadowed and overpowered on the Muchacho, which just had too much going on with habañero Jack cheese, pepper action, and avocado. Also, in most cases, the burgers weren't so well done there was no pink to be found in the middle.

On a subsequent visit, I added the Black & Blue and Old Hickory burgers to my palate. Both were enjoyable, with the B&B adding zing without overwhelming the burger. Old Hickory is reminiscent of Burger Up's "Woodstock" ie, adds bacon & bbq sauce.

 The grilled cheese consisted of a cleverly inverted bun and the four cheeses. It was mostly what I'd call "interesting" until getting to the center, where the goat cheese was prevalent enough in the mix to add strength to the bite.  The fries were a mixed bag. Fine the first visit, but on the second, I felt like I'd been given the bottom of the batch.

Approx $15 per person w/o alcoholic beverages

1907 Division St Nashville, TN
The Slider House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Burger Republic: Resistance is Futile

All photos © 2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved.
When I moved to Nashville no one would have conceived of Nolensville as any kind of foodie test market. It was completely rural: housing was sparse and you could drive from a strip mall just below Old Hickory Boulevard, on the city's south side, and not see a red anything until you got to the stop sign at Highway 96, 14 miles later.

Twenty years later, I'm sitting in Burger Republic's first satellite franchise restaurant in Nashville's Gulch, and it makes perfect sense that developers who took some of the greatest chances on area real estate for the 'work hard/play harder' crowd would seek eateries putting well-researched, high end comfort food on the local map.

Like Martin's BBQ, aficionados have been telling Nashvillians about Lennox Village's (a high density, mixed use development that sprang up in Nolensville a decade ago) Burger Republic for a few years.  BR didn't make it into Bon Apetit and other gastronomic authority publications, though. With one major change, they could easily join the undisputed Nashville burger kings. It just happens that change would also mean disrupting the marketing of their main product, and possibly their franchise ambitions. I'll come back to that after the breakdown:

Juiciness: 6. As you can see from the photo, not much there there.

Attractiveness: 10. OMG well it's beautiful. The brioche bun gives it a distinct look among Nashville burgers.

Flavor: 6. I made two visits to Burger Republic, because on the first occasion I ordered a burger that had various gourmet elements that I thought might be overshadowing an otherwise boring burger. For the second visit, I stuck to American cheese & lettuce to let the taste of the beef come through. It didn't. Really, it's the condiments — gooey cheddar, thick bacon and special sauce — that brought the action on my previous visit and this score is based on basic burger flavor, of which there isn't very much of, on its own.

Atmosphere: 7. It's a very neutral look inside. Dark booths, white walls, large screen TVs and a wall of taps. Good sized patio.

Digestivity: 10  One hour later, feeling good.

Overall: 7.

First, Burger Republic lovers, before you start thinking I'm cray-cray, know that the overall score is actually higher than the numbers add up to and average. That's because the sides, Truffled Tater Tots and Mac & Cheese, were delicious. I have no doubt the spiked shakes are also wonderful.

So ... about the beef. Burger Republic makes a big deal of its source, in Certified Angus Beef. There's a big sign on the wall outside the door. There's Certified Angus Beef swag, in the oversized steak knives. True hamburger lovers know, though, Angus doesn't matter in the burger world. Most connoisseurs would put it well behind local organic grass-fed anything, local grass-fed anything, and organic anything. In that order. In making that one switch, from a beef chosen for flavor and local freshness, rather than its ability to taste the same in Tennessee as it should in Vancouver, Burger Republic could transition from being a great place for a burger to being a great place for a great burger.

Burger Republic - The Gulch -
420 11th Ave S Nashville, TN

Burger Republic on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Treehouse: Late Night Playspace

All photos ©2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved
At first, it's difficult what to make of Nashville restaurant The Treehouse: the building has a decades-long history with a well-known musical family in Nashville. When the house was undergoing the transformation from fiddle wizard Buddy Spicher's living quarters to nephew Matt's late-night fine fare, there was a lot of excitement generated for the coming East Nashville opening.

Opening in the fall of 2013, The Treehouse restaurant has now had several months to work out its kinks and establish itself as the East Nashville equivalent to Firefly Grille in Green Hills: a place where many creative people will feel right at home in its funky surroundings. The interior is mostly reclaimed wood, floors and tables both. Lighting is low and warm; seating is a mix of small and large, communal dining, with a few chairs left at the bar which separates the kitchen from the diners. There's also a back patio that I didn't get a good look at because of a passing storm.

My understanding is The Treehouse started as a mostly tapas-style restaurant, so it's no wonder the opening course was the favorite for both myself and my companion. I went for the Home Fries, while she chose Plantains. I'm not a huge potato fan because of texture-to-starch issues or something, meaning, more often than not, potatoes in whatever softish form - french fries, baked, mashed, etc - don't feel good in my mouth. But these potatoes did and whomever hit on this particular formula for prep and cooking deserves applause, and that's not even about the additional seasonings.
The Plantains were also a winner. Prepared with black beans, crema and, hot sauce the bowl had a lot going on, sweet and hot, spice and mild.

From there, though, things went downhill. At the left is fried chicken served with summer veggies and pepper jam. The best thing about it was that the chicken had a perfectly golden, crispy skin. The flavor was just okay, and the overall impression I had, as an eater, was that this was a  rushed dish. In fact, for both myself and my dining companion, who was unimpressed by the Ratatouille, it was worth noting that the entrees came out within about 10 minutes of ordering. I don't expect freshly-made Ratatouille to come out for every order, no, but the veggies in the chicken dish were still hard, and not very flavorful.

For dessert I ordered a tray of marinated cheese that offered parmesan chunks in a light coating of citrus and spice, with Marcona almonds. The cheese was intriguing at first, but after 3 or 4 pieces it seemed less like dessert and more like someone's kitchen experiment.

My companion went back to the snacks menu and had molasses-covered pineapple that was tasty.

Overall impression is this: people who go to The Treehouse for the cool vibe and stick to the tapas-type fare are going to come away thrilled. People whose idea of fine dining includes a full meal, at prices that match the quality, will be dissatisfied.

 $$-$$$ 1011 Clearview Avenue Nashville, TN

The Treehouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Gringo Taco #2 - Chago's Cantina

All photos ©2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved
UPDATE: Nashville Scene is currently running a "MyScene Deal" with 50% off certificates. Click here to buy.

Chago's Cantina has to be one of the more quietly intriguing of the Gringo Taco series restaurants. First, its location alongside the heart of the Belmont College campus is enough to keep many Nashvillians away. On top of that it's a little hard to define; owner Chad Head unashamedly chucks authenticity out the garage door windows in favor of the multitude of flavors he picked up in Southern California, New Orleans, and various parts of Latin America. In so doing, he goes beyond the typical tacos/enchilladas/etc., and offers wider treats; the top two spots on the menu are given to Ceviche (raw fish, cured by citrus juices — think of it as Latin America's answer to Sushi)  and Salvadoran Papusas. For this trip, though, I stuck with the traditional ... after all, the main point of the Gringo Taco series is leaving the comfort zone one baby step at a time.

I started with Chago's Cantina Dip sampler. Although the initial chips and salsa that were delivered to me, upon being seated, would have been just fine as an appetizer (the smoky, red, house salsa is excellent and unique), I wanted to taste what else was up for grabs and am glad I did. The pico de gallo was okay; queso better than the average; guacamole was on the bland side for me, even after I tarted it up with some additional lime juice; the green sauce was stellar and had a kick, the waiter told me, that comes from the addition of ancho chiles.

As I was dining solo, there was no way I was able to finish all the sauces but what was left of the green sauce did come home with me, in a little cup.

For my main treats, I ordered a simple chicken taco and quesadilla. Both came with Chago's grilled and seasoned meat, the taco adding truck-style onions and cilantro, the quesadilla utilizing more of the yummy cheese dip.

 Of the two, I preferred the latter. Could be because I like cheese dip, or it could be that the flavors in it played better off of Chago's Cantina seasonings than the taco did.

Overall, I like the place, it's solid — although I didn't have anything that knocked my socks off, the food tastes very fresh. If it were closer to my neighborhood I'd be here more often, and would definitely play more with the international menu items. At Happy Hour prices, the margarita is fine.

Service was initially shaky. At one point, my waiter went missing for too long and I had to get up and leave the patio to find him inside. After that he shaped up and was much more adequately attentive for the rest of the meal.

Chago's Cantina on Urbanspoon

Chago's Cantina - $$ - 2015 Belmont Blvd Nashville, TN 37212

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Etch: ADD for Your Tastebuds

All photos © 2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved.
 Confession: I never made it into Zola. That restaurant, long loved by many Nashville Scenesters, offered something so hard to find among this town's more high-priced real estate — genuinely good, no-slouching, well-prepared, fresh food — that I failed to believe it truly existed. Likewise, when Etch first opened at the base of the Encore on Third & Demonbreun, and I saw chef Deb Paquette's partners included the owners of a West End place that never knocked my socks off, or probably any NY eater's for that matter, that didn't exactly scream "OMG must go!" to me. Now that I've finally been to Etch (it opened late in 2012), call me a late convert to the table. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I waited this long.

The first thing to like about Etch is the free valet. No messing around with $10 parking. There will be better things to spend your money on, and you will, trust me.

While I waited for my dining companion to arrive, I hopped into a seat at the front-of-house bar and ordered a Happy Hour cocktail ($6). The Bitter Lemon was exactly that. Tasty, though I was hoping for something more refreshing after a hot day at work; next time I'd try the Model T or hold out for one of the cocktails from the extended menu in the dining room. In there, I had one of Etch's "Smashes," a muddled-herb drink with cilantro, lime & tequila and was much happier with it. Ecstatic, really.

 The Happy Hour menu also included a number of appetizers priced at $8. We passed and waited to be seated. The restaurant features a modern theme, a lot of black and grey and muted shades. Muted light, too; window walls that meet a Southwestern exposure on a 90+ degree day are regulated by thick white shades. An open kitchen runs about 2/3 the length of the room, with bar seating for diners to watch all the action. I also spotted a private dining room behind more glazed window walls.

Not everything is muted. The photo above is of what must be the world's most talked about cauliflower dish. If not the world's, then Nashville's. Me and bitter veggies never got along well, but when you interact with a dozen or more people visiting Nashville as tourists or on business and the first thing they mention about a restaurant is its amazing cauliflower, you have to at least try it. I mean ... who the hell ever talks about cauliflower, who isn't a nutritionist?

And it's everything they say. Bitter? Can't taste any of that. If cauliflower is something that's always been on your hate list, even without the condiments there's nothing to purse your lips over. But with .... oh, my. Peas is another thing. If my mom had ever served peas the way Etch does, turned into pesto with truffle oil, I'd have eaten a lot more over the years. Also included is what would become the evening's other ubiquitous ingredient — red pepper pesto —and creamed goat cheese. My companion and I were both entirely wowed.

Your parents and grandparents would call it insane to have to order bread and butter as an appetizer, but this isn't your folks' butter. A sampling of four doctored butters was served with both slices, and rolls. The favorites were the sea salted/truffled (by now, you should get the idea that truffles and/or truffle oil is an Etch go-to) and peanut brittle/ginger butters.

 Our third appetizer was Tuna & Shrimp, which included a couple small but healthy portions of grilled tuna, a few pieces of large shrimp, greens, and a number of flavorful things to dip and smear each with, including a tamari sauce and blue cheese puree.

 Unadorned, the shrimp were fine and well-seasoned on their own and I would have liked this dish even more had the portions been reversed.

 One last bit of shared sampling before our entrees, we had Etch's charcuterie salad, a wonderful mashup of tempura mushrooms, duck sausage, and a couple different prosciuttos. All simple ingredients  in this dish, but toyed and tinkered in ways to bring out amazing flavors. Smoked things, pickled things, dehydrated things all packed a huge punch, especially when they were combined with the various purees.

In a lot of ways, it's Etch's condiments that make the meal so memorable. What starts out as already good food is made spectacular by all the things going on in your mouth as you munch away. 

Katafi pastry: spaghetti squash mixed in with 4-5 kinds of goodness, especially the barley mixture over the top. This item is not on the new summer menu. Etch keeps at least one vegetarian entree on the menu any given time.

Meat and potatoes? A tender, flavorful seven ounce filet sits over red wine gravy, with shredded asparagus over the top.

Unfortunately (?) we filled too much up on gotta-try appetizers to have any room left for dessert. But there's going to be a next time.

Etch on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Gringo Taco #1: The Local Taco

All photos ©2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved.
(In case you're wondering, the four month blackout is because my new day job — driving sedans for Metro Livery and doing Uber runs — comes with insane hours and there hasn't been proper time to sit down at the computer and bang stuff out.  But I have been out on new dining adventures and keeping the blog in mind; here's my first attempt at picking the pace back up:)

One of Nashville's many blessings is its immigrant community. Mexicans, Africans, Middle & Far Easterners, Slavs ... all contribute to our diverse offerings. Due to the state of class politics, however, many of the best ethnic restaurants in Nashville are contained to strips overly-polluted with billboards, used car lots, high-interest loan shacks and XXX shops that ward off many of our more image-conscious residents. As a result, there are a handful of what I call "gringo taco" restaurants around town, in the more fashionable areas where clientele and management/ownership are pretty strictly European/Caucasian types, fusing ethnic foods with Nashville sensibilities (ie, top shelf Margaritas & BBQ).

Some of them are worth going to, simply because they happen to be near where you live or work or play and you want cheese dip and a Margarita without having to drive far at all; some are worth a 10-20 minute "destination" trip because there's something they do very well and you're jonesing. The purpose of this series is to let readers know what the various Gringo Taco joints do well — or not.

Up first is The Local Taco, my personal favorite of the bunch. The Murphy Road location has a very casual "neighborhood" feel and I'd be comfortable here whether I was in sandals and cut-offs or business attire. Upon its initial opening the decor was a rustic white and blue theme, but the original location has since been repainted to follow the earth tones of its out-of-town offshoots (and perhaps to avoid confusion with an older chain that recently opened in Nashville, with those same colors).

What TLT does very well is their namesake: tacos, often made with locally sourced ingredients. I've had most of the tacos on their menu with the exceptions of fish and mushrooms, and just about all of them are abundant with memorable flavor. The biggest complaints you'll hear about TLT is they aren't packed enough with fillings. For lunch servings, particularly the basket deals (two tacos and one side for $7.50), I'd have to go along with that assessment although I would also reiterate: the small portions of meat are countered by plentiful flavor. Dinner portions seem to contain slightly more meat in the filling.

The pic at left comes from a lunch basket filled with delicious chorizo and Buffalo chicken tacos. The latter is one I'd heavily recommend. The blue cheese, cayenne sauced-chicken, and celery all play against each other with terrific results.

Other faves include Tequila Lime Chicken tacos; tangy and tender, with salsa verde and marinade juices dripping all over. 

The Local BBQ taco starts out with a tangy bite, then heat from chipotle sauce sets in over the smoked pork. You should also try the Smoked Brisket Taco.

The enchiladas don't look like much but again, flavor wins.

TLT is one of the restaurants that started an unwelcome trend: chips and salsa aren't a given, here. You order and pay for your choice: roja, verde, smoked black bean & corn, or pico de gallo. There's also a thick queso w/minced peppers you can lay into. Of the the five, the roja and the queso are most worth having but overall the salsas aren't something to write home about.

The other menu item that is, is their margaritas. House margs are made with Sauza gold and go down easy and tasty. On Mondays you get a dollar off, all day. Another plus is you get several dining options: indoor tables or bar, covered patio tables or bar, and uncovered patio. Pick your favorite atmosphere.

Nashville has two locations and another coming. Murphy Road in Sylvan Park, Pewitt Drive in Brentwood, and rumor has it an East Nashville shop is in the works, on Fatherland St. TLT serves "fast-casual" style: order in front of the house and get your drink, and they'll give you a numbered placard to put on your table. When the food's ready, the server will bring it out to you.

The Local Taco on Urbanspoon