Thursday, February 27, 2014

Burger Coda 7: Table 3 "You Can See Me On a Wednesday"

all photos ©2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved

At one time, not even that long ago, when we didn't yet hate suburbs with a passion, Green Hills was an acceptable destination for Nashville restaurant dining. People seemed happy with Shalimar, Indian food right on the Pike; Chinatown in one of the little side plazas; F. Scotts towered over it all as the grand dame and foundation of much good that got spread around town. As that long-loved haven prepares to shut its doors, Green Hills should be thankful the team is staying on with  Table 3.

I've eaten there a handful of times and always been pleased. On the occasions where there may have been a slight misfire, the overall experience showed a sincere effort to get things right. When you find yourself eating in a bistro that's serving up dishes with an average entrée price of about $21, the last thing in the world you want to be is that guy/girl who goes cheap for the burger.

Unless it's on Wednesday. Then you can go seriously cheap. No, like crazy cheap, and get one of the best burgers in Nashville — freshly ground, grass-fed, local, cooked to order — for an Abe. Not even Twin Kegs can top that.

Juiciness: 10 Well, just look at that plate! Moo.

Attractiveness: 6  Enough of the pretzel buns, already. On a good burger, they're a distraction from the main feature. I want to look at a burger and go, "wow, this looks like it's going to be really good," not, "oh, what an interesting bun."

Flavor: 8 This was the second time I've had Table 3's burger. Last time, it was much more medium and not at all rare, but both times, the flavor had a subtle brawny something going on underneath that pleases the tastebuds without overpowering. But if you like, ask your server to switch out the accompanying aoli for some mustard (Dijon, of course) and your burger almost becomes Sunday roast with horseradish.

Atmosphere: 8 Busy, casual upscale restaurant. Hard to argue with that. On one side of me was a mother and her ready-to-hit-the-half-pipe son, on the other, a pair of women who look like they got lost trying to find the theatre district, speaking in French. Yes, I know we don't have a theatre district. We don't have a half-pipe, either.

Digestivity: 10 No backlash or sluggishness at all on this puppy.

Overall: 8.5 ... BUT. On Wednesday, when you can get it (at the bar) for $5, the value added makes it a 10. Flat out.

p.s. - the Onion Soup would make a Canadian logger melt from homesickness.

Table 3 Restaurant and Market on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monell's: It's About the Vibe, Stupid

All photos © 2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved
There is a handfull of Nashville restaurants that baffle fine diners, who can't understand how an eatery with so-so food ever wound up on the must-eat-there lists of anyone. Today I decided to give my take on my favorite of those, Monell's.

Monell's seems like the quintessential "old Nashville" restaurant but it opened in 1995, a year after I moved here. Because of its pub-style seating, meat-and-three menus, and family style serving it's easy to imagine Monell's with a history stretching back much further than it does.

When you go to Monell's, if your party has less than eight people, expect to be seated with someone or someones who are about to become your new friends. The tables are big, and they like 'em full. This is not the place to choose for an intimate dinner.

It's a great place for diners who don't want to spend time debating over a menu. Each day you'll have the option of fried chicken and whatever other meat-du-jour is out there. Same with the veggies.

My most recent lunch visit featured the ever-present chicken, along with pulled pork and meatloaf. Veggies were green beans, some sort of rice casserole, some sort of potato casserole. Additionally, there was some stuffing out,  and potato salad and biscuits for starters.

 As you can see from my plate, to the right, I'm not much of a veggie eater to begin with. Southern-style veggies, aka "gooey mush" to me, even less. As Oscar Wilde said, "for those who like that sort of thing, it's the sort of thing they like." The biscuits are about on par with what the Loveless Cafe offers. The fried chicken ... well. I've had mixed experiences. What comes out at dinner time is a touch more moist than what we get at lunch. As you also can tell from the photo, the parts are on the small side. Really on the small side. Breasts not much larger than a biscuit. On the bright side, if it's really the crispy, fried skin you like, there's plenty to be had. The pulled pork was insanely tender, though, with just enough smokey flavor.

My favorite things to see at Monell's come dessert time are their bread and banana puddings but today we had strawberry shortcake. Spring fever, I guess. If the strawberries were fresh and not frozen, I'm sure it would be more enjoyable; for now it was a tease of things to come.

So .. why? What's so great about this place? It's totally the atmosphere. The northeast has restaurants in historic homes all over the place, and I guess Monell's reminds me a little of that, with it's varied, high-ceilinged rooms and straight-backed chairs.

It's that you and your friends can find yourself sitting down with someone else and their friends, and you all could be on a first-name basis when you stand up.

There's something about Monell's that feels like a great Southern tradition, even though it never happened before 1995. Perhaps that's what makes it so quintessentially Nashville. In a town that's constantly re-inventing itself, you're experiencing what could be as much as what is.

Monell's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Epice: Quietly Epic

    Although the subtitle of this blog has to do with cheap eats, and Epice, the new Nashville restaurant from Kalamatas' co-owner Maher Fawaz, isn't, that's not going to stop me from sharing my first experience at the 12 South eatery.

    Recently I joined a few friends for a meal to scope out the place and we all came away happy. I had a feeling it was going to go that way; a couple weeks prior, I was wandering 12 South, saw Epice for the first time and was drawn right away to the clean line geometry of the restaurant's front window and patio. I decided to step inside just to get a quick peek and immediately noticed the smell of the place (wonderful) and still more geometrics. The overall vibe is rustic, but elegant, simplicity.

     A group of seven on a Saturday night, with reservations, went like this: four of us ordered appetizers to share, 3 ordered desserts to share, and everyone took care of themselves inbetween.

     I ordered Tabouleh. It was freshly made, and very heavy on the lemon and parsley sides. To the point where I felt like I was mostly eating lemon-flavored parsley and that was pretty much the consensus. This was the only disappointing dish of the night.  

    Another ordered Fatayer - a trio of stuffed cheese, beef, and spinach pies. These were savory treats in mouth-watering crusts, that immediately won over everyone involved.

     Companion number three ordered Sfeeh, which the waitress explained by describing it as 'Lebanese Pizza.' Of course, when you put it that way, everyone nods and goes, 'yes, I'll have some of that.'

      Basically, it was flatbread with beef bresaola, herbs, and cheese and we all pretty much loved it. Companion #4 ordered Al-Raheb; a savory roasted eggplant puree with tomatoes and spring onions and a surprising sweetness of pomegranate seeds thrown in. That, too, was a hit.

Up next for me was the Roasted Red Pepper soup. Silky smooth texture with just a little heat, this went down perfect in the winter chill. The dollop of cheese on top was a nice touch.

Someone else got the Adas Be-silik soup, with lentils and lemon. I didn't get a taste of it, but everyone who did was impressed.

Entree decision took weighing advantages/disadvantages. I knew I wanted Epice's seasoned chicken and was initially drawn to Tawoo, sort of a kebob. But, because their entrees came with a side of Peasant Salad, which consists of seasonal veggies, and because winter veggies aren't exactly my faves, I opted instead for the house's signature Epice Salad, and had the chicken thrown in. The Epice Salad consists of your basic, quasi-exotic greens, with roasted peppers and goat cheese, smothered in a fig & balsamic reduction. Oh. My. Goodness. Now,  Hattie B's could teach them a thing or two about how to cook chicken to perfection for max tendernesss, but it was wonderfully spiced and overall the dish is something I will return for, along with the red pepper soup. It was just a wonderful combination of sweetness from the dressing, spice from the chicken & peppers, and everything else was added texture and flavor nuances thrown in.

When it came time for dessert, orders of crepes (Katayef), yellow cake (Sfouf), and a chocolate mousse (Pots de crème) made it to the table.

The cake was moist and über-dense and sweet, the chocolate was insanely decadent, but my favorite of the three was the crepe. Like the cake, orange blossom played a small role but the variety of flavors going on from different fruits and the creamy filling won the show for me.

Now, a word about the service at Epice: it is _so_ not the typical Nashville restaurant experience where you get ushered in by the host(ess), then you see your waiter/waitress when they inquire what you want to drink; when they bring you your drink; take your order; bring your food; ignore you until they decide you're ready for your check.

Praise the lord. Real service. Finally. From the time our party was seated, until two or more hours later when we walked out the door, not one person, not at any time, did we have to look around for and flag down a waiter, busser, or host. All three of those units worked together to see that we always had something to drink, plates were cleared when they were finished, and no feeling of being rushed at any time. Between that, the freshness of the food, and that wonderfully clean, peace-bringing design of the building itself, Epice restaurant is a place I want to make a regular habit of.

App+soup+entree+tea came to $32.

Epice on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Another Burger Coda + Sushi Starter: PM Restaurant

    A few months ago, I came very close to starting a post titled, "How I Found Sushi — Or It Found Me," to join my quest for the best burgers in Nashville but scratched it, because I'm still such a sushi neophyte that I felt it would  look beyond pompous to try to review Nashville's offerings. Especially when there are so many decades-long addicted adherents. But ... so what? I've decided that rating sushi is actually a lot easier than rating burgers: either the food tastes fresh or it doesn't, and it's memorable or it isn't. If it's memorable for the right reasons, it goes to the 'good' column.

    This afternoon I managed to combine both burger and sushi at PM Restaurant, one of the Arnold Myint family in Nashville. The sushi was an uncomplicated Spicy Tuna. Rice; tuna; cucumber and various sauces. It was very enjoyable but to be honest, I can't remember much what it tasted like, flavorwise. The amount of tuna in the roll was fairly small. What I remember most was how the cucumber gave it some crunch. That I bit my own tongue about 3 pieces in, didn't help. I mean, it really didn't help. So I'm just going to have to go back there ...

     The burger was more memorable. On the menu it's listed as "Char-Grilled Buger" and it is; what it wasn't was the medium-rare I ordered, but it was so interesting that I opted to finish (most of) it rather than send back to the kitchen. Here's how it rated:

Juiciness: 5. When it came out, I saw a splash of red on the bun and thought "oh, this is going to be awesome," but it turned out to be an anomaly. The unevenly-cooked, but mostly medium-well burger was comparatively dry except for that one little almost kinda pink section.

Attractiveness: 10. It's gorgeous, though, isn't it? A totally charred, beautifully rounded patty. The bun's soft, sweet and chewy, has enough "give" to show it's not factory-made perfection, but also enough body to keep it from looking like someone sat on the bag.

Flavor: 7 Hmmm. A mixed bag, this one. The innards of the patty tasted like what I've come to think of as typical Angus. A lot of places use it for the brand specialty but honestly, what it gains in texture is offset by the bland flavor. What separates the PM burger from, say, Hard Rock Cafe's or Ruby Tuesday's is the marinade (brown sugar-based bbq sauce?) coating, more caramelized than charred.

Atmosphere: 8. Like most of the other Belmont bungalows-turned restaurants, PM has character and instead of being in one big box of a room, the tables are spread about in several difference sections. It adds a feel of casual intimacy to the dining.

Digestivity: 9. No trouble with sluggishness, beef pangs or all-day-burger-taste in my mouth. But it was probably about an ounce larger than needed (okay, the sushi didn't help), so I was left with a little bloat. Side note: one of my dining companions noted that Americans are the only people in the world who complain portions are too big. The UK is the only place I've ever been outside the US and except for one colossally huge steak at a Rick Stein restaurant, the portions everywhere there WERE smaller — so of course no one complained. And who's going to moan about having to bring home a helping or two of marbled Prime? The problem is, no educated eater wants to bring home a box of leftover frozen Sysco nuggets.

Overall: 7. Pretty good. You could do a lot worse for burgers in Nashville, but with all the other interesting items on the menu, it's not the first thing I'll look forward to when I return. If I have it again and it's overcooked, I'll definitely send it back next time. By the way - the fries on the side were wonderful.

PM on Urbanspoon

Lonely on the Northwest Front, Chelsea Bistro Brings Cheer to the Neighborhood

All photos © 214 Mary Brace
    Early summer 2013, there was much head-scratching as word started getting around that someone in Nashville was doing the unheard of: opening a traditional French Bistro out in the hinterlands of Whites Creek. That someone turned out to be Basha Satin and her son Josh Rew, along with chef Garrett Pittler, who they lured to the obscure side of town.

    Opening any restaurant in Northwest Davidson county is a risk right now, as the population is paltry compared to other parts of Nashville, but French? Few French restaurants have been able to exist anywhere in town. The last one to close its doors was Bicyclette Cafe in Hermitage. Over two years ago.

   When blogs started leaking out Pittler & Co were planting their own garden, interest picqued and I was among the early travelers to follow my curiousity up Clarksville Pike, just shy of Old Hickory Blvd, to check the place out with a small group of fellow foodie adventurers.

Beef Marrow

     Chelsea Bistro had been open for less than two weeks, I think, for this visit and our group of six had a mixed experience, foodwise. The clear winners on the menu were the Parisian gnocchi with prawns; the goat cheese & caramelized onion tarte, and duck confit. The escargot profiteroles had a mixed reception, with one of our company disappointed there wasn't as much garlic as she was expecting. It was later explained to us, a customer on the previous night complained they were too seasoned, so the kitchen backed off a little.

Onion Soup Gratinée

 I had the tarte & confit. The tarte crust was melt-in-your mouth, buttery-soft, with an interior more subtle than I was expecting. The duck confit was everything that could have been asked: super-crispy skin to munch on, moist and salty underneath.
   The other dish that got negative reaction at that time was Meat & Potatoes, sliced brisket & gravy over potato croquettes. I tried a bite and what was really off-putting was that meat  didn't seem to have the moistness and texture that seems pretty standard with brisket. That it was sliced thin and wide, rather than high and narrow, may have had something to do with that.

Sous vide Monkfish with winter veggies
     The second time around we hit Chelsea Bistro for the winter menu and this time, I found the Meat & Potato dish improved exponentially, although, reaction did vary to some extent. The person who ordered it this time liked it for the most part, but found the gravy too sweet for his taste.
     I skipped the tarte for the onion soup this time, and was again rewarded with the subtle flavor that comes from excellent preparation.

    My entree this time was sous vide Monkfish. Monkfish is a North Atlantic treat my mother used to cook on occasion, when I was a teen. She had to tell me its nickname is

Cassoulet: meat, meat, and more meat

"Poor man's lobster" to get me to eat it, as I couldn't get my palate around non-crustaceans, and she was right. Normally it's boiled and broiled, but a few years ago, sous vide experimenters started playing around to great results. Chelsea Bistro's version was a little firmer than I remember Mom's being (I never mastered it, myself) but the flavor was dead on. My companions who sampled it instantly understood why it had that nick-name, and best of all, a shell-fish allergic was delighted she could have a bite without a trip to the emergency room. 

Meat and potatoes

      Some companions' notes: the diner who ordered the bone marrow appetizer was already a proud carnivore, but now, moreso. I tried to get a small sample but by the time I was able to get to it, there was less than 1/4 gram's worth of scraping to be had. The cassoulet also proved to be a little too much meat (duck confit), meat (lamb sausage) and more meat (pork belly) for some. Another diner was less than thrilled with his steak; he ordered medium well, and received a pretty rare — but he didn't send it back. In our previous excursion one person did send a dish back and the restaurant went the distance to see he left happy. The frites lean heavily on the salt, so be warned.

   In most Nashville restaurants, I can easily pass up dessert. With the relaxed pace of Chelsea Bistro dining, there's enough time between courses — and the portions are normal enough — that having the room isn't difficult. Most of us got either the creme brulée or chocolat pot du creme. One day I'll get to the pain perdu. What I like about Chelsea Bistro's creme brulée is that kitchen lays back on the torched topping and doesn't turn into a single layer of hard candy. It leaves you free to  enjoy the vanilla custard without distraction.   This time, I ordered the chocolat cream pot, though, and was delighted with something that reminded me a lot of chocolate pudding, only richer.

  Overall, the verdict most of my companions, on both trips, and I have is this: Chelsea Bistro offers up some of the best-prepared, pretty slow food you're going to find in any Nashville restaurant, at a very reasonable price. Not everything that's put in front of every person at the table is going to be to their liking, but what they get right, they get really, really right. Bon apettite.

Chelsea Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Update on the Nashville Hot Chicken Odyssey

© 2014 Mary Brace all rights reserved.
   Since I started on my Nashville Hot Chicken quest in July, I've hit almost all of the major places at least once. Pepperfire, twice. Tenn 16 twice. But I keep returning to Hattie B's Hot Chicken. And returning. To the point where, if I can go more than two weeks without a fix, either there's a ton of stuff going on, or I'm flat broke.
  More than any other Nashville Hot Chicken restaurant I've been in — and you are free to spit from the peanut gallery, because I still haven't gotten to Prince's — Hattie B's is consistently tender, consistently moist, and consistently flavorful. In all probability, I'll crown them champs, if only because it takes about 20 less minutes to get to Hattie B's midtown location on 19th (and soon, Sylvan Park) than it does to North East Nashville.

Just sayin' ...

Do at Home: Sautéed Japaños

There's a Mexican restaurant with Mt. Juliet and Smyrna (or is it LaVergne? I'm always forgetting) locations, called Margarita House. They've got a nifty little side I haven't seen anywhere else in the Nashville area: jalapeños, sautéed with lime. What I really like about them is the tart lime initial taste, and the heat that comes after.
       When I decided to try it at home, a Google search turned up a YouTube video for the sautéeing part, but left it at that. My solution was simply to, when they were nearly done, throw in maybe 1/4 teaspoon or less garlic powder and when they were really, really, nearly done, a couple teaspoons of fresh lime juice. The juice evaporated within seconds, but left a carmellized coating on the fruit that outweighed the capsacin. I'm thinking perhaps I let the pepper cook a little too long. Still yummy, but when I try it again, I'll add the lime a little sooner and wrap.