Sunday, April 21, 2013

Enter the Noodle: Otaku South Stirs Pop-up Debate

Sous chef William Gentry
   Yes, we are excited about all the buzz on the Nashville restaurant and food scene - why not be? In addition to the great restaurants that laid the foundation for the attention we're getting, like City House, Margot & Capital Grille, and even Whole Foods & Turnip Truck, the last two-three years have brought an infusion of foodie-biz entrepreneurs who are as creative with their business model as they are with their product. I'm honestly not sure which came first: the upscale food truck, or the pop-up restaurant.

   Yet, with it all, comes some debate. When the NY Times recently sent their Atlanta bureau chief to do a write up on our food scene, for many it read like a collection of back-handed compliments. Or even just the back-hand, with no less than 9 mentions of "hipsters." I couldn't blame her, too much; we do have a good amount of signal: noise.

   Take Nashville's publicist-per-capita ratio and add it to social media flacks reaching for cool-by-association as one part of a tripod; for the second leg, consider locals who look back on Jody Faison's restaurants with nostalgia for the actual food; for the third, everyone who's eaten on the coasts and major heartland cities where food gets shipped to, as distribution points. Then sit back and listen to the debate: "they want how much for that grilled cheese sandwich?" That's basically what happened in the pages of the Nashville Scene last winter, not long after the pop-up Otaku South appeared on the map.

     I haven't gotten around to very many of the food trucks; I did once give into childhood longings at an entertainment event and order up a mocha-flavored sno-cone. As I was gulping it down, another patron commented on how awesome they were. I agreed, but questioned whether they were really $4 awesome. "But that's real coffee in there," he pointed out. I also did have the wonderfully sloppy cheeseburger. You know the one. I may again, one day.

  The crux to me, and others whose food experiences did not begin in or remain limited to Middle Tennessee, is this: authenticity and freshness never seemed really high on the priority list of the average Nashville restaurant until ever more outsiders connected and made our homes here. Now that entrepreneurs are finally picking up on and exploiting that, the ball is in our court whether or not to support them.

   I suspect a large part of the reason Nashville was always so notorious for mediocre restaurants, among the better-travelled, is because of Tennessee's bar and restaurant laws; if you serve liquor, you can be penalized for not also serving enough food. Result? The haunts that really wanted to be bars became restaurants. Wonderful places to hang out with your friends; and if the salsa was the best thing on the menu, if it actually was a particularly fine salsa, that alone could make it a great restaurant in the minds of heavily social types who chose that particular hang-out because it was, simply, a cool place to hang out with their friends and drink.

In upstate NY where I grew up, a night on the town started with dinner and then moved to your nightclub of choice. Sometimes, in reverse. In Nashville, because of liquor laws, you can head straight to the nightclub and, instead of having an aged steak or hand-made ravioli, there's a big soft pretzel waiting for you, with honey-mustard. Or maybe something more substantial - like a turkey wrap.

What this new generation of restauranteurs, especially the truck operators, is offering Nashville is an emphasis on the food experience, rather than the drinking one.

Enter the noodle. Here's what the Scene and others have already told us about Sarah Gavigan's history with ramen.

Now that I've finally had the much-hyped and, considering what's available in Nashville, maligned Otaku South noodles - two different flavors - here's what I will tell you: this is the good stuff. Everything in the bowl tastes remarkably clean, in the way that oysters taste clean if they get to you within 24 hours of the harvest. If you went to a high-end restaurant that paid real estate taxes and anchored neighborhoods, and ordered a bowl of these noodles, you'd probably get 1/3 to 1/4 size the serving at half the price. You would not blink. Neither would I.

Which leads to another question: like the way Tennessee liquor laws encourage us to lower the bar for what we perceive as good restaurants, what good thing might we discouraging when we promote, as a trend, creating an upscale, nomad, restaurant business out of a one-course meal?

Otaku South Extra Large pop-up at Marathon Music Works
 But I don't really want to wrestle over that one, today. Today, what concerns me is the question, "is it really $16 awesome?" I have to say "yes." If you're a schlep like me, go ahead and split it if you can. There is more here than noise.

Otaku South on Urbanspoon

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