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