Saturday, August 15, 2015

Nashville Scene's Burger Week — Quick(ish) Notes 3: Jack Brown's Beer & Burger Joint

    And finally, the last of my three participating visits from the Nashville Scene's Burger Week promotion. It turns out, Germantown's newest chain restaurant had what Scene readers voted the best burger - the Greg Brady.

    The average-sized patty comes to the table smothered with a mac & cheese (really, cheese & mac) topping, and topped with barbeque-flavored potato chips.

    The interior is very shack; Jack Brown's would probably make a great stopping point for lunch after wandering around American Picker's homestand Antique Archaeology. If that looks like someone cleaned out your uncle's barn and turned it into a retail store, Jack Brown's looks like grandpa's garage. At least the materials look more genuine than Martin's BBQ. Wonderful beer list here.

 Atmosphere: 8. Reluctantly. Although I love a dive bar, there's something about new restaurants deliberately conjuring the pre-indoor-plumbing, pre-plaster or even drywall look that makes me want to scream "enough," already. That said, Jack Brown's does it well. 

 Attractiveness: 7. Greg Brady is a remarkable little fellow. Sturdy, but soft. Crunchy, but gooey. All around studly. Although the overall table package matches the spare-everything theme of the restaurant, there's nothing wrong with plates. 

    Flavor: 5. The gooey cheese & mac, the chips, the special sauce all stood out. The burger itself, this world-famous Wagyu beef stuff? Unremarkable.

 Juiciness: 3. What's missing from that photo on the left? Nary a dribble.

 Digestivity: 10. No memorable after effects. 

 Overall: 6.  Although I'd definitely give them another chance to get a medium rare done right, I have to admit to being a little confounded as to how this burger wound up being voted #1 in the contest. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Nashville Scene's Burger Week — Quick(ish) Notes 2: Dino's

   For my visit to a second of the participating Nashville Burger Week restaurants in the Nashville Scene's recent contest, I went to an old dive with new owners, one of whom was partly responsible for the place that set the bar for Nashville burgers in the 21st Century: Miranda Whitcomb Pontes of Burger Up. Pontes and partner Alex Wendkos took over the spot and opened it to the public this past January, to far less roar than was heard when Pontes' first burger joint starting serving, or other subsequent restaurant openings.

 A second craving Dino's serves is late-night food, with operating hours of 4pm-3am weekdays and noon-3am weekends. Even at most places that are open past 11, most Nashville kitchens close by 10; there's reason to cheer, here.

     Atmosphere: 9. Cheap burger joint at its best: 1970s thin wall paneling; diner-bar seating; the front window looks like it hasn't been completely cleaned since Bill Clinton was President. Friendly kitchen staff.

    Attractiveness: 9. Maybe it's because I was there for the late afternoon's light, or maybe it's because of the filtered goodness of the storefront window, but even onions and grocery-store-bought tomatoes couldn't detract from the immediacy of this burger's appeal.

Flavor: 8. There's nothing on Dino's website that indicates grass-fed, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is. If not, whomever's playing in the kitchen has hit on a perfect play of seasonings to bring up beef flavor that stands out, even with the above-mentioned toppings.

  Juiciness: 9 ... plenty of moisture, requiring extra napkins but not so much it bled over to the fries (which were also excellent). The burger was perfectly cooked, ordered medium-rare and it came that way, throughout.

Digestivity: 10. Happy to report, nothing lingered longer than it should have.

Overall: 9.

I'm trying not to get too excited about this, but the Odyssey just might have a new burger champ. By the numbers, it sure looks like it. But generally the only thing one might ask for to improve the burger is stick local tomatoes on, or have none at all. My initial impression is, this belongs right up there with Brown's Diner, Twin Kegs, and Burger Up.

Dino's Restaurant
Gallatin Pike, East Nashville

Click to add a blog post for Dino's on Zomato

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Nashville Scene's Burger Week — Quick(ish) Notes 1: Park Cafe

   Our local alt.weekly, the Nashville Scene, just ran a promotion for Nashville Burger Week. Some 15-20 restaurants put up the goods and invited eaters to vote for the champ, who will be selected to go on to represent Nashville at the World Food Championships (who knew this was a thing?) in Miami.

No word yet on the vote. 

   I've already given the rundown on a number of the participating restaurant burgers but there are several new places that I had/have yet to try, or old places I still hadn't gotten around to ... Anyway, by the end of the week, I managed to add three new burgers to my repertoire, at least one of which I'll return for more. And again.

  First down was the burger at Park Cafe, on the commercial strip where Murphy Road turns and becomes 46th. Never having been there before, my immediate impression (and nothing changed it) was that it was one of the surprisingly bubba-centric watering holes due to its proximity to McCabe Golf Course.
   Park Cafe's burger offered TN Hereford beef, onion-bacon jam,  cheddar cheese, Duseldorf mustard & the usual accompaniments. I tossed the pickles. The result was a somewhat unevenly cooked (all burgers are ordered medium rare), but otherwise solid burger with a unique, sharp bite to its flavor.
   Attractiveness: 8 ... it's nice but not at the level that screams, "EAT ME!"
   Flavor: 7
   Juiciness: 5 ... I wouldn't say it was dry, but there were maybe two drops on the plate. Maybe.
   Atmosphere: 7 ... It's a nice restaurant way more than it's a burger joint. If we were rating wine bars, it'd score a 10 for casual chic.
   Digestivity:  9 .... some of the condiment flavors lingered for an hour or more but over all it went down soundly with no repercussions.

Overall: 6 ... solid, but would be better from a chef who believes a burger can be a gourmet statement on its own.

Click to add a blog post for Park Cafe on Zomato

Monday, June 1, 2015

Silo: Southern Food or Die

   'twas a rainy Wednesday night in Nashville, and because one of my dining companions was working until nine, our options were limited: this city closes early. Finding a restaurant kitchen that stays open past, say, 11 pm is a challenge to put it mildly. And so we would up at The Silo, in Germantown.

    I was vaguely aware of Silo since its opening in 2012 by a pair of M Street grads, but upon opening, it was eclipsed in infamy by other summer openers Etch & Lockeland Table. Although those two have more food lit buzz, Silo has quietly become a Germantown staple, for tourists and locals, alike.

    It was only when I was seated and saw Silo's menu for the first time, I realized just how hardcore it is in its philosophy promoting Southern food traditions.

   This is the part where I mention to some prejudice, as a NY-raised eater who often thinks of Southern food as mushy vegetables, stored months in vinegar before ever seeing a plate, and over-processed meat often hard to distinguish from the sauce it's been smothered in.

   There, I said it.

   While I wouldn't begin to complain about the flavor of the food at Silo, or the preparation of the items I selected from the menu: when you come right down to it, taking traditional Southern Food items — which were developed by people whose top priority was simply to keep things from spoiling — and applying them to appeal in a city with a immigrating population of increasingly sophisticated tastes, isn't as simple as changing music keys.

    So readers may want to keep a salt shaker handy when a reviewer gets decidedly turned off because something on the Charcuterie plate was reminiscent of Deviled Ham. And okra. I did enjoy the house-made mustards and fig sauce. The Deviled Eggs fared better, but only when I removed their meat toppings. On their own, the top bites were intriguing but on the eggs, they overwhelmed the yolk batter. Something one doesn't need to do when they aren't adding pickled anything to the mix.

My companions on the other hand, Nashville boys born and raised, were mostly in heaven. They enjoyed the bone marrow I passed on (for me, marrow is one of those things you try once, and then you get back on with your eating life) and can only say that it smelled like a wonderful onion soup. I actually was very tempted, but our late friend had just arrived, and I'd eaten both our shares of the eggs.

Both the boys opted for Braised Rabbit in a house-made pasta (and loved it), with various herbs and cream, while I went for the least complicated thing I could find, Flat Iron Steak with mushrooms and veggies. It was a great little steak! Slightly tough, as the cut demands, perfectly cooked to medium rare and plenty of char-grilled beefy flavor. I didn't care for all of the accompaniments, but the broccoli was crisp (!) and not bitter at all.

One thing we all went weak for was the big bowl of Mac & Cheese, made with buttermilk & cheddar. Hands down the creamiest — and non-mushy — Mac & Cheese in town, with a super mild flavor. Big win. I mean, huge.

    Only two of us opted for desserts. Companion #1 opted for cake with much love, and I had a delightful Pot de Creme that took the popular flavor of salted caramel and put it on steroids, adding an additional caramel sauce and bacon-caramel popcorn. Granted, it was served in a Mason glass, and not a creme pot or ramekin — gotta be Southern, after all.

Two drinks, one side, one entree, one dessert: $60


1121 5th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37208

Click to add a blog post for Silo on Zomato

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Gringo Taco #3: Bakersfield - Tasty, In Spite of the Marketing Department

   What started as a trickle in the neighborhoods, with The Local Taco, Mas Tacos, and Chagos, has lately stormed downtown Nashville with the opening of two or three such spots between Commerce and Korean Vets Blvd., 2nd and 5th.

   I've driven past Bakersfield at least twice a week since December and it's draw on my curiosity has been pretty relentless, so I answered the call without expecting much, as I'm a little prejudiced against chains. Bakersfield has spent time tuning up in Columbus, Cincinnati, Charlotte & Indianapolis before making its debut in Nashville.

   Because I had to drive, I took a pass on the tequillas for Jarritos, a Mexican soft drink favored by us non-HFCS types, that one finds at just about every authentic Mexican restaurant along Nashville's "wagon spokes" of Nolensville Road, Gallatin Pike, or Murfreesboro Road.

   In the press leading up to the opening, we've been told Bakersfield is inspired by the country music that sprang from that particular California scene. Think about that for a minute while you absorb the rustic interior, loud buzz from the sounds of patrons mixing with street noise of traffic and construction, and cheesy cowboy movies on the small screens, and peruse the menu. If you're looking for a salad, you might wonder why there are dishes named for Johnny Cash (not from Bakersfield), June Carter (not from Bakersfield), and Willie Nelson (not from Bakersfield). 

    Maybe somewhere in California, there's a restaurant named Nashville, serving up Buck, Merle, and Dwight salads.

    So. .. I call bullshit on Bakersfield's marketing and PR, but knowing that authenticity doesn't always matter to the American palate, let's get to the food. 

   The menu is fairly limited while still offering plenty of flavor combinations I want to go back and try. On this day I stuck to one appetizer and a couple of tacos. Bakersfield's queso & chips, on their  own, constitute a full meal. Under the attractively burned top layer lives an orange colored cheese sauce that's overcooked just enough for the ingredients to begin to separate, but retain overall cohesion and flavor. It's good, it's not great, but it is unique and will make fans and, for $6, it's a bargain and a half. 

   The highlight of Bakersfield is the taco selection. Where everything else on the menu is pared down to just a few choices, you can pick from a variety of meats, cheeses, and spice combos on the restaurant's kitchen-made, soft corn tortillas. I had a pollo rojo — tomato-braised chicken in a guajillo salsa, with queso fresco and the usual suspects. What I loved about it was the unique flavor imparted to the chicken, something that, in all of the rest of Nashville, I've only tasted at La Hacienda.    

   My other taco was the Huitlacoche, a vegetarian offering of corn truffles, poblano peppers, cotija cheese & more. That one was tasty, but nothing to write home about.
   There were no desserts on the menu, unfortunately, because I'm sure they'd have been enjoyable. And named after Dolly and Reba, or anyone else Not From Bakersfield. In the long run, the misnaming of this restaurant isn't going to matter very much; neither afternoon's office workers nor the evening's drunken country fans are going to care. They can get a taste of Nolensville Road without leaving downtown.

Soft drink, appetizer, & two tacos came to approx $17-$18

201 3rd Ave S Nashville, TN

Bakersfield on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Quick Burger Tally: Top 5

People are constantly asking me to rank Nashville's burgers. Why not, I've eaten enough of them, and set up this blog to detail as many as possible. But still, it can be hard — a little — because sometimes, the best burger isn't the perfect burger to have, in a given situation. For example: I'm not going to walk into Flip Burger after a day of kayaking 12 miles on the Harpeth River. I'm not going to be dressed properly for the place, and REALLY won't smell too good. You get the idea. That's why I include a restaurant's atmosphere as part of the review, so people can have an idea of what they're walking into.

But if I really had to limit things, and rank things, it would go something like this:

                                                           1   (three way tie) Burger Up


                                                                        Twin Kegs

All three of those are pretty great and if you wanted me to tell you which is best best, I'd have to go all Libra on you. It's just a matter of what atmosphere you're in the mood for. And it shall be noted that, since my initial review a couple years ago, TK has begun serving to order. ie, rare and medium rare are now in play.

                                                               4.  360 Burger

4 was a really hard choice. There are a lot of great burgers on my second tier, but 360 Burger takes props for its big flavor.

                                                            5. Dalt's

Again, it's flavor that rules this highly subjective, but trying to be somewhat objective, survey.  Dalt's was the big "who knew?"

Post-Burger Odyssey: Flip Burger

Celebrity Chef Richard Blais' Flip Burger has only been open for a couple of weeks, and honestly, the vibe defies easy categorization; the menu looks like stereotypical modern-gourmand  gastro-pub fare, but the rest of it's nothing like any burger joint — high end or low — Nashville's ever seen. Partly a modern take on an '80s model of a '50s diner, partly Southern fusion, it's going to take a few more visits to decide what I think about Flip Burger as a restaurant, as a whole. In the meantime, this review is based solely on where the name comes from: the burger.

Atmosphere: 9. I was tempted to go in the middle with a 5, because I suspect it's going to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair with many. I had to go with the high mark, though, because the interior is just so heavily stylized, in a 1980s New Wave kind of way with its geometry and super-bright lights, and a PA cranking out the likes of Joy Division, Viet Cong, War on Drugs, Echo & the Bunnymen, Foxygen & Modest Mouse at levels so loud for a Nashville restaurant, it's like a line being drawn in the sand.

Juiciness: 4. The pic to the right pretty much says it all but readers might be interested to know that it was ordered to be medium rare, and the first version that came to the table had to be sent back because the condiments were incorrect from the order. On eating, it was somewhat dry, and the pink you see only appeared in the middle.

On the other hand ....

Attractiveness: 8. It's just too cute, isn't it? Perfectly melted cheese and lovely charring on the side, and that one perfect little leaf of Bibb lettuce.

Flavor: 8 Something about the Flip Burger burger reminds me of what Dairy Queen's old "Brazier Burger" used to taste like, when it was still good and more burger than meat product. The grilled bun's a plus.

Digestivity: 6. Maybe it was the burger, maybe it was the burger combined with the yummy fried cheese curds (of which I only ate half) and the Nutella milkshake, but I was left tasting it several hours after lunching. A great burger reverberates in your mind, not in your tummy and esophagus.

Overall: 7 Still, I'm going to return and hope for a juicier burger, at least once. Then I'll go back again and check out other things from the menu because Flip Burger has more going on on than its namesake, and because maybe I'm a little nostalgic for '80s riffs on '50s culture.

FLIP Burger Boutique on Urbanspoon

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.