GQ got it right when it declared Nashville “Nowville” two years ago. No other Southern city of my acquaintance claims quite the heady mix of artists, designers and fashion-forward restaurants as the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Sean Brock, the chef at Husk, an ode to Low Country cooking in Charleston, S.C., says that “Tennessee terroir” is part of what attracted him to return part time to his old stomping grounds and open a second branch of his celebrated restaurant in Nashville last spring. The former chef at the Hermitage Hotel describes a scene in his adopted city of “people taking chances with small businesses” and of his “feeding off their energy. It’s contagious.”
Herewith, from my spring trip to Music City, some music for your mouth:
Hal Holden-Bache was a cook at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia when he paid a visit to Nashville in 2002 and returned to his home state only to pack up his belongings. “I fell in love with the music and the people and the pretty girls, man,” the chef says of “the big town” of Nashville. “West Virginia wasn’t doing it for me in the girl department.”
Nashville is better for having Holden-Bache cooking in it. Specifically, Lockeland Table, his handsome restaurant in the east Nashville neighborhood of Lockeland Springs, is doing it for me in the dining department. One night’s special — thick-cut house-made bologna warmed in the hickory-fired pizza oven and topped with bright yellow chowchow — proved a highlight of my 48 hours in town.
Other favorite dishes come with back stories. Empanadas are a curiosity until Holden-Bache tells you that his mother is Puerto Rican and made the fluted hot pockets for her family, stretching the meat with diced potatoes. The empanadas at Lockeland Table change from day to day, depending on whatever meats the kitchen might want to use (or use up). A rousing chimichurri made each bite of my pulled chicken empanada sing.
Instead of jumping on the local hot chicken bandwagon, Holden-Bache thought to substitute pig ears for the traditional bird. After the lightly floured meat emerges from the deep-fryer, it’s rolled in zesty spices and bacon fat. The result is, per custom, perched on a slice of white bread and served with house-made pickles as well as serrano-spiked “gangster” cabbage. Holden-Bache calls his creation, which a diner folds to eat, a “white bread taco.”
The restaurant’s structure dates back to when it served as a provisions store in the 1930s. Wood, iron and copper — “masculine materials used in a gentle way,” says the chef — make up the bar and the dining room, which are separated by shelves of smoked vinegar and hot chicken spices for sale and ingredients that Holden-Bache cans for restaurant use. The pickled peppers are from his home garden, while a jar of strawberry jam came in handy the day he was filling doughnuts.
Lockeland Table isn’t just a good restaurant, it’s a good neighbor. Instead of a happy hour, the restaurant hosts a “community hour”; a percentage of the proceeds from snacks and drinks goes to a local school.
1520 Woodland St.; 615-228-4864; www.lockelandtable.com. Main courses $19 to $25.
Looking over the numbers at Bishop’s Meat & Three in Franklin, Tenn., the owner’s son noticed that hot fried chicken was flying out of the kitchen of the family-friendly restaurant 20 minutes from Nashville. “Wait a minute,” Nick Bishop Jr. recalls thinking of the entree that accounted for 30 percent of orders at Nick Sr.’s establishment. “We might have something here.” Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which opened two years ago in Midtown Nashville, is that “something” that causes lines to form, mouths to water — and even tears to be shed.
There are five levels of heat listed on the menu at Hattie B’s, ranging from “Southern,” or no heat, to “Shut the Cluck Up!,” which comes with a burn notice. Take it from someone who thought that he would show off for some friends by taking the nuclear route: You will cry. You will break into a sweat, and maybe develop hiccups. Most memorably, for the rest of the day, your stomach will react as if you’d swallowed molten iron ore. A companion who dipped the tines of his fork into my brick-red chicken to taste the coating felt my pain. “Do they wear hazmat suits to clean the tables?” he gasped.
The most popular coatings are “medium to hot,” says Bishop, who allows that the cayenne-based seasoning with the brown sugar grace note can “vary in brutality from one shift to the next,” depending upon who’s doing the cooking but also who’s doing the eating. The chicken is typically offered on white bread with a pickle; the bread serves as a “relief component” by soaking up the heat and the grease, says the restaurateur, who co-owns the joint with his dad. Side dishes — made-from-scratch potato salad, coleslaw, vinegary black-eyed peas — make cool foils to the fire, too.
Hattie’s is a shout-out to Bishop’s great-grandmother, grandmother and daughter, all of whom had or have Hattie in their full names. A second branch opens in June in west Nashville. Any plans to take the torch show on the road? “I would hope so,” Bishop says. “I think it would travel well.” Amen to that.
112 19th Ave. S.; 615-678-4794; www.hattieb.com. Chicken plates with two sides $8 to $12.
There’s no mistaking that you’re anywhere but the South when you show up for a meal in Rutledge Hill at Husk, a spinoff of the acclaimed Charleston, S.C., restaurant of the same name from celebrity chef (and Virginia native) Sean Brock.
The perfume of wood smoke hangs in the air near the door, even though the smoker and grills sit around the corner of the building, a former residence dating to the 1890s. The tables are decorated not with flowers but with a jar of dried beans, from which cattails sprout. Ask for a Bloody Mary and the drink comes with a slice of pickled green tomato on the rim. A white burlap bag contains the bread.
No mere carbon copy, the second Husk celebrates what’s available in landlocked Tennessee. Don’t expect seafood, in other words. “The closer ingredients are,” Brock says, “the tastier they’re going to be.”
Deviled eggs with smoked trout roe go fast, as do crisp chicken wings with a lemony condiment known as “comeback sauce,” presumably for its power to re-attract customers. I’ve had better catfish — Husk’s was pleasant in its tomato gravy, no more — but rarely more interesting vegetables. “Whatever comes in the door that day, we use it,” says chef de cuisine Tim Moody. Even a dedicated meat-eater can get behind the Plate of Southern Vegetables, a spread that might include pottery bowls of smoky grilled cabbage with a Caesar dressing, broccoli ignited with chili and lime and a succotash of farro and lima beans. Juicy quail nests on mellow butter beans and pickled cauliflower. Sharing the stage is house-made boudin.
Stretch your legs between courses and stroll around the garden, visible beyond the restaurant’s soaring windows. The plots grow arugula, garlic chives and flowers for use as garnishes indoors, says Brock, but they also serve as seed-saving areas.
Buttermilk pie with a tangy lemon sherbet is a dessert pastry chef Lisa Donovan says she can’t take off the menu, with good reason. It’s divine. So is the chocolate fudge cake with caramel chocolate chip ice cream. But soft-serve ice cream — made in-house with vanilla beans — brings out the kid in diners. The novelty, veined with butterscotch sauce, is served in a small glass globe with a Lilliputian fried fruit pie as garnish. Dairy Queen can only dream.
37 Rutledge St; 615-256-6565; www.husknashville.com. Main courses $25 to $29.
If you get only one dish at Rolf and Daughters, make it a pasta. Though there are other appealing avenues on the menu by chef Philip Krajeck, spaghetti freckled with charred ramps and sporting a sunny egg yolk crown, and bucatini weaving octopus with lardo and chilies, are sublime. I’m not surprised to learn that the kitchen cooks — to order — an average of 150 pasta requests a night.
The chef’s affection for pasta dates from his teenage years, which he spent in Brussels, where his father worked for NATO. When Dad was away, Italian neighbors on either side of the family home fed him. Later, at a hotel school in Switzerland, the younger Krajeck worked in a French-Swiss restaurant staffed by Italian cooks who whipped up pastas from scratch for employee meals.
Settle in at Rolf and Daughters with a loaf of sourdough bread served with seaweed butter. Better yet, eat it with aged country ham from just 45 minutes away. (The pink folds are affectionately billed as “Tenne-sciutto.”) Lamb meatballs are dense and just okay. Rounds of butternut squash strewn with petals of Brussels sprouts and grains of farro make an imaginative meatless option. A brilliant reduction of carrot juice infused with jalapeno pools beneath the centerpiece. And find room for dessert. Rice pudding with a glassy bruléed surface and grapefruit confit is the perfect marriage of comfort and refreshment.
Rolf and Daughters unfolds in what was once the boiler room of a textile mill that produced burlap bags in the two world wars. Rustic and warm, the dining room is furnished with cherrywood chairs and blue ash tables made by a friend of the chef’s. The music — Beatles when I dropped by — runs more modern.
The restaurant’s name? “It’s literal,” Krajeck says. “Rolf is my middle name, and I have two daughters,” one of whom will work as a hostess this summer.
700 Taylor St.; 615-866-9897; www.
rolfanddaughters.com. Main courses $17 to $24.