A couple years ago I was in the test kitchen of SAVEUR (one of my personal favorites), cooking up some biscuits, bacon and homemade jam for the editorial staff. I was talking to the editor about the Nashville food scene and why they needed to make a trip down to this town I love so much. I was explaining what I think it is that sets Nashville apart from many other cities...the lack of ego.
I love a high-end experience as much as the next person and I'm not saying Nashville does not have that - but you would be hard-pressed to pay a visit to City House (Chef Tandy Wilson was recently nominated again for a James Beard Award) for a Sunday Supper and not see the servers in t-shirts and selection of "pork snacks" on the menu. Great chefs and restaurants are serving up incredible meals all over this town - but with a welcoming, gracious attitude that speaks to the soul of Nashville's hospitality.
The Catbird Seat might seem to some (who have not been) like an exception to the Nashville 'no ego' mantra. Notoriously difficult to get a reservation, 'Catbird,' as the locals call it, seats only twenty guests around a U-shaped open kitchen and offers course after course of artfully-prepared tastings - paired with incredible wines and beverages from around the world. It's otherworldly indeed, but make no mistake, Catbird is Nashville. My most recent visit proved this to me once again. Every single moment virtually oozes with such grace and hospitality. Part of this is by design, as you're watching the chefs prepare the meals and serve them to you themselves, but I'm certain this is done in other cities with more 'snoot' and less smiles than at Catbird.
Chef Trevor Moran officially took the reigns at Catbird back in January, but he had been working in that tiny kitchen prior to receiving the title of Executive Chef. Formerly a sous chef at Noma, Trevor has brought a sensibility from his nordic past to the menu that is undeniable. Course after course, there was a feeling of 'foraged freshness' that was absolutely mind-blowing. I've often said that good food is simple food, but that does not mean that all simple food is good food. There are essential steps throughout the process such as thoughtful sourcing, food storage, careful preparation and skilled presentation that have to be considered. This was never more evident to me than when dining on the eleven courses Trevor and his crew served to my guest and me across the bar.
The meal started with a simple dish of a lightly poached farm egg yolk, presented in a potato broth with local foraged nettles and plants, crispy strips of potato skin and a crumble of rye for added crunch. Each of these components on their own was served simply - no seasoning other than salt was evident - yet the combination of flavors and textures made it much more than the sum of its parts (a theme to be repeated throughout the night). The fatty feel of the yolk was balanced by the light broth. The freshness of the plants were balanced by the crisp strips of potato skin. Oh, and the wine? They won me over with a sparkling rosé Champagne. (Everyone knows like my good friend Leigh, I'm a sucker for sparkling wines - especially rosés!)
The next treat was a single bite of a raw red shrimp, wrapped in a thin slice of fermented daikon (think sauerkraut) and topped with the tiny little blooms of herbs. While the texture of a raw shrimp can be a little off-putting for some, the crunch of the daikon was a brilliant move, giving a foundation of flavor and texture for the sweet and subtle shrimp.
With a sense of humor that was evident throughout the night, the following course was what was missing from the last - the head of the shrimp. They had toasted it with a torch and filled it with a warm and rich foam, made from the shells no doubt. As you picked it up and slurped the filling, it was hard to not giggle with a combination of delight and thoughts of the guests that might be a little freaked out by the act they were partaking in. I must thank my parents for making me such an adventurous eater, as the only pause I had was to snap a picture on the iphone of course.
While my last name may be Goldstein, my family jokes that we're only Jew-ish, as we collectively delight in the joys of pork as much as the next Southerner. Course four brought one of my favorite experiences of the evening, a crispy little slab of pig tail. It had been braised until they could peel it away from the center cartilage, pressed flat and cooked in a skillet. This preparation was happening right in front of me throughout the course and I was stunned at the care that was put into the trimming and cooking of this dish. As it sat cooking in the skillet, the proteins that had cooled and coagulated melted down onto the hot surface of the pan, where they created a crispy savory crunch that dissolved as you chewed and coated every single cell of your mouth with such an umami sensation. They paired it with tart sun-dried gooseberries and a couple dollops of smooth celeriac pureé. Whoa.
An item that has apparently been on the menu at Catbird longer than most (Trevor and crew are alway switching things up with what's fresh and inspiring), is a deceptively-simple salad. They jokingly call it the PB&J salad and it appeared to be just some leaves that were bundled and tied with twine. Meant to be hand-held (again another dose of humor and comfort in this high-end experience) gave way to layer after layer of bright notes of fresh herbs and bitterness of dandelion greens with the sweetness of huckleberry jam, toasted pecans and a spritz of pine vinegar. Adam, the Beverage Manager, paired this with an Austrian Riesling that made the flavors sing even louder. It was a stand-out for sure.
Those bright, fresh flavors of the salad were then balanced by the next course; tiny potatoes that had been cooked in a yeast broth and topped with a paper-thin sheet of cured sturgeon. It was this perfect respite before jumping feet-first into the courses that would follow.
The fish course that followed was one of my favorites of the night. The previous potatoes had prepared my palate perfectly for the subtle nuances of butter-poached skate - served in a bowl with onion petals, pickled ramps from last season and fresh ramps from this season. Holy shit. That was all I could say when I took by first bite. One might think that the pungency of onions could overpower the skate, but the richness of the butter and acidity of the pickled ramps brought everything together to such orgasmic proportions. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I have always had a fondness for ramps. They pop up from the earth in the spring and have to be harvested by hand in the wild. I could not help but feel like I was witness to something special while I tried to force myself to slowly savor every single speck that was in this bowl. We never had ramp dishes like this in NC mountains - that's for certain.
Beef tartare is one of my 'desert island' foods. You know the scenario - you're stranded on an island and can only pick three dishes to eat for the rest of your life? While I actually have no idea what #2 and #3 would be, I know for certain that I could be perfectly happy eating beef tartare for eternity. But Trevor's interpretation of the classic was like nothing I've ever had before. Aged local beef from Bear Creek Farms was ground right there in the kitchen. It was bright and ruby-toned and while soft and silky, still had a 'tooth' to it. Instead of the overdone (yet admittedly delicious) version with capers and an egg yolk on top, they placed the beef on a few dollops of hay yogurt before carefully placing (one by one) little slivers of fresh green almonds and leaves of the peanut plant. I have no idea where you get peanut leaves, but these did not look like they had been sitting in some cooler for even a day or two. Trevor added extra crunch with toasted black rice and quinoa and a sprinkle of the recognizable salty crunch of Maldon sea salt. While I can try to put into words what this tasted like, there's really no way. It's like describing a color you've never seen before. Like so many of the courses, there were many individual flavors on the plate - each incredible on its own, yet each combination of two more more resulted in an entirely different flavor. The peanut leaves tasted just like the little tubers themselves and the green almonds were certainly amazing as well, but it may have been that tart yogurt hidden in the bottom that was my favorite creative component of this dish (if I had to pick one). I have officially changed my desert island list to make sure it's this version of beef tartare at #1.
While I did not think anything could top that beef, the next course further illustrated Chef Trevor's approach to assembling a plate. In the center were three perfect slices of duck breast - crispy skin, moist meat. A sprinkle of diced herb stems on top, the duck was surrounded by sliced fresh green strawberries, wedges of pickled green strawberries, poached white and green asparagus, toasted pistachios, dots of pistachio purée and pieces of watercress and chervil. I was up for the challenge and decided that my first bite should contain a bit of every single element on this plate. With fully-loaded fork in hand, I opened wide. As I slowly chewed this obscene mouthful, food fireworks exploded in my brain. I'm not kidding - there's no other way to describe the experience of how the flavors and aromas exposed themselves with every chomp. First the salt of duck, then a ting of pickled berry, then the pop of pistachio. It was simultaneously complex and simple. It was magnificent.
Every great meal such as this has a cheese course. Trevor's take was a clever twist on 'beer cheese and bar nuts,' and another chance to show a sense of humor. The center of the plate was filled with a warm and fluffy beer cheese and the 'utensil' was a cracker made of bar nuts. Don't ask me how they did it, but I assume a little dark magic must have been involved. One wave of a wand and POOF!, bar nuts are now a paper thin, sweet n' savory cracker. For further interest, it was sprinkled with puffed grains of rice. Despite how full I was getting at this point in the evening, I embarrassingly devoured this in seconds.
Dessert is usually an afterthought for me. Perhaps it's because the southern sweet tooth is often a little too jarring for me. Catbird used those aforementioned magical powers and knew this. It was not only stunningly beautiful but exceptionally thoughtful that the first dessert course (yes, I said first dessert course) was more a transition into sweetness instead of that brick wall of sugar some call dessert. Pastry Chef Mayme Gretsch had been at Catbird since its opening and brought over a composition of St Germain-soaked cucumber, plain whipped cream and preserved lemon. It was a visual feast - arranged with little blossoms around the plate. She then took a spoonful of cucumber 'snow' and sprinkled it over the top. The sweetness of the elderflower of the St. Germain was just enough to let you know that this magical meal was indeed on its downhill slope, but the cream, lemon and cucumber snow made it seem like it could have fit right in earlier in the course progression.
I felt like I was in an art gallery when Mayme brought the next one - a perfect quenelle of tea ice cream resting on a nest of redbud flowers in the center of a large white disc. Who knew redbud flowers were edible? It did not stop there however - she had added a little vanilla bomb of pure vanilla bean paste and a fried chervil stem on top. While everything about this said sweet, it was really the aromas that captured that sweetness more than the taste on the tongue. Mayme has made quite a reputation for herself over the years - there's no wonder why.
It was finally time for the final course - a third dessert course and one more chance for Catbird to shatter any preconceived perception about a stuck-up ego-fest. It was a potato in a paper bag of dirt. Not really - it looked like a potato in a paper bag of dirt, but it was actually a patê a choux pastry, filled with light pastry cream, wrapped in a thin sheet of marzipan and dusted with cocoa and porcini mushroom powder. The dirt? Oh, it was edible too - made of crumbs of some bean-meets-cake creation Mayme thought of. This was everything I want dessert to be: decadent yet fun, rich but light. I picked it up, took a bite and never put it back down.
But just when you thought everything was done, the check was presented with a couple macarons. I am a sucker for a good macaron, but lately they seem a little overdone - made in crazy unnatural colors and packed with flavors that would be more at home in the cooler of Baskin Robbins. But not these. It was a lemon verbena macaron with a brown butter filling. That last little bit of salt from the brown butter was exactly what I needed. It was hard to not get a little teary-eyed, not only because the meal was over but Mayme had already shared that she was winding down her time at Catbird to start a new venture.
Each course that night seemed to rival the next, playing on the flavors of the last. But perhaps even more notably, during the three hour visit, you feel as if you are getting to know each and every kitchen member. The attitude Trevor has created was one of family. Eighties music was bumping through the stereo as the team danced around a tiny central cooking station, repeating the careful steps that went into each course as they prepared them for diners who were all enjoying at their own pace. Regardless of their roles, every person in the kitchen took turns helping the other as courses were assembled. I watched as each one would take their turn clearing the plates of previous courses before someone would bring the next. Often with an arm or elbow leaning on the counter in front of you, they would point out all the components that went into each dish, describing the techniques, the sources and the final result. You felt like you knew these folks, for why else would they be so free and easy? Oh yeah, because it's Nashville.