Sunday, May 23, 2010
The Holland House Bar and Refuge
935 Eastland Avenue
The revival of the great American cocktail is an interesting trend. Are people most enamored with the drinks and the skill of preparation, or are they in love with the concept of dressing up, and bringing back the look sharp attitude of the 40’s and 50’s? The folks at the Holland House Bar and Refuge seem to fall into the drink category. Terrell Raley is the general manager and head mixologist and that says a lot about the place. Raley and his suspendered bartending crew turn out precise cocktails that are unabashed in style and full of bold and sometimes even challenging flavors. While drinks may dominate at the Holland House, the kitchen is making a game effort to keep up with an ever expanding, and somewhat quirky, menu.
The Holland House is an outpost in the Maxwell Heights/Greenwood area of East Nashville near Ellington Parkway. It’s an unassuming and yet stylish renovation of a neighborhood grocery store. The interior sports plank floors and exposed cinder block. The out of place chandeliers and a mock library room round out the tongue in cheek ambience. The result: you can show up dressed up for a night out or in a black t-shirt and shorts. No one will care.
You’ll find traditional cocktails on the main list and a number of adapted creations. In Peru last summer we drank enough Pisco Sours to fill a swimming pool. We found the Holland House version to be up to par: a little tart, a nice bite and topped with a well defined and creamy head from egg white and plenty of shaking. The Cabo Verde had a whiplash tequila bite. A Black Lemon Old Fashioned, suggested by the bar, was a dark and piquant mix of Basil Hayden bourbon and summer tea bitters. Bitters are popular here as well as other husky, powerful flavors. The long list of cocktails number into the dozens: Sazerac, Negroni, Vieux Carre, Rye Flip. They’re divided in the drink menu as cocktails; juleps, smashes and cobblers and epicurean cocktails. If all that sounds pretentious it’s not- these folks just enjoy making great drinks.
Our bartender John is shaking, mashing, muddling and even finding time for chatting on a busy evening. He brings us an egg white topped Morning Glory featuring Talisker scotch and Corsair Red absinthe. The Warsaw Mule comes with a huge block of ice and light summery flavor. They’ll tell you that these recipes are a hundred years old and they are merely updating that tradition with carefully selected liquors- infused vodkas, small batch gins and artisan bourbons.
The food side of the house features some Nashville restaurant veterans. Christian Dye is the Executive Chef, you may remember him from Watermark. Laura Wilson, formerly of Ombi, has been helping to get the menu going and creating contacts with local farmers. We took a run through the small plates menu with some new friends on one visit. The fish and chips were a standout. The thick catfish filet has a light fry. The skin-on French fries walked the line between meaty and crispy. Crab sausage was a savory take, served luke warm, which seemed a bit odd. Lamb wings looked and sounded like an excellent idea, and while served with a spicy, sweet buffalo-style sauce, lacked enough flavor on their own. Steak tartar was well seasoned and pepped up with capers and shallots. The spare rib egg rolls were a bit uninspired. The pork belly had a nice char on the outside and proved moist and flavorful.
The Meester Burger is wagyu kobe beef cooked perfectly medium rare as a default (they were too slammed to ask what temperature). The sweet flavor of the beef is accented by aioli, cheddar and a hearty, floury Provence whole wheat bun. It’s a good burger- simple and tasty. I assume the name is homage to a Dutch burger joint by the same name. Judging from pictures of the Dutch burgers online it seems likely. The fries this night were spot on-crispy, crunchy and meaty all at the same time. A generous dose of salt and some sampling ketchup and you have a pretty good evening.
For a different twist, try the brunch. It’s a small line-up but when combined with mimosas makes for an enjoyable morning. The blood orange mimosa was a little heartier than the usual and a little tarter. The ginger-grapefruit version was a nice pair. The server recommended the biscuits platter and it was a good suggestion. The biscuits are dense and tasty. Honey butter is a delicate topping and the blueberry preserves a sweet standout. The king of the plate proved to be the light and lemony white gravy with big chunks of sausage. The eggs Benedict was a bit of a dry disappointment. The eggs were overcooked, leaving them mealy and not runny. The hollandaise was pleasant and yet a bit sparse on the plate. The chewy Tennessee country ham had terrific flavor. The house omelet did better. It was light, well cooked and wrapped up with spinach.
Diced potatoes had decent flavor, especially when combined with the few bits of caramelized onion. We tried to do the fun loving, Cold Pizza Platter, which is exactly what it describes: cold pizza from the night before served with a candy cigarette. Alas, the pizza was pepperoni and the Veggie Eater was in a plate sharing mood.
Veggie Eater: On my second visit, I opted for the veggie plate du jour (it really does change each day) .On this night it was fried red peppers stuffed with feta cheese. It was a great combination of textures and flavors; a bit crispy, chewy, squeaky, sweet, and salty all at the same time. The next time, I tried the Ketchup sampler and house salad. The fries are skinny with skins; my favorite kind and these were well prepared during our visit. The ketchups are a bit confounding; one appeared to be some variation of berry and black pepper, another tasted of smoked chiles, and yet another a bit reminiscent of curry. The orange version baffled me completely, but no worries, I managed to gobble them all. The salad was a bit smallish for the $6 price, but was a wonderful combination of greens, slivered almonds, dried cranberries, and sliced radishes, all coated with homemade buttermilk vinaigrette. I just wish there had been more of it. The Warsaw Mule is a summer cocktail delight; vodka, citrus, and soda water. They also have a great selections of beers, including more difficult to find high alcohol varieties (triple bock, Belgian or imperial stout, anyone?). Prices are not cheap, but not terrible either. Love the vibe. My only fear is that it will lose its charm as it becomes busier.
Meat Eater: East Nashville seems to be taking to the Holland House Bar and Refuge. Kinda cool to see women in gym shorts and t-shirts rubbing elbows with others in black cocktail dresses. Mondays offer a good deal: a half-price Meester burger ($7) and half-price small batch bourbons ($5-$7). Basic cocktails are $10 each. Small plates run $6-$12 and entrees $12-$19. We paid $41 for brunch with tax and tip. It’s hard to say what we paid on the second visit, due to the large group, but it came out to about $120 for us. On a third visit we paid $62 with tax and tip.