Friday, March 26, 2010

New Home for Cuban Food in Madison

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Havana Grill

Havana Grill has been serving up Cuban food in Madison for about 7 months now. They just recently moved around the corner into a new location at 505 Gallatin Pike South. It's a much bigger room, and while they are still putting on the finishing touches it looks colorful and festive.

Some menu notables: Tamales Cubanos, papa rellena, chicharrones, plantains, ropa vieja (beef in red sauce), picadillo al la Havana (ground beef with Cuban seasoning), camarones al tequila (shrimp in a tequila and sour cream sauce) and of course the Cubano sandwich.

The house special plates includes a choice between three styles of rice. This lunch visit put Masitas de Cerdo Fritas on the plate. The congris (dark rice and beans) is a hearty and flavorful side dish. The fried pork was juicy and a bit greasy, with grilled onions on top. Plantains were tender and tasty. It's a big plate of filling food for $8.99.

Not much on tap for the Veggie Eater: rice, plantain chips and a couple of other plantain and potato side dishes. Judging from the Congris, though, I would imagine some variety of meat fat or stock is involved in nearly everything. I'll be sure to ask for sure on the next visit.

Thanks for the heads up to Ken, a longtime reader who is always several steps ahead of us in the ethnic food scene. I'll get back to do a real review in a few weeks.

Havana Grill
505 Gallatin Pike South
Right now they are open each day 11am to 9pm.
Be sure to call ahead

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Generous Helpings Event - May 20

Sampling indie restaurant food for a good cause sounds like a pleasant evening to us. This message comes from the folks at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee:

The annual Generous Helpings event will be held on May 20th. It's presented by Kroger benefiting Second Harvest Food Bank and Middle Tennessee's Table - formerly Nashville’s Table. For the second year, the event will be held at the Nashville Farmers’ Market from 5:30-8:30 p.m.

Nashville’s finest independent restaurants will serve taste-size portions of their signature appetizers, entrees and desserts, featuring the freshest ingredients from Middle Tennessee’s local farmers and food producers. Tickets will be available April 15 - May 20 at for $40 in advance or $50 at the door. For more information, visit or contact Leigh Clark or Tasha Kennard at 615.329.3491.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rae’s Gourmet

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Rae’s Gourmet
501 Union Street

Each day workers take to the streets of Nashville in search of sustenance. They pour into restaurants like an invading army: hungry and hurried. The lunch rush is an art form. The top notch lunch joints know how to get the food out lightning fast and still make everyone feel at home. Few folks accomplish the task as well as Fred Battle at Rae’s Gourmet. He works the front counter and manages to: keep orders moving, recognize just about everyone who walks in the door, remember the favorites of at least half those folks, and have time to crack a few jokes. That level of down home service combined with inventive sandwiches sets Rae’s apart from the rest of the downtown lunch options. It’s a fine art they have been perfecting for years.

You walk in the door and Fred is already asking you what you want. There’s plenty to choose from and the hot brown is a customer favorite. As with most of the Rae’s line-up it’s different from what you might expect. In this case it’s more of a smoked turkey sandwich. The thick cut bacon makes it- you get a burst of flavor and a solid crunch that elevates the cheese sauce. The Reuben is the same deal; Rae’s puts it on a toasted sub roll, which may sound like a deal breaker. Once you bite into the tender and tasty corned beef, zippy horseradish dressing, and melted cheese you won’t be complaining. Unlike some places in town, they don’t drown that Reuben in too much sauerkraut. At Rae’s there’s just enough kraut for a nice tang. There are twists and turns all over the sandwich board and an interesting array of ingredients. The Beastie Girl features with beef tenderloin and magic mushroom sauce (Veggie Eater will explain). Ace of Hearts has marinated artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, Swiss and mozzarella. The Wicked Chicken sandwich has chipotles and a green chile sauce to live up to the name.

Soups change daily. The Friday clam chowder is light and zesty, with a little corn to help give it some heft. Beer cheese, potato leek, shrimp bisque and Cajun gumbo round out the week. Red beans and rice makes for a decent side, with a smoky touch and bits of sausage.

They have a two vegetarian sandwiches and a selection of salads with homemade dressings.

Veggie Eater: Let’s start with the salad, since this course alone often colors my entire judgment about a restaurant. I am pleased to report that it got our meal off to a fabulous start. A side salad may not sound very inspiring, but here, it is. This particular version is chalk full of mesculun greens, including my most favorite green of all, arugula. This was then topped with a homemade bleu cheese dressing, full of chunks of the prized bleu cheese. I was torn about which veggie sandwich to choose, as my love for fungus is rivaled only by my love of artichokes. After playing eenie meeniee minie mo, I opted for the Magic Mushrooms. It is a toasted sub roll topped with a medley of shitake, portabella, and standard mushrooms roasted with garlic and capped with an assortment of deli cheese: a truly wonderful sandwich. It’s just plain fun to watch all the regulars and staff interact- a bit like Cheers where everyone knows your name. Do not fret if you are not a regular, they are just as gracious and welcoming to newcomers. My only complaint is that they are open only for lunch, Monday through Friday, so my dream of the Ace of Hearts will just have to wait until we take a vacation day for the sole purpose of puttering around. Also check out the array of hot sauces available.
Meat Eater: We could only hope that Rae’s might stay open at night, and cater to the TPAC theater crowd, but this particular stretch of Union gets rather lonely after hours. Besides, staying open later might break the lunch magic: without Fred saying hello it wouldn’t be quite the same. Still, they do plenty of catering, so if you can’t hit the downtown streets for lunch, they can bring it to you.

We paid $20 with tax and tip for two sandwiches, soup, salad and a drink. On a second visit I paid $11.50 for a sandwich, drink and red beans and rice.
Rae's Gourmet Sandwich Shoppe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 14, 2010

McNamara’s Irish Pub

Nashville Restaurants and Food
McNamara’s Irish Pub
2740 Old Lebanon Road

Ah, some favorite Irish bar moments: A toasty feeling on a blustery day; noticing upside down Paddy’s Whiskey ready for a quick pour; watching a pint of Guinness take a little rest as it cascades on the way to a creamy head. McNamara’s does a nice job of creating these moments. The near instantaneous popularity of the place seems to attest to agreement amongst the good people of Donelson.

The place is the creation of Sean McNamara, a well known name in Celtic music circles. He’s been singing Irish music for years in bars all over Nashville. Now he’s ready to make his own home and be assured, music is a big part of that endeavor. He plays Thursday through Sunday evenings with his band Nosey Flynn on a stage in the main room, and usually to a packed house.

The rest of the time you can find Sean and his family bustling around the place making sure things are in place for business. He’ll take time to say hello and have a chat, and then it’s back to check on the kitchen or to welcome new guests.

The building works remarkably well in the Irish pub mode. It’s been home to a couple of restaurants and even a funeral home at one time. Now the wood floors, warren of rooms, and dark red paint do it justice as an Irish joint. Service is coming along to match. We found table wait staff to be quick and efficient, if not always attentive. It’s perfectly understandable given the packed room on a Saturday night. We just wish the bar staff we witnessed had been more experienced. It seems to us that the foundation of a great Irish bar is highly personable and agile bartenders. They haven’t been open very long, and the owners seem to understand all of this, so we would expect quick improvement in this department.

They pride themselves on perhaps the best array of Irish whiskey in the Nashville area. It’s great to see Paddy’s, Powers, Middleton, Jameson 18-Year, and Bushmills Black Bush sitting proudly above the bar. Get ready for some sticker shock though, as the warm glow recedes. We found $8 for a small shot of Paddy’s to be a little excessive, considering you can get an entire bottle of the stuff for $25. We never ventured to the high grade brands, for fear of having to remortgage the house to pay the tab. They serve Guinness in normal pints and imperial pints (about 4 ounces more). The imperial will set you back $5.75, which is a bit more reasonable. Some of the staff are still learning to pour the stuff, but they take a little time and seem to use the two pour method preferred to set up a creamy head and nice body.

The crispy, meaty crunch of a scotch egg goes great with beer and whiskey. McNamara’s version sports a good fry and full porky flavor. The kettle chips are thick and reasonably crisp, maybe a bit chewy here and there. We found the curry powder to be an interesting (and a very United Kingdom) twist, although laid on a bit thick. Fried mushrooms were standard fare and the horseradish sauce a thoughtful, if probably store bought, companion.

You can probably start a fist fight in Ireland over sausages. Some folks have a fit if you call them Bangers, which is an English description used because of the meaty tendency to explode if the links have too much water in them. Other folks in Ireland don’t seem to mind at all about the name, as long as the consistency is correct. Bangers have more breadcrumb filler than the traditional American sausage. This gives them a fine, smooth texture. McNamara’s features a decent version, with a light char and moist consistency. They’re served up in a very clinical and un pub-like way: completely separated on the plate from the meager mound of mashed potatoes.

The shepherd’s pie is similar comfort food: the mashed spuds and cheese provide a hearty blanket for ground beef, peas and carrots. We notice plenty of pink in that ground beef. I usually order a hamburger medium-rare so it didn’t bother me; others may be a bit alarmed. It’s a filling dish, tame and perhaps light on seasoning. Mac and cheese missed on all points. It’s a bowl of mediocre noodles served with some Velveeta-like cheese sauce on top. Folks at the table enjoyed the pureed potato soup.

On a lunch visit our kind waitress, Rose, took the Veggie Eater’s inquires about safe things to eat quite seriously, to the point of explaining that meat items were fried in the oil. They do have several vegetarian options, including the soups and a number of sides.

Veggie Eater: To say that Irish pub fare is not terribly veggie friendly is an understatement. However, given my love of Irish beer (both Guinness and lesser known cousin, Smithwicks), I have learned to adapt to the pub menu. Generally speaking, this limits me to fried food: potatoes minus the obligatory bacon, or my favorite veggie substitution, a Rueben, minus the corned beef. Meat Eater forbade me to have my Rueben, stating it is not fair to judge a restaurant on a menu item missing its most essential ingredient. So with that in mind, I accommodated my veggie ways with other items on our visits. I’m really not much of a fried food fan, and after sharing some of the apps with friends, thought a salad would fit the bill. I must hand it to McNamara’s for their absolute truthfulness in disclosure during our visits. When asked if the dressings were homemade, they indicated they were not. When asked which was the best of the not homemade dressing, they encouraged me to try the raspberry vinaigrette. I paired this with the spinach salad. Lots of fresh spinach, topped with almonds, mandarin oranges, and sweet onions. The dressing tasted corn syrupy and the salad, although fresh, was not very interesting.

On the next visit I opted for the Celtic Veggie Plate. Our server on this visit, Rose, was kind enough to verify if my side choices were veggie friendly and steer me in the appropriate direction. With my choices fully vetted, I forged ahead with sweet potato fries, potato medley, broccoli cheese casserole, and corn casserole. The sweet potato fries were standard; skinny and well fried; perhaps a dusting of the curry on this could have made them more interesting. The potato medley was very good. Four varieties of potatoes (sweet, purple, and two yellow fleshed varieties) roasted and well seasoned with salt and pepper; very simple, but very satisfying. The broccoli cheese casserole was the potluck variety and the broccoli appeared to be frozen. It was cooked to the point of being mushy and devoid of color, with a cheese sauce; not pretty to look at, not spectacular, but still edible. The corn casserole was better: plump whole kernels baked with a creamy sauce. Will I come again for the food? Probably not. Will I gladly go again for Guinness, ambience, music, and friends and nosh along the way- absolutely.

Meat Eater: Dinner and drinks with good friends is always a treat, and having the comfortable atmosphere to do that is welcome. I think overall the McNamara family has a good thing going here.

We’ll be back for St. Patty’s Day, although unless we hit a pot of gold on Lebanon Pike I don’t think we’ll partake in the whiskey. We paid a rather astounding $90 with tax and tip for two of us on one visit. Now granted we were there for several hours, drank a bunch and stuffed ourselves full. The food prices are actually fairly reasonable ($6-$8 for appetizers, $8-$12 for sandwiches and $11-$18 for entrees.) A return visit provided two entrees and two pints of Guinness for $39 with tax and tip.

Sean will be performing starting at 10 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day and then back for an evening set. He’ll have other musicians throughout the day. It will be a limited menu and as Sean was quick to point out: not a drop of green beer anywhere in his joint.
McNamara's Irish Pub and Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Hendersonville Barbecue Joint

Nashville Restaurants and Food
New Barbecue in Hendersonville

The kitschy Americana thing is all over the place these days. At most places it seems touristy and fake. For whatever reason that's not the vibe I get at Tom's Blue Moon Bar-B-Que in Hendersonville. Sure, you've got antique tin chewing tobacco ads and sacks of potatoes sitting in a carefully arranged pile. Combine that with a huge room, vintage rock and country on the stereo and you have a fun family place. You can get a scoop of complementary peanuts at the door and toss the shells on the floor. The waitresses are friendly and perhaps practicing their sassy. You can easily see kids having fun running around the joint and no one getting annoyed.

I know, I know...get to the point. The barbecue is pretty decent at first taste. Since they've only been open a couple of weeks I'll save a real review for down the road. Tom and his wife Lisa have been doing the barbecue competition circuit for the last eight years. You can tell they take smoke seriously as soon as the plate hits the table. The hickory aroma permeates the ribs, and the pink meat testifies. There's a bold and salty rub that certainly makes a statement. The pulled pork is tender, with bits of bark. The sauces are light and compliment the meat.

They serve up a wide variety of smoked meats: bologna, turkey, chicken, brisket, sausage, ribs and pulled pork. Brunswick stew and bar-b-que chili stand out on the menu, and will bear a return trip.

Tom's Blue Moon Bar-B-Que
104 Sanders Ferry

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Top 3 for Winter

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Top 3 for Winter

And a nasty winter it has been, and not just weather wise. We continue to lose some good restaurants. Happily we picked up three new ones, and judging from early business they are doing pretty well. Here are our Top 3 new restaurants for winter 2009-2010:

1. Silly Goose: This sunny East Nashville eatery is fun and inventive. Chef Roderick Bailey is willing to take some chances in that tiny kitchen and his creations are upscale cuisine at casual prices.

2. Porta Via: We’ve complained for some time about wanting a casual and warm Italian joint to get good pizza and pasta. Porta Via fits the bill in the pizza department, with super crisp Neapolitan pies. The pasta isn’t quite as good, but some interesting sandwiches and salads make up for it. Make sure you get some of the rosemary bread- it’s simply the crispy pizza dough with olive oil, rosemary and salt. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

3. Smiling Elephant: A homey interior and concise flavors make this a nice addition to the Thai food scene here in Nashville. Dishes can range from delicate (pad Thai) to intense (green curry). The variety is enjoyable.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Kien Giang

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Kien Giang
5825 Charlotte Pike

Kien Giang was one of the first Vietnamese restaurants we visited in Nashville, and we really enjoyed it. Once the blog got going we were so intent on hitting new spots we didn’t get back, until just recently. All of this is a shame, because Kien Giang serves wide range of Vietnamese specialties, and the legions of loyal regulars can attest to the quality.
Pho and banh mi are a good way to get a feel for any Vietnamese joint. The Kien Giang Pho Tai is rare steak with a rice noodle soup. The light broth has good flavor and the noodles are tender. The steak really isn’t rare anymore, probably in part due to the hot soup. It’s a decent pho and the sides and sauces make it a satisfying lunch. At $4.95 for a small bowl that’s actually pretty big, it’s one of the better deals in town. The barbecue pork in the Banh Mi Thit Nuong is a savory foil to the crisp onions and cucumber. The French bread crust nearly snaps at first bite, providing a range of textures and lovely tastes for an excellent sandwich. At $2.75 it may be one of the best bargain sandwiches in Nashville.
Banh Xeo Chay features two super thin and crispy egg pancakes filled with tofu, bean sprouts, onions and carrots. The fun is using huge fresh lettuce leaves to scoop up parts of the pancake and then dipping the whole thing in a special fish sauce. It’s crunchy, savory and sweet all at once.
Mi Xao Don throws just about everything into the stir fry: beef, chicken, pork, scallops, shrimp and octopus. In retrospect something is going to get lost in cooking and while the chicken and beef do well, some of the seafood is a bit chewy. The wonderful brown sauce is blazing hot in terms of temperature and this may be part of the issue. The crispy fried egg noodles are a great accompaniment. In one bite they are like wontons, and when bathed in brown sauce take on a more traditional noodle texture.
Veggie Eater: I don’t believe the first time we venture here years ago that there was a veggie menu, but there is now. That’s a real bonus, so you don’t have to worry about stealthy meat ingredients. I opted for the stir fried lemongrass tofu. It is served with a heaping mound of rice. The tofu is firm, cut into triangles, and cooked in a ginger lemongrass sauce. The sauce is both salty and slightly sweet. Dried pepper flakes are liberally sprinkled to provide some heat. It is garnished with pickled cucumbers and carrots for some additional texture. What I love about Vietnamese restaurants is the sheer variety of condiments. I am happy to report that on this visit, I did not use any of them as I was happy with my food as is. Be sure to check out the artwork while visiting; it’s a little odd and will certainly give you pause for thought.
Meat Eater: A lunch visit finds one waitress working the packed room of 35 or more diners effectively. Her incredible skill is not matched by the young gentleman working a weekend shift. Luckily he’s quite nice, it’s not crowded yet and hot tea keeps us entertained. The d├ęcor is utilitarian at best. Keep an eye out for your table number, because you’ll need it to pay at the front counter. And heaven help you if you try and pay by credit card- they only do cash and checks.
We paid $28 with tax, tip for two entrees, a large appetizer and tea. For pho, banh mi and a coke I paid $11 with tax and tip.
Kien Giang on Urbanspoon