Sunday, February 13, 2011
The Turnip Truck Urban Fare in the Gulch
311 12th Avenue South
The original Turnip Truck store has been an oasis of select foods and laid back staffing in East Nashville since 2001. The new location in the Gulch neighborhood, just west of downtown, came with much anticipation. While the bigger store offers plenty of room for a great variety of quality, natural, locally-focused food products and health items, it’s the food bar that brings us to this review. Let’s face it: the buffet has always been an abused food service technique. Whole Foods changed that years ago with the hot bar and food by the pound. You get to choose a little of this and perhaps a lot of that; you pile up the plate as much as you would like and hit the scales to find out the cost. The Turnip Truck Urban Fare in the Gulch entered the hot and cold bar fray with some heavy hitting help. Owner John Dyke brought in Laura Wilson of Ombi and Wild Iris fame to set the benchmark for the food service. Wilson is no stranger to start-ups. Lately, it’s been her main gig, having helped Holland House get off on the right foot.
The difference between a hot and cold bar set-up and a buffet may only be psychological. However, the difference in the food served at just about any buffet in town, and the Turnip Truck fare, is night and day. Every item we tasted was well prepared and reasonably fresh. That’s a tough thing for a food bar serving between 20-30 items, on any given day.
We go a little wild for lunch on the first visit. The first bite is a tender slice of pot roast with decent flavor. Cakey rosemary biscuits are comforting goodness. Sweet potato hash nearly hurts your teeth with the sweet Southern style, but it’s a comforting kind of hurt. Kale comes in a wonderful Asian sauce with pumpkin seeds. A broccoli casserole is crispy and quite good. Every bite is up to expectations.
Not surprisingly, given their roots in natural foods, the Turnip Truck takes vegetarian needs quite seriously. That emphasis continues at the hot and cold bar, making the Turnip Truck food bar one of the best vegetarian options in town. Barbecue tofu has a firm consistency and a sweet finish. Seaweed salad is tangy and the sesame noodles, tofu curry and pad Thai all hit the spot. Does that sound like a lot of sampling on our part? You bet.
Next up, is a dinner visit where an herby pork cutlet has tremendous flavor. Indeed, just about everything at the hot bar is perfectly seasoned. We didn’t even ask for the salt or pepper. This time it’s a flaky parmesan and gruyere biscuit. The Indian flavored chicken curry quiche is a spicy twist and the mashed potatoes are fine. We arrived just before closing and the hot bar items were still reasonably fresh, which is a remarkable feat. There’s wasn’t a lot of seafood left in the seafood chowder pot. With all of the flavor packed into the broth, it didn’t really matter. Fresh chicken salad from the cold side was zipped up with onions and peppers for a well balanced take on the favorite. The Turnip Truck is also home to great baked goods. We can’t leave the store without the spiced chocolate chip cookies.
Veggie Eater: The difficulty here, as with any buffet style set up, is trying to maintain moderation. They make this very difficult for the veggie eater, as veggie options abound; it’s the proverbial kid in the candy store. I found all options sampled well-prepared and seasoned. My favorite items, however, were the roasted Brussels sprouts with mushrooms, the aforementioned parmesan and gruyere biscuits (better than the most famous biscuit establishment in town), and the salad bar. I am a salad bar junky. I LOVE picking and assembling my most favorite odd ball salad ingredients, and topping them with sinfully bad for you dressing. At the Turnip Truck, the ante is upped with the option of arugula for a salad green…nothing else, just pure, unadulterated arugula. Needless to say, I was in heaven.
Meat Eater: That hot and cold bar is $7.99 a pound. The soup is a good deal at $2.99 for a small bowl. There’s a pleasant little dining room off to the side of the check-out area. Chances are you’ll be chatting during lunch or dinner with one of the ultra-friendly and quite knowledgeable staff. They can’t help but chime in about their favorite dish. There is also a simple patio-deck with tables for warmer months.
The Turnip Truck has quickly made a dent in the Gulch/Downtown/Midtown food scene. It’s a tremendous addition to the fledgling neighborhood, and the food at the hot and cold bar make it one of the better restaurants in town. And for the price, it rates as one of our new favorites. We paid $24 with tax and tip for the dinner visit and $20 for the lunch visit.