Sunday, February 27, 2011
This building at the corner of Fourth and Broadway downtown has seen its share of Nashville history. The former hotel was the occasional crash pad of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. It’s been a popular restaurant since 1988 and just last year Merchants had a reboot, thanks to Ben and Max Goldberg. The Goldberg’s are known for Paradise Park, a completely different tourist joint down the street, and the high-end cocktail bar Patterson House. What does this mean for you, the discerning diner? Cocktails, of course, at least on the bustling first floor. You’ll find suspendered bartenders shaking up all sorts of concoctions. We’re in favor of the cocktail trend, just as long as it stays reasonably priced and relatively unpretentious. Merchants walks the line carefully.
This is an important restaurant for downtown- as there’s little playing up to the tourists. Merchants focuses on food and libations and for the most part both are solid. This review will concentrate on downstairs bistro dining, since it fits with the price point of this blog, rather than the more expensive upstairs room.
The bar and dining room were packed on both of our visits. It’s a popular spot before Predators hockey games and concerts at the nearby Bridgestone Arena. The black and white themed dining room, the whimsical columns and historic brick add up to a cool dining décor.
Start off with a cocktail. They have a wide array of interesting liquor for sale and a full menu of cocktail possibilities. We took a look at the Smoky Mountains Moonshine on tap, but preferred to sample one of the many Corsair Artisan distillery liquor available. They also serve up Pritchard’s Tennessee products. We like our booze local these days and Merchants is ready to oblige.
The menu line-up is pretty straightforward: steaks, fish, and sandwiches. A roast beef sandwich with horseradish mayo comes piled high on a French roll. The thick slices of hearty beef get some spark from the zippy mayo. Coleslaw on the side is rather bland, with not enough acid or seasoning. Woodsy, silky roasted mushroom soup hits the spot. It’s whipped airy in texture and given some tang with crème fraiche. The big hit on our first visit was actually the spinach salad with balsamic and goat cheese. It’s really well dressed, with every leaf of spinach lightly coated. Pickled onions, cherry tomatoes and olives round out the plate. It’s a good thing the salads are given such attention, because there is not much here for the vegetarian. We counted one entrée, two appetizers and the salads. You’ll want to inquire about the soup stocks on any given day.
On our second visit, the house burger comes out medium, rather than the requested medium-rare. Not a huge deal, but it does take away from full burger potential. The brioche bun supports two big patties and the usual toppings. The rough cut fries are salty and hot, quite frankly bullying that burger for attention on the plate.
Veggie Eater: I opted for fried green tomatoes, and the beet and goat cheese crostini, on the first visit. The fried green tomatoes were well seasoned and large. They were served with a chunky pimento cheese and a spicy sweet pepper jam. The beet and goat cheese crostini was delightful. The ultra-crispy toasts are topped with warmed goat cheese and roasted beets, with arugula in a balsamic reduction on the side. On my next visit, I opted for the Brussels sprout and wild mushroom risotto. The Arborio rice was well cooked-it still had bite to it, which paired well with the lemony, creamy sauce. Now, beware, as I did not specifically ask about the liquid base used, for fear of the answer. Again, veggie options are limited, but I am generally happy with a well prepared app and a salad, which was provided here. Drawbacks: First, I believe that the worst of unpardonable sins was completed with the wedge salad-I think bottled blue cheese was used (I detected a Marie’s like taste and consistency) (she doesn’t know this for a fact, but either way it wasn’t very good-M.E.) and furthermore, I think they attempted to cover this up by adding lots of chunks of fresh blue cheese. Secondly, It looks like a lot of money was spent rehabbing the first floor bar area, but apparently they ran out of cash in the bathrooms-the walls have been patched and spackled and not repainted. The cracked tile floors have not been repaired.
Meat Eater: Pretty plating and attention to quality ingredients separate Merchants from most of the downtown pack. It’s a good alternative to bar food and a refreshing break from honky tonk madness. We paid $55 with tax, tips and drinks on one visit and $66 on another.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Nashville Restaurants and Food
Disco Fries and Kalamatas at Belmont
What happens when a bunch of guys from New Jersey open a restaurant in Hendersonville? Disco Fries, that’s what. It’s kind of the poutine of the Garden State. Typically, the Jersey version is dark gravy and mozzarella cheese over steak fries. Nooni’s restaurant serves them up with more of a thin gravy/cheese sauce. It’s still plenty good and perhaps lighter than the original (traditional Canadian poutine combines gravy with cheese curds). The Nooni’s fries are hand-cut and with the skins on, which holds up well next to the gravy-cheese sauce. The Taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwich is also New Jersey diner fare: simple and filling with a grilled doughy bun and a big fried egg. They’re just getting settled in, and the menu has already gone through a bunch of changes. Despite being left off the online menu, they tell me the Disco Fries are still available and you can now get that Taylor ham, egg and cheese on the Dirty Jersey burger. The rest of the offerings are now more pasta-bistro oriented, including a Sunday brunch. It will be interesting to see if they add more Garden State favorites down the road.
260 West Main Street
Kalamatas has its third location up and running, this one across the street from Belmont University. The Green Hills Mediterranean joint also has a Brentwood location. Falafel, hummus and stuffed grape leaves are just a few of the treats you can expect. The new space is at 1703 Portland Avenue across from the Curb Events Center.
1703 Portland Avenue
Sunday, February 20, 2011
407 Gallatin Avenue
It seems like every bar in Nashville is picking a point in history and styling the surroundings and feel of the place to meet a retro vision of that era. Plug No. 308 directly into the late fifties and early sixties: days and nights of beat poets, jazz and the origins of counterculture. No. 308 puts a literary spin on the theme, honoring favorite authors with drinks, including Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs. Those legendarily crusty dudes would probably be more at home next door at Dino’s, but the décor certainly evokes late 1950s cool. It’s a stripped down, dark space with a vaulted ceiling and vintage living room seating. It reminds one of a retro rec room with an attitude. You’ll have to climb up on the tractor seat bar stools to reach the towering bar. Behind it, t-shirt and black jeans clad folks are pouring and shaking with vigor. This may all sound a bit over the top, but it works well, in large part due to the sincerity of owners Alexis Soler and Ben Clemons, and the dedication of the hard-working staff.
Drinks are the primary concern at No. 308. They take the cocktail trend seriously. You’ll find house-made soda syrups and on the spot carbonation. A whiskey and ginger is an eye-opening rendition. A simple vodka tonic is smoother and the whiskey and cola is heads and tails better than any variation this drinker has ever had. The carbonation is fun to watch: they mix up the liquids, throw it in a two-liter plastic bottle, squeeze out the air and pump in the carbonation. We had one bartender eye his work afterwards and pronounce it insufficient. He took the glass away and went at it again.
The drink pricing is fairly reasonable, considering the amount of work going into those concoctions. Those house mixers are normally $7 a pop and only $5 each during happy hour. They have a quality selection of liquor and at $5, a shot the Bukowski boilermaker (Four Roses bourbon and a Carlsberg Elephant beer on the side) is one of the best drink bargains in Nashville.
The attention to detail also shows with the short food menu. The only gripe is that it seems to keep shrinking in options. The small plates run $8, $6 and $3 and are made for sharing. Yam chips with sorghum aioli are a little chewy, a little sweet and a new addiction. Marinated olives are beefy and citrusy. Sweet potato soup hits the spot on the first visit and is off the menu by the next visit. Kale and grilled chicken salad shows dedication to the green by leaving it with some snap in texture and spritzing it with a vinegar dressing. Pumpkin raviolis have a sweet, creamy sauce and a nice filling. Thai chicken wings were a stand-out on visit two: super-plump grilled wings in a spicy sauce with just a hint of sweet. The slight char really makes them pop. A skirt steak salad is well marinated and sliced atop mixed greens and blue cheese. It too was remembered from visit one and gone on visit two.
No matter what the tinkering, or all out changes to the menu, clearly this kitchen takes the food seriously and we would probably be happy with whatever they put out. We just hope the menu can grow a bit and not get smaller. Great food is always welcome at a cocktail joint.
Veggie Eater: I must apologize in advance for being a bit sketchy on details, as each time I have ventured to this spot, I have embraced the libations wholeheartedly. I am not much of a cocktail drinker, but when in Rome. I opted for the Pisco Sour on my first visit and let me tell you, I was not disappointed. It was perhaps the best Pisco I’ve had outside of Lima. I assume, like all other mixers here, that the sour mix is house-made. What’s a Pisco? It’s a Peruvian drink featuring the national liquor called Pisco. The sour mix and Pisco is combined with raw egg white and shaken vigorously by hand until it achieves an Orange Julius like consistency. This one was simply fabulous.
On the food side of thing, the cheese plate is generous and changes according to availability. On our first visit it included the highly prized Humboldt Fog Blue Cheese and pecans, along with an assortment of breads. On our second visit, they were kind enough to serve the pumpkin ravioli with bacon on the side. Tempura veggies were lightly fried and included an interesting assortment of onions, green beans, and cauliflower. The crispy mozz is not the lame frozen mozzarella stick version, served most other places, but a disc that is lightly fried and served with a balsamic dressing. On the second visit, I opted for the gin and tonic and was glad I had given gin another chance after a 20+ year long absence in my life (we won’t go into the details). Adding to the charm is $5 Carlsberg Elephant beers (though sadly they were out on our second visit) and fabulous ambience and music (I got to hear the Pixies two times in one night—always the sign post of a best night ever). Gripes: First, the bar is really tall and the bar stools difficult to get in and out (they’re made from antique tractor seats) if you are vertically challenged (I am). Secondly, the bar is really dark, making the black menus almost impossible to read (we used the candle on our table to read.) Third, our server was delightful, but apparently had either ADD or Alzheimers, as every time he returned to take an order, we had to remind him of Meat Eater’s name for the tab. I can happily live with all three of these issues. I can sit at a table, will be sure to bring friends with better eyes than mine, and can happily recite my husband’s last name as needed.
Meat Eater: The crowd here is laid-back East Nashville with minimal pretention, at least for the early hours we visited. No. 308 is just a short hop around the corner from Five Points and definitely extends the neighborhood vision. We kind of went wild on both visits, so don’t take our bar tabs as an indication of expensive pricing. We were simply having too much fun to stop. We paid $98 with tax and tip on one visit and $80 on the next.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
2421 Vanderbilt Place
It’s time to play catch-up with a Nashville vegetarian classic: Grins. We know, we know. What took you so long? We beg forgiveness.
Vegetarian cuisine is often seen as a challenge to compete with the meat world, in both creativity and flavor. While there are many veggie joints that do a fine job with meat-inspired recipes (Buffalo chicken-style tempeh, lentil loaf) the other route is accomplished by focusing on the ingredients at hand. Grins Vegetarian Café falls into the second category. They’ve been putting out quality food for many years now and the result is simple, flavorful and well executed sandwiches, salads and sides.
A paper bowl of poblano corn chowder starts off one visit. There is a subtle, smoky heat, creamy texture and a satisfying finish. Some of that Southwestern-style background heat also comes out in the macaroni salad with some crunch provided by bits of olives and red peppers. A goat cheese and roasted tomato quiche is tangy and well-cooked. The combo is a relaxing, informal lunch that quite frankly, didn’t leave the meat eater missing anything from the animal kingdom.
It’s not a big menu- on any given day just a couple of salads, a soup, a few sides, a Panini du jour and several wraps. They give you the choice of cheese, dairy products and vegan condiment options. The specials seem to be some of the more inventive and fun offerings of the day.
Grins is located on the Vanderbilt campus, so there is a challenge in making the trip from the outside world. It’s tucked away in the Ben Schulman Center, which is a center for Jewish life on campus. That gives Grins double billing as not only one of the few all-vegetarian restaurants in Nashville, but also one of the few kosher spots in town. The large number of vegan items is also rare for Nashville. Your best bet for parking is the two-hour meters on 24th avenue. There are only a few spots available on most weekdays, and that’s the only time you’ll find Grins open for business.
Veggie Eater: I opted for the Panini and side dish special on my visit. I’m actually not much of a pasta salad fan, but this was thoroughly satisfying. Carrots, peas, radishes, onion, and macaroni are happily tossed with a veganaise and vinegar dressing; creamy and zesty. The Peter Piper Panini is an expertly toasted creation consisting of cheddar, tomato, pepperoncinis, spinach and garlic mayo. The peppers add a hint of heat and pair well with the mayo. It’s a bustling lunchtime spot, and if you are insecure about your advancing age, body image, or station in life, Grins will not be kind to you…it is a college lunch joint after all.
Meat Eater: Wow, I never knew the Veggie Eater worried about such things. The college kids were perfectly nice to me. The tight hours and tough parking are one reason it has taken us so long to get to Grins. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the best lunch spots in town. Just beware that they are closed for school and Jewish holidays. Check out the website for an updated list.
There are only a few tables in the restaurant area itself, but it seems that the Schulman Center folks wouldn’t mind someone spreading out in the lobby. This place, part of the Bongo World empire (think Fido and the coffee joints) is yet another reason why the Bongo Java folks have such an important role in the Nashville eating and coffee drinking community. We did separate visits with my tab coming to $12 and the Veggie Eater tab coming to $12.
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.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Nashville Restaurants and Food
Whites Creek is Hopping
Historic Whites Creek is strumming along quite nicely these days with singer-songwriters, amiable dining rooms and festive surroundings- all on a half-mile strip on Whites Creek Pike. The now defunct Star Café started the trend several years ago. Richard’s took over that location and built a reputation for quality Cajun cuisine, cozy music nights and the friendly antics of impresario-chef Richard Trest. It’s a combination that continues to thrive. The Farm House at the Fontanel opened the area up for corporate development with a community-based vision, just last year. It’s a restaurant and entertainment complex tied to the former Barbara Mandrell mansion that includes a large, grassy outdoor concert venue, walking trails and tourists brought up from Nashville by the busload. You can listen to a bluegrass group in the bustling dining room and find a wide-ranging menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Now the James Gang Company has set up shop in a historic building, circa 1874, that once housed a grocery store and saloon. It gained fame when James Gang member Bill Ryan was arrested there. These days the small, comfortable room is filled with kitschy antiques, country tables illuminated by candlelight and a teeny-tiny stage in one corner. You can expect the obligatory singer-songwriter nights, but also comedy, Christian music and even Indie Rock. They’re open primarily on Friday and Saturday nights, with occasional forays on Sundays and special occasions (they have both Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras events planned). You can get a bottle of Yazoo or Fat Tire and peruse the short menu. The Puttin’ on the Ritz Cheddar Jam is a cheese spread chock full of pecans, green onions and topped with strawberry jam. Put a chunk on a Ritz cracker and you’re in a good place. Everything else seems kind of standard: thick chili, a heavily sauced pulled pork sandwich. The sweet beans with fatback bacon stand out a bit. The promise of a hot dog covered in peanut butter may be worth investigation on a future visit. The Veggie Eater chose the produce plate, artfully presented as strips of fresh veggies cut lengthwise and propped up inside a sundae glass. The ranch dressing appeared to be fresh and perhaps house made. A few sandwiches, nachos, spinach dip and ice cream treats round out the choices.
The staff at James Gang tells us that the abandoned gas station at the corner of Whites Creek Pike and Old Hickory may soon be converted into a barbecue joint. That would probably be enough business in one location to put the new entertainment strip on the map, if everyone can keep pulling in good crowds. You’ll find beer, solid food and music at all three current restaurants. It’s a trip well worth taking on a weekend night, just 20 minutes north of downtown Nashville. And the parking situation beats Broadway any day.
The James Gang Company
4409 Whites Creek Pike
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Lee’s Philly Cheese Steak
2610 Gallatin Pike
Let the debate begin: authentic or not-authentic? I’m going to weigh in with not-authentic and who cares? Lee’s Philly Cheese Steak puts out a damn good sandwich- and one well worthy of greasy, beefy respect.
It all starts with that beef- it needs to be a decent cut and then it needs to be spiced, chopped and tossed on the grill. The chopping and the seasoning are critical. Far too many joints serve up long slices of bland meat. Lee’s Philly Cheese Steak gets it right. The beef is well seasoned and for the most part tender. It’s fried up, with onions if you’d like, and then thrown onto a roll with Swiss cheese and mayo. Okay, I know, this deviates in a major way from Philly style and perhaps any East Coast style. At first I was skeptical, but I have to say it works. That Swiss and mayo combo goes nearly liquid and combines with the juices of the meat. The chewy rolls hold up well under the assault. It all stacks up to be a juicy, cheesy and above average steak sandwich. The spicy version adds hot peppers for a medium heat and a nice twist. This second visit showed the steak to be a bit tough. Here’s hoping Lee’s keeps up the quality of that meat. It makes all the difference in the world.
Another weird aspect is the offering of lettuce and tomato. This seems like a quick way to ruin a good steak sandwich. I probably have eaten some 200 steak and cheese sandwiches in my time (primarily in Boston) and I have never seen this even offered. This isn’t Subway folks- let the meat do the talking and save the lettuce for a salad.
Lee’s branches out on the menu with pork chop sandwiches, wings, fried chicken and a number of other take-out favorites. The fried chicken is salty, crisp and quite juicy inside. The tiny East Nashville restaurant is take-out only. A few chairs are there for waiting, but for eating it’s out to the car or take it home.
I think that despite the claim in the name Lee’s offers one of the better greasy beef sandwiches in town. In the end, that’s all that really counts. I paid $6.50 on one visit and $9 on the next.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Nashville Restaurants and Food
Valentine’s Day Picks 2011
Love Nashville style! We offer three ideas this year for Valentine’s Day dining: Creative and precisely executed twists on southern traditions; bold flavors that tingle the tongue and heat up the room; and low light ambiance, small plates for sharing and a glass of wine.
1. The Capitol Grille
The Capitol Grille has become our go-to restaurant for special occasions. Executive Chef Tyler Brown has the place firing on all cylinders. In the front of the house, they present deft, friendly service from a knowledgeable staff. Start in the Oak Room bar with a glass of wine. In fact, you could even stay at the bar and have an entire meal of American classics gone upscale: pimento grilled cheese, deviled eggs, pork sliders and even a Brunswick stew (on normal days, check to see for V-Day). In the Capitol Grille itself, you can expect bold takes on Southern tradition. The House Cured Country Ham Chowder has the powerful flavors of a Tennessee smokehouse gone creamy and silky. A Niman Ranch pork chop is exceedingly tender and features a subtle smoke. While limited, there are always menu items for veggie eaters, including an entrée and at least one tangy salad option, like the Lola Rosa salad with goat cheese, pecans and blood orange. Just make sure you ask about preparation for some of the sides. The Valentine’s Day has just been released. It includes the Lola Rosa salad, Seared Lamb Loin and Maine Lobster Terrine. For the non-fish eating Veggie Eaters we would suggest a call to reservations. While there is no vegetarian entrée listed, every time we have called they were quite willing to come up with something special.
Spice has been equated with love throughout history. Ginger offers a bit of heat and a lot of depth in its spicy dishes and we think that’s a recipe for romance. Sure, this isn’t the place to bring a new date if you’re trying to impress them. Ginger is a laid back, modest restaurant serving up good food. That sounds like the perfect spot for the married couple and long time daters. The curries have a great depth of flavor and decent heat. They will take it up a few notches, or down a few, on request. Make sure you ask about dessert. They have a number of interesting possibilities.
3. Belcourt Taps and Tapas
This Hillsboro Village restaurant had a few hiccups in the first few weeks, which is the case with many restaurants. The service, food and price point all improved quickly. One thing that was never in doubt was the ambiance. The warm, romantically dark room is a great place to enjoy a glass of wine and some conversation. Share a few small plates, have another glass of wine. Those dishes are Southern and European inspired, but this is not a Spanish joint. We suggest the fried chicken, drizzled with ancho chili honey and served with sausage scones. The house-made tater tots with onion with chipotle ketchup sound silly until you taste them.