NASHVILLE— My roots are deep in Nashville. I never lived here, I haven’t spent more than a few consecutive nights in a row here over the last 53 years, but it’s in my blood.
My mother’s “people” all come from Nashville. As a child my grandfather, who grew up just outside of town on the banks of the Cumberland River, told me stories about life in and around hilly woods of Tennessee with his two brothers.
His childhood, and the landscape and terrain that surrounded his boyhood home, shaped his life as much as growing up in my neighborhood shaped my personality and influenced my thoughts, tastes, and decisions.
My grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom eventually moved to my hometown of Hattiesburg when my mother moved there, were from the “city” of Nashville. They were plugged in to Nashville society and the Nashville social scene as it stood over a century ago. There home was on 16th Avenue in the 1920s which is the center of the music business today. The stories I heard from that side of the family were entirely different from the tales my grandfather told of hunting and fishing in the woods near the Cumberland Gap.
My parents met at Vanderbilt and married in a church in Nashville. Somewhere along the way all of those stories and shared remembrances formed a very romantic narrative that turned Nashville into a magical place for me.
Throughout my junior high and early high school years my friend Banks quit college, packed his guitar, and set off to make it as a singer-songwriter in Nashville. This only added to the magic.
Yet I never spent any quality time in Nashville until the late 1980s. When I finally arrived, it wasn’t the city of my dreams. Probably no location could have lived up to the pre-billing by my family. The woods near my grandfathers house were all gated communities and neighborhoods. At the time there was something a little cheesy going on in the music scene that had shunned Willie, Waylon, and Lyle. In many eyes, Austin was hip, Nashville was not.
The Nashville of today is a truly magical place, especially from a restaurateur’s standpoint. Nashville’s food scene is alive and relevant. More so than Birmingham, Memphis, Asheville, or Charlotte. I started noticing the change seven or eight years ago when visiting friends in nearby Leper’s Fork. The old touristy places were still there, but their was a culinary sub culture that ran through this town that is deeper than the latest hipster-of-the-moment’s fad of the week. Farm-to-table joints were opening. Several years before Sean Brock decided to open a second Husk in Nashville— not Atlanta or Birmingham— the tide started shifting.
There is a culinary renaissance taking place in cities across the nation that strikes a unique chord with me. The dressing down of fine dining and moving from high-concept stuffiness to “real,” local, and fun are very appealing to me. Brendan Sodikoff and Paul Kahan are doing it in Chicago. Sean McCusker and Robert LeBlanc are doing it in New Orleans, and Benjamin and Max Goldberg, owners of Strategic Hospitality, are leading the charge in Nashville.
The Patterson House which is a small, dark space excelling in craft cocktails. The James Beard-nominated Catbird seat where each of the 22 seats is a place at the chef’s table, Paradise Park, an ironic astroturf-laden burger joint with corn dogs and tater tots tucked among the touristy end of Broadway theme restaurants, and its next-door neighbor Merchants. Unfortunately, this column will go to print before dinner at Merchants and a visit with Branch alumnus, and Merchants manager, Betsy Robinson.
The most unique concept in the Strategic Hospitality stable is Pinewood Social— a casual, craft-cocktail heavy, high-concept food joint with six bowling lanes, bocce ball, and couches that encourage guests to stay. The food at Pinewood Social is good. The vibe is singular. It is original, it is unique, it is tasteful, and it is fun.
Holland House and Margot were both closed on the night I was making the rounds, but I will return. Marche was my breakfast destination and it was closed on Mondays. But I made up for it at lunch with a burger at The Pharmacy and had an amazing tortilla soup at Mas Tacos.
Though the award for the most unique and pleasurable restaurant I have visited this year goes to Rolf and Daughters. I love restaurants. They are my livelihood and they are my hobby. I research restaurants like a marine biologist would study the daily habits, environment, and physiological make up of a squid. Sometimes when I am in a restaurant that is hitting on all cylinders— from concept and design, to food, service, and originality— it shuts me down mentally. The rapid input from everything appealing that connects to my sensibility is overloaded and I go into a type of culinary-concept catatonic state. The last time this happened I was sitting in Au Cheval in Chicago and my dining companion thought I had taken ill. I felt fine, I was just overloaded with sensory input from trying to take it all in. It was so perfect.
Rolf and Daughters is as perfect as a dining experience can get for me. From the atmosphere and design, to the hard surfaces, server hospitality, and the food. Philip Krajeck has touch and taste, and his food is original, real, and damn good. This restaurant is so appealing to me that I would make the seven-hour drive back to Nashville, eat at Rolf and Daughters, drive back home, and be content that I did everything I needed to do on that trip.
¼ c. Pure olive oil
1 ½ c. Onion, diced
1 ½ c. Carrot, diced
1 c. Celery, diced
½ c. Garlic, minced
¼ c. Kosher salt
1 tsp Dried basil
1 tsp Dried oregano
½ tsp Dried thyme
2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp Crushed red pepper
2 ea. Bay leaf
2 TB Balsamic vinegar
½ c. White wine
¼ c. Tomato paste
2 ea. 28 oz. can San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
1 gal. Vegetable Stock
2 c. Zucchini, medium dice
2 c. Yellow squash, medium dice
1 ea 10 oz. package frozen spinach, thawed, drained
2 ea15 oz. can kidney beans, drained
¼ c. Pesto
1 TB Worcestershire sauce
Heat olive oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat.
Add onions, carrots, celery, salt, peppers, basil, oregano, thyme and bay leaves. Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add wine and balsamic vinegar. Continue cooking for 3 minutes.
Add tomato paste and cook 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, being careful not to let it burn.
Add canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Simmer for 1 hour.
Add zucchini, squash, spinach and kidney beans and cook for 8 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in pesto and Worcestershire.
Yield: 1 gallon