Monday, February 4, 2013

The Catbird Seat - Nashville

I remember my first attempt at dining at The Catbird Seat. It was May of this past year and I was planning my annual drive to Indy with a stop in Nashville. Skimming through the various outlets, I read about the newest and hottest restaurant in Music City. Named The Catbird Seat, it was headed by co-executive chefs Josh Habinger and Erik Anderson and they each carried a resume worth killing for. Habinger had worked with Blumenthal at Fat Duck, Colicchio at Craft, and Achatz at Alinea; Anderson was no slouch either with Keller at the French Laundry & Redzepi at Noma to his name. The two of them reigned over a kitchen that could best be described as dinner theater where the diners sit at a U-shaped bar surrounding the kitchen. Having never served more than 41 people in a night, seats were hard to come by and I was too late and out of luck.

Some months later the summer was over and I had put The Catbird Seat out of my mind until next May but things changed when I received an invitation to a wedding in Lexington, KY. Once my room was booked and travel arrangements tentatively planned, I turned to the ever important dinner plans. Knowing that the road from Jackson to Lexington passed through Nashville, I decided to take a leisurely route and stop in Nashville both going and coming. As with Per Se in New York and Husk in Charleston, I made a reservation as soon as I could; I was not going to miss an opportunity to try one of the most well reviewed restaurants in the south.

Once I was past the rather odd entrance, rode the elevator, and made my way down the mesmerizing corridor, I was shown to a corner seat and was soon greeted a savory oreo.
With a porcini mushroom exterior and parmesan interior, this was my first non-Nabisco, non-sugary Oreo and it was packed with an incredibly savory, meaty flavor. A precocious beginning if there ever was one.

It’s been almost three years now but given the opportunity, I still take to heart my friend Frank’s advice about tasting menus: "Always get the tasting menu, you put yourself in the chef’s hands." For The Catbird Seat, I decided that advice also applied to beverages so I placed my drinks in the able hands of Jane Lopes.
For the first course, Lopes mixed Lillet Rose, Green Chartreuse, Muscadet, and carbonated water with lime. It would be the first of many unique and superb pairings.

The other half of the first pairing was a trio of small dishes.
Working left to right, we had mortadella, shiitake cracker jack, and a take on hot chicken.
A departure from every mortadella I had ever tasted, this morsel had a texture like foie but the undeniable flavor of mortadella.
This shiitake cracker jack was crunchy as expected but both savory and sweet.
More akin to a cracker packed with cayenne and paprika than any hot chicken I’ve encountered; the two bits of creamy wonder bread puree were a nice foil to the pungent spices.

Nantucket Bay scallop tartar topped with slices of Mt. Rose apple was the focus of the second course.
A mix of textures and flavors, the highlight was the combination of the creaminess of the Island Creek oyster puree and the richness of the scallop.
2010 Domaine de la Vielle Julienne Cotes du Rhone Blanc was the pairing.

If there is anything that I inherited from my grandmother it was a love of gin & tonics and when the salad course was described as a fennel g & t, it was music to my ears.
Amidst the foam, this salad was a combination of juniper & quinine, almond, cucumber, and lychee.
Even though it was over in an instant, each bite carried a wonderful crunch and a bright flavor of juniper that was balanced with the lychee sweetness. With the 2009 Trimbach Gewurztraminer rounding the flavors, it was a brilliant salad that very well may have ruined my idea of the perfect gin and tonic.

The second seafood course was departure from the light flavors of the scallop as the grouper was wrapped with chipotle.
Thankfully this meaty yet tender piece of grouper was an ample match for the dense spiciness of the chipotle wrapping.
Avocado, pickled onion, radish, coconut, and pumpkin seeds added an extra dimension of creaminess to the fish and chili combination while a 2010 Robert Weil Riesling provided a touch of sweetness.

Pigeon is a meat that you rarely see on restaurant menus, but one with the foot still attached was a new one to me.
Of course, the novelty of a claw only goes so far, luckily this pigeon in squab dashi proved to be one of the best dishes of the night.
Beneath the surprisingly crispy skin of the pigeon was a beautifully silky meat with a rich, salty flavor.
The other dish components, the dashi, forest mushrooms, and egg yolk offered a creamy and uniquely savory broth while the hibiscus provided a raw vegetal flavor that cut through the fattiness. The 2009 Patrice Rion Hautes Cotes de Nuits was well suited to the fowl and dashi but hardly clashed with the hibiscus.

Course number six featured fewer claws but the flavors certainly did not diminish.
Before I started on the ribeye, I indulged in the Yukon gold chip and it was nothing less than what sour cream and onion chips should be.
As you might expect, this ribeye was marvelously cooked with a  big and bold beefy flavor but it was far from tender. But the crunch of finishing salt and juicy beef made up for the chewiness.
 Texture aside, I wasn’t sold on the combination of beets, horseradish, and dill but Lopes’ mixing of “Celebrator” Bavaria with Aquavit was a fine foil to the beef..

It’s hard to describe the next dish.
Labeled as a Harbison on the menu, this was a combination of barley, hops, yeast, orange, and syrup and it bore a striking resemblance to puffed rice cereal.
Challenging my ideas of mixed drinks, the sublime pair to the Harbison was champagne with quince vinegar, honey, and walnut liqueur.

Nearing the end of the meal, a pear sorbet was next.
Aside from the amusing presentation, this had base of clean, pear flavor.
But the addition of cardamom and vanilla with fernet gel and black walnut gave an extra layer of dark richness. Building on the subtle qualities of the pear, the pairing was a sparkling sake that was as light as the sorbet’s texture.

While the pear may have cleansed my palate from the entrees, the desserts began with the deadly combination of egg maple custard with thyme and bacon.
Inside the egg was a dense, syrup flavored, and just a bit salty custard.
Standing like a mast was a gossamer thin slice of Benton’s bacon.

Simply labeled “Bourbon” on the menu, the dessert was dotted with balls of encapsulated Bullit bourbon.
In addition to fine bourbon were a vanilla cake, pineapple gel, and an oak I.C.
A quenelle of charred oak ice cream and sugar that was oddly reminiscent of a fruit roll up.
The aforementioned vanilla cake and pineapple gel.
They may be little more than a party trick, but there is something satisfying about biting down and tasting the gush of bourbon.

Of course things simply couldn’t end with dessert.
Dinner at The Catbird Seat was bracketed by oreos, savory at the start and coffee and cream sweetness to finish. True to its name, this oreo tasted like a mocha latte but it paled in comparison to its savory counterpart.

While waiting for the restroom in between courses, I noticed a bookshelf above the bathroom door.
The Catbird Seat Bookshelf
From Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Meat to Modernist Cuisine, it was a food nerd’s ideal cookbook collection. This meager but quite pricy collection also made clear from where Habinger and Anderson took a bit of their inspiration, but there was little doubt that they had applied a personal and slightly southern twist to some of their ideas.

With all that in mind, what’s the final verdict on The Catbird Seat? While it’s certainly on its own level in Nashville, it makes a fair case for standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the Michelin starred forerunners. The modernist approach to cuisine and molecular gastronomy are always entertaining but there  are some delightful flavor combinations and serious skills at work at The Catbird Seat. I also appreciate a restaurant where the chefs are more than happy to discuss the dishes with the patrons. However, for as much as I enjoyed the 12 or so courses, the star of the show was Jane Lopes and her mixes and pairings. Prior to this meal, I’ve never given much thought to wine and liqueurs being mixed much less working together well, but she did it flawlessly. Although The Catbird Seat may never get any Michelin stars due to their location and they were snubbed on their James Beard nomination, The Catbird Seat was worth the effort and I now know why people show off their dinner menus as trophies.

The Catbird Seat Address & Information
The Catbird Seat on Urbanspoon

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