Saturday, October 29, 2011

Honky Tonks, Duck Fat, and Cheesy Chicken Pie - Nashville, TN

Unlike most New Englanders who grew up in the late '70s, I loved country music as a child.  While my friends were rocking out to Rick Springfield, I wore out Johnny Cash tapes on my cassette player and sat riveted, nightly with my parents as they watched the country music TV station.  We lived frugally, my parents had a date night every Saturday, sans kids, and my Dad loved the motto "children were to be seen and not heard", so you can imagine my elation when I found out that my folks were taking me, an eight year old, to a Johnny Cash concert at the Cohasset Music Circus. This also happened to be fourth grade, my lost year.  Inexplicably, most afternoons in the second half of fourth grade, I would fall sound asleep at my desk after lunch.  I tried hard to avoid this embarrassing fate as I not only shared a desk with the fourth grade heart throb, Billy Lincoln, but being the bookworm that I was, I devastatingly snoozed right through reading period where Mrs. Henderson was reading us the the enthralling story of James and the Giant Peach.  This went on for six months, including countless trips to the nurse and even a few school counseling sessions with my folks to determine if there was foul play at home.  Near bursting with excitement on an early summer night, I dressed up to attend my first-ever concert, alone with my parents, to hear my idol, Johnny Cash.  Unfortunately I only made it three songs deep before falling sound asleep in the 3rd row.  I was devastated and ashamed, and although it was only a few weeks later that we learned the pharmacist had mixed up my fluoride pills with an elderly person's blood pressure medication, causing me to pass-out daily, I still carry regret that I missed most of that concert.

Perhaps this history explains the tingling excitement I get at the prospect of visiting Nashville, a mere four hours from my current residence.  Recently I set out early on a Friday afternoon to meet two of my country music-loving girlfriends in the music city for a weekend of honky tonks and food. Country music blasting out of my open sun roof, I sang along loudly, and off-key, with great gusto "I am not here for a long time, I am here for a good time....", only interrupted occasionally by my need to stop and take in the back road views. Autumn in the upper south is stunning; the air is void of all humidity after a long summer's grip, and it settles into a comfortable 78 degrees for weeks on end, the fall foliage lights the undulating hillsides breaking up the vast plains of cotton, which hold their own unique beauty. Row after row of plants are covered in huge orbs of stark white cotton; it seems unreal that a textile can actually grow directly from nature in such purity. The sun nears the horizon as I roll into Nashville, fittingly in time for cocktail hour at the Capitol Grill Oak Bar located on the lower level of the historic and elegant Hermitage Hotel, where we were staying. The pub is cozy, and old-school refined, a perfect place to imbibe great wine, catch-up on gossip, and plot our upcoming adventures.  Little did we know that there was a time when three women would not have been allowed, as the bar was a gentleman's club, rumored to have been accessed by wealthy politicians via a tunnel that connected the capitol to the bar's famed men's room, which in recent years has been named the "best bathroom in America".  Strangely I can vouch for this title, as I was offered a tour when walking past to the ladies room, by a kindly older gentleman, happy to show off the glamorous art deco interior.

Hungry and buzzing with first-night-of-vacation energy, we set off by cab to Tayst, a restaurant known for its fresh local food and dedication to sustainability. What began as a pursuit to find the best tasting, local food, the chefs at Tayst are now deeply entrenched in the values of the green movement. They compost, they purvey green products for the restaurant such as beeswax candles and cleaning products, all in an effort to ensure that the entire dining experience respects the earth and the bounty it has provided.  Lest you fear tree-hugging, tofu laden dishes, rest assured that the menu is playful and creatively modern while steeped in the classics.  In fact the only reference to tofu on the entire menu was the  ravioli appetizer, consisting of paper thin slices of turnip, filled with tofu walnut ricotta, laced with sage brown butter, lemon balm and mint.  If that is hippie, bring on the patchouli.  

The foie gras was stylistically gorgeous. A thin round slice of apple was cored and filled with seared foie gras, which when eaten together provided superb juxtaposition; the crisp, sweet apple contrasted the rich, silky foie gras beautifully. The only downside was that I had to share it with my girlfriends.

Fortunately the third starter was a surprise stunner, at least for me as I have a slight aversion to the texture of spaghetti squash. As is often the case here in the south, if you take an unremarkable vegetable, mix it with eggs and fry it, it becomes something otherworldly. The hush puppie-sized spaghetti squash fritters were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and completely worthy of the highly coveted "best app" title.

Next the watermelon salad was colorful, served with fried lardon and caramelized onions. Creamy and bursting with flavor, the squash soup was clearly not made from pallid grocery store squash.

The savory goat cheesecake was beautifully displayed next to a summer squash salad and a heap of sweet grilled cherry tomatoes. When eaten together, the cheesecake offered a sinfully rich depth to the bright salads.

Our waiter oozed southern charm, delighting my L.A. girlfriends with his chivalry. He warned us that the chicken dish, complete with a chicken cheese pie, was outrageous. Being a yankee, I expected a pot-pie of some sort, but in keeping with southern tradition instead it was a flaky, fried pie, filled with a cheesy chicken concoction; this is the type of meal you can envision begging your grandmother to make with holiday leftovers. The pie was served with a succulent roasted chicken and a flavorful corn salsa.

The trout dish caught our attention as it was served atop a bolognese. The vibrant pink fish was buttery and surprisingly well paired with the tomato meat sauce, then ringed with a basil emulsion.

Lastly, the special was a rich, meaty sturgeon served over a broth piled high with wax beans, sweet turnips and arugula. The sous chef visited with us and shared his enthusiasm for the fresh sturgeon, a surprise his fish monger had delivered that day.

We ended our meal with the flour less chocolate cake, and candied fruit, which paired amazingly well with our zinfandel, however I think anything including the local Tennessee moonshine would have gone well with that creamy slice of heaven. Smitten by the food and the service, we reluctantly took leave of Tayst to head to Second Street and Broadway for a tourist's Nashville music experience.

Robert's Western World, an ole Nashville establishment known for its great bands, walls lined with boots for sale, and cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, seemed like the logical next step.  We nabbed a table and had barely wiped the condensation off our PBRs when we were dragged out to dance by a rodeo belt wearing cowboy, complete with a hat, embroidered shirt and boots.  Apparently he learned more than roping on the ranch as this guy knew his way around a dance floor, leading us through dips and spins that would make those on Dancing with the Stars envious.  The crowd was diverse; it was a place where we made friends quickly. Time flew by, as it does when feeling completely ebullient, and in the wee hours of the morning, we left the neon behind for our hotel, almost hungry enough from dancing for the fried bologna sandwiches they were grilling up at the back of the bar.

In the morning we hit Puckett's Grocery for a southern version of eggs benedict - poached eggs over a biscuit, topped with creamy pork gravy. Now if that did did not soak up our previous night's adventures, nothing would. After lazing around the hotel we readied ourselves for afternoon snacks and a little shopping. As we walked the few blocks from the hotel to Broadway we noticed a few folks dressed up in bloodied costumes, but seeing as Nashville has a diverse blend of art and tradition, we didn't think much of it until a bit later, while comfortably seated at Merchants eating tater tots fried in duck fat, washed down with local Yazoo beer, we saw hundreds of zombies walking past the large picture windows. Apparently we were in town just in time for the annual zombie walk.

We spent time in Germantown, Hillsboro Village and Music Row and barely scratched the surface of what Nashville has to offer; there is much more to the city than the country scene.  Perhaps because of our deep love of music or because I am still making up for my lost Johnny Cash concert, we thoroughly enjoyed the tourist tour of the city.  I am reminded of Jason Alean's hit Crazy Town, "Its a crazy town full of neon dreams, everybody plays, everybody sings, Hollywood with a touch of twang..."  We did not once hear even a mediocre band; the talent was staggering, the musicians were accessible, and southern culture and chivalry reign strong.

From the old world elegance of the Hermitage to the green movement at Tayst, and of course the bars of downtown, where the music starts at ten in the morning and for all I know it doesn't stop, I found one of those rare places where my night actually exceeded my preconceived expectations. Since returning to Oxford, I have found an excuse to wear my boots every day and continue to crank up the country music, channeling a little Nashville spirit into my daily life.

As for my lost fourth grade year, we never sued the pharmacy, but, I now have a built-in excuse for anything I cannot recall learning - algebra...must have missed that in the 4th grade.

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