Words (almost) fail me. But I’ll try. Pictures help.
September 28, 2015
I’ve had literally thousands of restaurant meals in my life. All the way from the drive-through at Krystal to some of the best restaurants in the country. I’ve been fortunate to eat some marvelous food in some marvelous places, and some also marvelous food in some absolute dives. (I’ve eaten some bad food in nice places, too, and some pretty awful food in some dives. Chalk it up to experience.)
Sometimes, a meal is more than a meal. Sometimes, a meal is an adventure. Sometimes, it’s about wonder, and amazement, and discovery. I’ve always thought I was fortunate to have one of those meals, on a mountainside overlooking the Pacific Ocean just outside Tokyo, Japan.
Now I’ve had two.
If you ever have the chance to go to The Catbird Seat, in Nashville, do it. Do not flinch at the three-figure price tag. It’s worth it.
Warning. This is going to be a long, photo-intensive post.
I had that chance this weekend, thanks to a new friend I met through the fine auspices of the Interwebs; she and I post in the same food forum. She posted a while back that she had a reservation for two, because she couldn’t get one for one, at The Catbird Seat, and did anyone want to take that other seat?
So we went. I’ll ignore the logistics and get to the good stuff.
We arrived on Division Street, a highly trendy Nashville downtown-ish neighborhood, a few minutes before our scheduled seating at 5:45. We were standing on the corner looking at each other foolishly when the door opened and a young lady beckoned us inside.
Into a room that was perhaps 6 x 8, with an elevator door taking up one side, and a tiny table with a tub of ice, wine glasses and chilled champagne in one corner. It was strictly enforced, she said, that no one was taken upstairs before 5:30, but would we care for a glass of champagne while we waited?
And on the dot of 5:30, up we went. Into a relatively small, by restaurant standards, room. U-shaped counter, big induction range and work space in the middle. Teams of two line chefs each to work each “leg” of the U. They do the final prep and the plating.
I love them.
We were sipping on our champagne when the first appetizer landed in front of us. “Fat on Toast.” An almost impossibly thin crostini, with a schmear of country ham bone marrow (who’d’a thunk?), topped with shaved fat from a Serrano ham. The garnish was a pickled elderberry flower, which was marvelous, and the acidity cut through the marvelous richness of the fat. It was like a very richly flavored butter, on a very thin, very crisp cracker.
That was swiftly followed by an oyster. “AN” oyster. A raw oyster, which had some kind of citrusy dressing on it (I forget what they said; I should have taken notes). I generally prefer my oysters char-grilled, but I could’ve eaten a dozen of these babies, easy. At least at that point in the evening.
That was even more swiftly followed by a razor clam on….something, I forget what. And I forget what was on it, but it was marvelous. I love me some clams, whatever you do with them. This one was a particularly excellent example of his genre. I know it had crunchy salt on top.
Then there was a sturgeon nigiri, except the rice in the nigiri was replaced with a grated, not quite what we’d call done, potato. And the nice thick slice of sturgeon, which had been cured in salt and sugar, was painted with a peanut sauce. Sweet and creamy and tart and fishy, all at one go. Marvelously complex, and marvelously simple at the same time.
Then there was a potato tea, a broth that was “completely vegan,” the server ensured us, while tasting amazingly like beef broth. Good. Good in a way I didn’t expect it to be.
Further change of pace was signaled by a potato soup, of grated potato, cubed potato, sourdough croutons, and a broth of beer and spent brewers yeast, topped with a foam of brewer’s yeast. The most complex, and most contrived, thing we’d had to that point. But it was awfully damn good. (But I repeat myself.)
Then we moved on to the meat courses. Oh, dear God. This was where I met the most amazing thing I’ve eaten in my entire life.
I have had steak tartare before. Liked it. The beef tartare I had at Catbird Seat so far exceeds any other tartare I’ve had as to potentially not even be from the same animal.
They brought us, for two, a collection of dishes which included the chopped beef, some puffed quinoa, an egg yolk, and — wait for it — snail egg caviar. They brought that collection, and instructed us to mix the yolk — a lightly cooked duck egg yolk — and the quinoa into that chopped raw meat, then divide it amongst ourselves, and top it with caviar. There was also a peanut oil with which to garnish it. I will confess I forgot the peanut oil. If it had improved the dish any, I don’t know that I could’ve stood it. As it was, I could have possibly eaten a pound a half a of that stuff. Sweet Baby Jesus, but it was good. Easily the star of the evening. I am on the lookout for good beef tartare recipes, and also studying how to puff quinoa, which added a fine element of crunch to the dish without affecting the rich, earthy flavor. Which, btw, was offset by the dish of begonia petals one was to munch in between bites of the tartare, to cut the richness. Who knew begonia petals were so citrusy?
This was the ONLY course of which I thought, “Damn, I wish there was more of that.”
Please Don’t Eat The Daisies? Ain’t nobody said nothin’ about eating the begonias. (In a nod to the 1970s, “Do the name Ruby Begonia strike a familiar note?”)
Then it was on to what was possibly my least favorite dish of the evening — the duck and shitaake mushrooms. I grew up eating wild duck. I have never really acquired a huge love for the farmed variety, especially if it’s just roasted. This dish brought sliced duck breast alongside a bowl of duck broth with mushrooms. It was good. I didn’t dislike it. But if you gave me a choice between that and the tartare, I’m leaving it in the dust.
Our final meat dish was a pig tail. Seriously. And it was marvelous. This probably strained belief more than anything I had all night; my initial impulse, not being fond of offal and leftover parts, was to politely decline.
Glad I didn’t.
The pork tails — we asked one of our pair of chefs for details — were braised for a long time, then drained, deboned and fried under a weight — “…in an iron skillet, with another skillet on top.” The resultant product was a marvelous medley of crisp and unctuous,with the meltingly tender meat literally dissolving on the tongue, the fat long since melted away; the skin crisped and crunchy, like a chicarrone. It was served with a fennel puree that was lightened by a judicious foaming, so it was very ethereal, and a revelation to me. I’m cautious about fennel, having had charcuterie dishes that I thought were entirely too fennel-heavy from the the seeds. Amazingly, the fennel itself is not nearly as strong in the licorice-y flavor department. It went wonderfully with the rich pig tail; just a tad bit astringent.
Astringency was the surprise in the next dish, the lemon verbena salad ice cream sandwich, which is just exactly what it sounds like. There’s a lemon verbena sorbet, a marvelously tart, light thing. It’s “sandwiched” by lemon sorrel leaves, tied at the stem with twine. (Don’t eat the twine.) This may have pushed me further than anything else I ate, because it was so far outside the realm of anything that would have occurred to me. I mean, greens and ice cream? Well, yes. Amazingly, yes. The slight bitterness of the greens is offset by the sweet of the sorbet, and the two slightly different citrus notes play SO well with each other.
Then there were blueberries and whipped milk (like whipped cream, but lighter). They had huckleberries amongst them, with which I thoroughly agree. They also had juniper berries, with which I don’t, at least not the point of munching down on them whole. That’s a blast of evergreen that just didn’t sit well with dessert. They’re great braised with pork and such, but on their own? Not so much.
The final course, a “potato” pastry (potatoes in the dough), filled with a potato pastry cream, came served in a paper bag. Which was fine with me, as I took it with me. I was full. I wasn’t overstuffed full, so as to be miserable, but I was full. I opted not to get overstuffed full, and I had that pastry for breakfast, complete with its chocolate crumb “dirt,” and it was fine.
I haven’t spoken about the drink pairings. There are several options: a non-alcoholic pairing, a “regular” pairing with mostly wine but a couple of diversions, a premium pairing that includes a couple of cocktails, and an option for wine by the glass or by the bottle. I opted for the regular pairing, figuring if they’re picking my food, they ought to pick my drinks, as well. The pairing included the champagne, a dry rose, a dry Reisling, a pinot noir, a saison craft beer (from Wiseacre in Memphis!), a syrah and a cognac. They were small enough pours that I, thankfully, did not feel inebriated, but I was glad Uber came to get me.
Because I would have hated to have been drunk and missed any of this. Dear Sweet Baby Jesus. It may not be for all y’all and y’mama ‘n ’em, but if you’re serious about food and want to be challenged, it’s well worth staying up late to get a reservation when they open, and going to The Catbird Seat.
It’s worth it.