I’m not a huge fan of country music, so Nashville has never been particularly high on my list of places to visit. Until now. The Catbird Seat, a new restaurant run by co-chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger, has totally piqued my interest, especially after a wonderful taste of what they can do at The James Beard House in NYC this past Monday.Habiger and Anderson met working in Minnesota and became fast friends, dreaming of someday working together as co-chefs of their own restaurant. After stints at places like The French Laundry, The Fat Duck, Craft, Alinea and noma, amongst others, they got the opportunity in Nashville to team up at The Catbird Seat, which opened about roughly six months ago.
In Nashville, The Catbird Seat, is billed as “interactive” with 32 seats around a U-shaped kitchen. This is bigger, but the description reminds me of the set-up at Brooklyn Fare, where there is a u-shaped bar overlooking the kitchen of Chef Cesar Ramirez. At The James Beard House, the interactivity with the kitchen took place before and during a cocktail reception. I was glad that I got there a bit early, as once 7PM came around, the place soon filled and it became difficult to get around. This was my first time ever at the Beard House. I had heard stories about the tight quarters. They are true. Despite the somewhat crowded conditions throughout the space, it still enchanted.
The entire four person kitchen crew consisting of Anderson, Habiger, Tom Bayless and Mayme Gretch and their Beverage Director, Jane Lopes came up from Nashville for the dinner. Given that they would be feeding 80 people from a set menu, some additional help from friends like Amador Acosta from Marea, Dan Burns (formerly of noma), Scott Winegard (who has a pop-up in Brooklyn called “Nasturtium”), Nate Zulpo (formerly of Eleven Madison Park), and Phil Hall (a cook at Marea), was more than welcome. Watching them dance in the tight space of the kitchen was remarkable given the unfamiliarity of the kitchen.
The meal started to take shape. As I watched, I sipped a delicious and very interesting cocktail from Jane Lopes, a graduate of The University of Chicago with a degree in Renaissance Literature and a strong interest in food and wine. Lopes clearly has a very refined palate, as she crafted some delightful blends of wine with spirits to bookend the meal. She started with a (un-photographed) blend of 2010 Stock and Stein Riesling Trocken from the Rheingau in Germany with J.M. Rhum Blanc from Martinique, Cocchi Americano from Asti, Italy and lime – carbonating the entire concoction. It was delightfully refreshing, light on the sweetness, but with just enough to enliven it.
The cocktail was paired with the hors d’ouvres. Ultra-fresh baby radishes were rewarded with a dollop of sea urchin butter. “Hot chicken skins” have become a Catbird Seat signature and with good reason. Made to pay homage to a favorite Nashville style of chicken, they pack a lot of flavor into a very small bite. Cornbread, another Southern staple, came with a bit of bacon pudding to make it even more delicious.
I was upstairs in the dining room prior to dinner and the light was not terrible (photo above). Unfortunately, when I returned to sit down to dinner the lighting was turned down to bedroom levels. We happened to be eating right next to JB’s bedroom, but he wasn’t there and I would think in a place showcasing culinary talent, that the idea would be to showcase every aspect of it, including the visual. Apart from lighting for photography, I enjoy admiring the beauty of the plates presented to me. The visual is an important component of the pleasure I, and others, take from food. The JBH made that much more difficult and unfortunately the quality of my photos below reflect that. None of this, fortunately, took anything away from what proved to be a totally delicious meal, starting with the luxuriously printed menus placed at each setting. These were collected and redistributed at the end of the evening.
Our first bite at the table was of an Oreo, but not the Nabisco product, that it outwardly resembled. This was an otherworldly bite. The flavor was porcini and parmesan. It had a perfect balance of flavor and texture. We were each served one, though I, and doubtless others, could have eaten many.I like onion soup,but this was no ordinary onion soup. The triple cream and thyme certainly didn’t hurt it, but this dish was blown way over the top by the Czech-influenced calves liver dumpling in the center of the bowl. I like calves liver, but I generally wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it. This bread based dumpling though, was totally delicious. It clearly tasted of calves liver, but the flavor had been rounded out and the texture was marvelous. The pairing for this dish was marvelous as well. Jane Lopes did something I had never encountered or heard of before. She blended two different Spanish sherries to achieve a balance that was spot on for this dish. By pairing a dry Amontillado from Bodegas Grant with a sweeter Pedro Ximenez from Pedro Romero, she reached a balance for the pairing that neither wine alone would have provided. When is fusion not fusion? When it tastes so natural, that it seems like a combination that should have always been there. that’s when. Such was the case with the Spanish octopus. The octopus had been cooked sous vide with Spanish flavorings for 10 hours at 78.5C, achieving great flavor and absolute tenderness. By itself, this would have been a very enjoyable dish, but Habiger and Anderson took it a step further, marrying it with a kimchee puree, daikon and turnip to make it a great dish. Lopes switched gears to a more straightforward wine program, introducing most of the diners to a small Napa winery called Forlorn Hope, expertly matching this with a lovely 2010 Ribolla Gialla named “Sihaya.” Up to this point, the food had been boldly flavored, but the cod poached with bone marrow showed a subtler side to their cooking. The cod itself, while tasty, was most interesting for the silky texture that it had. The fish served as a vehicle to carry the flavors around it, including the chard, a grilled lemon sauce, cuttlefish ink and a jerusalem artichoke purée. The combination was synergistic and ethereal. A preserved matsutake mushroom, however, ensured that the kitchen would not totally eschew boldness. This was a dazzling bite, demonstrating why matsutakes are as prized as they are. Lopes featured another wine from Forlorn Hope, this time from a varietal called Trousseau Gris. This unusual and rare pink wine called Trou Grit (only two cases had been made and one was earmarked for this dinner), was wonderfully redolent of strawberries. It was refreshing and delightful – a brilliant pairing. This is an awful photo, I know, but the dish was so darned good, I had to post it anyway. Shortribs are not typically on my list of favorite dishes, but this one covered in kale ash and served with potato and horseradish, mushroom and beer syrup and nasturtiums, turned out to be my favorite dish of the evening and easily the most enjoyable short ribs I can recall. The wagyu was melting underneath the layer of ash. Each component was delicious, but the use of nasturtia was clever and the element that gave an extra zing to the plate. While they added welcome color to the black background, the flavors of the flowers cut through the richness of the meat, adding a special sparkle that shined through the dish.
Matthew Rorick’s wines at Forlorn Hope are not Parkerized behemoths. They are wines of place and character, distinctive from each other and the rest of the market. The Suspiro del Moro, a young wine from 2010, had only seen a little old oak, which added only subtle nuances to the juice. This relatively low alcohol, 13.5% red, was somewhat rustic, but had character and balanced the fruit with a nice level of acidity. Rorich’s wines were made for food and they paired exceedingly well with the food from The Catbird Seat crew.The oak that was missing from the wine was much better utilized in the ice cream. Oak chip ice cream was un-intuitively delicious and provided backbone to the pineapple preparations and the cherry dust. Adria-esque Bulleit bourbon spheres completed the delight with nice pops of whiskey to warm it all up. With this dessert course Jane Lopes reverted to her vinous creativity, taking a pine-appley 2009 “Mad Cuvee” from Hungary’s Royal Tokaji Company and adding a rinse of Black Maple Hill Bourbon. This was divine. Lopes impressed all evening. Her straight wine pairings were outstanding, but her wine “cocktails” also dazzled, working in an area that I have not seen taken on much outside of a few Champagne based cocktails and the rare wine specialty cocktail. I am totally unaware of anyone else currently engaged in this creative approach to tailoring wine to a dish using the mindset of a mixologist. I don’t know that I really want to see this practice become too widespread, but in Lopes’ more than capable hands, it is a welcome approach. We weren’t quite done. The mignardises were an actual homage to the Oreo cookie along with a delightful peanut butter puff.
It has to be difficult for chefs to really shine at The Beard House. The quarters are close and unfamiliar and the crowd, though friendly, is demanding. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect given that it was both my first time at the JBH and my first time trying The Catbird Seat’s food. Given the accolades the restaurant has received in its six month existence, I can’t say that I was surprised that the food was very good, but I was surprised, under the circumstances, that it was as incredibly good as it was. If they could pull that off at a foreign location like the JBH (albeit with some very talented outside help), I am really excited to see what they can pull off on their home turf. It’s time to start checking airfares to Nashville.