Once I tried their cooking in the less than deal environment of The James Beard House and it was so good, I knew I had to get myself down to Nashville to try the food of Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger at the source. I had never been to Nashville. I never really had a reason to go, but now I did – to dine at The Catbird Seat!
I flew in to Nashville on a steamy Saturday morning, continuing a birthday celebration, even though I am now getting to an age where most people don’t actually celebrate birthdays anymore. Once I settled into my hotel, The Hutton, I ambled on over through the 90 degree heat to check out the area and scope out the The Catbird Seat and its building mate, The Patterson House Bar, which were nearby to the hotel, in anticipation of my visit later that evening.
I stopped into the restaurant where co-chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger along with their staff Mayme Gretsch and Tom Bayless were prepping for the evening’s tasting menus. For more photos check the facebook page for this website and please”like” the page if you like what you see. After a brief visit, I checked out the Nashville Farmers Market and then returned back to the hotel to take a nap in anticipation of a late night.
I returned for the 9:15 reservation after a brief pit stop at The Patterson House, where, given that it was Kentucky Derby Day, I had to have a mint julep. The Patterson House is a very civilized bar from the same family as The Violet Hour in Chicago. It is dimly lit, uncrowded, relaxed and serves kick-ass cocktails, both classic and their own, soon-to-be-classic creations. One cocktail was sufficient for the time being as I wanted to enjoy my upcoming dinner.
The restaurant is located in a corner building on an otherwise fairly quiet street near Vanderbilt University. The entrance is located on the bottom level of the building, below that to The Patterson House. Once through the door, there is an elevator to whisk one up to the restaurant, which actually is located above The Patterson House. The entrance to the elevator, the elevator itself and then the short hall leading to the dining room are all designed and decorated with a bit of panache, especially the semi-psychedelic purple lead-in to the dining room.
Once in the dining room, though, the decor changes dramatically to a very minimalist approach. The white walls are completely unadorned. The main kitchen is in the center of the room surrounded on three sides by a dining bar and the open end, which has two banquettes, one in each corner. In between the banquettes, there is a beverage station, the domain of wine and spirits guru, Jane Lopes. As I sat down, I noted that the room didn’t really need any additional adornment. Between the action in the central kitchen and the multi-hued tones of the diners, the bare walls were just right.
As with the dinner at The James Beard House, my opening bite upon sitting down was the porcini and parmesan “oreo.” It was tasty at The Beard House, but as good as it was there, it was even better here. Perhaps that is the difference of preparing it in a strange kitchen for over 100 guests to doing so in more familiar surroundings for far fewer diners. Either way, this is a bite of pure deliciousness, that in terms of flavor intensity reminded me of Grant Achatz’ Black Truffle Explosion. The crazy deep flavor lingered pleasantly in the mouth.
I was offered a choice of beverage pairings from the basic pairing to a premium pairing to a non-alcoholic pairing. Given that Nashville is not around the corner from where I live, I opted to experience the best of what Jane Lopes could throw at me and chose the premium pairing priced at $75pp. The initial offering was a cocktail of dry Riesling, sake and maple syrup. I discovered at the Beard House that Lopes is a master of wine based cocktails as well as what I will call “value-added” glasses of wine, that is wine pours enhanced by small touches to work with specific dishes. This was a lovely opening with excellent balance and flavors.
Our initial plating, served by Mayme Gretsch, a young cook from Minneapolis who had already done stages at Alinea, Arzak and Paco Morales before landing at The Catbird Seat, was a trio of snacks.
The first, on the left side of the platter, was a Northern Cross oyster from Virginia with cucumber seeds, a yuzu citrus puree and an oyster puree
In the center of the plate lay a duck fat fried cornbread filled with a bacon mousse.
To the right was the “hot chicken skin,” a crisp square of chicken skin with sorghum, spices and a “Wonderbread puree.” The wonderful chicken skin is an homage to a classic spicy Nashville style of fried chicken. All three bites, eaten in order of presentation were sheer pleasure, incorporating bold flavors and a variety of textures. The meal was off to a rousing start!
Lopes next added a touch of a house made honey and quince vinegar syrup to 2006 Soter Brut Rose Sparkling Wine from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. She did so to tweek the wine to pair better with flavors from the next dish, especially horseradish. It worked.
Often dishes with a lot of ingredients can seem overwrought and muddled, however, that was not the case with The Catbird Seat’s Beef Tartare. A circle of nicely chopped beef lay on the bottom of a beautiful black pottery bowl. Along with the beef, Chef Erik Anderson included a juniper berry emulsion, smoked char roe, chive blossoms, sliced caper buds, rosemary salt and burnt bread that had been grated on top. The result was extraordinarily delicious, mixing floral notes, along with salty ones, bitter elements, sweet and herbaceous. Each small bite released a variety of flavors that danced harmoniously together, alternately mixing and standing out. I’m not sure that I have ever enjoyed a beef tartare more or seen one more beautifully presented.
2008 Trimbach Gewurtztraminer, a floral, dry Alsatian white wine, received the Lopes treatment next. She lightly carbonated it with an iSi canister to make it even more refreshing.The Trimbach was lightened to go with the dish that was served by Chef Josh Habiger in the above photo.
In addition to the cold soup, this dish featured braised and grilled pork belly, earthy pickled carrots, watercress, violet foam and thyme oil. With all of those ingredients, it could have been a mess, but it was sublime. Everything had a role and they were all present in just the right proportions.
Amongst other experiences in his still young life, Josh Habiger used to be a fisherman in Alaska. He sourced this halibut from a fishing boat that docks three slips down from the boat upon which he used to work. It was an immaculate piece of fish and extremely delicious, especially when cooked in lavender butter and artfully paired with fresh favas, lemon pudding, black garlic pudding and red sorrel. Lopes paired the dish with the 2010 Petite Ruche, a 100% Marsannay, from Crozes-Hermitage made by Michel Chapoutier. This wine had rich flavors and a lightness born by good acidity that married well with the halibut. This wine received no additional adornment from Ms. Lopes, but then it didn’t require any to complement the dish.
Jane Lopes likes to play with wines and make them conform to her wishes. She does some really fun and tasty things with wine, but she is no heretic and knows when to leave well enough alone and to let the wines speak for themselves. Her approach is refreshing. For the next course, she poured the 2009 Maranet Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. This had delicacy, acidity and still some richness.
Chef Erik Anderson had been preparing this dish in front of me all evening. With all the wonderful courses paraded to me, it wasn’t too difficult to stay patient, but it was now time. The pigeon came from Palmetto Ranch in South Carolina and had been deboned earlier in the week at the restaurant. The foot had been left on and the lower leg bones were the only ones left in this preparation that left the breast and thigh meat together.
This dish was absolutely worth the wait. It was one of the tastiest, most well conceived and executed squab dishes that I have ever had. The squab itself was perfectly roasted with a crisp exterior and juicy, red meat inside. The attached foot, may be off-putting to some, but to me, it indicated that yes, this was real meat from a real bird. But, the squab was only the half of it. What put this dish over the top was the accompanying butter poached white asparagus with a pigeon liver mousse, a sauce made from charred green asparagus (see my facebook page for photos) and leaves of lovage and red orach. Each half of the dish could have stood quite nicely on its own without the other, however, together, they were a marvelous combination.
For the final course, Jane Lopes poured a 2007 Produttori Barbaresco, which, due to its still relatively tender age, she had decanted. The wine was powerful, but with finesse and not with extremes of oak.
The finesse was important when it paired with the next course.
Approaching the end of my second meal from the chefs of The Catbird Seat, it was abundantly clear to me that both Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger were masters of balance and technique. Having two co-chefs in the same kitchen could certainly be a disaster, but in their case, they work extremely well as a team and they worked well with their staff. Their dishes flow seamlessly. It is not readily apparent which dishes come from which chef based upon conception, flavors or plating.
The rabbit saddle had been stuffed with andouille and poached. It was served along with morel mushrooms, sautéd rabbit kidneys, snap peas, spring garlic cream, a crisp Yukon Gold chip and a sauce on the bottom from ramp leaves. One might suspect that a meat as delicate as rabbit might get lost amongst all this flavor, but it didn’t. Once again, their balance of flavors was impeccable. There was enough support to add boldness, but not so much that the rabbit was engulfed by it. Anderson and Habiger walked a fine line all evening, but never crossed it. Their flavors were always big, but never too much.
With brilliant strawberries harvested from a local Mennonite farm, this first dessert had it all. The hay infused caramelized yogurt was incredible. I believe that one of the greatest contributions to gastronomy over the last ten years was the elevation of hay from mere animal feed to a significant ingredient in high end cooking. Its use here was brilliant, adding an earthy, savory flavor to the extraordinary yogurt. I also loved the crunch from puffed wild rice and the herbal sweetness from chamomile gels. All of this was washed down with a Tripel Karmeliet Belgian beer from Bosteels Brewery. The Tripel Karmeliet is so named because it combines three grains – wheat, oats and barley – in one beer. This was a wonderful pairing, working particularly well with the sweet and creamy notes of the dish.
As we neared the end of the meal, Lopes returned to her creative alchemy. This time she poured a gin cordial. She steeped gin overnight with ginger, cardamom and lime zest, then added simple syrup, and lemon and lime juices before topping it with an off dry Spanish Muscatel. It was refreshing and delicious.
Cucumber semi-freddo was the base of this dessert. On top of that was a quenelle of lime sherbert and on top of that was a rice crisp and a Thai basil leaf. Around the semi-freddo the dish contained spicy basil seeds, lemongrass infused cucumber balls, Thai basil oil and toasted rice milk. This was a delightful use of Thai flavors, refreshing and delicious. The desserts at The Catbird Seat showed the same dexterity with ingredients, imagination and finesse with balance as the savory courses.
The custard was made with barrel aged maple syrup and fresh thyme. I was instructed to eat the bacon first and then the creamy custard. This was a complete about face from the Thai inflected dessert. That was light and refreshing, while this was rich and savory. Both were delicious.
I was surprised to discover that the maple syrup used in the dessert was not from Steve Blis. It appears that there is now another contender for the crown of best bourbon barrel matured maple syrup. It was quite delicious.
I had this dish at The Catbird Seat dinner at The James Beard House. The presentation has changed somewhat, but it is one dish that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened and with good reason – it is delicious. The pineapple gelee is accompanied by charred oak ice cream, a cherry crisp, vanilla bean cake and spheres filled with Bulleit Bourbon. The dessert is served upon old bourbon barrel staves with the stands made from barrel hoops. The meal finished with a shot of Fernet Branca and in the same guise as the opening porcini and parmesan “oreo,” an oreo flavored oreo.
This was a phenomenal meal of great flavor combined with balance and subtle nuance. Chefs Anderson and Habiger have taken many of the best elements of contemporary cooking and forged a style of their own in a setting that is respectful of the food yet casual, comfortable and without pomposity. The intimacy of the space allows for a truly special appearance. Nashville has a very special restaurant that was worth the trip. With any seat at this restaurant, the diner is truly sitting in the catbird seat.