My alarm went off the Sunday morning after we sprung the clocks forward the night before. It was 630 am and I was just outside Detroit with the ultimate destination of making a 515pm reservation at Husk in Nashville with a lunch stop in-between. Keep in mind I had my two teenage daughters with me and it was part of a nearly week long tour of Tennessee and Kentucky but it seemed an exciting task to try and make a reservation 8 hours away in time. According to the reviews, Husk may be worth the drive considering it was voted the number 6 best new restaurant in the USA by GQ magazine. I was a bit torn since I have longed pledged my allegiance to Anthony Bourdain and felt a slight sense of betrayal since I’m sure Anthony would respect my adventurous nature but would hardly approve of my destination given the fact he refers to GQ’s food critic Alan Richman as a “douchebag” in his book Medium Raw, partly because he insists that celebrity chefs should hang in their restaurants.
Driving in both Kentucky and Tennessee is quite refreshing. The roads tend not to get congested, the drivers are fast and the roads and scenery are nice. As a result, there was little issue getting to Nashville on time, especially given the unexpected time change which occurs somewhere in Kentucky. After checking into the hotel, we jaunted a bit off the beaten path to the restaurant and arrived just in time for our reservation.
Husk is an extension of the original in Charleston, South Carolina which has the same name and under the eye of executive chef Sean Brock. Of some irony is the fact that the original was slammed by Richman. Nashville’s version promises upscale southern food using only ingredients which can be attained within a small radius of the restaurant itself. The menu is published daily and features a wide selection of starters and mains. I was there on a Sunday and was somewhat dismayed to discover that the wings voted one of the best in America by website Epicurious were not on the evening menu.
We were seated on the bottom level of the nicely designed restaurant. It was modern yet rustic. The walls were filled with pictures of an array of things including those of Nashville past. The staff were smartly dressed, looking as if they came straight from a restaurant wars challenge on Top Chef. The crowd was a mix of young and old and included hipsters that looked mighty similar to those I see in Toronto.
The drink menu consisted of a decent variety of wine, local beer (primarily from Yazoo) and signature cocktails ranging from low alcohol choices celebrating (if that’s the right word) prohibition to modern interpretations of some modern favorites. My choice was the Barrel Aged Seelbach which was bourbon based and laced with fun things like curacao and bitters for $13. I suppose this is no cheaper than the heavily taxed cocktails I’m accustomed to in Canada, busting the myth that America is a haven for cheap booze and watered down beer and cocktails. I quite enjoy bourbon based cocktails and this was no exception. The sweet bourbon was nicely contrasted by the bitters and the drink tasted better with every sip.
They also had a wide array of Bourbon which ranging from $7 to around $40 which included some high proof, reserve and aged choices.
Reviews of this place have criticized the lack of southern hospitality offered by the waitstaff. I have to agree to some extent. Our waitress was pleasant but the friendliness was somewhat guarded and seemed to be infused with some pretension, perhaps to justify charging $26 for a piece of chicken. Service was prompt although there is a fair lag between the starters and mains. For the starters, I opted for the Husk Shrimp and Grits “A Tribute to Bill Neal”. I’m not sure who Bill Neal is but I’m sure he’s pleased to know this dish bears his name. The grits were heavenly creamy, creating that perfect mouth-feel that reminded me of relishing Cream of Wheat as a kid. The shrimp were delicately cooked and seasoned and even managed to convince my generally seafood-phobic daughter.
The BBQ Pork Ribs with Charred Scallion Sauce ($14) were a upscale interpretation of this southern classic. They were quite meaty but don’t expect the deep flavor and tenderness synonymous with hours in a smoker. The sauce, however, was delicious; a perfect blend between BBQ sweet and vinegary sour.
The last “first” was A Plate of Bob Woods’ 24-Month Country Ham, Soft Rolls, Mustard, HUSK pickles for $13. The ham was pungently wonderful and tasted almost like a prosciutto. The remaining ingredients were great compliments to a dish which screamed comfort. The buns were fresh and pickled cauliflower was vibrant and a nice contrast to the sweet and fatty ham.
Although a main for each of us was suggested, we decided on the Tanglewood Farms chicken, grilled over hickory embers, potato dumplings and carrots for $26. Much like ribs, when I envision chicken and dumplings I think of comfort food which includes tender chicken, fluffy biscuits and hearty portions of root veggies. Husk’s modernized twist kept the chicken intact but omitted the chunks of dough and carrots, replacing them with bite size gnudi and pureed carrot kisses. My daughters looked a little perplexed. The poultry was tender and seasoned wonderfully. Although the dumplings and carrots were swimming in a small puddle of sauce, it would have been grand to have a little more to complement the chicken and remind me that this in fact is a comfort food.
The most anticipated part of the dinner was the plate of southern vegetables for $25. There were three reasons for this. First, I was curious to see how you could justify a plate of veggies for $25. Next, it is arguably the most talked about dish at Husk. Finally, I’m tickled that a place would equate a mosaic of plant-based concepts with menu staples like beef, pork and catfish.
On this night, the southern plate consisted of:
a) Gourd soup with pistachio and chives- Served warm, it had great base flavour which was complemented by some crunch and cream.
b) Tomato and grits topped with a farm fresh poached egg- The acid of the tomato was terrific with the sweet corn. A perfectly cooked egg just makes anything better.
c) Soy Glazed Broccoli- Simple but the best part of the dish according to my daughters. Perfect saltiness and heat surrounded the crunchy vegetable.
d) Roasted Turnips- After eating these, the turnip bottoms may replace of the tops as the go-to part of the plant for southern feasts.
e) Farro and Lima Bean Salad- Also a salad I have seen north of the border, it was earthy and well balanced with a great touch of acid and sweetness in the dressing.
The after dinner offerings paid homage to the classic desserts of the south but also had a refined twist to them. Chess pie, butterscotch pudding and strawberry shortcake highlighted the sweets menu. I opted for the latter two. The pudding was laced with bourbon and served with a pastry offering a hint of apple flavour. Collectively it was quite delicious. The shortcake composed of soft serve and strawberries which were divine, especially for a Canadian who is only exposed to the albino grocery store berries until May or June.
Husk has found a niche offering high end southern food, a stark contrast from popular places such as Arnold’s Country Kitchen and other iconic Nashville eateries. The dishes are refined, pretty and pricey. The execution is near flawless. I can’t comment on whether this is the 6th best new restaurant in the whole of America but it has all the elements of success; a strong endorsement by a leading food critic, a terrific concept featuring farm to table food with no compromise, a modern and comfortable environment and a whole lot of buzz. The grits were fantastic and the plate of southern vegetables is well worth the price. The chicken was let down by the somewhat dismal sides. The desserts and cocktails were sinful and true to the region.
Afterwards, we took a walk down Broadway to find a slew of drunk tourists, neon lights and a guy who was high, very interested in the odd appearance of Canadian money and sung us a Jason Aldean and an Allman brothers song in exchange for a five dollar bill. Despite this fact, I walked away singing the Tragically Hip’s It can’t be Nashville every night:
He said, ‘we are what we lack’
and this guy’s the autodidact
stares into the glare of them TV lights
It can’t be Nashville every night
with it’s la la oh oh ohs,
whoa-ohs and yeahs.
Yep, so far so good. An eight hour drive husking and busking in Nashville brought on a degree of la la oh oh ohs and I hadn’t even hit Arnold’s yet. I promised myself I’d go hardcore Bourdain style in Nashville on day three to make amends for my temporary allegiance to Mr. Richman, arguably one of America’s most well known autodidacts. PS. Alan. I don’t think Sean Brock was in the house. Are we good now, Tony?