While researching Cincinnati’s scene, I came across an article from Cincinnati’s travel site telling me about 5 things to do for under $5. They included observation towers, castles and conservatories but I was particularly interested in food related activities which included Graeter’s ice cream and Tom and Chee grilled cheese.
Graeter’s was started by the family with the same name in Cincinnati in 1870. Since then, it has grown into a 50 million dollar enterprise with around 50 stores and numerous celebrity endorsements. Since it was an above average night from a temperature perspective, the Over the Rhine location was buzzing. Normally I’m a sloth when it comes to ice cream choices but the website instructed me to indulge in the black raspberry chocolate chip, their signature and best-selling flavour. It was well worth a few bucks highlighted by big chunks of dark chocolate mixed within the rich and not sickly sweet raspberry ice cream.
Tom and Chee’s started in a tent in downtown Cincinnati. Short for Tomato and Cheese, this grilled cheese eatery has steadily grown in the Midwest boosted by endorsements from a couple of Shark Tank investors as well as a pre-weight loss Adam Richman on man versus food nation. It’s smart concept for a number of reasons. One, who doesn’t love a grilled cheese and better yet 16 different ones? Two, they have a great gimmick with their spin on this classic; using a donut instead of bread with almost 10 different filling combinations. Three, the restaurant decor is fun, fresh and clean. Bright red and yellow colours highlight the simple interior.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I opted for the same item as Adam…the Blueberry Bleu consisting of blueberry compote, blue cheese and lemon mascarpone within a donut. It certainly removed the stigma that a grilled cheese is a simple, handheld American snack. This one needed a knife and fork. It was salty and sweet and crunchy and smooth with every bite. I loved the abundant blue cheese against the marscarpone and the blueberry compote was excellent.
I made up a few of my own cheap excursions that didn’t involve any eats. For example, I took a 6k jog and was able to hit three bridges, two states, two rivers and pass both an NFL stadium and an MLB stadium. Speaking of the latter, the Great American Ballpark is a spectacle. The outside has a recreation of an infield complete with a pitcher, catcher, batter and base runner. The entrance to the stadium bring you into the top of stadium meaning you have to walk down instead of up to get to your seat.
I’m always interested in the snack scene of a city as much as I am the James Beard nominees or triple D destinations. In the case of Cincinnati, some of the highlights include an ice cream shop nearly 150 years old and a grilled cheese joint in its infancy. Both are cheap indulges you can help burn off with a jog through a couple of states or a stroll through a modern ballpark which is the centrepiece of an interesting midwest American city.
Maybe it was a dare or maybe I was curious but I felt it necessary to drop into Lachey’s bar while in Cincinnati. The show Lachey’s: Raising the Bar was an expose of the trials and tribulations of opening a sports bar in the US midwest. Of course, the Lachey brothers gained notoriety as two members of 98 degrees. Although hailing from Ohio, the quartet fled to west coast to gain fame as one of many cookie cutter boy bands that were prominent at the time. After a decade’s hiatus, they joined NKOTB and Boyz II Men as members of “the package” tour in 2013. I neither watched the show nor listened to the music (now or then) but I felt compelled to visit to see if the bar warranted the hype.
One of the first thing I noticed about the website (other than Nick’s glistening teeth) was the fact it had a rather long happy hour. One could enjoy a couple of bucks off any draft beer, wine or cocktail until 8 pm on weeknights. Although it was a Monday, I had no idea what to expect crowd wise, so I rushed my daughter so we wouldn’t arrive too late. We probably got there around 630 to a nearly empty bar. The decor was nice enough (my daughter specifically asked me point out how nice the washrooms…err…restrooms were) and we waited and watched one of the many televisions before a somewhat disgruntled waitress came by to take our order. There was no mention of the happy hour or any half price appetizer. I asked about a specific beer and she had no idea where it was from although she did look it up later.
Food wise, we ordered Not Your Nana’s Meatballs ($9), the chicken tenders ($9 plus $2.50 for the tots) and the hair of the dog burger ($12.50 plus $2.50 for the tots). The meatballs were dry and cold (so they clearly were not my Nana’s. The chicken tenders were a bit overdone and the sauces (honey mustard and house BBQ) were mediocre and although I didn’t try the burger, reports from the table were that it was pretty good. The tots were ok.
Hair of the Dog Burger $12.50 plus $2.50 for tots
Chicken Tenders $9 plus $2.50 for tots
Not your Nana’s meatballs $9 with no option for tots for $2.50
When I got the bill, there were $2 off my pints as promised although I felt there was a bit of souvenir pricing for the food.
I came to Lachey’s with an open mind and free of any angst caused by exposure to boy band music in my younger years. Despite this, I was generally disappointed by the experience. The chicken tenders with accompanying sauces were average and the meatballs weren’t even 98 degrees. The happy hour beer was a steal but the food was a bit pricey. Service wise, the waitress might as well sung “Was it something I didn’t say?” because she didn’t say much. Unfortunately, in the end, I didn’t leave the place humming “Thank God I Found You”.
Cincinnati has long been ignored as one of America’s culinary destinations, especially in the area of finer dining. Sure, there’s Jeff Ruby and he acclaimed steakhouses but other than that most of the regional foods are more pedestrian in nature and include chili, goetta (a German inspired spiced meat patty containing oats) and grilled cheese via Shark Tank. They are perennially shunned in the annual James Beard awards mostly due to the fact that they are in the same regional category as Chicago. Take 2016 for example. Of the 20 James Beard semifinalists for the Great Lakes region, 11 were from Chicago compared to one in Cincinnati. As for the finalists, all 5 hail from the Windy city.
The lone wolf in Cincinnati was Jose Salazar. Salazar isn’t your typical hometown boy. He’s originally from Columbia and after coming to the states, developed a passion for cooking, schooled in New York (and was two blocks away from the twin towers when the 9/11 attacks occurred) and ended up working with icons including Geoffrey Zakarian and Thomas Keller. He decided he wanted a quieter life and moved to the Queen City. Since then, he has opened a handful of restaurants including Mita’s ( the tapas restaurant he was nominated for) and Salazar, his first endeavor which celebrates the Over the Rhine region of Cincinnati. Given the simplicity of the menu and the fact I was with my daughter, I opted for the latter.
Salazar has a modest but pretty interior highlighted by a large bar, brick walls and tiled floors which seems characteristic of the OTR region. We were quickly greeted by a waitress and I started with a Kentucky Penny cocktail, mainly because it is bourbon based and shares my last name (hey…it’s the closest I’ll ever get to a namesake cocktail so I gotta love a little). Made with maple, lemon, bitters and topped with ale, it was a shandyish but punchy concoction which I quite enjoyed given the abnormally warm weather.
There’s a handful of nibbles on the menus so we indulged in some brussels finished in a yuzu aoli. They were crispy, fantastic and gave me an idea of how to use my bottle of yuzu vinegar at home moving forward.
My daughter went with the burger and I chose the sandwich special which was egg salad served with gravlax. I found it kind of funny that the salmon played second fiddle to the egg but the combination was quite delicious, especially with the toasted bread it was served on. The farm green salad was a pleasant side. The burger was solid even when dumbed down by my daughter’s cheese omission and medium-well patty. The thick bacon and “special sauce” were both spot-on.
Egg and Gravlax Sandwich
We ended the meal with a dessert which fused three American favorites; sweet potato pie, donuts and smores. The sweet potato donuts served with chocolate, graham and marshmallow. The earthy and naturally sweet flavour of the potato was a terrific medium for the sweeter accompaniments and the fact they were served hot out of the flyer was bonus.
Jose Salazar and his namesake restaurant prove there is more to Cincinnati than chili and goetta. It’s modest and economical menu delivered on taste and value without a whole lotta pretension. Even though the Queen City’s culinary scene will likely always live in the shadows of Chicago’s, Salazar growing empire is a reminder that, unlike the Bengals and Nick Lachey, there is hope in Cincinnati after all.
I took a March break trip with my daughter and was excited to see that the timing was right allowing me visit the pop-up called Flowers of Vietnam which opens every Sunday night in the Vernor Coney Island location in Southwest Detroit. Starting at 630 pm, after the restaurant closes, the diner is transformed into a makeshift Asian eatery with tables complete with jars of hoison, garlic chili and fish sauce beside a bottle of sriracha, a lantern and a jar of utensils.
I got there around 8 pm and the place was buzzing. We were seated at a communal table with a quiet couple as a trio of DJs (one who looked like Ashton Kutcher with a porn stash) bobbed their heads up and down to some sort of hip-hop my daughter understood much more than I did. Our waitress reminded me of the authenticity of Detroit. Hipsters in this city are naturals; an appropriate mix of angst and oddness that other cities only try and mimic with whatever recipe they read in “Hipsters for Dummies”. She called me darling while at the same time leaving me with my bill to head outside and chain smoke in the rain.
The booze free joint (in fact I think water is your only option) features a small menu with traditional Vietnamese dishes ranging from pho to a fresh mango salad to fried fish as well as a few spins on snack food like caramel chicken wings.
Let’s start with the salad. The fruit and vegetables were fresh and crisp and I appreciated the ability to use my discretion and add the amount of nuoc mam I wanted and mix the salad myself. The liberal use of fresh herbs added to both authenticity and flavour of this excellent starter.
The noodle bowl,although good, had a flavour profile almost exactly the same as the salad. That said, the pork was beautifully seasoned and I hoped for a little more of it. It has the same nuoc mam sauce which they should bottle and sell on the way out. The spring roll hidden within the bowl of noodles and vegetables was a gem and I almost wished I could get an order of them on their own.
The wings were fried and coated with a sweet caramel sauce (not abnormal in Vietnamese cuisine). I’m not normally a fan of sweet wing sauces or wings served whole, but there was something about tearing them apart on the side of the Vernor highway while listening to Kelso spin vinyl that was the perfect package. The sauce, when combined with accompanying herbal condiment created a new flavour which I will certainly crave on occasion moving forward.
I’m not normally big on Asian desserts but was intrigued by the trio offered at FoV. In the end, I opted for the Ca Phe Trung and the Yum Yums B cua Rob. The first was a twist on a Vietnamese coffee which I was hoping had a bit more of the condensed milk (which I consider nectar of the gods) taste than it did. The second was a dessert which looked like it could be served at a number of fancy places with candles and white table clothes. The plate as a whole contained a number of South Asian flavours which were great individually but lacked a bit of a togetherness. The sesame crisps were surreal.
Green Dot Stables needs no introduction to any Detroiter. This iconic eatery is on every “Things to do in the D” list and has been visited by an entourage of the rich and famous. As with Flowers of Vietnam, it is quintessential Detroit. It’s always busy, non-apologetic, economical (no food on the menu is more that $3) and filled with a mosaic of patrons that reminds you that there is a fantastic diversity in America’s most misunderstood city.
I’ve been a few times and my favorite sliders are the Korean (peanut butter and kimchi) and the Hot Brown (chicken, mornay and bacon). Any of the sides, whether it’s the cucumber, kale, fries or mac and cheese are all well worth a couple of bucks. The booze is dirt cheap and they carry a small but nice array of craft beer in bottles and on tap.
Mac and Cheese $3
Korean $3 and Cheeseburger $2
It’s no coincidence that Anthony Bourdain ended Season 2 of Parts Unknown with a visit to Detroit. People look at me funny when I suggest that Detroit is among the top 10 dining destinations in the U.S but hear me out. First, people don’t pretend to be cool in Detroit. Unlike other cities, their “hipsters” are authentic and not the ridiculous rip-offs that exist in every other city. This makes for a unique and real experience as opposed to feeling like you’re an extra in the Broadway version of “Angst”. Second, there is a good diversity of cuisine in the D. The two restaurants featured in this blog are a testament to this. Separated by the I-75, one is a brand new Vietnamese pop-up while the other is a well-established iconic eatery which is as recognized as Vernor’s ginger ale or McClure’s pickles and there are many along the spectrum in between. Dearborn serves some of the best middle eastern food in North America. Ferndale is a breakfast haven. The Eastern market has everything from killer pizza to fantastic BBQ and entertainment at Bert’s. Even if you want fine dining, you have a plethora of choice including TV celebrity chef Michael Symon’s Roast or Joe Muer’s seafood haven. Third, the restaurant scene is economical. As a rust belt city, Detroit has not lost it’s appreciation of value. You can still get a $1.50 Coney dog at many places in town. Mexicantown almost gives away authentic and delicious food.
In the end, I never just drive through Detroit to get to my destination…I stop every time. It is the perfect place to stop to get everything from a taco to a shawarma. You can go to Slow’s BBQ for some ribs or grab a pint of one of the many craft brewhouses that have opened in recent months. Both the patrons and the staff of the city’s eateries are fun, authentic and refreshing so I encourage you to go and smell the flowers and see for yourself that the stables are in fact greener on the other side (of the Detroit river that is).
I owed my daughter a trip to Detroit to search for her grade 8 graduation dress. In order to maintain my sanity, I insisted on lunch at Green Dot Stables. Green Dots Stables is a well known destination in Detroit famous for it’s $2 and $3 menu items consisting mainly of sliders with a few soups, salads and sides as well. In addition, there are a slew of beer and cocktails for under $3, including a few local drafts from Bell’s and other local breweries. Plus, I found it a bit nostalgic that California Chrome had just won the second leg of the triple crown, so lunch in a converted stable with jockey-sized burgers and a horse racing theme seemed fitting.
The monotony of a horse owner’s life of sipping mint julips and wearing ridiculous hats or other accessories while watching workers tend to the rolling green hills of their ranches is thrown into chaos for a month during the spring when the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes put their prized equines at the forefront. The four legged athletes with names like Dutch Delicacy or Hoof Him to the Curb are centre stage along with their 5-ft sidekicks who can “stand tall” and not worry about getting beat up despite the fact they are dressed up like pastel leprechauns.
I started with the $3 Chicken Tortilla soup. It was thick, spicy and hearty and was nicely garnished with slivers of tortillas and sliced hot peppers. The kale salad with quinoa, lemon and shallot was simple and delicious. I only had one bite before my daughter laid claim to the rest.
With the triple crown on my mind, I ordered a trio of slides which included the mystery meat (wild boar au poivre), fried chicken (with panko sage maple syrup) and a hot brown (Chicken, monray and bacon) for $3 a piece. Each of them were race winners. The liberal use of pepper, the sweetness of the fried chicken and the perfectly cooked bacon on the hot brown demonstrated the attention to detail put into the simple slider.
My daughter ordered le poutine which was quite true to form. Gravy and cheese curds modestly topped the skinny crisp fries to create a tasty $3 snack worthy of partnership with the sliders.
For the home stretch, my daughter went with the corktown smore (with cinnamon, nutella and fluff) while I went with one of my favorite comfort desserts, the ice cream sandwich ($3 each). The warm smore together with the cold sandwich was a blissful end to the meal.
Green Dot Stables is a Detroit icon and rightfully so. Cheap but delicious food and drink mixed with a trendy atmosphere and funky staff make for a great experience. Every slider, although simple, is carefully thought out and the product is a mix of sweet and savory smarts. Even the desserts are brilliant, especially the ice cream sandwich which screams local pride with the use of Blue Moon ice cream from the local Guernsey dairy farm stuffed between a Mexican tea biscuit. As I anxiously await the outcome of the Belmont Stakes, especially among the controversy surrounding the use of nasal strips by California Chrome (nothing like a good rumpus over performance enhancement among equines), I can’t help but wonder if Blue Moon might edge out Mexican Tea Biscuit by a nose at next year’s Kentucky Derby.
The plan for day 3 was to hit a few diners, drive-ins and dives in Nashville. The breakfast plan was Athens family restaurant which was the only DDD open for breakfast. Guy’s visit focused more on the traditional greek entrees but I find breakfast still gives you a good idea of a restaurant as a whole.
Upon arrival, it had all the hallmarks of a tradional greek diner:
1. Blue and white decor in an otherwise sterile environment.
2. An aged sign with character including missing letters on the letter board.
2. A moderately pleasant waitress with an accent.
3. A massive menu.
4. A spattering of regulars sucking back copious amounts of coffee while reading the newspaper.
5. A reminder that Greece is not known for coffee.
Since we arrived prior to 10am, the choices were limited to breakfast which was a bit of blessing given the huge amount of choice. The downside was an inability to try any of the traditional dishes that attracted Guy here in the first place. That said, I believe the ability to execute a terrific breakfast is indicative of the rest of the menu, especially when ordering the Achilles’ (pardon the pun) heel of many morning joints; eggs Benedict. Perfect poached eggs with tangy and creamy hollandaise atop ample meat is an art. My two daughters had a case of “I lack any sort of ambition prior to high noon”, so they opted for a simple breakfast special. None had a particularly exciting presentation but was reflective of the restaurant’s concept in general. After all, not everybody garnishes their dishes at home with parsley sprigs or drizzled sauces in shape of the Parthenon.
The Eggs Benedict ($12) was delicious. Nicely cooked poached eggs sat atop a thick slice of in-house smoked ham. The Hollandaise sauce was delicate and flavorful. I ordered it with fruit and was reminded that strawberries are delicious when they don’t have to travel clear across a continent to get to your table. It wasn’t the prettiest plate but was quite easy to devour.
Athens’ is stereotypical greek family restaurant. I can only comment on breakfast but it was a tasty way to start a day in Nashville. The breakfast specials were a good value (around $6 each). Predictably, the coffee was bad and food was good. It lacks any significant vibe but they don’t claim they have one either. It’s a pleasant boring. Hmmmm…sounds like a Russell Brand movie.
Food: 4 Guyz
Service: 3.5 Guyz
Vibe: 3.5 Guyz
Total: 11/15 Guyz
Afterwards, I embarked on a walking tour on the two most expensive universities in Tennessee. Vanderbilt tops $40000 per year while Belmont comes in a little under $30000. Both campuses were beautiful. They are also very big. My daughters were less than impressed with the half marathon I brought them on. The advantage was I was able to work up an appetite to tackle Arnold’s country kitchen, one of the most iconic eateries in Nashville. Promising one of the best “meat and three” meals in Tennessee, Arnold’s offers authentic southern food at decent prices. Normally I attempt to avoid lunch rushes, but I didn’t want to test my luck against two mercurial teenage girls. As expected, the place was packed. The diversity of patrons ranged from young children to business professionals. As I stood in line I noticed the James Beard medals and numerous celebrity endorsements which lined the walls. Despite the length of the line, things moved quickly and we had food on our trays within 15 minutes. For me, it was roast beef, creamed corn, mac and cheese and turnip greens. The girls split fried chicken, green salad, cole slaw and mac and cheese. For dessert, we had spicy chocolate and strawberry pie respectively. With drinks (ice tea of course), the final tally was less than $30. To this my daughter’s comment was the fact that the entire meal was the same price as the plate of southern vegetables at Husk the night before. I see an economics major in somebody’s future.
Simply put, this place is worth the hype. Each component of the meal was among the best I’ve had. The roast beef was a perfect medium rare. The mac and cheese and creamed corn were like a young hollywood starlet: rich but not overly heavy. The bitterness of the tender greens were evident but dulled by vibrant seasoning, creating a perfect balance. The chocolate pie was divine; the bittersweet of the chocolate combined with the subtle heat of the peppers created a trinity of taste sensations more divine that of a French or Louisiana mirepoix. The girls’ fired chicken was equally fantastic.
There is always the fear that restaurants with as much hype as Arnold’s country kitchen will be a let down. From the first bite it was evident that the medals, endorsements and accolades were all well deserved. Tender roast beef, fried chicken that could easily be the envy of Colonel Sanders and his army of Kentuckians, delicious sides and incredible desserts highlight a simple and authentic southern menu. I understand why they call it soul food…because eats like these hit some kind of sensory receptors on the soul itself. I honestly pondered getting in line again for another round but after two university campus tours and a rather lengthy walk downtown, the anticipated angst of my two daughters outweighed my desire for a collective meat and six.
Taste: 5/5 Guyz
Service: 4/5 Guyz
Total : 14/15 Guyz
The afternoon involved driving west down the music highway to Memphis but not before a stop at Bro’s Cajun cuisine on the way out. It took me a few tries to find it. Perched up a hill on Charlotte street, the best identifier is a white boat in a parking lot with the name of the restaurant written in red across the side. After a small jaunt up the hill, I walked into the place. The interior was a cross between a beach house, a bus station and a butcher shop. We were quickly greeted by a trio of characters I later identified as the chef, the waitress and some dude who hangs out like Norm Peterson or a similar sitcom character. We ordered takeout and had a seat at a table while waiting. Norm started up a conversation which included but was not limited to “Where y’all from?” “Is it cold in Canada? I heard it’s nice up there!” and “Make sure you put a tack on the map board over there.” Shortly after he got scolded by the waitress for not doing anything to help around the restaurant. When I mentioned we were on our way to Memphis and asked what’s fun to do there, her response was “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been to Memphis”.
I order a triad of Cajun mainstays; gumbo, rice and beans and jambalaya. In all three dishes, the sausage was the dominant player. Although this created a bit of monotony throughout the meal, in the end the dishes delivered on the promise of bold flavours. Since I haven’t been to Louisiana, I can’t comment on the authenticity but I imagine given what I know about Cajun cooking it would safe to say it’s a true representation. The prices were fantastic and the portions were huge.
For those who can’t make it to Louisiana, I’m confident that Bro’s would be an adequate fill-in for a Cajun craving. The food is delicious although a little monotonous. When you enter, you feel like family but maybe too much so as you thrown into a bit of a sitcom situation and can’t help wondering if there’s a camera running somewhere. I mean, would it really be out of the question? A Louisiana clan moves north to Tennessee to make it big in Music city by converting people from fried chicken to gumbo. Maybe they would call it “Bro Goes Country” or “North of 35”.
Food: 4/5 Guyz
Vibe: 3.5/5 Guyz
Total: 11/15 Guyz
So, it was off to Memphis for a little Elvis, blues and more culinary quests, of course.
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?