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Weekend in Nashville report (epic length)

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Weekend in Nashville report (epic length)

Opportunivore | Apr 30, 2004 09:56 AM

Last weekend I visited Nashville to run the Country Music Marathon, an activity that left me with a powerful appetite and a semi-legitimate reason to eat aggressively throughout my stay.

Having culled my dining choices from this board, I feel obliged to report on where and what I ate. None of the places I visited was a secret, but several introduced me to unfamiliar foods, since I have minimal experience eating in the South.

So I hope my perspective will prove useful. From finest to foulest, I’ve written up Monell’s, Belle Meade Cafeteria, Zola, Provence, Sole Mio, and Rippy’s (on Broadway).
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Monell’s – Sunday breakfast
Short story: Fulfills all the hype. Don’t miss this place.

Monell’s exhibits every quality I seek in restaurants -- a commitment to serving local foods; straightforward, honest preparations; a welcoming, unpretentious atmosphere – and combines these features with a family-style dining format, that honors and complements them. Gourmet restaurants may seat strangers next to each other at long communal tables, but they do it in pursuit of edginess. Monell’s seats strangers next to each other at round tables, sized right for good talk among small groups, and they do it to foster a friendly environment.

I really enjoyed everything I ate. Outstanding: The smoked bacon and country that, I was told, the restaurant buys from a local smokehouse. The sweet, creamy corn pudding that tasted strongly of fresh corn. The exquisite house-made peach preserves, which went perfectly with the light, just-crisp pancakes and airy-crunchy biscuits. Delicious: the lightly battered, spicy fried chicken; the savory cheese grits; the hot apple compote.

Monell’s delivers the kind of satisfaction that you ordinarily get only when someone invites you to join a family dinner that Grandma cooked. A cynic might question it, but the wonderful food and warmth at Monell’s made Sunday breakfast there my favorite Nashville meal.
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Belle Meade Cafeteria – Saturday lunch
Short story: As good as expected, with desserts that could launch a thousand ships. Highly recommended.

Lunch at Belle Meade Cafeteria was my first full meal after the marathon. After sitting down feeling drained, I got up at the end of the meal feeling restored down to the tips of my blistered toes. I put away a plate of fried chicken; a three-side plate comprising macaroni and cheese, turnip greens, and fried okra; a piece of Mexican cornbread; a biscuit with honey; a side of red beans my father rejected; some roast chicken and stuffing my father didn’t eat; a breast of fried chicken my mother left; and a piece of chess pie. For good measure, I went back for a piece of pecan pie.

My meal at Belle Meade was fantastic. Indeed, the food forced me to rethink fried chicken, vegetables, and pecan pie. Normally I dislike fried chicken (the batter always seems needlessly thick), but I ordered it because the lady at the meat station said it was her favorite. Belle Meade’s fried chicken, with its light, peppery batter and tender meat, changed my mind about this dish. As for the veggies, I usually like mine lightly cooked so that I can appreciate their inherent vegetableness – vibrant color, fresh taste, toothy texture. Belle Meade’s turnip greens and okra, however, had transcended vegetableness through extended exposure to salt, pork fat, and heat, achieving new dimensions of flavor and texture. Finally, Belle Meade’s pecan pie reflects truths that few bakeries acknowledge: that the filling should be mildly sweet, not sweet enough to induce headaches, and soft but shape-holding like Jell-O pudding, not firm like bread pudding. It was surpassingly good.

At Belle Meade I discovered the virtues of chess pie, which I’d only read about on Chowhound. To me, chess pie seemed a distant cousin of crème brulee, with its custardy filling and top coat of crispy caramelized sugar, and singular flavor. By the time I’d finished my slice, I was ready to kidnap the baker and bring him back to New York.

The only thing I disliked was the macaroni and cheese. I prefer mac and cheese casseroles, in which the elbows and cheese cohere through baking (and ideally develop a dark, bubbly crust), although I enjoy unbaked versions as long as the sauce is thick and the elbows are not overcooked. At Belle Meade, the cheese sauce was runny and the macaroni way past al dente. Still, one letdown out of many successes will get you in the Hall of Fame any day.
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Zola – Saturday dinner
Short story: Superb food and gracious service. But why do they rush things?

With dishes containing as many as six and seven ingredients apiece, Zola’s menu reads like a parody of adventuresome cooking. So I credit the chef for turning out delicious, complex, balanced dishes in which all the pieces come together.

Our server was friendly and solicitous. When she heard we were visiting town for the marathon, she promised to make our evening a relaxing one. And she did take wonderful care of us, offering apt suggestions, anticipating requests, and refilling our glasses frequently with wine and water.

Both of the warm breads that opened the meal -- a savory focaccia topped with parmesan and herbs, and a sweet, dark raisin-oat loaf -- were delicious. (Our server gave me a piece of both, unbidden, saying, “You need to replace a lot of calories.”) Our first courses were also very good. I had the Beet and Heat salad, which combined chorizo, apple-smoked bacon, pecan-crusted beets, harissa-spiced cranberries, and untold other items. My father raved about his French Laundry salad. My mother opted for a mixed-green salad that was straightforward and fine.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have nearly enough time to appreciate this course before the next one arrived (in a repeat of our experience the previous night at Sole Mio). I was still chewing my last bite of salad when a busboy took my dish, swept the crumbs from my place, announced my entrée, and set it down. The rapid switch was unsettling and probably unnecessary. On a busy night I might have forgiven some mild pressure to turn the table over, but three other tables for four remained empty during our meal. Even so, nearby diners received the same treatment.

Pushy pacing aside, we enjoyed our entrees. My fiery spiced scallops were cooked perfectly and nicely complemented by a sweet butternut squash hummus, and a creamy, earthy barley risotto with spinach. The presentation was instructive, not merely showy: Everything was piled in a heap, and if you put some of each item onto your fork, the combination tasted great. My father reported a similar experience with his pistachio-crusted salmon. My mother, who always eats each thing on her plate in turn, said her grilled venison and its various accompaniments were very good too.

At the end of this course, though, the staff reprised its NASCAR pit stop act. The moment when we finished our entrees had just passed when our plates vanished and we got dessert menus. I ordered a choice of four house-made sorbets: coconut, strawberry-tamarind, chili-pineapple, and kiwi. I liked the single flavors most, perhaps because I like coconut and kiwi a lot, but I was nevertheless impressed by the ambitious combinations.

The bill for all this food, plus a wonderful bottle of Rioja, was astonishingly inexpensive (or seemed that way to me, coming from NYC). All of our entrees were within a dollar or two of $20. Considering the quality of the ingredients and the thoughtful preparation, and that midpriced NYC restaurants charge just as much for inferior food, I thought Zola was an incredible value.
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Provence (on Church) – Monday lunch
Short story: Good all around.

For a French bakery, Provence serves an eclectic menu. Sandwiches range from pear and brie on baguette to curried tuna. Prepared salads include Asian noodle salad, penne with sundried tomatoes and olive tapenade, roasted vegetables, and a mix of marinated artichokes, asparagus, and feta that’s listed as “antipasti.” The desserts seemed to be about the only strictly French department, with fruit tarts, eclairs, napoleons, and sliced cakes.

I didn’t try the baguette, which is probably the standard for measuring a French bakery, but all the food we tried was fresh and nicely put together. My father and I both got salad plates: three prepared salads on a bed of mesclun plus a piece of bread or a roll. The penne was good, the antipasti too full of feta, and the roasted vegetables very flavorful but oily. My mother had vegetable soup with a side of penne. The staff was kind enough to make my father a take-out sandwich that was on the printed menu but not among the selections for that day, and so gets bonus points.
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Sole Mio – Friday dinner
Short story: Very attentive service, nice setting, uneven food

This place seemed promising when we arrived. Seated at a table on the restaurant’s upper level, I could see north through its glass wall onto downtown Nashville—nice. A pianist was playing competently but loudly. The restaurant wasn’t full when we arrived at 6:30 (I wanted to eat early in order to go to bed early) but was pretty noisy nonetheless, and grew noisier as more diners arrived.

Warm sliced, herbed Italian bread came promptly, with good olive oil. The waitress took our drink orders and ran through the specials, then left us to choose. I couldn’t have asked for better options for a pasta dinner: eight or nine house-made pastas, all available with any of about as many sauces.

Our first courses arrived in no time. My mother liked her shrimp bisque -- not rich or heavy, but nicely balanced between creamy and tomato-y. My father’s seafood salad consisted of an enormous heap, easily enough for two to share, of formerly frozen seafood bits: tiny shrimp, calamari, crabmeat. Nasty. The vegetables in my mixed salad were fine, plenty fresh, but drenched in a too-oily vinaigrette.

My folks and I had barely finished our first courses when the main dishes arrived -- annoying. Two bites were all my mother needed to figure out that her dish had languished under a heat lamp, for the pasta exhibited pre-boil hardness. My father frowned upon discovering that his brick-oven pizza’s crust was short of crisp everywhere but at the edges. The cheese on top was also thicker than suits a Neapolitan pie. As for my linguini, the pasta was great but the sauce was very salty. I was too keen to get to bed to delay the meal by objecting, and my father kept his pizza, but my mom stated her case when the server returned. The server apologized sincerely, took the dish, offered to bring a new one (my mom declined and took some of my pasta, which was more than I wanted to eat) and said she’d send the manager. The manager never came, but the waitress came back and said she’d take the dish off our bill. That seemed like the minimum they should have done, but mom took it calmly (I think she sensed that my pre-race anxiety was mounting).

After we’d finished eating, though the waitress made amends with a round of complementary Bellinis and some biscotti. That seemed fair enough.

Aside from the slight hiccup with my mom’s dinner, our server and the rest of the staff were gracious and attentive. I was drinking a lot of water that night in order to stay hydrated but never managed to empty my glass because the staff refilled it so frequently. Considering that tap-water refills do nothing to help a restaurant’s profits, I thought their attention to my thirst was a terrific touch.
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Sunday night – Rippy’s on Broadway
Short story: Disappointing. Bring ear plugs

I was determined to sample some of Nashville’s barbecue before leaving town. But with only two meals to go on Sunday night, we were stuck with only one of the three options I’d come up with by reading this board. Jack’s was closed, and Carl’s Perfect Pig seemed too far to drive without knowing whether it would be open. So we headed for Rippy’s on Broadway.

I know nothing about barbecue, so I can’t say whether my ribs were good or bad by generally accepted barbecue standards. In any case, I didn’t like them. The ribs were meaty and tender and smoky, but I couldn’t taste any of the spices that, I’m told, go on as a dry rub. So the flavor was one-dimensional. And the meat was wet as if the ribs had soaked in brine during or after the cooking. Again, this might have been juiciness, and a hallmark of well-executed barbecue, but I failed to see the appeal. The same went for my mother’s pulled pork: tasty but soggy.

The side of barbecued beans was good: smoky, sweet and spicy. However, I missed the point of the limp, bland corn cakes that sat beneath the ribs.

Considering the near-religious devotion and intense competitiveness that barbecue inspires among diners and cooks, I’d really like to give Nashville ‘cue another shot. I’d even give Rippy’s for a second chance if someone told me I caught them on an off night (it seems fairly likely that Sunday evening was a bad time to visit). But if I do go back to Rippy’s, I’ll do it when the stage is empty. The country-music duet that was playing was awful, and amplified to deafening volume.

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