Now it's Music City's culinary scene that is finding its own beat, writes Rosie Birkett.
'Why would you go to Nash Vegas?" asks the woman next to me at the sushi counter of Charlotte airport in North Carolina, where I'm waiting for a connecting flight to Tennessee. Charleston and New Orleans would be much more fruitful for my purposes, she says.
This isn't the first baffled response I've had since planning my food tour of "Music City", which, with its country music heritage, baloney-touting honky-tonk bars and landlocked location, has never been known as a US culinary destination.
Until now, that is. Because there's a new energy to Nashville's food and drink scene that has been getting the city noticed lately. It's being driven by a crew of home-grown entrepreneurs and creatives drawn to the city's reinvigorated music scene and laid-back lifestyle. It is also driven by a new-found interest in southern barbecue - currently starring on menus from New York to London - with food scenesters raving about collard greens, pulled pork, chicken and grits.
Two days later I'm sitting at the wide, wooden counter at the Catbird Seat (1711 Division Street, +1 615 810 8200, thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com), Nashville's hottest culinary destination, watching two chefs assemble vivid, artful dishes with a mixture of balletic synchronicity and rock'n'roll swagger. The Catbird Seat is an open-kitchen restaurant, where Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger cook in front of their 36 guests, personally delivering their creative, seasonal seven-course set menus for $US100 ($96).
The two chefs have CVs spanning some of the world's best restaurants and both have been named best new chefs 2012 by US-based Food & Wine magazine.
"To start, these are your snacks," says Anderson, stretching out a tattooed arm and placing a long plate in front of me. "Hot chicken skin with dill, spice and Wonder Bread puree; corn bread cooked in duck fat with bacon cream and a Northern Cross oyster with yuzu and cucumber."
What follows is a procession of inventive, exciting modern American dishes that meld traditional and cutting-edge techniques and incorporate southern flourishes. Among them is grilled, braised pork belly doused in a "ramp vichyssoise" and, my favourite, a dish of wood pigeon with white asparagus tips and hay-infused caramelised yoghurt.
When I meet the chefs the next day at their favourite coffee shop - Fido (1812 21st Avenue South, +1 615 777 3436, bongojava.com /fido.php), in the trendy Hillsboro Village neighbourhood - they look more like members of the bands Anderson managed in a former life than exponents of high gastronomy, with their check shirts, messy hair and breakfast tacos.
"I think that being here allows us to have a lot more fun and keep it unpretentious," Habiger says. "You can go to Prince's [Hot Chicken Shack] or Monell's and sit at a family-style restaurant with a bunch of people you don't know and eat some amazing country food."
Prince's Hot Chicken Shack (123 Ewing Drive #3, +1 615 226 9442) is a local institution, having served its scorchingly spicy southern fried chicken (from $US4) in the same location on the rundown outskirts of the city for 27 years. The chicken skin snack from the night before was inspired by this classic.
"It's a Nashville staple, so we do a riff on that so it's kind of familiar to people," says Anderson, whose favourite haunt is another restaurant that enjoys updating southern traditions. City House in Germantown (1222 4th Avenue North, +1 615 736 5838, cityhousenashville.com) is a buzzing, warehouse-style eatery where chef Tandy Wilson serves Italian-meets-southern sharing plates such as crispy pizza topped with catfish (another Nashville stalwart, $US22) with a mustard, onion, horseradish and lemon-marmalade "Jezebel" sauce.
Local lad Wilson, who opened City House five years ago, is often cited as having sparked the city's food revolution with his new take on local flavours. "Lots of people had married French food and southern, and I found those similarities with Italian food, which, like the food here, is about letting the ingredients speak for themselves," he says. "A lot of our nation's food comes from European and African influences but you see more things that are uniquely American in the south than anywhere else."
This notion of indigenous foods inspires the progressive southern cooking of chef Tyler Brown at Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel (231 6th Avenue North, +1 615 244 3121, capitolgrillenashville.com, daily specials $14). I meet Brown at a 26-hectare farm six kilometres from his kitchen, where the produce obsessive grows heritage vegetables, keeps bees and raises cattle. "We wanted to grow in the old style," he says from under a glorious handlebar moustache. "Different field peas that people have been growing in their families for years, heirloom corn, old varieties with a story to them ..."
At the restaurant he uses these ingredients to reimagine traditional recipes such as "dirty farro", a take on Louisiana "dirty rice".
Looking back while moving forward seems to be a theme here. In the up-and-coming East Nashville neighbourhood, Holland House (935 West Eastland Avenue, +1 615 262 4190, hollandhousebarandrefuge.com, mains from about $US20) is a Prohibition-style "refuge" where the barmen sport tweed waistcoats and shake creative cocktails amid vintage chandeliers and reclaimed furniture.
This is where 30-year-old head chef Kristin Beringson crafts what she calls "simple farm-to-table food with a southern twist". Her beautifully presented dishes include pulled pork flatbread with local apple and red cabbage-cranberry slaw. "Nashville is catching up with places such as Portland and New York ... it's really fun to be in the middle of all this."
My thoughts exactly.
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