A brief Tennessee jaunt yielded the opportunity to sample a (very) small concentration of the state’s restaurants: Easy Bistro and St. John’s Meeting Place in Chattanooga, as well as Husk in Nashville. As Tennessee neophytes, these meals acquainted us with a new culinary landscape, and we were eager to survey both cities through their cuisine, on however limited a scope. This post unfolds chronologically, beginning with Easy Bistro and progressing to St. John’s Meeting Place and Husk.
As Easy Bistro enjoys a prime perch in Chattanooga, walking there acquainted us with the city. Just down the street lies an aquarium, a rather unusual urban centerpiece and one which hardly feels organic to the city, given the absence of a proper coastline, the Tennessee River notwithstanding. Also along that route (literally and figuratively), we passed a couple of chains, viz., Chili’s and Applebee’s. This generalization may well be purist and unwarranted, but the fact that these ersatz family eateries—eateries characteristically confined to the suburban context—resided downtown feels like cultural amnesia, an elision of Chattanooga’s history from its current culinary culture. Considering that the city rests against an Edenic mountain backdrop, one confronts an unsavory bifurcation pitting the lush natural environment against the contrived glamour of the city proper.
Easy Bistro rehearses this effaced history through its design. With tall ceilings and an expansive interior (not to mention its central position within the city’s geography), one senses that the building assumes historical significance. To this end, it’s unfortunate that in its current incarnation, the space not only feels awkward, but also lacks cultural specificity. Like most restaurants in the casual-upscale category, Easy Bistro features a bar and dining room, yet rather than install a formal division between the two components, a vast gulf of vacant space provides the only separation. The absence of proper segregation—and the porosity between the two domains that results—means that the dining room shoulders the acoustic burden of receiving more ancillary noise from the bar than one might reasonably expect. On the visual register, Easy Bistro eschews all manner of color and restricts its palette to black and cream. A wall of mirrors amounts to a relatively distinctive touch, but overall, the space sacrifices distinction in the interest of chasing a hip aesthetic.
The menu presented a series of categories—oysters/charcuterie/cheese; snacks; small; medium; large; and classic (this last referring to more traditional main courses.) Diners have the option of following a traditional, three-course format (and we did), but our server reflexively assumed that we were sharing and my sense is that many patrons go with a trendy, small plate experience in which everyone splits everything. Following another trend, the bread service carries a surcharge, although it goes beyond just a standard bread offering (bearing the description, “Cornbread: bacon fat, sorghum butter”) and likely justifies the $4.50 price tag, even if we declined it. I’ll also note that prices were quite reasonable (with most everything under $25, even the larger plates), which may result from the fact that the menu proper isn’t tasked with offsetting gratis bread. Overall, the menu surfeits the customer with options, with everything from pork osso bucco to shrimp and grits to pork belly to mussels.
An alumnus of St. John’s restaurant in Chattanooga, chef Erik Niel was nominated for Best Chef Southeast earlier this year and qualifies as a significant cook in this city. Perhaps due to the menu’s depth and breadth, however, I couldn’t locate a distinct culinary style, which prioritizes ‘something for everyone’ over culinary singularity—or even a voice connected to the region. The menu featured regional touchstones like trout and country ham, but the latter remained buried in a broader charcuterie plate. The trout, meanwhile, suffered from being paired alongside watercress and brown butter; while I’m sure the brown butter supplies a decadent note, the inclusion of watercress makes the dish feel like dieting fare. My broader point is that while one could construct a meal out of canonical Tennessee ingredients, these are not foregrounded. I ordered soft shell crab to start and then the roast chicken from the “classic” section; my brother started with a heavier plate in moules frites (which he felt would pair nicely with his opening beer), and followed with pork belly.
Our appetizers missed the mark. The soft-shell crab bore a very heavy breading; I’d have preferred a thinner coating that supplied textural contrast without compromising the delicacy of the crustacean. A two-way preparation of zephyr squash (sautéed and pureed) served as the primary accompaniment, although florid garnishes rained down on the plate. To my mind, the squash would have paired more successfully with a lighter crab preparation; the heavy batter overshadowed the squash, and more decadent or acidic accoutrements might have better held their own. Although it didn’t impede consumption, I also prefer a cleaner composition. The free-form design feels like an exercise in complexification; I understand that abstract patterns have been de rigeur for some time, yet for this reason, this configuration just demonstrates cognizance of current fashion. Displaced from its postwar context, Abstract Expressionism seems to serve as the guiding aesthetic for much contemporary cuisine, but when this style becomes common practice, compositions such as this one carry, paradoxically, a certain academicism.
I don’t have a photo of the mussels, but they arrived in a hefty portion. The relatively limp fries didn’t marry well with the broth, which my brother found underseasoned and uninspired inspired anyhow.
My main dish better showcased the kitchen’s capacities. The roasted chicken quarter achieved textural contrast between skin and meat, while the decadent mushroom sauce enlivened everything. Bacon, onions, cremini mushrooms, and lyonnaise potatoes rested beneath the bird. While I enjoy baby portabellas, their inclusion was cause for surprise, given that the menu listed shiitakes (a particular favorite of mine.) When I queried our server as to the absent shiitakes, he conferenced with the chef and remarked that they’d substituted the creminis. In a gesture of Southern Hospitality (or something like that), the chef offered to prepare a small plate of morels—I accepted without hesitation, of course. Needless to say, this dish compensated for the disappointment of the prior offering, even while I recognize that ordering one of the less traditional dishes might have better illuminated the chef’s contemporary flourishes. The unannounced mushroom swap, meanwhile, may be attributable to the fact that this meal occurred on a Sunday. Morels are always welcome—and a great complement to roast chicken—but I now wonder whether surreptitious ingredient swaps are common practice on the Sabbath.
My brother enjoyed his roasted pork belly, which boasted a robust scale in excess of what I’d expected from the $14 price. The composition reprised the abstraction of the crab, but to a more restrained degree. Under the pork belly sat a black garlic paste, while a ramp puree (organized in circular discs of escalating size) amplified the dish’s garlic character. A light dusting of paprika offset the greenish hues and compounded the intense flavors at play. I didn’t try it, but my brother enjoyed the plate.
Two desserts caught my attention: strawberry shortcake and bourbon bread pudding. My brother ordered the former and I chose the latter, which seemed a fitting choice for Tennessee, adjacent as the state is to Kentucky. I found the pudding successful; the custardy consistency might have benefitted from the juxtapository effect of a crust, but the pecans at top supplied some textural balance. The caramel veered on the slightly bitter end of the spectrum, avoiding the more saccharine notes of less felicitous preparations. The shortcake caught us by surprise in that scones replaced the customary biscuit or sponge cake. But the ingredients harmonized and my brother gave the dessert his unequivocal endorsement.
St. John’s Meeting Place resides adjacent to its more formal sibling, St. John’s Restaurant, with which it shares an executive chef in Rebecca Baron. In contrast with Easy Bistro, the menu features just two categories, “Small” and “Large.” However, given that each category contains at least a dozen choices, one doesn’t lack options. As with Easy Bistro, little effort is made to project native ingredients; with options like lobster mac, duck fried rice, and steak frites, cultural borrowing assumes priority over fidelity to local heritage. Regional specialties exist, including trout, pimento cheese, and Southern sturgeon, but these represent outliers. Even though this meal began very late (9:30 reservation), our patient and excellent server unpacked the menu and fluently fielded our queries. I ordered steak tartare and roast chicken, while my brother went with pasta primavera and duck fried rice.
Complimentary bread consisted of potato-sourdough bread with sorghum butter; both were outstanding, but we especially enjoyed the savory-sweet balance of the butter.
While waiting for our first courses, we admired the interior, a dark space (at any hour) with little light from outside. With its two-story layout, the space is reminiscent of someone’s home, an impression underscored by the decision to only use the first story for tables. A tall pillar adorned with a Vitruvian Man covered in red graffiti provided a postmodern artistic centerpiece that amplified the restaurant’s youthful energy. An open kitchen broke up the space and, in large part because the restaurant wasn’t crowded, avoided the uncomfortable Taylorist aesthetic that sometimes plagues open kitchens. The space assumes a contemporary feel, but with greater distinction than Easy Bistro.
The steak tartare arrived with crostini, lemon, and chili aioli (underneath the lemon.) Ordinarily, I’d lament the paltry helping of the tangy aioli, but the steak boasted a luxurious beefiness that generated enough complexity on its own. The generous marbling suggests that ribeye might have been used, but our server noted that Wagyu beef was used (perhaps cross-bred with Angus?) and so it’s possible that the grade accounted for the marbling more than the cut. Capers—a despised ingredient that usually prevents me from ordering this dish—resisted overpowering the beef. I can’t recall enjoying a tartare this much in recent memory, but my brother mourned the absence of an egg yolk.
The pasta primavera earned my brother’s highest recommendation. The kitchen made the spinach pasta in house, with tomatoes, peppers, and balsamic syrup achieving a tapestry that amounted to more than the sum of its parts. I’ll also note the great bargain this dish posed at $9.
My roast chicken arrived with asparagus, zephyr squash, and gnocchi. A garlicky lemon butter provided ample decadence. This bird didn’t possess the degree of crispiness from a night prior, but the meat contained a slightly more tender texture, complying with my own preference. A fantastic plate of food.
The duck fried rice contained confit duck leg, sesame aioli, and a fried egg. I can’t justify the plating, insofar as serving the egg atop the rice would have allowed the rice to absorb the yolk. It may not rank among the most delicate plates, but this plate delivered bold flavors and my brother continues to rave about it. This was another generous deal at $13.
Given the late hour, we declined dessert—but considering the high standard of each course, suffice to say that we ended on a high note.
Despite being the less-famous sibling of Sean Brock’s decorated restaurant nexus, Husk Nashville already claims a central position in the roster of key Tennessee restaurants. In every way, Husk serves as a counterpoint to the restaurants discussed above; architecturally, the space honors its heritage. The website, for example, chronicles the evolution of the 19th-century building, which once housed a mayor of the city. On the culinary level, the restaurant adopts the neologism of “New Southern Cuisine.” To be certain, Husk benefits from the financial muscle generated by Brock’s family of restaurants and by no means qualifies as a hole-in-the-wall authentic spot; even still, I appreciate the interplay between culinary tradition and modernity encompassed by the “New Southern Cuisine” moniker.
As I’ve noted in the last paragraph, Husk resides in an actual house that on outside view, still appears more residential than commercial. With its sunken lower level, viewing the restaurant from outside belies its expansiveness. In lieu of a single dining room, the interior contains a series of smaller rooms, reminiscent of Primo in Rockland. Wallpaper and curtains heighten the domesticity and while the patterned wallpaper might ordinarily seem anachronistic, the contemporary flavor supplied by the immaculate tables, chairs, and hardwood floors mediates this impression. A healthy volume of covers lines the room, but with room enough to breathe and still preserve the hospitable tenor. Overall, a certain sheen imbues the building, but with a tastefulness that honors its history.
On its website, Husk lists as its subtitle “A Celebration of Southern Ingredients.” To be sure, “Southern” encompasses such a vast spectrum that the descriptor remains very broad, but the regional focus still exceeds that of the Chattanooga restaurants. Fried chicken, catfish, and country ham earned prominent placement. The lunch menu doesn’t stratify the plates into courses, but dishes are easy enough to classify and everyone in the dining room seemed to follow a conventional format. We ordered deviled eggs and ember-grilled chicken wings to start; I followed with shrimp and grits, and my brother selected the fried chicken. Our server understood the menu inside and out, and while I find the overall-aprons worn by the servers a touch precious, everyone had clearly been trained to the point of confident polish.
First to arrive were the deviled eggs. These were spiked with what the menu listed as “deviled ham,” resulting in a more savory—and less creamy—preparation than one might habitually expect from the dish. I’m not sure how I feel about serving these on a tree stump; on the one hand, the serving vessel was distinctive, but on a separate view, one might argue that it betrays a kitschy, fabricated rusticitiy. Still, we both found the eggs outstanding.
Parker house rolls were served on the heels of the eggs. These were enhanced by benne seed and a rich butter. Served warm, I couldn’t improve these in any way and overall, we were treated to great bread on this trip.
The chicken wings were cooked over embers, which refers to grilling directly over coals. This hearth-based method has escalated in popularity over the past decade, although my understanding is that Husk’s Executive Chef, Sean Brock, played an instrumental role in recuperating the historic technique. As a result of the unmediated contact between food and flame, ash envelopes the foodstuff, and the uninitiated might infer that our chicken wings were overcooked past the point of rescue. However, the ash coating was deliberate and our server explained that the wings were actually twice-grilled, exponentiating their concentrated smokiness. These were easily the most intense chicken wings I’ve had, and I appreciated that they acquired their intensity from a more organic source than the sugary-sweet amalgam that one often encounters with wings that rely on tacked-on glazes for flavor. The accompanying “MS Comeback Sauce” denotes a Mississippi delicacy essentially consisting of mayonnaise and chili sauce, per Wikipedia. The ashy coating, however, challenged even my own salt threshold, and I could only manage two wings (I don’t mean this as an indictment of them, as I enjoyed them for the singular pleasures they proffered, but rather as a testament to their force.)
The shrimp and grits wore a circular nest of vegetal garnishes that both belied their ample serving and very loosely evoked Michel Bras’s “Le Gargouillou” or David Kinch’s “Tidal Pool.” Our server explained that the kitchen had just shifted from a more tomato-based preparation to the decadent one on offer at this meal, which included a healthy dose of whipping cream. I could have done without the layer of garnishes, but the shrimp weren’t tough (as they so often are) and I found this dish more or less perfect.
No less successful was the fried chicken. Our server warned us that the fried chicken was prepared in the uber-spicy Nashville style (not his exact words) and so the rather mild spiciness disappointed my brother at first. Yet countering this initial disappointment was the extraordinary texture of the breading, which my brother considered the best he’d tasted. He enjoyed the mac-and-cheese and cabbage served alongside, although the cabbage skewed sweeter than he’d have liked.
As we had a full afternoon of driving in front of us, we skipped dessert, but with plans to return to Husk at the first opportunity.
This essay has discussed three successful meals, and the ones at St. John’s Meeting Place and Husk stand near the top of my favorite dining experiences this year. All three of the executive chefs—Erik Niel, Rebecca Baron, and Sean Brock—are modern (though not necessarily modernist) chefs, products of the current century. Brock distinguishes himself from the other two, however, through his sharper Southern focus. Niel and Baron are fluent in current culinary fashions, but their restaurants could more or less exist anywhere. What results is a kind of culinary cosmopolitanism, in which the Chattanooga restaurants deftly conform to dominant tendencies. Such compliance isn’t objectionable, but betrays a certain diminution, in the sense that the richness of local culinary heritage (and its avenues for cross-pollination with other regions) is left underexplored. For those of us who enjoy discovering a region through its cuisine, meanwhile, Brock’s more anthropological approach—probing the history of the south through its culinary lens—feels preferable.