I was in Nashville, Tennessee and had one dinner to “play with.” I did my research, and decided to forgo the whole “blues, country and bbq” scene.
Like a true gem, the Capitol Grille is tucked away in a mine – almost. Not to be confused with the steakhouse chain, the Capital Grille, the Capitol Grille is in the cavernous belly of the Nashville’s beautiful recently restored historic Hermitage Hotel, just blocks away from the Tennessee Statehouse, hence the restaurant’s name.
The dining area is in the dimly lit low arch-vaulted space beneath the lobby. Fat marble columns and gently sloped arches and plush carpeting lend an intimate feel to the otherwise crypt-like space.
I had called ahead to make a reservation and request that the chef, 27 year-old Sean Brock, show me his “stuff.” Brock, I had read, is a self-proclaimed fan of an experimental food movement headed by the Spanish mega-hit Ferran Adria. When I later asked Brock about his favorite chefs, he showed excitement for other young “mad scientist” chefs who have attained national coverage like Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 and Homaro Cantu of Moto (see my previous post). Brock may very well be the next in this line of “extreme cuisine” culinary darlings.The place was quiet when I arrived at 7:30. In fact, no more than a half-dozen parties, mostly couples, would join me for the rest of the evening. The informal bar, which I could see (and slightly hear) through an interior window was much more popular.I was shown to my seat and greeted by my server promptly. Water, no ice, bread. My arrival had been anticipated due to my “made to order, yet experimental” tasting and my evening was on “auto-pilot.” I was told that there would be a slight delay, which was fine with me. I had just gotten off the plane and needed a little time to “settle.”As you may know, I enjoy dining alone because it affords me the opportunity to “scope out the scene.” But, here, there was “no scene” – no other diners to keep me amused, no wait staff to scrutinize… only the receptionist who stood attentively at the front desk, despite the fact that I was probably the only reservation on the book that night.
So, it was with this unanticipated boredom that I requested to see a copy of the menu – just to see what Chef Brock was offering the “regular folk.” Very interesting, but a thorough review didn’t take long. Finished, I again sat in contented, yet slightly mischievous patience.“Oh, I know!” Suddenly, a brilliant though popped into my head. “Newspaper!” My thought was so brilliant that it telepathically broadcasted throughout Nashville. Before the idea even left my mind, the receptionist abandoned her post, retrieved a copy of the Nashville Tennessean, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, walked them over to me, and offered the journals over one arm with Southern charm. “Care for a newspaper M. Ulterior Epicure?” Magnificent! I made my choices – only rejecting one (bet you’d like to know which one) and thanked her.A thorough review of all three front pages revealed nothing particularly exciting other than the usual agonizing over the presidential campaign. Tennessee doesn’t make for a particularly exciting state to watch on election night… sorry.Just as I set down the last paper, my server arrived with an amuse. “Shrimp quinoa “salad.” This cold dish featured a sizeable shrimp atop a small mound of chewy moist quinoa. Surrounding the salad was a mild curry-flavored sauce. (Upon asking, I discovered it to be a fenugreek sauce). The use of fenugreek reminded me of trend (or perhaps coincidence) among chefs lately to use a curry theme for their amuses bouche. In fact, just off the top of my head, within the past year, I had been presented with curried cauliflower puree with a curry broccoli foam (Chef Mavro), a saffron cumin carrot soup with cilantro lime foam (Levain), and a cumin “lobster cappuccino” with oyster and lobster foam (Red).First course: “Butter-poached lobster with vanilla and laurel aromatherapy.” Translation: a bowl with the food set in a larger bowl filled with bay leaves and vanilla pods. A steaming pot of boiling water was poored into the larger bowl to steep the bay and vanilla.
This dish was grand. It was light and delightfully salty. The lobster was sweet and perfectly cooked. Poaching seafood, especially proteinaceous crustaceans in oil yields ethereally tender meat. I especially appreciated that this dish escaped the familiar “chowder” variation of butter-poached seafood by pairing the buttery dish with savory leeks and slightly bitter radishes instead of the familiar diced potatoes and mirepoix. Also, the vanilla-bay leaf emulsion was very creative. I can’t say that I like vanilla with my savory foods (like the vanilla rum sauce I was recently served with an otherwise wonderfully roasted breast of pheasant), but the aromatic treatment with the vanilla pods and bay leaves was innovative and particularly welcomed.(Sidenote: I once saw Jeffrey Steingarten chastise Mario Batali and Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai on an episode of Iron Chef America for garnishing a dish with Bay leaves because of their toxicity… I think that was a silly criticism…)Second course featured a “Sea scallop ‘smoked table-side’ with pumpkin pairings.” Dazzle me wicked. There was a small glass (like a double-shot glass size) cup inverted to the left of my plate. The contents were “hazy.” The server lifted the glass and a lazy fog of smoke lifted, striking my nose with the hypnotic smell of applewood and revealing the most beautiful sea scallop I have ever tasted. It was pan seared with a gorgeous caramelized lacquer but tasted as if it had been smoked. The scallop was impeccably cooked, just slightly on the rarer side to my liking.With this, and not to be forgotten, were toasted pumpkins seeds and stewed pumpkin pieces enrobed in a maple syrup. Yum. This dish represented the best of autumn to me and took me back to one of the delights of the late October season: gutting, carving and cooking pumpkin and the rich, yet fresh smell of roasting pumpkin seeds – and of course, my favorite – pumpkin pie!
Next came Barramundi with braised endives, Kumamoto oysters and trout roe. Cooks, take note: this is the way fish skin should be prepared – crusted in coarse salt and crispy, eliminating all fishiness and providing a wonderful crunch against the supple flesh of the fish. The braised endives provided a great silky wrap to make the fish just a wonderful treat to eat. The briny Kumamoto oysters’ and roe’s “meaty savory” flavor complimented the dish’s saltiness and kept the dish “at sea.”
I was losing count, and a sense of food reality when my server brought me “foie gras salad, quail breast and braised beets.” Honestly, this was my least favorite dish. First, it was a tad bit rich for my palate. Second, the combination of foods was uncoordinated and odd.
Although I’m a great fan of offal, especially liver, I’m not sure how foie worked with the rest of the dish. Other than the connection with the quail breast, I wasn’t sure why the sunny-side quail egg was there, or for that matter, what to do with it. It would have gone nicely atop a larger salad… but the foie (which was atop the frisee) I found more appropriately spread on the toasted table bread (which by the way was convenient for this dish). Overall, the textures were too different for this dish to concert.
No matter, Brock handily recovered with his last, and in my opinion, piece de resistance for the evening: “Beef tenderloin cap, roasted tomatoes, black trumpets, curried cauliflower.” This was the most fun dish to eat. It was a delight for an adventurous eater like me.
There was a lot going on on the plate; lots of combinations to try – it was like “choose your own adventure” type of dining. The beef was done to perfection – still red in the center. (I’m from arguably the steak capital of the world… and I enjoy beef, as one of my best friends who grew up in France liked to joke, “saignant mais pas bleu”). I loved the black trumpets, roasted tomatoes the cauliflower – wished there were a little more… Of the sauces and seasonings Brock provided, my favorite was a simple pile of fleur de sel and Chinese pepper off to one side, as well, an olive/caper aioli-esque garnish was great – it went especially well with the tomatoes.
Sad that my that my inter-galactic culinary adventures were coming to an end, I delighted in the thought of sweet endings – dessert. Chef Brock did not disappoint. To help transition me back “back down to earth,” he served a “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.”
This was an uncanny take on the familiar childhood staple. Three crispy wafers sandwiches with ooey gooey peanut paste. However, it was a scoop of Concord grape sorbet, that quintessential purply grapeness, that made this dish the familiar childhood favorite we all remember. I’ve been seeing a lot of pastry chefs elevate very simple treats to high-end desserts like this one. This treat was just swell – no frills and immensely comforting.
Out came the bill with a petit pumpkin pie. I nibbled on what was, to me, October-in-a-graham-crust delightfully as I paid my very affordable travel bill: $90 before tax and tip.
Needless to say, I rolled into bed and fell fast asleep. I dreamt that I “woke up” in reality after eating a delightfully dreamy meal. Yes, my dinner at the Capitol Grille was that good.
I returned the next day for lunch (when Chef Brock wasn’t working) to check the restaurant out under “normal” circumstances. I can’t explain it, but the “magic” was gone. No astronomical journeys, no telepathic revelations, not even stellar food – just your normal overpriced power-lunch hotel fare. My salad was drowning in dressing. My salmon was flavorful but DRY like a bone. Service was also spotty. Hmmm… had it all been a dream… I hope not… it’s just that my rocket man wasn’t there to “send me.”
Note: The hotel, by itself, is exquisite, and worth a visit on its own. In its nearly 100 years, The Hermitage Hotel has hosted six U.S. presidents and everyone in between; from Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead and Greta Garbo to Minnesota Fats and the Dixie Chicks.Also, men and women are encouraged to visit the gentlemen’s room at the bottom of the entrance steps of the Capitol Grille off to the right. Despite the ornate Edwardian décor of the rest of the hotel, this men’s room has been frozen in the garish, yet wondrous 50’s – alternating emerald green and black panels line the walls and stalls. (It looks very much like the bathroom at the Coconut Grove featured in the recent film The Aviator)
Capitol Grille ****
The Hermitage Hotel
231 Sixth Avenue North
Nashville, Tennessee 37219Rating Scale
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.