Husk Nashville: Charleston restaurant's kin offers poised and detailed cooking
Hanna Raskin – Thursday, January 2, 2014
Cuisine: Modern Southernrepresentative dish: Mississippi catfish, carrots, sunchokes, goat's milkAddress: 37 Rutledge St., Nashville, Tenn.Phone: 615-256-6565Bar: Full barHours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-SaturdayFood: 5Service: 4Atmosphere: 3Price: $$$Costs: Appetizers, $9-$14; entrees, $25-$29Vegetarian Options: SomeParking: Lot
Husk Nashville, Sean Brock's 8-month-old contribution to Tennessee's capital city, is nearly always described as a sister restaurant to the retronymic Husk Charleston, which recently celebrated its third birthday. But the expression gets the kinship wrong: The two restaurants are more like cousins, with shared genetic material and divergent dispositions reflective of their raising.
Whether or not you like Husk Charleston, and most local diners are outspoken on the subject, you can't accuse it of bucking the city's aesthetic conventions. A thousand feature stories may have bloomed from the newness of Brock's hard-core dictum that "if it ain't Southern, it ain't walking through the door," but the dining room has always been ruled by an old-fashioned sentimentality.
Sentimentality has served Charleston's dining scene well, and not just when applied to wide front porches and stiff brandy punch. Soft-focus memories of cooking on Martha's Vineyard and traveling through Asia provided the timber for The Ordinary and Xiao Bao Biscuit; the city has never had too many qualms about romanticizing the past.
Nashville, on the other hand, is a city where musicians come to strum their pasts away. The city is striding forward so quickly that it's a wonder it hasn't busted out of the Central time zone: When I was dealt a 30-minute wait for a taxicab on my visit last month, I whimsically called up the Uber app on my phone, thinking perhaps the ride-on-demand service had reached the Music City. When my driver arrived, he told me Uber-Nashville was marking its third day in business.
Like its hometown, Husk Nashville is brimming with charge-ahead confidence, and the results are magnificent. While the kitchen at Husk Charleston has a tendency to salute the South with density, piling pork atop corn atop pork, like so many quilts on a four-poster bed, Husk Nashville is focused more intently on taste. Chef de cuisine Morgan McGlone doesn't have any compunctions about plating up just one or two extraordinarily distinct regional flavors and calling it dinner.
I ate only once at Husk Nashville, so it's entirely possible I caught the restaurant on a great night. But poised, detailed cooking, in which every thought-out detail conspires to create a whole that evokes real human feelings, is very rarely a fluke.
A Nashville vibe
From the street, the family resemblance between Husk Nashville and Husk Charleston is immediately obvious: Like its South Carolina kin, Husk Nashville is in a 19th-century brick home that makes even contemporary visitors marvel at its original occupants' wealth. Approaching Nashville's arch-top door, you may instinctively check your pockets for calling cards.
But the genteel dining room gives way to an atrium surrounded by two stacked rows of picture windows. The burly leather chairs, sleek placemats and bean-based centerpieces are familiar from Charleston, but the austerely modern setting and Talking Heads soundtrack is uniquely Nashville.
Also unique to Nashville in December: Air cold enough to cure a country ham. Seated near a door which stood between the cooks and a storage shed, I was hit with gust after gust of it until I finally realized I'd be enjoying my meal in my peacoat. (A man seated at a table near mine never removed his camo ballcap, so maybe he was caught in the same predicament.)
But the lousy seat didn't come with lousy service, a pairing that's almost as common in restaurants as figs and goat cheese. Perhaps the Husk Charleston servers are plum worn out by tourists asking whether Brock's around, but I don't recall ever encountering here a server as sharp as the woman who waited on me in Nashville: "This will be really fun," she said when I asked for help coursing-out and wine-matching a fairly extravagant order, and she sounded as though she meant it.
Since a single meal doesn't allow for much cocktailing, my brush with the bar began and ended with a stunningly good drink made with a French aperitif, Spanish sherry, Italian herbal liqueur and wild sage bitters. While none of the wines picked for me were quite as memorable (the Nashville list follows the same format as the Charleston list, but includes a few Southern selections), I much appreciated the server offering 3-ounce pours. I turned her down, of course. Nothing about Husk Nashville suggests doing things halfway.
On the night I was in Nashville, Husk Charleston served wood-fired clams with scallops, beer broth, sweet onions with broccoli rabe, shitake mushrooms and garlic toast. The clams being prepared simultaneously in Nashville were considerably less encumbered: Pickled and nestled in a cluster of sliced parsnips and whole white radishes on a ceramic plate's outer edge, their stark white shells contrasted beautifully with a splash of green cilantro sauce. Perhaps this is delving too deeply into Brockiana, but I'd wager most Charlestonians would guess the dish came from McCrady's.
Although I wasn't as fond of a slack beef tartare - too far removed from its cow days after six weeks of aging, it tasted more of blurred spices than meat - it anchored an equally handsome plate completed by puffed beef rinds and a swirl of smoked oyster cream.
It wasn't all so dainty, though: Peppery curled-up chicken gizzards, which almost never show themselves unfried, made a satiny case for more high-end menu appearances. A bowlful of finely chopped pimento cheese, accompanied by rice cakes slapped with lard (if you listen closely, you can hear the antebellum eaters laughing at you for putting on a tie and paying to eat this way), was overwhelmingly excellent. It's no surprise this kitchen has mastered the Southern canon, but a deep-set deviled egg confirmed it.
At Husk Charleston, the small plates tend to outshine the entrees. If its spectacular catfish is any indication, Husk Nashville doesn't slow down at main course time.
The tender, contoured catfish - "cooked over embers," the menu says - is lapped by foamy goat's milk and bracketed by hunks of Jerusalem artichoke. Lo! Even the dish's symbolism is balanced.
People who don't like catfish often complain the fish is "muddy," and indeed this fish tastes as though he's been places. But, just like a great country song, the dish makes the journey compelling. Sometimes migration is the source of the most interesting things.