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Nashville is good for the soul

by Lauren Glendenning
THE ASPEN TIMES
"A plate of Southern vegetables" at Husk Restaurant in Nashville.
Photo by Andrea Behrends |

Where to stay

Hutton Hotel

Contemporary, boutique hotel, centrally located to everything that’s happening in Nashville with a staff that delivers warm, Southern hospitality around the clock.

1808 West End Ave.

615-340-9333

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Where to eat

Husk

Southern fine dining from James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock

37 Rutledge St.

615-256-6565

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Arnold’s Country Kitchen

Soul food, cafeteria style

605 8th Ave. S.

615-256-4455

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Loveless Cafe

Southern breakfast, lunch and dinner

8400 Hwy. 100

615-646-9700

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Hattie B’s

Nashville-style hot fried chicken

112 19th Ave. S.

615-678-4794

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Honkey tonks and flaky biscuits fresh out of the oven — we were in Nashville alright.

I already knew where we would be eating five of our meals before we even booked our flights. I didn’t know if we’d be in town long enough for five full meals, but I knew we’d fit them in regardless.

My boyfriend, Ryan, and I had never been to Nashville. We’ve been all over the world together in recent years — to exotic places like The Maldives and Borneo — but not to Nashville, Tennessee? We were anxious to cross it off the list.

We’re country music fans and lovers of soul food so it seemed like a natural fit. As our plans came together about a week before the trip, I came up with a must-do list for this city: the legendary Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash Museum, the honkey tonks on Broadway and, of course, many food-related destinations. If I’m being honest, this trip was mostly about the food and the music stuff was just an added bonus.

Husk

We checked into the boutique Hutton Hotel, in a great location between Vanderbilt University/the West End and Historic Downtown. A friend from Aspen had Champagne waiting in the room for my birthday, sweetening our already warm welcome to this beautiful, contemporary hotel.

Our first step after settling in was Husk, James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock’s restaurant that serves up Southern fine dining in a gorgeous, Victorian house not far from downtown. Expectations were high for my 35th birthday dinner.

I had just seen Brock on an Anthony Bourdain episode and immediately liked the guy when he took Bourdain into a Charleston, South Carolina, Waffle House for some late-night eats. A James Beard Award-winning chef showing Bourdain how to navigate a Waffle House menu — pecan waffle or plain? Hashbrowns smothered and covered or covered and chunked? — the segment was a television masterpiece, especially for any Southerner who has spent many a late nights eating greasy hashbrowns and eggs.

But we weren’t getting greasy hashbrowns and eggs at Brock’s place — this was Southern cuisine I had never imagined. Husk’s menu changes every day and it’s always full of intrigue and almost whimsical imagination.

We started with shrimp and grits, a classic dish with smoky, creamy stone ground grits and fresh gulf shrimp. We also ordered the seafood Johnny cake, which was slightly less exciting but still tasty and interesting. A corn masa base held together a smoky seafood flavor with tomato gravy and onion ash sprinkled on top. It was a bit dense, and the masa gave it a dryness that distracted from the seafood flavor, and it was topped with a sweet and spicy kimchee puree that served as an OK complement to the dish, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it on the plate.

We ordered our entrées and chose to share the beef dish with smoked oxtail jam, as well as the “plate of Southern vegetables.” I was skeptical that a so-called plate of veggies — at $25 — would impress a couple of carnivores, but it turned out to be the highlight of the meal.

The plate came out with five bowls on it. There was a salad of Brassicas — vegetables in the mustard family that are grown in winter months, in this case mizuna, kale, turnips and cabbage — topped with a ginger-lime vinaigrette. There was a delicate and flavorful celery root soup with thyme oil and diced fresh apple. Another bowl contained braised ryeberries with mizuna and sweet potato.

A bowl of grits enticed us with its beautifully poached egg and mushroom broth — our waiter suggested we “give it a good scramble” with our spoons before trying it.

And finally, the cold beet salad with fennel and smoked walnuts rounded out the plate. Vegetables have never been this good or this exciting.

The beef, which was served with grilled romaine topped with a delicious sauce that tasted like a cross between pesto and salsa verde, was tough, but the flavors on the plate made up for it.

We finished the evening with a tasty lemon tart and walked out of Husk feeling really pleased with our experience. The tough beef and the odd Johnny cake aside, this place was truly lovely.

City lights

With the classy dining experience behind us, now it was time to head to the honkey tonks. First impression of Historic Broadway: A miniature Las Vegas of the South. I see why Nashville is sometimes referred to as Nashvegas, but the bands in these bars are a long way away from the cover bands you’d find in just any bar.

We walked into bar after bar and couldn’t believe the talent we heard. Fiddle-players rocking out songs like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” sounding as good as the original songs.

We stayed out listening to it until 2 a.m., then hit a White Castle burger near our hotel (sadly there wasn’t a Waffle House nearby). We had been in Nashville for all of seven hours and we were already in love with this city.

Loveless, Arnold’s and Hattie B’s

Before I run out of newsprint here, I have to talk about the other food highlights. First, the Loveless Café, about 15 miles from downtown but worth the drive. It’s old-school, with hundreds of photos of celebrities who have eaten there decorating the walls, and the best hot biscuits we had ever tasted. The waitress put a plate of six of them on the table before we had even taken our coats off, and by the time we ordered breakfast we had finished the whole plate. Up next: House-smoked pork shoulder with tangy BBQ sauce covered my over-easy eggs, and Ryan’s fried chicken and fluffy waffle had him in a state of breakfast bliss. Service was friendly and fast, and our waitress even brought out a little side of sausage gravy (and more biscuits!) when she realized it was our first time at Loveless.

We went back to the hotel after discussing our food game plan. We would have to take a nap for a couple of hours if we were to make it to Arnold’s Country Kitchen, which is only open for lunch on weekdays. It was a Friday 12:30 p.m., and Arnold’s closes at 2:45, so if we could get up by 2:15 and head out, we’d be good.

We got to this divey cafeteria-style restaurant that we heard served some of the best soul food in town. “Meat and 3” means you pick one main meat dish and three sides, but we copied the regular customer in front of us and opted for two meats. Smoked brisket, roast beef, creamy mac ‘n’ cheese, slow-cooked collard greens and crispy fried green tomatoes filled our plate (hey, at least we shared a plate), and sweet tea washed it all down. This place was legit.

To see just how many calories we could consume in one day, we topped the day off with some famous Nashville “hot chicken.” I researched two places, Prince’s and Hattie B’s, and went with the latter. This was fried chicken with some kick, and some of the best sides we had ever had. The pimento mac ‘n’ cheese was insanely good, and the banana pudding was the best we had ever tasted. But Ryan couldn’t let his spice-loving girlfriend leave without trying one more thing: A wing cooked at the “Shut the cluck up” heat level, made with ghost peppers. I reluctantly agreed, took a bite and spent the next 30 minutes in pure misery trying to calm my tastebuds down with sweet tea and pudding, none of which helped at all. This is a heat level made for winning bets or T-shirts. I wouldn’t recommend it.

History tours

Earlier in the day after Arnold’s, with our bellies full, we figured we should walk around a bit and there was no better place to do that than the Country Music Hall of Fame. Lucky for us, a Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan exhibit was going on, making the experience all the more impressive.

The museum is huge and extensive, with exhibits featuring music recording session videos, historic performances, guitars, stage clothing and what felt like every bit of history any fan would ever need or want to know about country music and Nashville. We buzzed through in about two hours, but easily could have spent four or more. We had to get ready for the Grand Ole Opry at The Ryman Auditorium later that evening, however.

Walking up to the Ryman felt like walking back in time. Southern women with big hair-dos and flashy clothing lined up at will call with their husbands, most of whom donned cowboy boots and sport coats. We entered the theater and were blown away by the simplicity of it, and we sat there imagining we were about to watch a show back in the 1960s and Johnny Cash himself could walk out onto the stage at any moment.

The show was fantastic. It had everything from young country pop to Bluegrass jams to country ballads. The Grand Ole Opry is a slice of American pie that every citizen should experience at least once. It was that good.

The Johnny Cash Museum, which we hit on Saturday before heading to the airport, was an extension of the exhibit we had seen at the Hall of Fame. Any Cash fan could spend hours there, listening to old tracks and reading about his rise to fame. The man was cool, there’s just no other way to put it. And this museum does a fantastic job of showcasing the good, bad and ugly days of his life and career.

On our last stroll down Broadway and into a few more honkey tonks, I found myself saying y’all a little more than I typically do, and with a Southern twang that rarely comes out. Nashville is a city that made me proud of our country’s music and food culture — so much so that I didn’t want to take my Frye boots off when we got back to Aspen, but unfortunately they’re just not great in the snow.


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