Thursday, June 11, 2015

Little Octopus: An East Nashville Restaurant That Raises the Bar

I was lucky enough to be able to try the new Little Octopus restaurant in East Nashville during their soft opening for lunch last Saturday. While I keep my ear to the ground about restaurants, this one hadn't blipped my radar very strongly. I was aware of the backstory -- Nashville food entrepreneur Sarah Gavigan was moving her popular Otaku ramen enterprise to The Gulch, and the POP Nashville space that had housed Otaku was to be home to a new restaurant. Other than that, I knew nothing.

The only picture I took, because I wasn't planning on blogging

That is ... Until my Twitter blew up one night last week, with local chefs praising the meal they were currently eating at Little Octopus. The next day, my blogger compatriots started chiming in, and ... I had to go. It turns out that after the chefs' night, the soft opening was open to the public. Frequent dining companion Melissa and I quickly made plans to go.

Little Octopus Style

The space is on the second level of a sort of adobe-style multipurpose building. The stucco on the front of the building has been painted with a glorious octopus. (I didn't take a picture, but you can see it here.) The interior is airy, with multiple rooms and a patio. The decor is spartan, and there are lots of hard surfaces. The chairs, however, were comfortable (unlike so many other restaurants that use un-upholstered chairs). I can forsee noise being a problem when it's busy, and the backless stools at the high-top tables would not be something I'd want to use. Still, we were comfortable during our visit and will just make sure to specify a table when we make reservations in the future.

They also have the cutest logo in town.

Little Octopus Drink

There is alcohol, including a small but interesting wine list that I have been told is curated by Pour Taste. We didn't indulge this time around. I stuck with the water, Melissa asked for iced tea. There was no "regular" iced tea, but she was offered iced green tea, which turned out to be on the weak side. We didn't ask what other non-alcoholic options were available, but that's an important consideration for me -- I love wine and cocktails, but often opt out of booze.

Little Octopus Food

In short, the cuisine being turned out at Little Octopus by chef Daniel Herget is stellar.

The menu is of the modern sort that is meant for sampling and sharing. Rather than having traditional courses, the categories are Cool, Warm, Salads, Sandwiches, Bowls. (The dinner menu is larger, with different, but similar, categories.) In addition to the categories, dishes are flagged if they are vegan, vegetarian (ovolacto), and/or gluten free. While I'm an omnivore, I do appreciate it when a restaurant offers more than the token vegetable plate or pasta dish for those who have more restrictive diets.

We were told that dishes will arrive as they are ready. In some restaurants that's an irritant, and can be an issue if the table is not sharing. In this case, though, it worked for us. We decided to order one item from each category and share it all. We chose:

COOL:  Avocado, sour orange, charred scallion, crispy shallot, cilantro

The item that arrived first, and the one that was biggest surprise, was the Avocado. I'd already heard great things and it was top of my list to try. It seems odd to think of avocado as being the star of a dish, and I wondered why it was getting raves. And then I took a bite. Holy moly. This was a dish where the whole was definitely more than the sum of its parts, but even the parts were great. Honestly that was the best-quality avocado I've had in my life -- sweet, smooth, not bitter, perfectly ripe. It had been peeled and cut into very large chunks, lightly dressed, and topped with fried shallot. The combination of flavors was just sensational. Naturally it was quite rich, but avocado is a good fat, right? I think that was my favorite dish of the meal, although next time I'll be sure to try something else from the Cool section.

WARM: Roasted Maduros (plantains), lime preserves, cotija

This dish was the second biggest surprise. It expertly played gentle sweet against tart against salty. Along with the avocado, it was a great pairing with the sandwich we selected.

SALAD: Tomato, French feta, tarragon, shallot, olive oil

Four thick slices of huge beefsteak tomatoes (two red, two green) with feta and tarragon is a fun twist on the ubiquitous Italian Caprese. Unlike the supermarket version, the feta had real tangy flavor, and the use of very green tomatoes was beautiful. The tomatoes were just this side of being perfect summer tomatoes, so they didn't dazzle. Soon we will be in the midst of full glorious Tomato Season, though, and that should make this dish even better.

SANDWICH: Cuban (pork belly, pickled cucumber, mustard)

The notation on the menu for this sandwich includes "media noche," which is actually a sandwich that is a variation on the Cuban (it's all about the bread). So I'm a little confused about the description. In any case the sandwich isn't a traditional Cuban, which has pork loin, ham, and Swiss cheese. Still, it was delicious. I'm not a fan of the usual dill pickle, but this fresh quick pickle was great. I would happily have this sandwich again. Just note: Sandwiches, like everything else on the menu, are a la carte, so no sides come with them.

BOWL: Lentils, basmati rice, turmeric, ginger, sweet potato, peas.

A layer of very fresh green pea puree topped with rice, then the lentil mixture was a hearty entree-size dish. Even after splitting this dish, given everything else we had, there were leftovers carted home.  It was spicier than I expected, but not really hot for my palate. It seemed a little more of a winter/fall dish than you'd find in a seasonally-attuned restaurant in June, but you'll hear no complaints from me. I quite enjoyed the depth of flavor and variety of textures.


Given the quality and flavor of the dishes we tried, I was looking forward to hearing what would be on offer for dessert. Alas, there were none. I don't know if Little Octopus simply doesn't do dessert, or if they just didn't have any for the soft opening. I could see that given their "healthy indulgence" theme that dessert might be out of place, but it would be easy to offer sorbets and fruit-based desserts that would fit their cuisine. Still, if that's the only drawback, I'll take it in exchange for the delights of the rest of the menu.

Little Octopus

604 Gallatin Avenue 
Nashville, TN 37206

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Empanadas

I stumbled across a recipe for butternut squash "hand pies" a while back, and with a few tweaks it turned out to be nice choice for a potluck this past weekend. Contributing a dish to the annual Nashville Food Blogger party is a bit nerve-wracking, given that our group includes food and food writing professionals as well as extremely talented amateurs. I was very pleased with how they turned out.

I detest the term "hand pie" so I call them empanadas, given the Latin American-inspired flavors. The combination of butternut squash, goat cheese, and the seasonings work well together. The crowning glory of the empanadas is the crust; this is a standard all-butter pie crust, which I discussed in this previous post.

The directions here are for creating mini empanadas; the perfect size to provide a few bites as a snack or appetizer. You can, of course, make a larger size for a more substantial treat.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How to Make a Perfect, Easy Pie Crust

OK, "perfect, easy pie crust" is a lie; really, what I'm trying to say is that pie crust is not as difficult as you may fear, and that perfection is overrated. I get it, I've been there. I did not grow up with much homemade pie crust, even though my mother was a great baker. Like everyone else we knew, we used frozen shells most of the time. Like a lot of things I now make from scratch, I didn't start experimenting with pie crust until I was in my 20's. Even then, I wasn't happy with the results. I felt like a failure and stuck with frozen or refrigerated pie shells from the grocery store.

As I've continued to branch out with cooking and baking, I've revisited pie crust every now and then. I've tried Cook's Illustrated method that uses vodka and a combination of butter and shortening. I've reviewed (but never made) Alton Brown's various crusts. I've used Ruth Levy Beranbaum's exacting method which includes baking powder, vinegar, and precisely-sized cuts of carefully timed, partially-frozen butter. Making the recipe from Beranbaum, who I generally like and trust, feels like amateur brain surgery, and in the end, I just didn't like the crust that much.

A good pie crust shouldn't be brain surgery

I wouldn't discourage you from trying any and all methods to find your best pie crust, and Mr. Google can help you find the above and more. For me, though, I figured out that keeping it simple was the key to getting me to stay away from the freezer case and and the long red boxes in favor of superior taste and quality.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Marjorie's Sugar Cookies - Christmas Cookies from Tupperware

This year I made our family Christmas cookie -- an unusual cutout sugar cookie -- for the first time in a long time. The recipe was a standby during my childhood and teen years, but I'd gotten out of the habit of making them. They are still, however, my favorite sugar cookie and are one of those tastes that says "Christmas" to me.

My mother spent a few years in the '70s as a Tupperware rep. She had two huge (and I mean huge) cardboard suitcases full of samples, and when she stopped repping, they were integrated into our kitchen. One other thing we had as a result of her Tupperware years was a cookbook. Naturally the recipes always featured using Tupperware products as equipment. Don't laugh -- Tupperware made (and makes) a LOT of products beyond storage bowls. We had Tupperware salt and pepper shakers, popsicle molds, and on and on. 

But I digress. The cookbook had two sugar cookie recipes, and the one titled Marjorie's Sugar Cookies were an instant hit in our household. They became the go-to cookie for Christmas -- cut out, of course, with Tupperware cookie cutters. The Christmas shapes included a Christmas Tree, a Santa Claus, and a Candy Cane. Not only did Mama make the cookies for us to have at home, but often made many batches to provide to our classrooms and to the fire station where Daddy worked. I often helped with the production, and even made them on my own as I got older. 

I'd gotten nostalgic for them and made a batch to share with friends and family. I'm very pleased to share them here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Tale of Two Crackers, Part Two: Thin Wheats

This post highlights the second homemade cracker I made to go with the Thanksgiving Soup Bar. The method is very similar to the Black Pepper Parmesan Cream Crackers, with the added twist of whole wheat flour and no cheese or cream. Thinner and a little less rich, as well as nuttier from the whole grain, these make a great accompaniment to soup or salad or as just a stand-alone snack.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Thanksgiving Soup Bar: Potato and Corn Chowder

There are many philosophies regarding corn chowder. The same applies to potato chowders without corn. Many recipes include bacon, using that as the source of the fat. Others include red peppers, for color and flavor. I'm a purist, though. While a sprinkle of crispy bacon on a chowder is wonderful, I don't want that smoke throughout the soup. The same with peppers -- great as a garnish on occasion, not something I want dominating this soup.

Still, the different schools of thought show what a great base a dish like this is. If you want to punch it up with other flavors, it can take it. Bacon or peppers, sure, but also a little crushed garlic or curry powder. If you want to make it more substantial by adding some leftover diced chicken or ham, it's cool. In the spring, change it up with leeks instead of onion. If you like a thicker base, increase the amount of flour. You can use whole milk or cream instead of half-and-half. Etc.

Another point about this chowder is that while it was featured in the Thanksgiving Soup Bar, it's something I've been making for years. This is the first time I've written down the recipe, though, because I've always made it by feel, and based on what I had on hand. I don't worry too much about measurements, I just shoot for general proportions. It's all good.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Crackers, Part One: Black Pepper Parmesan Cream Crackers

This cracker is a recipe that I've made several times, but not in a while. I pulled it out of the file to include as part of the Thanksgiving Soup Bar. Crackers are one of those foods that we tend to take for granted as coming from a store. They are actually quite easy to make at home, though, if you have a reasonable amount of experience working with cookie or pie crust dough. They are lower-pressure though -- for some reason cracker dough isn't as fussy as pie crust can be, and don't have the expectations associated with Good Pie Crust.

Crackers can be simple -- flour, salt, water -- or enriched with fat, or punched up with whole wheat flours or other grain flours, or flavored with an endless variety of herbs and seasonings.

I first ran across this recipe in the fabulous, now retired, Minimalist column from Mark Bittman in The New York Times. Then Deb Perelman posted the recipe with her commentary on her blog Smitten Kitchen, and I had to make this cracker.

Of course you can use the recipe as a jumping off point and add whatever seasonings or seeds you like, either mixed in the dough or as a topping. You can also vary the liquid, switching from cream to half and half or milk (or buttermilk, or yogurt, or sour cream, or ....) Instead of cutting into squares, you can cut out shapes or even bake the sheet whole and just break apart by hand after baking.