Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sitting - and Eating - Pretty in The Catbird Seat

The first of two parts

Yes, folks, I did it. I stayed up until midnight one night in mid-May so I could be online the moment that reservations opened up for June 13 at The Catbird Seat. The restaurant had been an instant hit when it opened in October; the stream of national press, awards, and recognition since then had only made scoring a reservation more difficult. My BFF Scott was coming to town, and I knew that he would appreciate the unique -- if expensive -- experience that Catbird offered. Reservation made, credit cards primed, we eagerly awaited the appointed time.

This is a restaurant that simply will not please everyone. It is a very particular type of experience. If you aren't a fairly adventurous eater, or if you equate portion size with "getting your money's worth" then this restaurant isn't for you. That's not a value judgement, just a warning. The Catbird Seat offers only a tasting menu. This is similar to what high-end restaurants such as The French Laundry and Alinea have become known for:  A fixed-price menu, made up of many small courses prepared at the chef's discretion. The Catbird Seat is very careful to check for food allergies or other restrictions, and can even tailor the meal to vegetarian, gluten-free, or other special diets. Beyond that, you have no say in what you are served. You do not order anything, you simply wait for the parade of courses to begin. You may choose one of two levels of wine pairings with your meal, or the non-alcoholic pairing. Scott and I chose the latter; as much as I like wine, I was probably more excited to see what interesting beverages would be concocted for us than I would have been for the wine.

At the appointed hour we pulled up to the valet stand. The valet was not there at that moment, but a woman with a smartphone in hand greeted us there on the sidewalk and asked if we were visiting Patterson House (downstairs) or The Catbird Seat (upstairs). She glanced at her phone and asked, "Are you Tracey?" I answered that I was, and the valet appeared at that point. After handing over the car keys, our hostess led us to an unremarkable side door in the building, leading into a very small entry way with an elevator. The elevator took us to the second level, where a short hallway with runway lights in the floor led to the restaurant space. She escorted us to our assigned seats, and the adventure began.

The concept of The Catbird Seat is dinner-as-theater. Thus, the kitchen is in the middle of the room. A U-shaped bar surrounds it, with about 20 comfortable, padded bar chairs. (Also included was my favorite feature at any bar ... hooks for purses!) In each far corner is a slightly curved banquette which seats four; one or two other patrons can sit at the opposite side of the table. The setup for beverage service is on the far wall between the banquettes. You watch the chefs and assistants prepare each course, and are able to chat with them as much as you like, as their work allows.

Our seats were on the end of one of the legs of the U. This was a great spot, as we were right in front of the workspace of Erik Anderson, one of the co-executive chefs. Chef Josh Habiger was on the other side of the "kitchen." (Unfortunately we were also very close to one of the banquettes, which was full of shrill "woo girls.") Other patrons were scattered around the bar, the gaps filled in as people arrived for their staggered reservation times. Each party's place was already set with water glasses and napkins and a thick paper place mat with an amuse-bouche for each of us. This evening it was an "Oreo" -- "cookies" made from porcini mushrooms, tasting of the very essence of earthiness, with a filling made with Parmesan cheese. This idea of dishes which were familiar on the surface, but surprising in execution, is the hallmark of meals at The Catbird Seat. There were definitely touches of cutting-edge technology and molecular gastronomy, but nothing was so precious as to be overly fussy, inaccessible, or unrecognizable as food.

NOTE: At the end of the meal we were presented with a souvenir menu -- a copy of the hand-written grid on which the courses were listed. Unfortunately the handwriting is not always legible, and I remember some variations between what's on the menu and what we were actually served. I think the menu also doesn't list all of the components of each dish. So, the descriptions below capture the gist, but not the absolute detail of each item.

After the amuse-bouche we were presented with a "snack plate" -- three small items presented on a long rectangular plate: A small raw oyster with cucumber juice and yuzu; a perfect sphere of soft yet sturdy cornbread that had been injected with bacon pudding; and an homage to Nashville's native dish, hot chicken. This last was a crisp, absolutely flat square of chicken skin that had been coated with molasses and cayenne, decorated with a white bread puree and dill powder garnish, echoing the traditional service of hot chicken with slices of white bread and slices of dill pickle. I had never eaten a raw oyster, so this was the first (of several) firsts for me this evening. We were also served the first of a parade of interesting beverages that had been made to go with the first two courses. Sommelier Jane Lopes not only makes the alcohol pairing selections, but also devises complex, unusual beverages for those of us not imbibing. Unfortunately I did not make notes about the drinks, but this first was a bitter lemon, slightly fizzy, with other flavorings and a wedge of lime.

The next course was beef tartare. This was another first, as I'd not had raw beef of any kind before. Typically tartare is served with a raw egg; our dish was instead topped with steelhead roe. Two tiny patties of local, grass-fed ground beef sandwiched a juniper condiment, then were topped with the roe, a generous grating of fresh, mild horseradish, and a fine dusting of charred bread crumbs. I wouldn't say I'd rush out and order tartare again, but I ate my portion happily.

Next we were presented with ham & egg: Shaved local country ham (similar to prosciutto in this presentation) topped with a local egg that had been cooked sous vide:  Poached for an hour at 140F. The plate was garnished with a generous smear of rhubarb mustard and a nice little salad of watercress, radish, & grilled ramps. The texture of the egg was unlike any I'd ever had: Soft, silky, "done" but nearly jelly-like. Unlike a soft-boiled egg or fried egg where the white may be solid or nearly so and the yolk still liquid, this egg was the same level of doneness all the way through -- a key attribute of sous vide cooking. This course was accompanied by our second beverage; I believe this was where we got the apple cider with multiple other flavorings and a touch of carbonation.

The finale: Main dishes and desserts

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