That’s why they call it adventure
If you want to take a trip where everything is fine and safe and predictable, where there is no chance of being disappointed, go to Disneyland, it’s the happiest place on earth. Nothing bad ever happens there, Walt wouldn’t allow it.
If you want more adventure, you have to be prepared for a few failures along the way. Reaching for the stars sometimes entails tripping over logs and falling into chasms. That’s what happened to us last Thursday, in our visit to The Catbird Seat, the super hot, super cool restaurant in Nashville that inspired our trip.
The Catbird Seat is on the second floor of an old house. You enter a street level door, which is barely marked–they don’t need to be showy about their location–into a tiny, ultra-chic assembly room and take an elevator up to the restaurant, entering through a long strange corridor. By the time you see the dining room, you’re already prepped for the hippest experience of your life.
This place is just smokin’ hot these days–you have to make your reservation weeks in advance. Every time we told someone where we were going to dinner, the response was “Congratulations!” or just “wow!!” If only it lived up to the hype. In fact, if only it lived up to its own claims. Here is what their website says:
Thirty-two seats surround a U-shaped kitchen, where chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson will prepare your meal as you watch.
Yep, that’s what it says. It just isn’t true. There are 24 seats around the kitchen, and 2 tables for 4 stuck in the corner, where you can’t see much of anything. Guess where we got to sit? We fly all the way from here to Nashville just to watch them work, and they shove us off into a corner where we can’t see a damned thing. We were not happy, right off the bat.
We fought. We argued. We begged. Nothing helped–the seats around the kitchen were all accounted for and we would be sitting in the seats of shame in the far corner. We didn’t like it, and weren’t shy about saying so, but there was nothing to be done. Eventually, we accepted our fate, although Gail spent some time sucking her thumbs.
The hostess, Jane, was completely professional through all of this, and now it was time to move on and have dinner. She explained our options: a $40 wine pairing, a $75 wine pairing, and a $20 non-alcoholic pairing. I had the latter, everyone else had the former.
Now we get to the next, and larger, lie about The Catbird Seat. Again from their website:
The experience can be as interactive as you wish; that part is up to you.
The details of what you’ll be savoring at your meal won’t be determined until you’re there; that part is up to us.
Kind of makes you think you’ll be talking to the chef about what you are going to eat, adding your input and making some decisions at mealtime, doesn’t it? Fuggeddaboudit. The menu is made every Tuesday for the entire week, if you’re at the seats of shame the chefs come over, plop the plates down and skedaddle as fast as possible. There is no interaction, the website is a lie.
The first amuse hit the table: tiny improvisations on the Oreo cookie. Three of them were black and white, featuring a porcini mushroom cracker and a cheese filling. We had told them in advance that I don’t eat mushrooms and Daniel would be having a vegetarian meal, so they made this for me:
The “cookie” is roughly the size of a quarter, this isn’t a place to put on weight. It was an interesting bite, but I don’t really get the idea of soaking an apple in olive oil.
The next dish was much more interesting:
Three interesting snacks: a smoked mussel in an edible shell, created by pressing pasta dough between two mussel shells. A house made “Cracker Jack”, much better than the original (with shiitake mushrooms on everyone else’s plate), and hot chicken, very crispy chicken with a ton of spice. They were all excellent, creative and innovative.
The next dish was less wonderful:
A langostine is somewhere between a shrimp and a lobster. This dish had one of them, an oyster, garlic, some crumbles of something bluberry-ish and some oyster leaves, which are supposed to taste just like oysters, on top. The leaves were interesting. I eat sushi, raw fish doesn’t faze me, but this just wasn’t pleasant. The texture of raw langostines is nothing you want to get familiar with, I can tell you now.
When the chefs come over with a dish, they briefly explain what is in it. They don’t introduce themselves, they don’t ask any questions about who you are or why you chose The Catbird Seat. The “interaction” is limited to a fast dropoff of the dish and back to the kitchen.
Here we were getting the fennel salad, with cucumber, lychee, almond and juniper. We really liked this–a relatively simple salad, very well done.
I’d like to claim I’m so smart I remember every dish and every ingredient, but that isn’t true. When the dishes are presented and rattled off, it was all I could do to figure out the main subject and try to write it down. Fortunately, at the end of the meal we got this:
It’s a chef’s work sheet, where they plan out the entire meal every Tuesday. The two handwritings indicate the which dish each chef will prepare. Of course, it puts paid to the notion that “The details of what you’ll be savoring at your meal won’t be determined until you’re there” but what’s a little marketing hype among friends?
This was one of the more polarizing dishes–I loved it, Tracy hated it. A piece of cod, wrapped in kimchi on a bed of avocado with a watermelon rind/coconut salad. I thought the cod was done perfectly, she thought it was undercooked. In any event, the presentation was beautiful.
The pigeon was scrumptious, if a bit unsettling to look at because of the claws. It was served with a flavored yogurt (I can’t read the menu), hibiscus and nasturtium leaves and salsify, which is a root vegetable. The others also got matsutake mushrooms, so I got extra salsify. I’m sure I got the better part of that bargain.
We are now at the halfway point of the meal. I hope you aren’t in a hurry, we weren’t. Counting the amuse, this is an 11 course meal, 12 if you have coffee. Plan on spending 3 hours.
If you aspire to be a famous chef, you can’t just put a piece of beef on a plate, you have to do something strange with it. In this case, they tried to reinvent pho, that basic soup of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. A piece of wagyu beef was placed in the bowl with a tablespoon of broth, topped with a cracker coated in hoisin sauce with cilantro, Thai basil, lime and chilis and garnished with a couple of slices of some kind of meatball.
When we moved to California in 1958, the grass fed beef here wasn’t nearly as good as the corn fed beef from the mid-West, so I was amused to hear that the wagyu we were being served came from northern California. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. Tracy couldn’t eat hers–she was sitting there counting how many times she had to chew each bit, and was in the 80’s. I thought the dish had excellent bright tastes, except for whatever that meatball was. My meat wasn’t really very tender, but not as chewy as Tracy was experiencing.
How or why a restaurant of such high aspirations could serve meat so off-putting is a mystery, but there was no doubt that I can get better beef at the local grocery.
The cheese course was magnificent. Gjetost is a Norwegian goat’s milk cheese, very dense and sweet. The chef said it reminds him of peanut butter (yes, he actually spoke to us) and paired it with concord grape. Every one of us loved it.
One of the hallmarks of molecular gastronomy is recreating a food from its elements. I don’t know why they do this. The first dessert looks like a slice of pear, but it is really pear sorbet molded into the correct shape, and adorned with a stem made of chocolate. A real slice of pear would be better, but you don’t make the big leagues in chefdom that way. This dish also had black walnut ice cream, walnut pudding and a Fernet Branca gel. That part was bizarre–Fernet Branca is a very bitter aperitif and has no place in a dessert. We liked most of the dish, although it was hopelessly frenetic, but absolutely hated the gel.
This dessert was fun. Maple custard was presented in an eggshell with the thinnest slice of bacon you can imagine, topped with a few leaves of thyme. I thought it was great, Tracy thought the thyme overpowering, but she doesn’t like thyme in general.
At last, the final dessert, a house specialty, a homage to the Tennessee bourbon business. Oakwood ice cream. Yep, they make ice cream flavored with oak–you won’t get this at Baskin Robbins. A cherry crisp, vanilla cake, pineapple gel and bourbon balls, served on a slab of charred oak from a bourbon barrel. Just wonderful.
How they do it is one of the great mysteries of molecular gastronomy, but those little balls have genuine Tennessee sipping whiskey in them. You bite down on them and POP! you get a flood of flavor. It’s some kind of miracle.
One more note–I wasn’t very impressed with the non-alcoholic pairing. Choose the wine pairing, and you get a different wine with every course. I got a drink with every other course, and they were of wildly varying qualities. The bitter lemon soda with honey syrup was so-so. The grapefruit juice with rose syrup and tonic water left me cold. The infusion of black tea, cherry, chicory, cinnamon and clove was very nice. The apple cider with lavender was excellent–I wish I could just go to the store and buy a case. The lemon tea with ginger, cardamom and mint was ghastly, hideous, undrinkable. Overall, I’d have been much happier with iced tea.
There were more Oreo cookie imitations, but they were coffee based so I passed. Nobody else finished theirs; so I guess they weren’t very good.
Big tasting menus at temples of haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy are expensive. The French Laundry is over $200, Per Se (in New York) is $275, Alinea in Chicago is about $250, El Bulli in Spain (before it closed) was over €300. The Catbird Seat, at $100, is actually reasonable in comparison. A $40 wine pairing is very fairly priced, my non-alcoholic pairing at $20 for fewer glasses was not. The automatic 20% service charge, when there isn’t much service, is just a ripoff.
Our dinner at The Catbird Seat was an adventure. It had good points, with some wonderful food. It had bad points, starting with the lies on their website, through the diffidence of the chefs when it comes to the table service, the poor drink pairings I had, a couple of clinkers in the food and ending with the service charge for little service. On the whole, I would neither go back again nor recommend it to anyone else.