I can’t think of a better trio than my foodie friends Leigh Hendry, Bo Roberts and Jesse Goldstein to review one of Nashville’s most sizzlin’ restaurants, The Catbird Seat. Not only do they have some serious stripes when it comes to their insider knowledge about the Nashville restaurant scene (Leigh and her husband Bo are both self-proclaimed foodies; Jesse is a professional chef), they have the tenacity to actually have scored the most sought after reservation in town. After reading their review, I am ready to start dialing again–this is the place you want to be. Enjoy.
Divine, delicious and delectable—that’s the three-word summation of one of the most indescribable meals any of us (i.e., my husband, who is a seasoned gourmet, a serious chef friend and me) have enjoyed recently or ever, actually. You certainly won’t find another experience like this in Nashville or in the Volunteer State, for that matter. With its cutting-edge, but classically crafted cuisine, the Catbird Seat is the kind of provocative restaurant that elicits distinct drools from even the most jaded food critics and induces emerald green envy among rival chefs, while leaving foodies–from amateurs to black belts–in a state of satiated, orgasmic overload.
The process of securing a perch at Catbird was laced with challenges. It took more than a pinch of luck and repeated log-ins to book (finally!) a Thursday night reservation. As only the exceedingly persistent will land one of the 32 seats in this vaunted, kitchen-styled eatery, your appreciation level is partially pre-ordained, and you will arrive primed and in full-swoon mode.
This discreetly marked Division Street destination is open just four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday. Everyone sups together (akin to an aerie full of fledglings with craws opened wide) at a U-shaped wooden counter, tucked in on contoured bar stools. Thanks to its fewer than three dozen seats, Catbird is intimately casual, but not claustrophobic.
Talk about not putting cuisine up on a cake pedestal, don’t expect any opulent, distracting décor here. With the exception of the Willy Wonka-esque op art-patterned wallpaper that greets diners as they exit the elevator on the second floor, the minimalist space is almost lab-like. And inside this pared down gastronomic garden of goodness, guests have the pleasure of watching the staff meticulously prepare each dish of the eight-course, prix fixe meal.
Was the effort exerted to get into the Catbird worth it? Yep, and here’s why: first, the food is magnificent and decidedly different; secondly, the accolades already garnered from well-respected national critics are well deserved; and, thirdly, Catbird is nestled right here in our own village.
The skills of co-chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger are what make dining at Catbird a sublime experience, and no doubt their training has played a crucial role in national attention they are recieving (e.g., Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs of 2012” and Esquire’s “20 Best New Restaurants in America). Alums of some of the world’s most exalted kitchens (Copenhagen’s Noma, London’s Fat Duck, Yountville’s French Laundry, New York’s Craft and Chicago’s Alinea), they have ascended to the top of the cream pitcher quicker than you can say the words “high butterfat.”
Given all the critical acclaim, we couldn’t help but wonder if the chefs are feeling frighteningly anointed. We imagine them like victorious food matadors, ankle-deep in red fondant roses, bowing and waving their spoons in wild celebration. Could they feel uncertain how they’ll ever surpass this performance? If so, it doesn’t show. At a cheeky $400 for a party of two (including tax and gratuity), chances are that you won’t be seeing all that much of Anderson and Habiger, nor will the Catbird Seat become your primary, weekly roosting spot.
The hand-scrawled menu, written on a sturdy sheet of brown graph paper (no awards for penmanship here and, though the menu is somewhat unreadable/indecipherable, we appreciated its being offered as a take-away souvenir after the meal) details each course’s main ingredients, along with the accompanying wines and spirits included with the standard beverage pairing ($40 additional charge). I imbibed on the lesser option while devoted husband and chef compatriot went upscale with the reserve pairing at $75 extra.
Anderson and Habiger base their tasting courses on what’s inspiring, compelling and available (dietary restrictions are accommodated, but do let them know in advance). Clearly, these chefs have no interest in preparing the same dishes night after night, month after month. And why should they?
So, drum roll, please. Herewith, the list of edible works of art our little flock devoured with gusto:
- Amuse Bouche course featuring porcini mushroom wafers, looking for all the world like an Oreo cookie for munchkins, filled with savory Parmesan cream.
- The first course commanded attention with a smoked mussel in an edible shell, watermelon infused with Acquavit and a dollop of roe and a notable nod to Nashville’s Hot Chicken craze. (Catbird’s version comes with a micro-thin crispy skin, basted with a sorghum-spicy cayenne pepper mix and crowned with a Wonder Bread puree).
- Second course: Raw langoustine with oyster leaf, oyster flower and garlic oil. This was the least successful course in our estimation, a bit too gelatinous, too wet and too watery for our taste. (Note: The consistency didn’t prevent us from eating it, however.)
- Third course: Fennel Salad. Inspired by a gin & tonic cocktail, this was the sleeper standout of the entire evening with its combination of juniper, lychee, cucumber, lime and tonic. We were still dreaming of it weeks later, trying to decide how we might quietly abduct the chefs from their aviary at knifepoint in order to convince them to whip up a gallon of this crunchy concoction for our hoarding pleasure. We particularly enjoyed the salad’s paired wine: a 100% South African Delheim Gewurztraminer Simonsberg Stellenbosch 2009, which proved to be a fond friend of fennel. (Unfortunately, because we were so busy licking the service plate, we neglected to photograph this course.)
- Fourth course: Chorizo Poached Snapper. Sublime. Served with a paella homage of kale, saffron rice milk, thyme and tomato complemented by a tantalizing taste of Esprit Sud Rose 2011 (Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence).
- Fifth course: Poached Pheasant. Exquisite. Accompanied by a sweet potato raclette, a burned onion ash, savory crumbles, a whisper of shaved foie gras, and accented with two edible leaves: one of the sweet potato variety, the other a striking red maple. A few silky sips of Pirie Tasmania South Pinot Noir 2008 from Australia provided the piece de resistance.
- Sixth course: Scrumptious Wagyu beef tenderloin presented in a “pho” broth, with meatball, brushed with hoisin sauce, cilantro, sweet Thai basil, and lime. This came with a taste of German Schneider Aventinus beer and a wash of Koval Organic Coffee Liqueur made at a Chicago craft distillery.
- Courses seven and eight, cheese and dessert, marched forth in a petite parade of luscious little morsels. A Gjetost Norwegian cheese course served with a Spanish Cesar Florido Moscatel Dorado preceded an unparalleled pear sorbet and cardamom crisp presentation. This was followed by a unique maple egg custard, graced with bacon, thyme, and barrel-aged maple syrup, which was carefully contained in a fragile eggshell cup. A Sawa Sawa Sparkling Sake (yes, sparkling!) was a happy, zingy addition to these courses. Next up, a velvety vanilla cake, topped with a teaspoon of bourbon-y cherry crisp, oak wood ice cream and pineapple gelee. A yummy Royal Tokaji Late Harvest Mad Cuvee 2009 from Hungary was its palate partner.
In advance of our visit to the Catbird, we hadn’t pondered the mini world beverage tour that we’d be receiving concurrently with our meal. That the libations were as stellar as the cuisine speaks to the fact that Catbird’s sommelier is as fantastically creative as the resident chefs.
And, lest I forget to mention, there was also an amuse bouche-like finale, where the faux Oreo-looking cookie offered at the meal’s beginning was presented again, this time as a surprising sweet coffee-and-cream confection.
Keep in mind that yours truly is neither a food writer, nor a critic or even much of a cook, but rather a voracious calorie-consuming human who could never do journalistic justice to the layers of ingredients these guys utilized in crafting their highly original dishes. They were like mystical master weavers spinning saffron thread into gorgeous gossamer gowns. Despite watching it all happen over the course of three leisurely hours, we still could not begin to explain how they actually did what they did. Three glasses into the beverage pairings, we knew we were in throw-caution-to-the-wind-and-hail-a-cab-later territory, with no real reason to care. By that point, it only mattered that the exceptional delicacies continued to magically appear in front of us.
Thanks, Leigh! For more information about The Catbird Seat, visit their website: https://thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com. Reservations are held and confirmed by credit card through the on-line nationwide system, Open Table.