Kay West joins us today to talk about Husk Nashville, the most buzzed about restaurant to open up in Nashville … perhaps ever! Kay: If you’ve waited a couple of weeks or more for a prime time dinner reservation for a table at Husk Nashville, my advice is to savor every moment of the experience, beginning with a bit of anticipatory foreplay via a stroll through the lush gardens of the two-story brick building constructed between 1879 and 1882 by Dr. John Bunyon Stephens.
Subsequent residents include Richard Houston Dudley, who lived there when he was elected Mayor in 1897, and more familiar to modern Nashvillians, April and Bill Mullins, who handed the keys over to chef Andrew Chadwick for a brief stay, though one plot of the garden he tilled remains. According to GM Dan Latimer, 90% of the landscaping around the building is edible.
The green tomatoes weighing down the vines will shortly be plucked, sliced, dredged, fried and served in a ham sandwich for lunch or with a ramekin of pimento cheese to begin dinner or brunch.
The heady aroma of herbs scents the warm summer night from a plot bordered by a free-standing trellis where three young pear trees are planted in ancient espalier fashion, looking for all intents like a leafy crucifix. What doesn’t come from the grounds is brought to the kitchen door by the local growers and producers whose credits roll on a wood-framed chalkboard in the foyer, also distinguished by an eye-catching colorful hand-blown glass chandelier that has been mistaken by more than one admirer as a Chihuly, but is in fact by LA-based artisan Seth Parks.
Husk Nashville is the local iteration of revered chef Sean Brock’s Chucktown restaurant that I suspect is the reason Southwest Airlines added a non-stop flight from BNA to CHS exactly one month before Husk Charleston opened in November 2010. Since then he’s tallied a trophy case full of awards and a bulging portfolio of worshipful press. The reason his name rings a bell around here is because we had him first, for three memorable years at The Capitol Grill in the Hermitage Hotel, which had the brilliant foresight to give the then 24-year-old wunderkind his first executive chef position and free rein in his kitchen laboratory. He left us in 2006 to go back to the city where he was formally schooled (Johnson & Wales) and take over the McCrady’s kitchen, where his regional profile grew to a national one and now–thanks to numerous guest appearances all over the world–international stardom. “Being with Sean at a food event is like walking around with one of The Beatles,” says Morgan McGlone, who was a fan well before he came to Husk Charleston in 2011 for a one-month stay and never–except for a brief trip to N– left. Though the New Zealand native had years of cooking experience under his apron starting as a teen in in Sydney, in Charleston McGlone began at the bottom, learning the Brock Way from the man himself and the HC chef de cuisine Travis Grimes. “I still have the recipe from when Sean showed me how to make collard greens. I have the recipe I wrote down when Travis showed me how to make grits the Sean Brock way.”
Presumably, he took the recipe with him to Nashville, where he has been since April, preparing for the late May opening after Brock recruited him to be Husk Nashville’s chef de cuisine position last November. “I talked to my girlfriend first and she said I’d be crazy not to take it. My sous chef Brian Baxter came on board in December and we started pickling in Charleston for Husk Nashville.” Though Brock is actively engaged in every aspect of the Husk Nashville operation—from gardens and purveyors to menu creation, wine lists (arranged by soil type and terroir) and staff attire (think Amish meets Imogene + Willie)—it is McGlone who makes a commanding presence in the open kitchen between the two street level dining rooms and the atrium room one floor down, which is also where the cozy bar is tucked away. Twelve leather-upholstered stools sidle up to the polished granite counter, where one can enjoy the full menu if a seat is available (the patio outside is beverage service only). It’s not only the food that is locally sourced—the rough-hewn wood tables were crafted by Woodstock Vintage Lumber on 4th Ave South; bowls and coffee cups were all hand-thrown at the Clay Lady’s Studio on Lebanon Pike by Caroline Cercone (whose husband Paul is the Silo co-owner in the porkpie hat at that front door) from North Carolina clay, where the ashes from the embers of the wood-burning oven are used for the glaze. Though farm-to-table is surely the most over-used phrase in current restaurant-eese (behind only recycled barn wood), McGlone says he has never seen the level of commitment to the farmer as the one held by Brock, which includes payment on the spot for all deliveries. No where is that more evident than the daily Plate of Southern Vegetables. Frequently the after-thought of a menu, at Husk, this dish stands on its glorious own, a celebration of fresh, simple and pure. “The main focus right now is vegetables. We stay within the realm of southern cuisine—showcase vegetables, showcase farmers. It’s technique. Sean says any chef can do crazy stuff on a plate. But when you can show restraint and simplicity, that’s when you know you can really cook. That’s how we do things here. We do the least possible things to a vegetable.”
And somehow, they make it better. At lunch, one of our table of four ‘volunteered’ to do the vegetable plate as if it were a sacrifice. Instead, we all tangled forks over just-harvested vegetables and grains presented on an oval wooden platter, and dipped spoons into a small bowl of chilled yellow tomato soup and a bowl of grits, presumably done the Brock way. The “Killed Lettuce” salad—an artful heap of greens from the Barefoot Farmer with thin slices of onion and snap peas dressed tableside with a warm vinaigrette—-transported me back 35 years to a lunch in Paris, and my first experience with a kitchen’s respect for showcasing the essence of a product.
At lunch, the shrimp and grits comes with a poached egg; at dinner, tentacles of squid perch atop the plump South Carolina shrimp. In both cases, the grits are cooked at Brock’s insistence with water, not cream, in order to taste the corn. McGlone says some diners inquire about the difference, but the bowls come back clean.
Fish—catfish at lunch with greens, grouper at dinner with a stew of vine-ripened tomatoes and firm pieces of courgette —was exquisitely cooked, and similar to the vegetables, mostly left to its own devices to impress.
There’s no shortage of love for the pig at Husk—pig ears make frequent appearances among the apps, as do pig tails, which novices should be advised are not finger-food curly fries, but substantial cylinders of bone, fat and some meat—brined, cooked sous vide for 24 hours, deep fried and served with chunky smoked peaches and chicarrones. Allan Benton’s country ham is sliced prosciutto-thin, just right for making sliders with the soft rolls that also start every meal, cooked by Bobby John Henry from Brock’s recipes. We were all wishing we could take home a jumbo jar of the crisp sweet-sour dilly beans that balanced the salty ham.
Field of Dreams chickens are cleaved in half and cooked over the wood burning grill. Recently Bear Creek delivered a whole beef rib loin to the kitchen. “We cut eight rib eyes, the biggest one weighed 66 ounces and went right out. We grilled it with Hillbilly Beef Love Sauce—-aged rendered beef fat, Worcestershire, lemon juice and lemon zest—just brushed it and brushed it, and served it with potato puree and asparagus cooked in embers. Very simple.” McGlone has brought asado-style cooking to the HN kitchen, a South American-originated technique using coals. There may be no more delicious way to finish a meal in Nashville than courtesy of Husk pastry chef Lisa Donovan, creator of Buttermilk Road Suppers, whose mad talents were coveted by many, and ultimately won by Brock.
Very soon the carriage house built in 1890 will be available for private dining for groups of up to 18-20. Husk recently backed up its evening hours to commence at 5, so if you don’t mind eating early—and I promise you won’t given the rewards—-those reservations are quicker to come by than the near impossibility of one between 7 and 8. Lunch and brunch are also easier points of access and will hold you over until the dinner bell rings. Thanks, Kay! For reservations, visit Husk’s website: www.husknashville.com.