SB friend and food critic Kay West shares her latest midtown lunch discovery with us today!
Since it opened on West End Avenue in 1984, Loews Vanderbilt Hotel has set high the bar of hospitality. Out of town visitors check in all day every day to top-rate lodging in the chic guest rooms, but it is Nashvillians who, over the years, have had countless reasons to pull into the curved drive and enter the marbled lobby.
Black tie balls, fundraising breakfasts, gingerbread house workshops at Christmas, Sunday brunch with the Easter Bunny, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, election celebrations and wedding receptions have all been beautifully staged in the hotel’s ballroom, a welcoming gathering place for our community.
And yet, the hotel has never quite hit the mark in luring locals to their in-house restaurant and bar. I think most would be hard-pressed to even name the restaurant. For at least the last decade, it has been tagged with the minimalist descriptive, EAT. I presume that hotel guests took the suggestion as needed, but other than a couple of business breakfasts, I never did.
With a nod to the enviable success of the Hutton a few blocks east in establishing their 1808 Grille as a drinking and dining destination, Loews has set about to do the same.
The launch of Mason’s restaurant and Mason Bar this spring coincided with the big reveal of Loews $17 million renovation, which transformed the exterior entrance (the large stone lions have been sent off to graze in retirement), lobby, lounges, corridors, suites, fire pit and outdoor patio space. I know I’m not the only person who has arrived for an event since the re-do and wondered if I had wandered into the wrong address; you’ll want to allow a few minutes to scope it all out, especially the awesome mural of Hank Williams in the Great Room.
The once dull interior of EAT has been given a very sleek and swanky makeover, while a huge space has been carved out across the way and filled with comfy, plush leather sofas and chairs, high top tables, a nine-screen media wall, multiple individual televisions (if you have an aversion, be advised there is no escaping them other than the quieter lounge off the main lobby), and a big square bar, over which hangs a massive chandelier fashioned from 300 Mason jars. Two dividers also constructed of Mason jars flank the entrance to the restaurant.
With millions invested into the space, the challenge is to be noticed in the bustling and ever-changing Nashville dining landscape and put bodies in the seats. Enter Executive Chef Brandon Frohne, who has never met a social media opportunity he hasn’t seized by the keyboard. The lack of an actual restaurant position in Nashville (he did arrive with a resume built in other cities) did not prevent the young and ambitious chef from making a name for himself through prolific commenting on dining blogs or posting on his own, entering–and often winning–regional and national cooking competitions and staging pop-up suppers. After a rigorous audition process, Frohne snagged the job and was charged with creating a “Southern brasserie that pairs modern creativity with traditional regional cuisine, brought to life with classical French execution and locally sourced, seasonal ingredients,” as described by Loews. He is also responsible for the menu in the bar. By his own account, he was raring to go.
Our midday lunch at Mason’s was so good and we were served so pleasantly (and efficiently, which is crucial in keeping that lunch hour to an hour) that I feel confident adding it to my list of recommendations for a mid-town lunch, business or personal.
We started with two Southern classics–deviled eggs and pimento cheese–tweaked with creative ingredients and presentation.
A Devil of An Egg is what Frohne calls two eggs split in half, topped with smoky bacon jam and slightly sweet mustard seed caviar, laid atop strips of pickled okra. You will not want to share this with more than one other person because one half will just whet your appetite for another.
The presentation of Jars is adorable, three of the smallest members of the Mason family are filled with creamy pimento cheese, chunky lima bean hummus and soupy red pepper jelly, set on a slab of wood and served with salted olive oil crackers that hold up to spreading. The pepper jelly had great flavor but dribbled right off the cracker onto the plate and we had to use the spoon to taste it. Maybe a small round of chevre at the bottom of the jar would help?
Other options for starters include Crab Corn Dogs and Fried Green Tomatoes, which I think I’ve had more than my fill of this summer.
On the other hand, I couldn’t get enough of this outstanding Compressed Pattypan & Grilled Peach Salad on arugula with local prosciutto, blue cheese, almonds and basil dressing. With a starter or a bowl of Vidalia onion and sweet corn bisque, it’s more than enough for lunch.
The sandwich board offers a Fried Green Tomato BLT, Chicken Panini, a Cuban and Turkey with Goat Cheese but we went big with the Farm Burger, an edible edifice of beef, bacon, coins of pickled yellow squash, cheddar, arugula, tomato and onion stacked between a lightly toasted bun. Go even bigger by adding a fried egg, an option we were tempted by but prudently declined. Frohne’s burger is already making quite a name for itself in burger circles, thanks to an earlier (and since discontinued) promotion which cut the $14 price tag in half on Wednesdays. With a complementary side of Garden Radish Potato Salad (our smart choice), Truffle Fries or market fruit, it still qualifies as a lunch deal.
The burger is also available at dinner, which is served from 5-10 daily and can be ordered in the bar. Time didn’t allow for a full-on dinner–or supper as the menu calls it–but if it had, I would have wavered between the Seared Halibut with garden peas, fennel, cauliflower and shitake mushroom, the Berkshire Pork Osso Bucco with cannellini bean ragout and rapini, or the Ricotti Gnocchi with patty pan squash.
Instead, we sat at a high top in the bar in a position to simultaneously watch a World Cup soccer match, and Game 1 of the NLCS.
Apparently the leather-covered bar menu is quite the hot commodity, as more than half of the supply ordered when Mason Bar opened have left the building. Presumably they are hiding out in a new home in St. Louis or Tallahassee.
Inside the ones that remain you’ll find straightforward descriptions of craft and classic cocktails and an impressive representation of brown booze. On another page, a line-up of six draft beers and 18 by the bottle frame the section titled simply Bar Food.
Frohne says he tried to ratchet up the standard Buffalo wing and fried cheese stick fare, and he has. The deviled eggs, crab dogs, fried green tomatoes and Jars make a welcome appearance here as well, but it is by far the Pork Wings and Poutine that Mason Bar stakes a claim on hearty appetites.
If Pigs Could Fly is the amusing title of the dish my companion and I renamed PigSicles. Frohne explained, these are pig shanks, meaty but manageable by hand, glistening with a chili-peach sauce and strewn with mustardy chow chow.
The only time I ever hear the word Poutine around here is when displaced Canadians bemoan the lack of a local place to find their national junk food dish, a rather unattractive pile of French fries, brown gravy and cheese curds—something also absent outside of the far north. Frohne constructs his Down South Poutine in a small cast iron skillet, laying the classic foundation of thick cut fries (though these are enhanced with truffle oil) then spooning on beef cheek confit, blue cheese and red eye gravy.
Here is how it arrived, sizzling hot at the table. I almost felt I should avert my eyes from such trashy decadence.
We scooped some out and spread it on small plates to cool.
It was ridiculously good, hitting every food danger zone of starch, cheese, gravy, grease and fat. But one look at what remained in the pan brought us back to our good senses so we quickly located our server to take it away.
My dining companion, who swears she has never in her life had a full-on hangover (despite the fact that she is a Vanderbilt grad and worked in the music business) correctly surmised that Poutine is the perfect liquor sop or a day-after remedy if precautions were not taken.
Find out for yourself at Mason’s Happy Hour 4-6 pm daily which offers $3 draft and half price off bar food.
There is a small selection of desserts, and at lunch we just couldn’t help falling in love with The Elvis–a dense bar of chocolate cremeux pierced by a slab of Olive & Sinclair bacon toffee with a pool of banana jam. That’s a hunka burnin’ love for sure.
No need to wait for a black tie dinner or your nephew’s bar mitzvah in the hotel to poke your head into Mason’s Restaurant or bar. It’s worth its own trip for lunch, dinner or the big game on the biggest screen, and garage parking is free when your ticket is validated.
Thanks, Kay! For more information on Mason’s visit the website: masons-nashville.com.
For the last 27 years, Kay has been a freelance, professional writer for local, regional and national publications, as well as doing significant writing for the music industry. She continues to write features for the Scene (where she was the weekly restaurant critic from 1992-2007), contributes regularly to Nashville Lifestyles and is Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com. She has written for TV Guide, InStyle, Glamor and USA Weekend. She has also written five books: How To Raise a Gentleman; How To Raise a Lady and 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know, part of the Gentle Manners series for Thomas Nelson; Around The Opry Table: A Feast of Recipes and Stories from the Grand Ole Opry; and Dani’s Story: A Journey From Neglect to Love.