Hitting Music City with the Red Meat Lover's Club
I spent three fabulous days in Nashville, TN for a Red Meat Lover's Club (RMLC) charity event. RMLC is a fraternal organization dedicated to meat, cigars, booze and charity. Membership requires only having a giving soul and a bottomless pit of a stomach, they have raised over $500,000 since launching in 2017, and have consumed easily that many calories along the way. As the NYC liaison I have organized events at Peter Luger and Smith & Wollensky, but this time it was Nashville's turn and they rose to the occasion converting the Casa de Montecristo cigar lounge into a steakhouse. The chef for the evening was the immensely talented Matt Bolus of 404 Kitchen in Nashville. I am not quite sure how they pulled it off but it was a success in every way. RMLC road trips always center around a big charity event but also includes a food tour of the city and a private dinner the night before. Membership has its privileges! Here is a run down of what we ate. Interested in becoming a member? Join here.
First stop from the airport was Swett's, a circa 1954 cafeteria specializing in Southern homestyle cooking. Now in its third generation of African American family ownership Swett's is a local institution, but is deserving of National attention (where are the James Beard people?) It was hard to choose between the heaps of fried chicken, literal mound of meat loafs and various pork and beef joints on offer but ended up making the correct decision: a smothered pork chop, buttressed by mash with gravy and collards. It was the perfect welcome to Nashville - crusty, savory, succulent, soulful.
2725 Clifton Ave, Nashville, TN 37209
Hugh Baby's is pitmaster Pat Martin (of Martin's BBQ Joint fame) mini hamburger chain. There are currently three locations in Nashville but HB's is about to make some big moves regionally. While the standard burger on offer is both laudable and has a familiar construction, the rest of the menu boasts a distinctly Southern inflection - hot dogs are appointed with coleslaw, on Friday's they serve a slug burger, and there is a fried bologna sandwich, which might just be my favorite item. But really its all easy to recommend, the attention to detail and passion for craft found at Martin's BBQ extends to the burger chain.
From a traditional burger stand from a titan of Nashville BBQ we move on to a quirky, irreverent take on fast food from Sean Brock, arguably music city's most accomplished chef. Brock would blow my mind and shake my soul later in the week at The Continental, but that's not to say that there wasn't plenty of joy to be had at Joyland. The most standard menu item is anything but, the JoyBurger deluxe has the most flavorful beef I've experienced in a quick serve restaurant -- deep, complex and distinctly savory compared to the sweet, benign and often wan beef found at much of the competition. I am not sure that restaurant is quite the correct term for Joyland. I wonder if this isn't Brock's version of Wonka's Chocolate Factory and we are all just test subjects.
The JoyStick is fried chicken on a stick. It should be a dish born of self parody, the chicken tenderloin shriveling around the skewer under dense batter. But its quite the opposite. The chicken has spring and actual flavor. The batter is both delicate and concussive. It is so well executed that its as much a culinary marvel as one might find at a tempura or yakitori joint, rather than the state fair. The same goes for the chicken sandwich. Of the more interesting derivations is the CrustBurger, which extends the notion of the smash burger to the bun itself, rendering it an almost two dimensional object. I found the distillation and concentration of flavor and texture a little intense for my taste, but also saw some distinct parallels between it and some of what's going down at The Continental. More on that later. Official verdict: Joyland rules.
902 Woodland Street
Nashville TN 37206
No visit to Nashville is complete without a visit to Martin's BBQ Joint in my estimation. I first visited the Nolensville original back in 2010 when it was the sole location, and possibly the only place left serving Western Tennessee whole hog barbecue. There are now nine Martin's across four states, ensuring that the style of barbecue Pat Martin champions will live on. We ordered his stellar pork shoulder sandwiches, Alabama white wings, hush puppies that would make a Carolinian blush, and most impressively, a rack of spares. Charged with wood smoke, gilded with BBQ dust the meaty ribs where revelatory. They where the first ribs I have had in a true barbecue town since before the pandemic. They brought me hope and considerable pleasure.
Private Dinner at Kayne Prime
As if a tour of some of Nashville's most iconic joints wasn't a good enough way to start the trip we had an epic private dinner in the Somme Room of Kayne Prime Steakhouse. With room for 14 guests the private dining room has a lounge area, a massive table, and a window looking into the wine cellar. No wine list needed. I never want to eat in a PDR that doesn't have a lounge area. Perfect for pre dinner cocktails, and after dinner coffee and drinks, it made us feel instantly at home. It made us feel instantly relxaed, rather than the usual ritual of hovering around a table akwardly. This was aided by service thast was notably excellent.
Not to be outdone by the front of house Kayne Prime chef Joe Rock put together a decadent and star-studded menu featuring true Japanese Wagyu served as carpaccio, tartare and as a massive 60oz bone in ribsteak as well as plenty of other prized beef to boot. There were oysters by the dozen, beef cheek tacos, and a Thai style salad with short rib. But of the appetizers none stood above the bacon with maple and cotton candy, an unexpectedly delicious combination. And a transportive one, it evoked the first time I ate pancakes and sausage in America more decades ago than I care to remember.
The main course was a progression of NY Strips - USDA Prime, American Wagyu, and Australian Wagyu. I always find these flights fascinating because I almost invariably love them all (what's not to love?), but tend to gravitate towards USDA Prime, especially as its most often dry aged. In this case I liked the American Wagyu most, but only because I wasn't getting any dry aged notes off of the Prime. The Japanese Wagyu rib steak from Mizayaki is quite a rare steak, even in Japan where most beef is served boneless. It was outstanding, if complete overkill in light of the rest of the feast. But such is life as a Red Meat Lover's Club member!
1103 McGavock Street
Nashville, TN 3720
Day two started off with a visit to Wendell Smith', a fourth generation family business dating back to the 1950's and specializing in breakfast and meat & three. Grits, sunny side up eggs, biscuits, sausage, sausage gravy, slabs of toast slathered in butter. Southern breakfast has more flavor than its pale beige and brown hues betray. And much of the sugar and spice comes from the clientele and Wendell's staff themselves, both of whom represent a healthy cross section of society.
407 53rd Avenue North
Nashville, TN 37209
Arnold's Country Kitchen
Arnold's Country Kitchen is one of America's most essential restaurant and should be your first stop if you've never been to Nashville before. It defines the meat + three genre with its cafeteria system fully stocked with classic fare, including a massive hunk of roast beef. With all due respect to the scores of family owned meat and threes, which I adore, the quality of the produce, especially the beef at Arnold's is a cut above.
605 8th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203
Peg Leg Porker BBQ
Another obligatory stop is Peg Leg Porker's to sample pitmaster Cary Bringle's fiercely proud Tennessee barbecue. Pulled pork sandwiches and pork by the pound, and some truly exceptional baby backs made for a fine snack. But I was perhaps most surprised by the cream cheese and pepper jelly with saltines, a Southern delicacy with which I was unfamiliar with.
903 Gleaves St, Nashville, TN, 37203
Elliston Soda Shop
If I could drink one beverage freed of the caloric and financial impact on my middle and the bottom line it would be vanilla malts. Not Bourbon. Not wine. Vanilla malts. Especially after having the version at Elliston Soda Shop which as I told my waitress wasn't just the best I have had, but the best anyone has had. Elliston Soda Shop is a Nashville institution dating back to 1939. The original location is just a few steps away from its current home, it was forced to move in 2020. For the uninitiated malted powder was created in America by British brothers James and William Horlick at the end of the 19th Century. It was originally conceived as a nutritional supplement for babies but went on to become a popular in sweet drinks and eventually became a staple of the soda counter. If you've ever had Whooper chocolates in the States or Malteasers in the UK you have tasted malt. As a powder it is manufactured by Horlick's in the UK and Carnation in the US (which is what Elliston uses).
2105 Elliston Place | Nashville, Tennessee 37203
I owe my whole career to the prime rib at Smith & Wollesnky in NYC. It is a dish that inspired me to write about food in the first place and one that has served as a perpetual benchmark. While my love for that dish remains undiminished sampling Sean Brock's prime rib at The Continental has opened up an entire new view of the possibilities. It is prime rib, but it operates under a different gravity than other versions I have tried, even my beloved S&W. Frankly, I am still coming to terms with the experience. It deserves more than a journal entry and I will be devoting some time to quantifying the experience. What I will tell you is that The Continental is an utterly exquisite dining experience and one that has filled me with optimism about the future potential of fine dining.
1000 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203
And then came the main event of the evening, and indeed the trip itself! Montecristo Steak, a one night only conversion of a cigar lounge into a steakhouse by Matt Boulus and his crew. It was a pretty amazing transforming considering the room had stood empty a few hours earlier. With no kitchen to speak of, although thankfully a pretty good ventilation system by virtue of being a cigar lounge, Bolus and his crew turned out an epic feast.
Passed appetizers included sliders, Benton's bacon tea sandwiches and chicken fried steak on a stick (what's up with Nashville skewering things?) But it was the "salad" that captured the imagination of the ravenous crowd. It was actually a pig in a blanket using a brioche larded with dry aged fat and spiked with a Djion mustard that was smoked with event sponsor Crowned Heads tobacco. Each portion contained at least three leaves of arugula, but no more than five. The main course was a duo of beef and pork roasts -- strip loin and shoulder respectively, as well as a supplement of Wagyu for the well heeled. The latter was truly gilding the Lilly, but I think the massive slabs of Prime strip lathered in a tobacco infused horseradish sauce stole the show. It also happened to be my third serving of roast beef that day.
The evening was a rousing success from sliders to brownies. Buffalo Trace and Caymus flowed freely, cigars where smoked with the ferocity of industrial age factories, and most importantly money was raised for Crossroads Campus. A big thanks to Ken Levitan for his help with the charity and attending our little shindig. We also had some of Nashville's culinary luminaries on hand like Pat Martin, Cary Bringle, and Jim Myers, of Martin's BBQ, Peg Leg Porker, and Elliston Place Soda Shop respectively. And friends we have met online like Derek Wolf of Over the Fire Cooking fame. Cary generously donated a bottle of his prized Peg Leg Porker bourbon, which Pat Martin promptly won at auction. Finally a big thanks to Buffalo Trace Distillery and Crowned Heads cigars for their sponsorship, and of course Casa de Montecristo for hosting and sponsoring us.
600 9th Ave S #130, Nashville, TN 37203
Nashville Biscuit House
The final breakfast for this trip was at the Nashville Biscuit House. I originally wanted to visit on the first day but found it curiously closed on a Wednesday. Turns out the Covid labor shortage has forced them to closed to twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so keep that in mind if you plan a visit. Which you should. Like many of the the restaurants offering home style cooking in Nashville it remains family owned. And just like diners everywhere it offer a unitary experiences, brining classes and creeds together under one roof. Despite being still full from the prior nights festivities I somehow found room for some biscuits with sausage gravy and a ribeye, eggs and grits just for good measure.
805 Gallatin Ave, Nashville, TN 37206
I made one final stop en route to the airport to try Whitt's Barbecue sandwich, which comes appointed with coleslaw, which is pretty normal, and mayo, which is less so. Its a tidy little sandwich, brimming with mid Century optimism. Probably not the last word in barbecue but an endearing diversion none-the-less.
Another epic adventure in the books and yet we can't wait to return to Nashville. We did a lot in under three days but there are about 100 Meat & Threes and a whole lot of hot chicken to get through, not to mention the barbecue, burgers, and steaks that await our return. I'll be putting together a more comprehensive guide to my favorite spots in music city, and of course will have further thoughts on Brock's monumental prime rib, so watch this space.