Where to eat out in Nashville

Nashville may be most famous for being the hometown of country music but beyond a music mecca, it is also a fabulous food destination, with a thriving restaurant scene. I spent two nights in Nashville and didn’t have a bad meal. Here are my highlights.

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lockelandtableDinner at Lockeland Table 
Dining at this East Nashville neighbourhood restaurant feels a bit like eating in the home of a good friend. But don’t let the cosy interiors and laid back atmosphere fool you: chef-owner Hal M. Holden-Bache’s high-end comfort food far exceeds even the most accomplished home cooking and landed Lockeland Table a nomination for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award in 2013. The distinctly Southern-accented menu is both rustic and refined. Dishes like chicken liver pate in a jar made with Benton’s bacon fat and served with peach preserves and grilled Tuscan bread ($9.50); or rack of lamb with fingerling potato-bacon-and-kale hash, kale, pickled grape and feta salad, and kale verde ($27). There are also wood fired pizzas like the Pig – Italian crushed tomato, homemade sausage, pancetta, pepperoni, ham, home-smoked mozzarella and pepperoncini ($14), and the peach cobbler dessert with ice cream ($7) was about as delicious and comforting as it gets. Portions are massive so don’t over-order.
1520 Woodland St, Nashville
+1 615 228 4864
lockelandtable.com

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Pinewood SocialBrunch at Pinewood Social
This stylish new all-day restaurant is housed in an expansive 13,000-square-foot former trolley barn with soaring ceilings and exposed-brick walls near the Cumberland River overlooking Downtown Nashville. Customers can hit the bowling alley, pick up a brew at the Crema coffee stand or indulge in the reinvented American fare from culinary director Josh Habiger. The mouthwatering breakfast menu features the likes of Reuben benedict, with corned-beef tongue, sauerkraut, poached egg and thousand-island dressing on rye ($13); smoked trout omelet  filled with cream cheese, capers, sprouts, dill and green onion ($12); and the heavenly fluffy buckwheat waffles with apple butter ($9). Later this summer, a pool, Airstream pool bar and bocce court are set to open at Pinewood.
33 Peabody St, Nashville
+1 615 751 8111
pinewoodsocial.com

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merchantsDinner at Merchants
Occupying a restored brick building amid the bars of lower Broadway, this restaurant once housed the Merchants Hotel, built in 1892. Many of the original features remain: fireplaces, wainscoting and custom sconces, giving s sense of history right in the heart of Downtown Nashville. Spread over two storeys, the second floor features a formal dining room with hardwood floors, brick walls, and ceiling fans and a menu of traditional meats: roasted chicken, pork, yellowfin tuna, steak and short ribs. Meanwhile on the ground floor, the bistro serves burgers, salads, and sandwiches next to creative, contemporary takes on comfort food favourites such as fried green tomatoes with spicy pepper jam and house pimento cheese ($9); or chicken fried chicken with smashed yukons , garlic studded spinach and country gravy ($18). The chocolate cake for dessert was big enough to defy four of us.
401 Broadway, Downtown, Nashville
+1 615 254 1892
merchantsrestaurant.com

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Loveless CafeBrunch at Loveless Café
A 30-minute drive southwest of Nashville towards Memphis, Loveless Café is where you head for the full-on Southern comfort-food experience. Founded in 1951 by Lon and Annie Loveless and more recently synonymous with the late Carol Fay, aka the “Biscuit Lady”, it’s renowned for its country breakfasts. The famous biscuits are served with homemade preserves but beyond these are Southern classics like fried chicken and catfish. The signature country ham – house-cured to be outside of refrigeration for up to 90 days – has a salty kick that compliments fried eggs to perfection, while other staples include three-egg omelets; pancakes with bacon; fried catfish and smoked boneless pork chops. And before hitting the road, stop at the store for a few take-home jam, ham or biscuit mix.
8400 Highway 100
Nashville
+1 646 9700
lovelesscafe.com

Road trip through the American South: From Nashville to New Orleans

It’s been a long time dream of mine to travel through the American South. With its rich, albeit chequered history, amazing wealth of music, lush countryside and, of course, the delicious Southern cuisine, it’s a place whose magic has always had a special appeal.
With just a week off yet so much to see the hard part was to come up with an itinerary. But, looking on the map, a road trip from Nashville to New Orleans, travelling along America’s Music Highway, seemed like the perfect introduction to the South.
So we booked a muscle car, loaded a Spotify soundtrack, and hit the road. Starting in the city of Country, we headed south into the Blues delta and Rock and Roll heartland, and finished up our journey more than 500 miles later in the hometown of Jazz.
Here’s a little summary of our mini road trip.

Nashville_TNTwo nights in Nashville
Nashville is a small city with a huge reputation. Over the past decade or so, it has evolved beyond a music mecca to become one of the USA’s fastest growing cities, with a thriving economy, booming cultural scene, and a fantastic food industry, too. We stay in trendy East Nashville with its gorgeous architecture. We check out Music Row and Downtown visit the historic Ryman Auditorium, which, once the Union Gospel Tabernacle, became a performance space in the early 20th century and went on to host everyone from Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton and the iconic Grand Ole Opry radio show, as well as the likes of Sheryl Crow or Mumford and Sons in more recent years. We run out of time to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum and fail to get into the iconic Bluebird Café, where the queue lines the block. Instead we indulge in Southern delights at some of Nashville’s top restaurants – Lockeland Table, Pinewood Social and Merchants (see my mini guide to Nashville restaurants) – and watch live music at the bars on Lower Broadway and the Printers Alley. Nashville is a city that has it all: music, culture, great food and friendly residents.

gracelandOne night in Memphis
Driving 200 miles on Interstate 40 we get to Memphis, the capital city of Tennessee. It’s a big contrast to upmarket Nashville and feels a lot more edgy and real. Graceland is the first stop on our list. Initial impressions remind us of Disneyland but once inside the house, we’re quickly drawn into Elvis Presley’s world. His home is far more modest than we expect yet his spirit remains and we are touched by his unwavering support for the Memphis community. Next up: Sun Studio, where music legends like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded in the 1950s. The tour guide’s overenthusiasm is annoying but the history of the place is palpable. Our two restaurants of choice – Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous and the Majestic Grille – are both closed so we end up at McEwen’s before watching live blues at some of Beale Street’s famous bars, including the Rum Boogie Café.

Yazoo CItyMississippi Delta
Heading south into Mississippi, we take Highway 61, the Blues Highway, which parallels the majestic Mississippi River, which is magical. En route to Natchez, we stop at Yazoo City and Vicksburg, a gorgeous, historic town epitomising Southern heritage and culture at its best. In Natchez we have fried catfish po’boys for lunch at Magnolia Grill, overlooking the river. We visit a cotton plantation but are disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement of slavery as the tour guide only talks about the rich, white family who resided in the palatial home. We carry on through the lush, green countryside wishing we could drive on forever.

New Orleans
As we cross the border into Louisiana, the heavens open. We have three nights in New Orleans and spend these exploring the French Quarter, where we get lost in the history and romance of the city’s oldest area, with the fabled wrought-iron railings of its balconies, its cobblestone corridors and secret courtyard gardens. There’s live music everywhere: in the streets and at all of the bars, restaurants and cafés. We love the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street. The heat and humidity is draining. We visit above-ground cemeteries, ride a streetcar to the beautiful Garden District, catch a steamboat up the Mississippi River and go on a swamp tour to feed alligators marshmallows. We tuck into the famous beignets at the touristy Café du Monde, eat the best fried chicken at Cochon, endure shrimp and grits for breakfast and pig out on muffuletta sandwiches for lunch. Nawlins is a beautiful, happy place but there is poverty and sorrow too. Hours after we leave, nine people are shot on Bourbon Street.

Beneath the Whites: Ori Menashe

Ori Menashe by Sierra Prescott

Ori Menashe is the chef-owner of Bestia, one of Los Angeles’ most celebrated restaurants, which has won numerous awards, including Zagat’s Best Newcomer in 2014. Located in the Arts District in Downtown, he runs Bestia together with his wife, pastry chef Genevieve Gergis. The duo serve up an Italian-influenced menu of rustic dishes, with an emphasis on both seasonality and nose-to-tail cooking.


What’s your earliest food memory?

When I was 14, we went on a family holiday to Switzerland and when we crossed the border to Italy we went to this farm for lunch, where we I had a mushroom pizza that was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. Back in Israel or the US, where I grew up, I got so used to Pizza Hut or Dominoes, I had no idea that pizza could taste so good. It was that moment that I was first drawn to Italian food.

What’s your favourite smell?
The smell of my wife.

What’s your idea of comfort food?
A Georgian dish called Hingali, which my grandmother used to make. It’s a dumpling made with ground beef, lots of black pepper and garlic and it goes really well with vodka.

What’s your favourite cookbook and why?
Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. It really made me understand the process of bread making, which I now love.

What do you never cook without?
Olive oil.

What’s the worst thing people can do to food?
Overcook it.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong during service?
We had a fire in the kitchen at Bestia, when the hood of the wood fired oven caught light. It stank the whole restaurant out and we had to throw all the food away and close the restaurant for a day. We had so many angry customers after that who had lost their reservation. We had to push the next night’s service to 450 covers, which was really stressful, and send out loads of free food to make it up to everyone.

When are you happiest?
I’m really happy right now. I almost gave up cooking a few years ago because I felt like I was going to burn out. I took a break and went travelling and rediscovered my love of cooking and I’m so happy to be where I am right now.

What makes you sad?
I don’t get to spend enough time with my wife.

What do you most dislike about yourself?
I’m never 100% satisfied with what I do. In some ways that’s a good thing because it pushes me to always get better but in some ways it’s also a bad thing because when something goes wrong during service it really affects me in a bad way.

What would your superpower be?
Mind reading.

What’s the most disgusting or weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I once ate a wild crow, which my friends and I shot while we were out hunting. It had a funky taste to it but it wasn’t terrible. I’d definitely have it again.

Where did you have your best meal this year?
Toturaku in Los Angeles. It’s a restaurant you have to be invited to and they only serve 20 people at a time. They specialise in all this raw meat and it’s the most unusual but amazing place. It’s a really great experience and totally different to anywhere else in LA.

If there was one restaurant you wish you’d opened, which would it be?
There is a restaurant called Diana in Nazareth in Israel, which does exactly the kind of simple Middle Eastern food I love. If ever I wanted to take a step back from life, I’d love to run or even just work there.

Follow Ori Menashe on Twitter @bestiaDTLA

Chef profile: Ludo Lefebvre

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting thecaterer.com

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Ludo Lefebvre is pretty badass. With his full-sleeve tattoos, pierced ears, scruffy facial hair and sly smile, he epitomises the rock ‘n’ roll chef. But the surly exterior is misleading and underneath he’s surprisingly mellow, easy to talk to, honest and fun.

He doesn’t hold back, doesn’t care too much about saying the wrong thing and, refreshingly, doesn’t take himself too seriously either. There’s no trail of emails from his publicist demanding questions in advance, there’s nothing he refuses to discuss, and we’re given a generous four hours for the interview and photo shoot – an eternity in Los Angeles celebrity terms.

We meet at Trois Mec, his restaurant in Hollywood that has taken LA by storm. Voted by Zagat as one of the 10 hottest restaurants in the world right now, it may be a far cry from the temples of haute cuisine Lefebvre grew up with, but by breaking all the rules of what a high-end restaurant should be, it is right at the forefront of a new movement of fine dining that is redefining LA’s restaurant scene.

Trois Mec, French for three dudes, opened last April in collaboration with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, two of the LA restaurant community’s biggest names, who together run Animal and Son of a Gun. Trois Mec is a mainstream restaurant with the sense of a secret underground supper club. Hidden away in an inconspicuous strip mall behind a petrol station, it is housed in what was previously a cheap pizza joint. The original yellow ‘Raffallo’s Pizza & Italian Foods’ sign remains, along with a piece of paper stuck to the door stating: “Closed. No more pizza”.

Once inside, however, the remnants of the past are no more and the space is modern, clean and elegant. There are just 24 seats, no tablecloths and a counter lining the open kitchen. You do not reserve a table at Trois Mec – you buy a ticket online at 8am sharp on the alternating Fridays the restaurant releases its tables. Your ticket encompasses the full price of dinner – $97 (£59) per person for a fivecourse set menu, including tax and tip. Wine is paid for on the night, with a full pairing priced at $49 (£30).

Although Trois Mec may seem like it’s trying very hard to be different and trendy, Lefebvre’s reasoning behind the concept makes complete business sense. The ticket system allows the restaurant to control costs (Angelenos are notoriously flaky, but if they’ve paid in advance they’re almost guaranteed to show up) and the strip mall location means low overheads, which allows Lefebvre to make his dinners affordable to a wide audience. “High-end restaurants are expensive and there aren’t enough people to support them. I want to be accessible – I want to cook for everybody,” he says. “Besides, high-end restaurants can be boring, too. These chefs take themselves so seriously; they’re not cooking for their customers, they’re cooking for the press, for Michelin stars. High-end restaurants are vehicles for chefs’ egos. I know that because I have been there too.”

THREE-STAR MENTORS
Lefebvre got his first job in a professional kitchen at 14 and, right from the start, spent his formative years working under some of the most renowned chefs in France. His apprenticeship was spent with Marc Meneau at his then three-Michelin-starred restaurant L’Espérance in Vézelay, Burgundy. From therehe went on to work with Pierre Gagnaire, who first encouraged him to “experiment with spices and unusual flavour combinations”. After serving in the French army as personal chef for the French minister of defence, he joined Alain Passard at L’Arpège.

“All of them were very different,” he says. “Marc Meneau was very classic, Pierre Gagnaire very modern, and Alain Passard, he was the first chef to cook vegetables. Now everyone is doing it. What I learned from all of them was the importance of consistency. Every day is a new day, but the food has to be the same – it has to be as good as the day before. Being creative is easy; being consistent is so difficult. To find the best ingredients every day and to manage your team and get the best out of them, that’s what makes a great chef.” He goes on to say that running a kitchen is much like running an army. There have to be rules in place, he insists, adding that his kitchen at Trois Mec is run in the “traditional French way”. “I am very strict. I push my chefs a lot.”

COMING TO AMERICA
Lefebvre moved to the US in 1996, when former mentor Meneau organised a job as chef de partie at L’Orangerie, one of LA’s, and indeed the country’s, most acclaimed French restaurants. “It was always my dream to live in America,” he says. Despite speaking hardly any English, he was promoted to executive chef within a year and overnight became one of LA’s most celebrated chefs, gaining a reputation for combining old world simplicity with exotic new world flavours.

“It was good and bad,” he says, suddenly looking serious. “I was only 25 and very young in my head. I had so much to learn about life, about food and about how to manage a kitchen. Being a chef is not just about cooking – it’s about being a leader and making an example. It’s about teaching your cooks how to cook. At 25 you don’t know enough about cooking to be responsible for teaching somebody else.” This was followed by two years at Bastide, another of LA’s most distinguished French restaurants, cementing Lefebvre’s status as one of the city’s top chefs after he became the only LA chef to receive the prestigious Mobil Travel Guide Five Star Award at two restaurants.

LUDO BITES
But after Bastide closed for refurbishment, Lefebvre decided not to return and famously became the chef without a restaurant, running a series of pop-ups called Ludo Bites. “The idea came from nowhere,” he shrugs.“I really wanted to buy my own restaurant but it’s very, very difficult. It was very stressful for me to find the right location. Landlords wanted to take advantage of me and everything was very expensive.”

Ludo Bites started after a friend, who owned a bakery-café called Breadbar, asked Lefebvre to help put together a dinner menu. Instead, he took over the space for three months. “It was a big risk for me because it was totally different from the froufrou, high-end restaurants I had come from. It was fun and very accessible, but it was a big challenge for me to get it right,” he says.

The pop-up was a runaway success, dubbed a “transforming moment in the Los Angeles restaurant scene” by the city’s most feared food critic Jonathan Gold. What started as a menu of simple small plates soon evolved into an elaborate chef’s tasting menu and reservations were so sought after, Ludo Bites once crashed the Open Table website. “After the success I realised that the business model was very good for me. It was just like renting an apartment,” Lefebvre says. He continued to run the pop-ups for five years, between 2007 and 2012, in nine different incarnations across LA and once in Hawaii. Ludo Bites was turned into a cookbook, a television show called Ludo Bites America, and an online series called Ludo Baby Bites. Branded the pop-up pioneer, Lefebvre became a celebrity. And after appearing on a number of TV shows, including Top Chef Masters, Hell’s Kitchen and Iron Chef America, he joined the judging panel of ABC’s culinary reality show The Taste, which premiered in the US in January 2013 and in the UK earlier this year.

REDEFINING FINE DINING
Lefebvre has said that his favourite restauant in the UK is Dabbous, and that is probably the closest thing London has to Trois Mec. Like Dabbous, Lefebvre’s food adheres to a philosophy of simplicity where the ingredient is the star of the show. Techniques and theatre happen in the kitchen, but what’s on the plate is understated, delicate, playful, interesting and, most importantly, delicious.

With Lefebvre, a simple plate of potato pulp is elevated with butter, bonito flakes, Salers cheese and onion soubise to delicious effect; a dish comprising thin slices of avocado covering crab ceviche has an intense citrus boost and added crunch from buckwheat popcorn. Service is down-to-earth but informed. Waiters seem to outnumber guests, yet the atmosphere is relaxed, with French rap music in the background. In many ways dining at Trois Mec feels like being a guest at Lefebvre’s home. “I want people to feel like they’re in my house,” he says. “Trois Mec is about hospitality, about looking after the guest. There are too many casual restaurants now and I think people want more refinement.”

Indeed, Trois Mec cleverly embraces the essence of a fine-dining restaurant and combines it with casual dining by rejecting the usual formalities. “With Trois Mec I have the freedom to do what I want,” Lefebvre adds. “Of course I would love to have a Michelin star, but I’m not living by that and I’m certainly not following their rules.” However, he does bemoan Michelin’s absence in LA (the guide discontinued its LA edition in 2009, saying there was no real food culture). “LA has changed so much and there are so many amazing restaurants here now,” he insists. “New York is all about high-end, established restaurants, but LA is all about variety and young chefs and Michelin should be here.”

Lefebvre has a point – LA’s food scene is undergoing a phenomenal awakening and Lefebvre is a driving force who has helped to move it forward. Now chefs like Ari Taymor of Alma, Miles Thompson of Allumette, Josef Centeno at Orsa & Winston and Curtis Stone at Maude are all delivering tasting menus that offer high-quality ingredients and accomplished cooking in an informal setting and at an affordable price. “A year ago nobody was doing tasting menus. Now lots of chefs in LA are doing them,” Lefebvre says. “I guess it’s nice to be copied.”

This article was first published by The Caterer. Please visit thecaterer.com to read the full version.