As an Englishman living in New York City, I will admit that my exposure to country music had at one time been limited to occasionally hearing the Muzak version of "Rhinestone Cowboy" at a KFC. I'm not a snob; I've just never had any friends who were especially big on country. Or, for that matter, who would even tolerate it.
But exploring Nashville and its restaurants has made a new man out of me--a country-music-lovin' man. My interest had been piqued when I heard that a number of chefs educated at the Culinary Institute of America and other prestigious training grounds were taking up posts in the city. Some were lured by money: Nashville's music industry and university scene have created a demand for restaurants that serve innovative food. But at least one chef I met came because his wife had dreams of making it as a country-music star.
And so I set off for Nashville, with Southern food on my mind and a shiny new George Jones CD in my Walkman. I'd expected the city to have a touch of Vegas-style flash, but physically it is a rather vague place, with gray and brown low-rise buildings tucked into squat hills, divided toward the east by the Cumberland River. The twin antennas of the aggressively modern BellSouth tower (nicknamed the Batman Building) dominate the new downtown and make an interesting architectural counterpoint to Music Row, where multinational record companies are shoehorned among nondescript little houses--a prime example of the deliberate playing down of wealth that, I discovered, is so common in the country-music industry.
Music is absolutely everywhere in Nashville, from the funky Bluebird Cafe, Tootsies and Radio Cafe to the Ryman Auditorium to that holy of holies, the Grand Ole Opry. I spent my first evening at the Opry, an experience that bordered on the religious even for a greenhorn like me.Home to a radio show broadcast live every weekend since 1925, the Opry features performances from a roster of country music's Who's Who (and Who's Next) interspersed with advertisements from the sponsors. When The Four Guys finished their set, the spotlight revealed a smooth-talking fellow in a dark suit, stage left. A slide projector beamed images of Martha White flour products overhead while he invited the audience to imagine a world without cornmeal. As his apocalyptic description continued, the crowd gamely played along, and mutterings of "Hell, no!" were heard before applause greeted the announcer's proclamation that Martha White would sponsor a cornmeal festival in Shelbyville.
This fascination with cornmeal became ever more apparent during my next few days in Nashville, as I tasted cornmeal-coated clams, cornmeal-coated shrimp, cornmeal-coated okra, cornmeal-coated eggplant and hush puppies, which are little more than cornmeal-coated cornmeal. I suspect that it's not the flavor of cornmeal that attracts Southern aficionados, but the fact that cornmeal lends itself to frying, which is as central to Southern cooking as roasting is to British cooking.
Hush puppies and other down-home foods are the choice of many country stars, judging from the roundups of celebrity sightings published on Sundays in The Tennessean, the local paper. Garth Brooks, the biggest-selling solo act in U.S. music history, is partial to the Cooker chain (various locations; 561-615-6000), which is essentially a group of upscale meat 'n' threes (traditional Nashville coffee shops that specialize in budget meals consisting of a meat course and three sides served on a plate divided by ridges). And the great leveler is the Pancake Pantry (1796 21st Ave. S.; 615-383-9333), a barnlike place where pretty much everyone in Nashville--including Garth--has breakfast. If they're not at the Pancake Pantry, you'll find them over at the Loveless Motel & Cafe (8400 Highway 100; 615-646-9700), a 20-minute drive from downtown through the green, patrician neighborhood of Belle Meade, plowing through plates piled high with ruthlessly salted country ham and fried eggs, redeye gravy and made-from-scratch biscuits.
At the other extreme, the Wild Boar (2014 Broadway; 615-329-1313) has the feel of a hunting lodge, complete with stuffed animal heads and robber-baron-style music execs crowding the bar. Chef Guillaume Burlion's more-is-more haute Continental food seemed to please the movers and shakers, but it didn't move me much. Bound'ry (911 20th Ave. S.; 615-321-3043) is another industry hangout with culinary ambitions. I wasn't rewarded with a Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers sighting, but I did find more of those executives having raucous fun while digging into the fusion food of chefs Michael Cribb and Guillermo "Willie" Thomas. The menu emphasizes tapas-style small dishes, such as barbecued-pork egg rolls served with juniper-chipotle barbecue sauce. The chefs shuttle between Caribbean, Southern, Southwestern, Italian and Asian flavors with brio, but I found the experience a little disorienting.
With its understated Southern-meets-Mediterranean menu, chef Debra Paquette's Zola (3001 West End Ave.; 615-320-7778) was certainly more my speed. Paquette's thoughtful approach has won her an ardent following among such stars as Pam Tillis and ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Her style is best reflected in such dishes as a pork loin marinated in red wine and balsamic vinegar with bourbon gravy and a beet barbecue sauce, with a delicious slaw made of Brussel sprouts and Stilton. I didn't see Tillis or McDonald while I was there, but I was happy anyway.
When I visited Sasso (1400 Woodland St.; 615-226-7942) in blue-collar East Nashville, it was still too new to draw any kind of following: it was just a month old, and the white-clapboard building didn't even have a sign yet. The menu, devised by chefs Anita Hartel and Corey Griffith, is a mix of New South and fusion dishes, such as a rum-marinated pork tenderloin with plantains and a particularly wonderful peanut-crusted salmon with bok choy in an Asian broth. The food at Sasso tends to be simple, and is all the stronger for it. "It's hard to get people down South to understand that you can do a cobbler, but you don't have to do it the way your mother or grandmother used to," Griffith says. "You put a little twist on it, and make it great without glitter or glare."
Nashville without glitter and glare? Hardly the dream of a Rhinestone Cowboy, but that's fine by me.
Jonathan Hayes is a writer who concentrates on food, music and design.