The Catbird Seat | One of the best culinary experiences of my life
Wow. I felt myself saying this again and again as I went through a 7 course tasting menu at Nashville’s newest restaurant – The Catbird Seat. Nestled above one of my favorite cocktail bars, The Patterson House, was easily one of the most anticipated dining establishments ever in our city that never ceases to surprise me with a breadth of excellent culinary experiences. Amongst the top of those experiences sits Max and Benjamin Goldberg’s The Catbird Seat, captained by chefs Josh Habiger, Erik Anderson, and master of beverages, Jane Lopes. An incredible night, filled with plenty of painstaking preparation, flawless food, and expert liquid pairings just left me saying “wow!”
One of the best culinary experiences of my life.
It’s a pretty high accolade – but deservedly so. The food was great – even mind blowing at times. But The Catbird Seat was more than just the food. Impeccable service that made us feel like this meal was an intimate dinner party. A beautiful story of experiences shown through food – where the chefs came from, reflections of their stints at the notable NOMA (arguably the best restaurant in the world) and Alinea (arguably the best restaurant in the US), and an interpretation of said experiences that reveal a distinct and delicious culinary identity. From start to finish, I’ve never done anything like this – it was a true epicurean adventure.
After being taken upstairs by owner Max Goldberg through a semi-hidden door, up an elevator, and into a short hallway, we saw the U-shaped dining room – an awesome kitchen, surrounded by 20 some odd seats. This is an amazing interactive experience, as you get to see the chefs cook your meal, plate it, and serve it to you. You get to ask questions about what is on your plate, how they prepared it, and what inspired them to make the dish.
We were warmly greeted by Ben. The owners were both there and in person and it was evident how excited they were for this novel idea to take hold and to see the concept blossom into reality. Their gracious hospitality and unequivocal generosity made the night something really special.
Once we got settled, it was all about the food. (Brace yourself, for there are a ton of pictures coming).
Snacks (from R-L): Baby Radish w/Uni (Sea Urchin) Butter, Flaked Salt | Hot Chicken Skin, Cayenne, Wonderbread Puree, Dill Salt | Porcini Mushroom Oreo, Parmesan Cream
This course in itself was so incredibly cool and a great way to start off the meal. It showcased how the chefs could take these very traditional foods (oreos are traditional, right?) and play with them to give you an experience you have had before in a completely different way. I particularly loved the hot chicken skin because (a) crispy chicken skin is awesome, but (b) I loved that all the components of hot chicken were there – the bread (as a puree), the pickles (as dill salt), and the cayenne – it was fantastic!
A great starter course that really had some special elements. Perfectly roasted carrots, rutabaga, beets, salsify, and potatoes; there were some special additions – crispy pheasant, a pheasant gelee (made strictly with gelatin from the bones), and a luscious pork fat vinaigrette.
Zarna’s Vegetarian Version – just as beautiful and delicious!
We were also very impressed with how accommodating the chefs were towards food preferences – Zarna’s meal was just as impressive as mine and she enjoyed everything. Every aspect of the vegetarian courses was so carefully thought out and considerate, that even a carnivorous soul like myself would have been extremely pleased. (Good thing she’s a small eater though, because I got to clean up her plate on a few occasions!)
Course 3: Miso cured haddock with a shitake-dashi broth, ginger-yuzu gel, spinach gomae, and a furikake rice cracker.
Miso cured fish pairing: Sesshu Otokoyama Junmai Sake from Hyogo, Japan
This was a great, light fish course and is just a simple indication of how much time and thought goes into each dish. The dish itself allows the fish to shine as all the ingredients are in perfect harmony. The fish was incredibly flaky, the broth flavorful and savory, the gel brought acidity, and the crispy rice cracker added incredible texture to the dish. Balance of flavor and balance of texture is the key to great food – Josh and Erik nailed it here.
Wine Pairing (no picture): 2009 Paul Blanck Gewurztraminer, Alsace, France
I eat chicken all the time – this was an inspired version. Josh told me how he layered the white and dark meat of the chicken and compressed it so it is in the shape of a log, and then topped with chicken skin. After it is cooked, he crisped up the chicken skin in the pan, yielding a delicious nugget of crispy goodness atop that tender, juicy, and moist chicken.
Zarna said her turnip was the best she had ever had. She also tried to (unsuccessfully) snag a bowl of butternut squash puree. A great fall inspired dish.
I was looking forward to this course all night – it was the one everyone who had been in the few days before me was raving about. My twitter pal, Brooke, called it “Steak and Eggs”. Everything about this dish blew me away. Besides the incredibly impactful plating, the pairing was with a sparkling wine (from New Mexico!), the addictive perfect poached egg, was a story that really made this dish special. Chef Erik told us about how when at Noma, they would forage for everything – mushrooms, potatoes, wild game. They cooked what they found. This dish told the tale of a journey in the woods, finding those simple ingredients, and doing everything humanly possible not to screw it up. It was great, it was tasty, and it was rich – a beautiful plate of food with extreme finesse.
So we were the first customers on The Catbird Seat’s first Saturday night service. That’s pretty cool. In a few years when this place becomes one of the most sought after reservations in the country, I can flaunt that (and hopefully, it’ll help me secure a seat!) I really enjoyed all the different varieties of meat coming out that I very rarely eat – pheasant and squab. Having meats that are a little more exotic made the meal that much more memorable. It also makes me want to experiment a little with these other poultry items a bit more.
Wine Pairing (not pictured): Chateau Musar 2009 “Jeune” – Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
To be honest, this blew me away. This dish pushes the boundaries and allows you to experience some tastes you really haven’t before. That’s what I loved about it. The eggplant puree was cooked almost to the point of being burnt – but right before it became too burnt, it was pulled. The puree was smooth and creamy, with a lovely bitterness that offset the sweetness of the lamb meat. It was the first time in the meal that we really experienced the bitter taste – and after five courses, this dish really stuck out. I loved how they put “cucumber pulp” or the seeds of a cucumber that we so often discard, but that really offer such great flavor. It was the first time I ever tasted a cooked cucumber! Charred puree, cucumber pulp, and crispy, fatty lamb belly. Things I had never eaten, in ways I had never seen prepared, with flavors that exploded after so many great courses – this dish was an experience onto itself.
Pairing (not pictured): Triple Karmeliet, Belgium
After eating all these courses, I was really only thinking one thing – Damn, a cold beer would be great right now. Lucky for me, Jane, happily brought me a fantastic Belgian beer to have with some equally delicious cheese! After having seen so many cheftestants on Top Chef make foams , I was extremely happy to actually taste a foam. They actually taste good! With a simple flavor like pine, which is redolent of foraging, it added a great herbal note to this dish and brought out the grassiness in the cheese. It was creamy and delicious.
A perfect ending to a perfect meal with a flawless pairing. This was truly a special desert. The cake was moist and lovely, the wafers were crispy. But a few things made this really extraordinary. The burnt oak ice cream, which is similar to a smoky bacon ice cream, added depth of flavor and a temperature contrast. And the bourbon spheres literally exploded with liquor when you bit through them. The pairing was something from the heavens – the great Tokaji wines from Hungary are always a good call with deserts. But Jane, in her expert ways, put a little bourbon in the glass. The extra depth of flavor that resulted was simply superlative.
An experience that is perhaps one of the most memorable for me since I became seriously interested in the culinary arts. An experience that I will always remember for having influenced my knowledge of what food is and what food can be. An experience that, no matter what, told the incredible story and journey of two people, a time, a place, and people. An experience that I strongly believe will forever change the culinary landscape and perception of Nashville.
The Catbird Seat is more than just a restaurant – it’s a place where chefs are pushing the limits and challenging diners, while practicing humility and a profound respect for nature and the incredibly hard working people who supply them with the freshest of ingredients. It is a place where everyone can recognize the basic composition of a dish, and be blown away by the new way in which they experience an old memory.
In fact, I bet you in a few years, The Catbird Seat will be one of the most sought after culinary destinations in the United States – right in our very back yard. So save up some money, and head over there. Because when it’s over, you too will be left saying one word – “Wow!”