The Hermitage Hotel
231 Sixth Ave. N. 345-7116
Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Sun. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Breakfast: 6:30-10 a.m. daily. Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
$40-$60 for a three-course meal
Sweetbreads, black truffles, wild mushrooms and foie gras,
Lobster, raw oysters, lump crabmeat and caviar.
Coulis and confit, clean flavors that sing,
These are a few of my favorite things.
If you share my fondness for these and countless other culinary jewels, satisfy your desires with an evening at the Capitol Grille, where chef Sean Brock and his staff have passionately devoted themselves to epicurean fulfillment at every turn. In one of Nashville’s oldest restaurants, tucked under the magnificent lobby of the city’s most historic hotel, young Brock has raised the bar to new heights of quality and creativity, and he delivers a dining experience flawlessly executed from beginning to end.
For nearly a century, the Hermitage Hotel has held a place in the hearts of generations of Nashvillians. Perhaps the gorgeous ballroom was the location of your first formal dance, its cozy Oak Bar where you danced cheek to cheek as the Francis Craig Orchestra played on the bandstand, its elegant dining room where you proposed or were proposed to. For thousands of newlyweds, The Hermitage Hotel has been where they spent their wedding night, and where many have returned for a special anniversary dinner.
The downtown hotel, directly across from the Capitol building, was commissioned in 1908 and opened as The Hotel Hermitage on Sept. 17, 1910. Built as a tribute to the ornate style of Beaux Arts Classicism, the city’s first million-dollar hotel featured the best craftsmanship and finest materials of its time. Later renamed the Hermitage Hotel, it played host to nearly every important social event in the region, was a stop for the country’s most prominent figuresincluding six presidents, Al Capone and Greta Garboand served as home for eight years to pool legend Minnesota Fats.
The Grille Room, originally planned as a rathskeller, was for years a private club for men. In the small, dark, adjoining Oak Bar, the city’s most powerful movers and shakers gathered to drink and deal. (The astonishing Art Deco men’s bathroom is one of the city’s most unlikely treasures, and a musee for either gender.) The glory days of the Hermitage began to fade in the ’70s, and in 1977 the storied hotel closed. The first of several new owners reopened the Hermitage in 1981, though it wasn’t too many years later that the crumbling façade had to be covered with protective fencing to protect passersby.
In the mid-’90s, a more extensive renovation was undertaken by the Cooper Companies of Memphis, which gave the grand old dame of Nashville hotels a $4 million face-lift. Central to that redo was the redesign and upgrade of the restaurant, renamed Capitol Grille. Chef Willie Thomas not only dazzled and delighted local foodies, he also earned a nod from Esquire magazine, which named the Grille one of the country’s 25 best new restaurants. But with new owners in 1997, culinary conflicts began heating up in the restaurant, and Thomas left, later opening Park Café in Sylvan Park.
In August 2000, Historic Hotels of Nashville LLCa division of the Richmond, Va.-based concern that also owns Kiawah Island Golf Resort near Charleston, S.C., and The Jefferson Hotel in Richmondpurchased the Hermitage for $14 million, then closed it in 2002 to undergo a $17 million renovation. The goal was to turn the property into a five-star or Five Diamond destination, a mission the firm accomplished 10 years before when it purchased the historic Jefferson Hotel. With a wink to Nashville’s love affair with this hotel, the Hermitage reopened on Valentine’s Day 2003. Every one of the 123 rooms was sold, every seat in the dining room reserved. Just nine months later, AAA added the Hermitage to its exclusive list of Five Diamond hotels; it is the only one in the state, and one of just 82 in North America.
It speaks volumes that this Diamond-mining company chose Sean Brock to run not only the Capitol Grille (which serves three meals daily), but also room service and banquet dining for the entire hotel. Brock grew up in a small coal town in Virginia; the seeds for his future as a chef were planted on his grandmother’s farm, where he spent hours with her not only in the garden, but also in the kitchen and watching cooking shows. She gave him a wok and his own set of knives when he was just 10. He started working in restaurants as soon as he turned 16, and after graduating from high school, he enrolled in Johnson & Wales Culinary School in Charleston, S.C. “Culinary school gave me the basics,” explains Brock, now 25. “It also taught me discipline; everything had to be just right. It was what I needed then, and it works for me now.”
He worked at restaurants while he was in school, and when he graduated, he identified the top three in Charleston, applying at each for a position; he ended up at Peninsular Grill, working under renowned chef Robert Carter. “Bob Carter was a mentor to me; he still is,” Brock says. “That kitchen was so intense, every minute counts, there is no fooling around. If I wasn’t making hollandaise sauce every day at 4:17, I’d better be able to explain why.”
After a couple of years there, he decided it was time to move on to a sous chef position, and he spent the next two years as sous chef of the Five Diamond Lemaire Restaurant in the Jefferson Hotel. (Hotels and their restaurants are rated separately.) “Walter Bundy [executive chef] was amazing to work for, he gave me so much freedom to learn and to create,” Brock says. “Last year, management asked me if I would be interested in going to Nashville to open their new restaurant there. It was an incredible opportunity.”
And a demanding one. Brock interviewed 200 people for kitchen positions, though he brought his first sous chef, Jena Davidson, from Peninsular Grill. (The other sous, Tyler Brown, also comes from Peninsular, and nine of the 13 cooks are Johnson & Wales graduates.) “It’s an amazing staff; we all have the same ideas about food and cooking.” At the core of those ideas is an unwavering commitment to (and a budget for) the finest ingredients available near or far; an insatiable curiosity for learning and experimenting with new techniques; an insistence on discipline and extended hours in the kitchen; and a steadfast devotion to cooking seasonally.
Brock is now into his fourth dinner menu (though sides and sauces change more frequently, according to what is in season and available). On Dec. 22, he delivers an early Christmas present and unwraps the winter dinner menu. But some favorite things can be counted upon. “We will always have truffles, caviar, foie gras and lobster in some form,” he says. “I love all of those.”
The warm foraged mushroom tart will maintain its coveted and well-deserved position at the very head of the menu, leading off the firsourse selections. The tricolored layering of puff pastry, sautéed mushrooms and intense tomato confit, topped with earthy black truffle cream, sets a magnificent stage for dinner. As does the lobster pot pie, a thick chowder of cream, butter and big chunks of sweet lobster meat, topped with puff pastry and baby root vegetables grown especially for Brock by local farmer Dave Hughes. Delivered in a small copper kettle, the pastry top is punched through with a knife, into which the server pours creamy lobster sauce. The crab cakes, which have no binding and are served with a Meyer lemon coulis that takes months to make, are one of several dishes on the menu influenced by The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. Braised pork cheeksas well as the thick, bone-in pork chopcome from pigs raised on the acclaimed Niman Ranch, where the philosophy is, “A happy pig is a tasty pig.” The special appetizer of glazed veal sweetbreads and hedgehog mushrooms pureed with a small amount of duck fat is insanely rich and indescribably delicious.
Grouper will always lead the dinner selections, with some teaming of hazelnut, parsnip, citrus and leeks. “I just love the way those flavors work together with the grouper,” explains Brock. He calls his pork chopserved with pork belly, sweet potato, black-eyed pea hash, Anson Mill grits and local sorghum“my childhood on a plate. It is the ultimate comfort food.” And though the majority of his entrées do not adhere to the meatarch-vegetable setup, he bows to more conventional tastes with an excellent grilled Tennessee Black Angus beef tenderloin, pumping it up with balsamic onions and a foie gras hollandaise.
Every dish is beautifully plated, stimulating the eye, then segueing seamlessly and sensually to the palate. New pastry chef Kaitlin Lucas puts the icing on the cake, spun sugar on the plate and a sweet sigh of satisfied afterglow with her ethereal dessert creations. Service on every level is superb, attentive yet not intrusive, professional and knowledgeable.
Guests of The Hermitage Hotel have a restaurant that marvelously complements their luxurious lodgings, but we who make Nashville our home are even more fortunate, with such a sparkling gem to claim as our own, 365 days a year. A special occasion is not required: Dining at The Capitol Grille is a special occasion, one I would wish to repeat again and again.
Dining in Style. The Capitol Grille marvelously complements the luxurious lodgings at The Hermitage Hotel. Photo: Eric England