In the rising culinary tide that is lifting so many boats on Nashville's dining horizon, one of the latest high-water marks can be found — of all places — inside Loews Vanderbilt hotel. Let's be honest — until now, the hotel has not exactly been a dining destination. You've probably thought of it more often as a place for distant cousins to stay while on their Southern Ivy college tour. Or as the landlord of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. Or as the site of a keynote address, where you ate chicken. But chef Brandon Frohne is setting out to change all that with Mason's Southern Provisions, an impressive breakfast-lunch-and-dinner brasserie in the lobby of the newly renovated hotel.
A month into the project, Frohne & Co. are off to a good start. The dining room and bar are stunning, and the menu is inventive and intriguing. That's not to say we didn't have a few jarring disappointments on our visits, but if the kitchen team can hone its execution, it will be hard to put a lid on our admiration for Mason's.
You might recognize Frohne from his prolific food blogging, his adventures in urban gardening, or his Forage South pop-up suppers. But you won't recognize the restaurant and bar space that he currently oversees. In advance of its 30th anniversary, Loews Vanderbilt spent six months and a reported $17 million on a dramatic rehab. The result is a sleek and contemporary setting, equally inviting to locals and out-of-town patrons.
In a cocktail lounge dominated by wall-sized television screens, comfortable cowhide-covered furniture stampedes across rusticated wood floors toward a dramatic chandelier constructed of hundreds of lightbulbs in Mason brand canning jars. (Get it ... Mason's? Good thing they're not Ball jars.)
On our evening visit, we were stunned to see and hear such festivity in the formerly buttoned-up locale. Welcome to It City, baby. Across from the clattering bar, a more intimate dining room awaits, where carpeted floors and richly upholstered booths and chairs absorb the clanging cocktail conversation. (That said, the bar's massive television is visible in the dining room, and it is nearly impossible to ignore. If your date keeps squinting to look at something over your shoulder, don't take it personally.)
In any case, next time the college-bound cousins invite you for a drink at their hotel, you can look forward to perusing a handsome leatherbound volume of artisanal cocktails starting at $10. We particularly enjoyed the Sound Connection (a pretty concoction of vodka, ginger liqueur, lime and bitters) and the Red Brick (a fiery variation on a margarita, infused with hot peppers).
Mason's bar snacks are a cut above standard-issue cocktail sop and double as the appetizer menu at lunch and dinner. Crab corn dogs are a playful and accessible fusion of crabcake and carnival food, cloaked in a mildly sweet, bronzed batter reminiscent of a funnel cake. The so-called "Jars" are a trio of pimento cheese, lima bean hummus and pepper jelly, playfully presented in the eponymous canning vessels.
Predictable Southern tropes are present and accounted for, but Frohne & Co. put unpredictable spins on old favorites. Deviled eggs are elevated with bacon jam, mustard seed caviar and pickled okra, while oysters on the half-shell carry a zesty mignonette of crisp pickled cucumbers and horseradish. Shrimp and grits with plump sweet shellfish and delicate strips of salty ham in a creamy porridge are an excellent interpretation of a Low Country staple. Fried green tomatoes are stacked and layered with field peas, feta and smoked-pepper aioli. (Kudos to Chef Frohne for taking the high road here and using different sauces for the tomatoes and the crab corn dogs. While similar in color, the aioli and the sweeter comeback sauce vary significantly in flavor, distinguishing the two deep-fried delicacies, while displaying admirable attention to detail.)
Anyone who has followed Frohne's adventures in gardening or competitive cooking will recognize his signature adventurousness and commitment to local ingredients on display in items such as crispy sweetbreads with succotash and smoked pork-and-huitlacoche tacos with Olive and Sinclair mole. The Tennessee bombe, a seductive torched-meringue cloud over layers of peach ice cream and cake, is enough to banish baked Alaska to the tundra. At almost every turn, we enjoyed elegant and generous detail, from complimentary jalapeño popovers in a mini cast-iron skillet to exceptional pickled crookneck squash in lieu of dill chips on the hamburger.
On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for keeping things simple until you nail the fundamentals. Otherwise, that gorgeous hamburger topped with pickled crookneck squash, Kentucky cheddar, arugula, bacon and fried egg gets lost in the soggy shuffle of undercooked and flaccid fries. Or hungry guests calculate the cost of an $11 bone marrow appetizer in terms of dollars per drop. (Yes, each silken scintilla of butter-wine-marrow reduction was decadent, but there was not enough to cover even the stingy serving of overcooked toast.) Or an elegantly conceived chicken Galantine with bourbon jus and turnip puree gets remembered as chicken Spam with baby food because the entrée arrives cold. (Speaking of cold, was the pecan-encrusted goat cheese medallion on the beet salad intended to be warm? Because ours wasn't, and we couldn't help thinking how molten cheese would improve the dish.)
On our dinner visit one month after opening, these were the kinds of missteps that tarnished the experience. We'd be more concerned if we hadn't had such a lovely lunch visit days earlier, or if we didn't see so much encouraging evidence of inventiveness and freshness along the way. The good news about hotel restaurants is they often have deep enough pockets to take the long view. If we had to guess, we'd bet Mason's needs just a little longer to get firing on all cylinders. We'll look forward to monitoring the progress, maybe next time the cousins come to town.
Mason's opens for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and serves lunch and dinner daily and brunch on Sunday.
He also doesn't pay his employees.
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