The current issue of Garden & Gun magazine notes, "Nashville arrived late to the speakeasy trend, but it has also outdone the competition." As primary evidence for this claim, G&G cites Patterson House, the sleek and slyly signless establishment on Division Street, which opened last year. But the newer Holland House Bar & Refuge, which debuted this spring in East Nashville, further bolsters this city's claim for speakeasy superiority with an easygoing atmosphere, a thoughtful farm-to-table menu and a creative catalog of artisanal cocktails.
Holland House is the long-awaited second act of the team that went down with the ship at the beloved Ombi on Elliston Place, a history that helps explain the quirky suffix "Bar & Refuge." Ombi's culinary mastermind Laura Wilson had no sooner left the Rock Block kitchen to spend more time with her baby than the owners announced Ombi was closing. At that point, bartender Terrell Raley gamely stepped in, purchasing the establishment and making a last-ditch and short-lived effort to rescue the culinary enclave for Ombi's cadre of loyal diners and drinkers. Alas, it was too late, and Ombi shut its doors, ceding its ultra-chic real estate to Tex-Mex chain La Paz.
But the endeavor galvanized Raley's desire to run a place of his own, so he teamed up with Cees Brinkman, a native of the Netherlands (hence the name "Holland"), who owned a promising property at the corner of McFerrin Avenue and Cleveland Street. After overhauling the former grocery into a sultry, high-ceilinged dining room with two large bars, Raley rallied former colleague Wilson from maternity leave to line up local purveyors and manhandle the launch of Holland House. Wilson still helps out in the kitchen and makes some desserts, but executive chef Christian Dye, an alumnus of Watermark, oversees the oft-changing seasonal repertoire, which leans on local providers such as Green Market Farm in Gallatin.
A quick glance at the establishment's website could give the false impression that Holland House is just a boozy breakfast joint offering only "cocktails," "brunch" and "liquid brunch." On the contrary, the menu offers plenty of reason to seek refuge in this new East Side watering hole, even if you're on the wagon. The one-page roster leans toward sophisticated bar snacks, such as house-made potato chips drizzled with truffle oil, sliced radishes with butter and salts and "lamb wings," a.k.a. flour-dusted and pan-fried chops, served with charred corn-and-soybean succotash, creamed kale and tangy hot sauce reminiscent of Buffalo chicken. Don't miss the BLT, which turns the classic sandwich on its head, layering small rounds of tomato with an unctuous slab of salty caramelized pork belly that makes standard-issue bacon look like a wuss.
If you read the menu headings too strictly, you might mistake the pan-fried trout for a mere appetizer. A bacon-enhanced version of a French bistro favorite, the generous swatch of flaky fish (pan-fried in a golden sandy coating and accented with salty sizzling butter, crisp fried rosemary needles, chopped pecans and chewy salt pork) makes an ample entrée — a big fish in the pond of small plates, if you will.
On our visit, the half-dozen full plates — including fried Cornish game hen, a crawfish boil and a vegetable platter — topped out at $19 for house-made fennel sausages with mashed potatoes. Coca-Cola hanger steak delivered a surprisingly tender cut of meat with a faintly caramelized glaze from the sweet soda marinade.
The $14 price tag on the Meester Burger raised eyebrows at our table, but when a hulking assemblage of one-half pound (yes, a half-pound) of Kobe-style beef from Wagyu cattle in Texas arrived on a bun from Provence, the price-to-weight ratio seemed more reasonable. (Even so, you might want to ask yourself — or your cardiologist — if you really need a half-pound of cow, no matter where it's from. If the answer is "no," try Holland House's Meester Burger Monday, a promotion with half the burger for half the price.)
Kibble aside, Holland House is first and foremost an "epicurean cocktail lounge," with more than 50 classic and contemporary cocktails for the quaffing. From a rye Manhattan with house-made maraschino cherries to a "Village Reserve" bourbon infused with bacon and Olive & Sinclair chocolate from nearby Riverside Village, the choices can be overwhelming. Ombi fans will recognize Raley's signature recipes such as the D'Arbo (gin, St. Germain and grapefruit bitters) and the Beatnik (rye, Madeira and orange bitters). Meanwhile, other drinks are the result of new collaboration between Holland House's bar and kitchen. For example, Dye & Co. produce a blood orange gastrique for the Rosalita Shrub (rose hip-infused tequila with mole bitters); a popcorn-infused butter to blend in the Al Jolson (rum and Coke garnished with a Tootsie Roll); and brown butter to mix with rum, lime and ginger in a San Cristóbal Sling.
Most memorable among our beverage order was the Yo La Tengo. Named for a popular New Jersey indie rock band that frequently records in Nashville, the drink conjures a zesty blend of lime juice, honey syrup, mezcal, mole bitters and — wait for it — smashed avocado. The off-the-menu recommendation from our server was a well-balanced blend of sweet and citrus with a subtle buttery finish.
For now, all cocktails are $10. While that's a competitive price for comparable epicurean beverages, it has been the source of some sticker shock in a neighborhood accustomed to cheap-and-cheerful bar tabs. Meanwhile, Raley says he is moving to a tiered system of $8, $9 and $10 drinks. Like the growing trend of artisan cocktails in Tennessee, the price rollback at Holland House will be a welcome twist.
Holland House opens at 5 p.m. daily and is closed on Tuesday. Brunch is available 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.
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