People are talking a lot about Josephine, Miranda Whitcomb Pontes' long-awaited and lovely follow-up to her blockbuster Burger Up on 12th Avenue South. They're saying it's French. No, they're saying it's German. Or it's farm-to-table. And it's not what they expected. Because it's too much like Burger Up. Or it's not enough like Burger Up.
People have a lot of opinions (most good, some less so) about Josephine on 12th. I have my own (mostly very favorable) opinions about the newest culinary landmark on Gentrification Avenue. But before we get to those, I have a few thoughts about what all these opinions say about Nashville as a dining community.
Here's what I think: If this were still fin de siècle Nashville, when Laurell's Central Market and Becker's Bakery were still the only dining choices in 12South, we'd be falling to our knees at the sleek yet rustic beauty of Josephine's tile floors, brushed metal tables and mottled mirrors. We'd be swooning at chef Andrew Little's locally sourced but vaguely Parisian dishes such as steak frites and duck confit. There's some of that going on, to be sure. But in the current culinary boom, when dining criticism is as much a sport as dining itself, there's also a lot of splitting hairs over, for example, whether there's too much lavender essence in the beet salad and whether the decor is "innovative" enough.
Such hypercriticism isn't happening just at Josephine. It's happening in banquettes and booths all over town, where the skyrocketing quality of food often deserves a little more awe and a little less, "Aw, there weren't enough sage leaves on my plate." Josephine happens to be my case study of this curse of raised expectations, because I arrived there with the baggage of several lukewarm accounts from early diners. I guess I forgot to factor in the new passion for dinner table deconstruction, because in my visits to Josephine, I was profoundly and pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful menu and comfortable setting, which seamlessly marry traditions of European and American cuisine and design elements of bistro and barn.
Sleek dark grays and warm browns — polished wood, patinaed metal, tufted leather, amber whiskeys — set a rich neutral backdrop for plates of spot color. There's the coral-red of rough-chopped lobster salad on house-made pretzel rounds; the sherbet-hued carrot soup finished with gingerbread croutons; radish rounds on fluffy salads; silver-green sprigs of rosemary in tequila cocktails; glistening orange zest in a whisky drink.
With several items appearing at both lunch and dinner, you can get a taste of Culinary Institute of America alumnus Little's refined yet earthy cuisine day or night. Lunch runs the gamut from frothy carrot soup ($6) and a burger made with local Triple L Ranch beef ($13) to steak frites ($22). We particularly enjoyed the scallop entrée, with plump, perfectly seared shellfish, roasted fingerling potatoes, Swiss chard and diced country ham (also available at dinner).
Another highlight of our lunches was a deep bowl of gnocchi-textured dumplings, the size and shape of delicate bay scallops, tossed with mushrooms, sage and pecorino in a butternut squash purée and finished with brown butter. (At dinner, the meatless dumpling recipe gets upgraded to include rabbit cooked sous vide.)
In addition to hearty lunch entrées such as roast chicken with black-eyed peas and endive, an array of sandwiches features fried oysters, grilled beef heart and braised pork. On the lighter side are salads, such as arugula topped with lump crabmeat, and spinach tossed with tender duck confit and shaved radish and apple.
At the evening meal, seasonal vegetables are showcased individually, recommended as a shared course between appetizers and entrées. Beets and frisée were reprised in this course, along with cauliflower roasted with walnuts, pepperoni and raisins. Caramelized Brussels sprouts tossed with grilled oranges, dried cherries and onion rings upstaged many other items on the table.
At dinner we enjoyed a comforting plate of risotto topped with beef cheeks cooked sous vide and glazed with veal stock and butter. A stealthy dose of shredded horseradish added an unusual and welcome tang — and inspired the comparison to German cuisine. We regretted not ordering the roast chicken for two on a bed of raw Brussels sprout leaves tossed with chicken juices; after we saw a bronzed bird in a gleaming copper roasting pan presented tableside, then returned to the kitchen for carving, we could think of nothing else.
Sure, there were things we would have preferred a little different. The lump crab salad, though generous, lacked a dressing or other unifying ingredient to pull together the delicate seafood and peppery arugula. The trio of quail, presented like barbecue wings on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes, might benefit from a marinade. The intriguing molasses pie was a dry second fiddle to the exquisite sticky bun with figs and Armagnac or malted milk cake with granola, roasted apple and bourbon caramel. There was an overabundance of frisée, with ticklish greens once anchoring two salads and topping a caramelized onion flatbread on our table. And, as we heard, there was that heavy hand with the lavender.
But that's what can happen in a creative and dynamic kitchen, where Chef Little & Co. experiment with innovative flavors and fresh ingredients, strengthening a menu with every iteration. If we dwell too long on any of these minor issues, we risk missing the bigger picture of Josephine: an attractive, well-priced neighborhood eatery, with a dynamic menu worthy of regular returns. In this era of rising expectations and dish-by-dish criticism, we should remember to set our forks down every now and then and simply celebrate the good news.
Josephine serves lunch and dinner and weekend brunch and is closed on Tuesdays.
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