Southern food is hot. And not just in a cayenne-crusted, cast-iron kind of way. For more than a decade, the lowbrow flavors of the lower half of the country have been seeping above the Mason-Dixon, infiltrating cooler — and cooler — climes, to the point that the most urbane and über-chic of eateries now boast the most rustic of barbecue and biscuits. Or pickles and okra. Or shrimp and grits. Or bourbon and beer. Whatever the pairings, Southern foodways have risen again.
But while the culinary avant-garde from the Northeast Corridor to the West Coast may be duly mindful and appreciative of the agricultural history that established mac-and-cheese as a vegetable and chicken-fried chicken as anything other than a typo, there's one thing those far-flung food centers are not: Southern.
That's where Tom Morales and his team at The Southern Steak & Oyster — including daughter Kendall, who manages the restaurant — can claim both lower latitude and higher ground, as a for-real face of dining in the New South.
Housed in the ground floor of the gleaming Pinnacle building, in a sunlit room adorned with dark woods, tiny tiles, architectural salvage and black-and-white photos of the city's recent and distant history, The Southern needs little embellishment to convey its sense of place. It is, after all, located at the crossroads where the Country Music Hall of Fame meets Schermerhorn Symphony Center, down the street from the sprawling Music City Center. Surely no address in town more picturesquely embodies the merger of Nashville's musical past and present and its significance as a center of commerce, entertainment and tourism.
In the shadow of almost a billion dollars of recent capital improvement, Morales & Co. provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to the cast of characters — locals and tourists alike — filtering through the city's newest civic landmarks. It's not the first time Morales has positioned himself to feed a quasi-captive audience. A former partner in Loveless Cafe and current owner of Saffire, Morales is also the founder of TomKats catering, which provides on-site meals for major film productions and disaster-relief operations across the country.
At The Southern, Morales and chef Matt Farley, a New York transplant, deliver a menu shaped largely by culinary traditions of the South and flavored, when possible, by ingredients of Middle Tennessee. Think Willow Farm eggs in the omelets and Loveless country ham in the updated Caesar salad.
As the name implies, oysters and steak headline the evening repertoire. On our visit, oysters hailed from both North and South, starting at $15 per dozen, on half-shell or fried, with hush puppies, fries and slaw.
On the beef side of the ledger, The Southern is a welcome new answer to the popular request for steakhouse recommendations. Grass-fed offerings from Bear Creek Farm in Leipers Fork include a ribeye with fries and asparagus ($29), 24-ounce T-bone with onion rings and green beans ($48), strip steak, and filets available in eight- and 12-ounce portions. For the Nudie Suit — a playfully named homage to the country music wardrobe designer — the customer takes a trip to the copper-clad back counter by the open kitchen, where she tells the butcher exactly how thick to cut the steak. It's a festive way to order your meal, since you get to parade through the bustling room to select your percentage-of-pound of flesh on a Himalayan salt block. But don't get carried away. Market price on our visit was $3.75 per ounce, which adds up quickly, until, next thing you know, you've got $45 dollars worth of meat and potatoes on your plate.
That said, there's plenty of diversity among the pricing, so if you're not feeling extravagantly carnivorous, you've still got entrée choices for under $20, such as chicken-fried chicken with penne mac-and-cheese and greens; fried catfish with rice, okra and tomato-corn ragout; butternut squash ravioli; blackened mahimahi tacos; Shrimp Louisiane; and beef brisket with smashed sweet potatoes and jicama slaw. The decadent Southern burger, topped with pimiento cheese and jalapeno-tinged bacon, clocks in at $14, and a platter with choice of fried fish, oysters or shrimp with hush puppies and slaw is $18, or $28 for a combo.
We found both the best value and the most culinary intrigue on the so-called "Anytime" menu. Ranging from $4 to $14, the all-day offerings worked well for lunch, happy hour or dinner, with small plates that could be shared, or paired with salads to make a larger meal. (You're going to want to budget some appetite for soft-baked cheese biscuits that melt in your mouth, and pecan-topped crème brûlée that elevates the humble sweet potato to the position of elegance that it deserves.)
The generous portion of Dominican pork put an island spin on traditional barbecue, with strings of pulled pork piled on crisp sweet potato-grit cake and topped with a jewel-colored rough-chopped salsa of mango and peppers.
Barbecue shrimp takes a turn toward the bayou with head-on crustaceans in a red bath for dipping crusty bread. However, on our visit, the dish lacked the layered, salty intensity of the Worcestershire-infused New Orleans classic, and was dominated instead by oil with a peppery sting at the finish.
We preferred the oyster mash, a crisp-and-creamy pile-on of a half-dozen plump fried oysters on a sweet-and-earthy bed of root vegetables, finished with mustard-seed aioli and chopped tomato.
In a creative pairing of field and sea, crab cakes arrived under a medley of toothsome hominy and red bell pepper, finished with microherbs and chili-lime beurre blanc.
One of our favorite dishes — though that's not to say it was the best-tasting — was the so-called Devil of an Egg. In a whimsical interpretation of the hard-boiled tradition, The Southern pickles the egg, then smokes it for three days over hickory, imparting an unexpected flavor and firmness to what is traditionally a wiggly white oval. The stuffed half-eggs, tinged with hot sauce and remoulade, arrive around a centerpiece of crisp pickled vegetables, including green beans, carrots, onions and parsnips.
The jury is still out on whether pickling and smoking improve the egg white, or make it too firm — too much like a new potato. Some might say you can't improve a classic, whether a hard-boiled egg or Southern cuisine in general. On the other hand, some might say you can improve anything. Ever hopeful, we tend to side with that optimistic second group. And if there is evidence that traditions can be improved, it is on the doorstep of The Southern, where the traditions of country and classical music collide, in the heart of a New Southern city.
The Southern serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, opening at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and at 10 a.m. on weekends.
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