When Park Cafe founder Willy Thomas stepped out of the cottage kitchen this spring, the veteran chef entrusted his 9-year-old eatery to Drew Racin, a fresh-faced culinarian who came to Nashville from Cleveland via the venerable Culinary Institute of America. Now a mere 25 years old, Racin would have been learning to drive when Thomas and wife Yvette launched Park Cafe and elevated the Sylvan Park crossroads to a dining destination. Today, Racin's behind the wheel of one of Nashville's most beloved restaurants, operating somewhere between conservative cruise control and daredevil joyriding.
For diners who hate change, do not panic: Thomas still oversees operations at Park and sister restaurant Eastland Cafe in East Nashville. Meanwhile, Racin's menu still reflects much of the founder's creative style, with a roster of sturdy comfort foods duded up in their Saturday night going-out clothes.
Some things aren't going anywhere, Racin explains, pointing to Szechwan green beans, the iceberg wedge salad with fried green tomatoes and Thomas' enormous bowl of melt-in-your-mouth fried calamari with herb aioli. And Racin executes Thomas' beloved staples admirably, like a teenager minding the speed limit under the watchful eyes of a driver's ed instructor.
But peruse Racin's menu, speak with him when he rounds the tables, or look under the hood of his deceptively straightforward creations, and you can tell that he's ready to get out on the open road and put the pedal to the metal, whether it's cast-iron or nonstick.
Underlying much of Racin's work is a commitment to local seasonal food. In fact, when I introduced myself to the new chef on the phone this summer—I was calling for a recipe to use up the bumper crop of butternut squash in my garden—his first reflex was to ask if he could purchase the squash from me. (I admitted bashfully that our ideas of "bumper crop" were probably very different.) Working with Good Food for Good People founder Sean Siple, Racin sources 85 percent of his produce from local organic growers, and he is a frequent presence at the nascent West Nashville Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings.
Since taking the toque in March, Racin has already flipped the menu several times and plans to turn it again in the next few weeks. Such youthful energy has its pros and cons. On the downside, some dishes might hit the streets before they're ready. We encountered a few things that could have used a little more fine-tuning. But overall, our dinner of four starters and four entrées was playfully inventive and well executed.
The tuna sashimi appetizer lived up to Park Cafe's tradition of delicate, fresh Asian-flavored fare. Rubbed with salt, roasted pepper and sesame seeds before searing, the slivers of quivering jewel-toned fish arrived with a dollop of pink tobiko-tinged aioli and a bouncy tangle of emerald seaweed salad. The colorful composition layered textures that were buttery, crisp and creamy. The only flaw in the beautiful assembly was the pile of flatbread shingles, which were about as congruous as slices of white bread alongside medallions of filet mignon.
The adventurous grilled scallops appetizer traded on the same spirit of clean, fresh ingredients, but the pairing of lightly bronzed scallops with a cool salad of fingerling potatoes, crème fraîche, chopped hard-boiled egg, crisp asparagus tips and truffle oil felt a little forced, and we found ourselves eating the components separately so as not to drown out the delicate seafood.
While Thomas' showstopping entrée of scallops with gnocchi and asparagus is long gone from Park Cafe's menu, Racin delivers another landmark scallop treatment in which voluptuous medallions of sweet pan-seared seafood lounge on a succotash of Tennessee corn and edamame in a salty, smoky cream bath infused with Benton's bacon and Tabasco.
The entrée of grilled shrimp on a bed of orzo and risotto balanced the sweet tender seafood between the earthy grains and bright accents of red pepper emulsion, pickled onions and truffled parsley, making each forkful an intriguing juxtaposition of flavors.
While surf trumped turf at our table, with scallops and shrimp finding favor over the comparatively "tedious tenderloin," in the words of one diner, the rack of lamb stood out for its complex layering of warm spices, including cumin and coriander with prevailing notes of licorice. Served over a bed of couscous studded with nibs of golden raisin and plated with snap peas and ribbons of shaved carrot, the aromatic lamb was perfectly pink and juicy, though it lacked a unifying sauce, drizzle or reduction to pull together the disparate elements on the plate. (Furthermore, depending on the composition of an individual forkful, the generous confetti of julienned scallions often overshadowed the sultry spice rub with an abrasive onion sting. But that's an easy fix.)
More than anything else we tasted, the pairing of fluffy rye waffles and house-cured salmon pastrami—rubbed with molasses, coriander and black pepper—demonstrated the creative playfulness to be expected from a young chef whose first stop in Nashville was chef Tyler Brown's kitchen at the Capitol Grille. Served with a turmeric-stained homemade chow-chow and Dijonnaise, the salmon-and-waffles combo is a knowing wink toward conventions such as salmon and blinis or chicken and waffles. Simultaneously conflating textures, tastes and tropes, the dish was uniquely delicious—both as an appetizer and as a conversation piece.
But if salmon and waffles with chow-chow is too close to the guardrail for conservative appetites, rest assured there's plenty of comfort food back in the dessert lane, where the reliable Park Cafe standards—molten chocolate cake with white chocolate ice cream and a crème brûlée napoleon, to name a couple—are still quite enough to rev up the engine.
Park Cafe serves dinner Monday through Saturday, with happy hour starting at 4:30 p.m.
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