It's hard to think of an occupation that would be more fun than writing about restaurants in a city whose culinary scene is exploding, but it might be similarly intriguing to be on the site-selection team for a television show that's filmed locally. Think about it: You'd scour the city for the most eye-popping and inspiring visuals, the kind of dazzling cinematographic moments worthy of the opening scenes of Nashville. Aerial shots of West End Middle School, panoramic views of downtown, close-ups of the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge. Jeez, when you frame it all like that, it's almost like we live in a perfectly splendid city.
While I'm getting all misty-eyed with civic pride, let me heap onto that list of spectacular shots the sight of Lockeland Table on a recent Saturday night. Cresting the hill on Woodland Street — "Are we there yet? But this is a residential district!" — our party inhaled a collective gasp of surprise when the glowing amber storefront came into view. The glazed facade radiated the kind of light that beckons you to come in from the cold, take off your coat, have a cocktail and a pizza, or maybe try something a little more adventurous. Either way, it will be a memorable meal.
Fans of Eastland Cafe, née Chapel Bistro, will recognize the easygoing sophistication of chef Hal Holden-Bache's repertoire. Toting an extensive résumé that winds from The Greenbrier resort and chef Tom Colicchio's kitchen to Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel, Holden-Bache teamed up with former Eastland colleague Cara Graham to open Lockeland Table this fall. The reception has been warm, to say the least.
Reservations are "highly recommended," according to the website, and difficult to secure, according to personal experience. We got shut out on a few weekends, and when we did finally score a table for four, we were not able to expand our group to six when we called a day ahead. The book was already full.
To my friends who didn't get a seat at the Table that night, here's what you missed.
The locally and seasonally inspired menu opened with a handful of Middle Tennessee beers — including offerings from Yazoo, Fat Bottom, Calfkiller and Jackalope — and a poetic list of specialty cocktails, including many poured with Tennessee brands.
From there, flavors of autumn accented a menu dotted with nearby names such as Noble Springs, Kenny's Farmhouse and Benton's. Holden-Bache brings his worldly culinary résumé to bear on such hometown fare, treating locally sourced ingredients with techniques sourced from the old and new worlds. Think skillet cornbread and baguettes. Or crawfish-andouille boudin balls with Alabama white sauce. Or French-inspired pâté made with Benton's bacon fat, presented in a canning jar, with the overturned lid filled with smoked peach preserves. The result is a repertoire that's as balanced in style as it is in content, with counterpoints of rustic and refined, sweet and savory, crisp and custardy, all conspiring to create a consistently excellent meal.
Among the standouts on our visit: baked Gulf oysters topped with ramps and cornbread crumbs. But ramps are a springtime crop, you say? Yep, and guess what Holden-Bache was doing this spring while renovation of the 1930s-era H.G. Hill store lagged? Pickling ramps and making pesto, so when autumn arrived with a harvest of root vegetables, there would be a tangy hint of springtime onion at Lockeland Table.
To be sure, the jars of pickles and preserves here aren't just decorative. They come from Holden-Bache's mom, his friends, even his own garden, and they make all the difference in a dish such as Lockeland's clams casino pizza. The wood-fired pie is topped with open clamshells and pancetta lolling in a glistening pool of briny ocean liquor that makes slicing the pizza almost impossible. Instead, you'll want to tear off swatches of crisp-and-stretchy crust and dip them into the warm infusion. That sting at the end of the buttery bite — that's chili oil made with Holden-Bache's summer crop of peppers.
But for all the echoes of spring and summer, the current menu delivers ample warmth and comfort for a cold autumn night. Take the roasted chicken, for example. Succulent beneath crisp skin lacquered with sweet-piquant pepper jam, the chicken was plated with pimento cheese-laced grits and a hearty pairing of parsnips and Brussels sprouts. (When we mentioned in passing that two of us were going to share the dish, our server took the initiative and split the chicken into two generous plates, sparing us the ham-handed dissection of a well-composed entrée.)
Carolina mountain trout with maple-bourbon glaze and corn cream plated the buttery, crisp-skinned filet over a rough-hewn hash of cubed sweet potatoes, turnips and sunchokes tossed sparingly with loose Brussels sprout leaves and crispy prosciutto.
The most lasting snapshot of the evening was the presentation of roasted bone marrow with Tuscan bread, parsley and pickled onion. Holden-Bache says the bisected femur has confounded some diners, who don't quite know what to make of the skeletal delivery and resort to slurping the molten marrow with a spoon. Approached that way, the dish might recall the rich decadence of sizzling steak fat — seductive until it suddenly overwhelms. A better approach is to consider the interplay of flavors and textures: rub a drizzle of marrow onto the toast and top with a flat frill of flat-leaf parsley and a pink coil of onion. The layering of protein and perfume on a fluffy slab of grilled bread was dazzlingly complex.
Marrow, which has experienced an uptick in many food-forward cities, might still be a culinary novelty in these parts, but its straightforward presentation fits comfortably among Lockeland's more familiar offerings such as spaghetti and meatballs (with fresh local pasta from Alfresco), mac-and-cheese, steamed mussels and cornmeal-dusted catfish, chocolate pot de crème, and ricotta doughnuts served in a paper bag.
And while Lockeland Table may be selling out the high-stakes Saturday night crowds, it also has a distinct everyday-neighborhood-supper feel. To foster that feeling, a community table will always ensure a few seats are available for walk-ins — the kind of guests who maybe weren't planning to stop in a restaurant, until they happened upon this newest of Nashville's impressive sights.
Lockeland Table serves dinner Monday through Saturday, with happy hour starting at 5 p.m.
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