Lately, it seems the driving aesthetic in restaurants is contrast. Not just the contrast between sweet and salty or hot and cold, but the juxtaposition of urban and rural, agriculture and industry, high-dollar and Low Country. It's a fascination with contrast that drives restaurant tropes such as artisanal cocktails served in utilitarian canning jars or luxury dining rooms clad in splintery barnwood. When successful, such odd couplings achieve a sophisticated balance. You can thank such intelligent equations for the current uptick in Nashville's reputation as a dining destination.
Among so many counterpoints, there's also something to be said for things that just simply go together. That is the case at Patrick's Bistreaux in Berry Hill, where owner Patrick Barber serves a homespun repertoire of Cajun and Creole favorites in a low-slung cottage that looks like, well, a home.
You may remember Patrick's from the days when it occupied the address that later became Edisto and ultimately The Patterson House and The Catbird Seat. There's an argument to be made that Barber was ahead of his time in pairing unlikely things. After all, he situated an easygoing bayou-soaked menu in a spot that would eventually become an epicenter of highbrow food and drink. The contrast was a little odd, but Patrick's developed a loyal following nonetheless.
This time around, there's no such contrast. Located on a quirky retail strip that still looks like a residential neighborhood, Patrick's fits in its surroundings like an oyster in its shell. As much as we liked Patrick's back in the day, we liked it even more on two recent visits, and there's reason to suspect our preference was due to an atmosphere that's more Big Easy and less big-city.
Consistent with our memories, the food was excellent. The menu of familiar Louisiana favorites, including gumbo and muffulettas, is based on family recipes from Barber's life in Baton Rouge. From all indications, the Barber ancestors knew how to deep-fry stuff. At least Barber and chefs Kevin Marron and Jordan Thornhill know how to coax texture and color from hot oil, without inviting too much grease out along with it.
Deep-fried items were consistently well executed, from oysters with crisp cornmeal coating and succulent briny centers, to catfish fingers plated with beef-strewn "dirty" rice and house-made tartar sauce.
Po'boys lived up to high expectations, served on baguettes imported from Leidenheimer Baking Company in New Orleans, along with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Sandwiches are about a foot long, so your server might give you the "Are you sure?" look when you order a whole one. Plan ahead: Order a half-sandwich and make up the difference with a bread pudding, also made with Leidenheimer's baguettes and topped with sauces made with rum, beer or whiskey, bananas optional. You'll also need room to eat every last potato chip, which might look like a brand-name store-bought crisp, but is actually made in house and coated with a heavy dust of warm red spices.
Yes, there is étouffée, that roux-based Louisiana labor of love bobbing with crawfish and celery and served over rice, on a metal plate. If you're prone to adding hot sauce to things, it's worth noting that Patrick's stocks the Crystal brand, but we never saw any on the tables.
Jambalaya is a dark-complexioned bounty of rice with molten bell peppers and enough roasted chicken, roasted pork loin and andouille sausage to feed more than one person.
The unexpected delight of our meals was a crawfish cake with pepper jelly, which was so different from expectations that we had to ask what it was when it arrived. More of a ball than a puck, the bronzed cake lolled in a sweet pool of mildly spicy syrup and was littered with fresh herbs and chopped green onion. The crisp, greaseless exterior crunched open to reveal a medley of cream cheese, breadcrumbs, green and red bell pepper and plump mudbugs.
Servings are generous, and food is on the heavy side, but there are salads worth considering, including peeled shrimp tossed with classic remoulade sauce over romaine and diced tomatoes, and a simple medley of hearts of palm, tomatoes and pink onion over romaine and topped with vinaigrette.
Among so many sandwiches and stew-based meals, the only time we used a knife on our visits was to cut the Chicken Breaux Bridges, a rustically elegant entrée of moist chicken breast topped with crawfish and plated with green beans and dirty rice. It's also the only dish we might have preferred with a glass of wine from the list of a dozen or so reds and whites, in lieu of a beer.
The same green beans accompanied catfish almondine, a flaky fillet encrusted with nuts and plated with dirty rice. Frankly, those beans — slightly soggy and excessively lemony — were about the only complaint our party could lodge.
With one exception: The dining room was hot. Damn hot. On one visit, the only people who seemed more aggravated by the heat than our group were the frustrated HVAC repair crew. By our second visit, they had given up. The open kitchen was pumping smoke and smells — albeit mouthwatering smells — into a room where defeated ceiling fans were going through the motions.
We dined on the patio, where the temperature was perfect: The draft beer might've been sweating, but the people weren't. When we asked the server about the air conditioning, he said it's in the works, but it's expensive and challenging to update the systems in an old house. "It's better when it isn't hot," he admitted.
Maybe, maybe not. The whole experience was pretty good the way it was. Temperature may have been a little high, but it didn't stand in contrast to the whole laid-back Louisiana vibe. You might say form followed function. You might say it added warmth.
Patrick's Bistreaux serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
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