Pony Up 

Chef Jason McConnell’s new restaurant raises Franklin’s gastronomic bar

One block off the charming historic town square, across from the shuttered Franklin Cinema, chefs Jason McConnell and Carl Schultheis are dishing up the nouvelle likes of king crab lettuce wraps, kobe beef tacos and panzanella with salmon and artichokes to a low-key and moneyed suburban clientele.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, food writer Raymond Sokolov describes a genre of dining establishments he dubs “national restaurants.” Such places, he writes, serve the “kind of modern food we used to find only in our biggest cities—food that blends the French nouvelle cuisine with luxury ingredients from the whole world.” Far from being restricted to food centers such as San Francisco and New York, national restaurants dot the culinary landscape from Denver to Kansas City; Sokolov even references Nashville—albeit somewhat condescendingly—where Deb Paquette’s restaurant Zola meets his so-called national criteria.

Like so many modern cultural phenomena, national restaurants are the inevitable result of increased communication and transportation, what Sokolov describes as the “knitting together of well-traveled chefs and elite customers who now make up a viable market of feinschmeckers in what once were at best centers of regional cooking (New Orleans) or gastronomic podunks.”

In no such gastronomic podunk could the pairing of well-traveled chef and elite customer be more visible than in Franklin, at Red Pony Restaurant. One block off the charming historic town square, across from the shuttered Franklin Cinema, chefs Jason McConnell and Carl Schultheis are dishing up the nouvelle likes of king crab lettuce wraps, kobe beef tacos and panzanella with salmon and artichokes to a low-key and moneyed suburban clientele.

“My cooking style is based in ethnic themes and diversity, with forward flavors,” says McConnell, a native of tiny Rives, Tenn., and a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. McConnell came to Nashville in 1999 and trained under chef Margot McCormack at F. Scott’s before leading that kitchen, then headed up a microbrewery in Fayetteville, Ark., prior to opening Red Pony with his wife Fran.

“I love to travel, and I try to incorporate the flavors of places like Mexico and Morocco but maintain a classic side for people who aren’t that adventurous,” McConnell says.

The result is a restaurant whose menu is as eclectic as its decor, where the tangy heat of Korean barbecue mingles with salty-sweet shrimp and grits, in a space that is as sleek as a cocktail lounge and as rustic as a tack room.

Inside the two-story, century-old building, brazen red walls reflect a warm glow across farmhouse tables and carved Asian furniture. Horseshoes and large equine oil paintings hang on the walls. Some walls are exposed brick; one is plate glass, dividing the dining room from the bustling kitchen. In one bathroom, a homespun collage of photographs chronicles the McConnells’ international travels.

The focus of the ground-floor dining room is a single exquisite portrait of a gray mare and a chestnut foal—the titular red pony. McConnell’s family, steeped in the business of training walking horses, gave him the piece as a restaurant-warming gift. Since the September opening, no fewer than 10 customers, Sheryl Crow among them, have tried to purchase the artwork.

In an atmosphere that is an understated blend of horse country and big city, McConnell delivers a menu that is skillful in its simplicity while intriguing in its worldliness.

One of our favorite appetizers was the unusual pairing of fig jam, arugula and goat cheese on a crispy rosemary flatbread. The sweet-and-savory appetizer recently rolled off the menu to make room for a sampling trio of crab claws, fried shrimp remoulade and crawfish Thermidor (a Gulf-inspired twist on the classic French treatment of lobster meat tossed with cream sauce and broiled). But we hope the deliciously textured starter will find its way back on, even if it has to be described as something else to tempt fig-phobes to try it; the similar flatbread pizza with beef tenderloin and blue cheese is good but not as interesting.

The other most memorable dish was the Korean barbecue oysters. Six plump oysters arrived in a miniature cast-iron skillet, braised in a tomato-based sauce of Szechwan spices, chilis, sesame and teriyaki. Its only shortcoming was that the accompanying crispy scallion pancake, while delicious, couldn’t absorb more of the flavorful broth, leaving us to use a spoon.

One of the most popular items is the tempura sushi roll with shrimp, cream cheese and chili sauce, a generously portioned appetizer that’s easy to share. We also enjoyed the king crab wraps served on crisp lettuce leaves with shaved radishes and nuoc cham, a refreshing Asian dipping sauce of lime juice, fish sauce and chili. Meanwhile, the kobe beef tacos were mildly underwhelming. A classic case of menu-fluffing, the appetizer was very fresh, but the enticing detail of precious kobe beef was lost inside the flour tortilla.

On both our visits, our favorite entrée was the pan-roasted salmon over shrimp panzanella. Red Pony’s version of the classic Italian bread salad plated a gently cooked fillet with mixed lettuces, generous chunks of artichoke, shrimp, tomatoes and homemade croutons, all tossed in a vinaigrette made from onions caramelized on the wood-burning grill. Speckled with fresh herbs, the emulsion of onions, garlic and wine was more like a light sauce than a heavy dressing, and the delicate meal was more filling than a salad. We also enjoyed the pork tenderloin rubbed with brown sugar, coriander, chilis and shallots. Cooked to a cautious pink, the juicy meat came plated with a sauce of roasted tomatoes, shallots, cumin and sherry vinegar, beside green-chili mashed potatoes wrapped nonchalantly in a corn husk.

One of the most eye-catching items on the menu is the Red Pony BLT, but read carefully: the bacon, lobster and tomato arrive not in a sandwich, but over a rich and soothing bed of homemade ravioli with a sweet truffled corn cream.

While McConnell’s playful menu led us to the more whimsical dishes, we also heard rave reviews about the so-called Tomahawk rib eye, a behemoth steak intended for two.

We saved the Tomahawk—and the roster of cocktails and high-end tequilas—for another day, when we’ve got an extra $40 to throw down on a Millionaire’s Margarita, made with a single shot of Patròn Grand Platinum tequila.

We indulged in a trio of desserts—a dense chocolate pot de crème, tres leches cake and a bread pudding—which stood out more for their presentation than substance. Our relentlessly charming server Kijuan Huff nudged us toward coffee, elegantly delivered to the table in a French press, with accompanying shots of Godiva white chocolate liqueur. But among all the highbrow sweets, our favorite closer was a plain-old root beer float, made with smooth Abita root beer and vanilla ice cream and garnished with a chocolate biscotti, an appropriately all-American coda to a worldly meal in an enchanting gastronomic podunk.

Red Pony serves dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Reservations recommended. Bar opens at 4 p.m.

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