The not-so-short list of things I might be terrified of doing is not limited to the following:
• Pick up Chet Atkins' guitar and attempt to play.
• Take a penalty kick in the World Cup.
• Step behind the counter and crank out a meal at $75 per ticket alongside the folks from one of the best new restaurants in the country.
It's not that I couldn't do any of those things (because, hey, sometimes fiction becomes reality), it's just that the thought of attempting them would render me unable to function.
Fortunately for Nashville, Sarah Gavigan isn't the shy type. The Manhattan-by-way-of-L.A. transplant brought her roaming pop-up ramen restaurant to The Catbird Seat on Monday for a five-course meal that added yakitori-style skewers to her unctuous bowls of noodles.
A music-industry type by day who places songs in TV ads, Gavigan had been trying to replicate the Japanese comfort food she had enjoyed in L.A.'s izakayas — essentially, Japanese pubs that specializing in comfort foods such as yakitori, edamame, pickles, sashimi, noodle bowls and more. Think tapas, Japanese-style.
Gavigan's efforts caught the eye of Catbird co-chef Erik Anderson. His endorsement encouraged her to launch a series of pop-ups under the Otaku South banner.
Monday was a full-on izakaya experience. Gavigan and her Catbird partners rolled out a three-pickle course first, paired with sake: daikon radishes, marinated cucumber with sesame seeds, and mushrooms with a thick Kentucky soy sauce. All three were packed with flavor, and the salty daikon turned the paired beverage, a dry sake, into something sweet.
Then the skewers started coming, small bites finished over an open flame. Quail eggs wrapped in bacon were followed by my personal favorite, scallops sprinkled with bits of crispy chicken skin. It was a perfect set of contrasts with the delicate, mellow shellfish punctuated by the salty, crunchy skin. Wagyu beef was perhaps inevitable, and ribeye bites paired with matsutake mushrooms didn't disappoint. Closing out the skewers — all paired with Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale from Rogue — was a pheasant meatball, fire-marked on the outside but still tender inside.
(An earlier group of diners also got a round of shishito peppers that were supposed to be sweet, but some rogue hot ones blew out some people's palates and Gavigan took them off the menu.)
At some point, it became apparent that the music in the room wasn't just there to be filler. Gavigan, after all, is in the business of marrying mood and song, and the eclectic playlist she had selected — from White Rabbits to Ray Charles to a Radiohead cover that had the balls to replace Jonny Greenwood's guitar with horns — elevated the evening. By the time the bowls of ramen noodles arrived to Bob Marley's "Is This Love," most of the small room was smiling, some bobbing their heads.
The star of the show came in a large bowl, a sous-vide egg slightly broken and floating in a rich bowl of pork broth. A slightly shimmering layer of fat sat on top. Fried shallots and pickled ginger accompanied pork shoulder and turnip greens. It was damn near impossible to get the same bite twice, sometimes getting a little bit of egg yolk, sometimes getting a near-perfect green, which was just the right thing to cut through all that richness.
It quickly became a two-handed affair. We just don't eat soup like this here in the U.S. — chopsticks in one hand and spoon in the other — and it took a little getting used to. It also became apparent that I was never going to get one perfect bite, either. Sometimes I picked up a bit of green, sometimes I got pig. (These are good problems to have.) I naively expected the broth to be translucent, but this was opaque, the complex product of bones and their marrow bubbling for a couple of days to create an otherworldly taste.
Like most Americans, my exposure to ramen has been as bulk product, a way to keep the hunger at bay on a shoestring budget. Costco, not comfort food. One bowl of this, though, and I began to understand why Gavigan has gone to such lengths to re-create it here in Nashville. This is decadence. It's layer upon layer of goodness, something no flavor packet in hot water is ever going to give you.
And the noodles? These aren't the limp, overcooked squiggles that come in plastic and collapse in water. Long and thin, but al dente, these held up to the broth, every bit a partner in creating the flavor of the bowl.
(Side note: A moment, please, to note the pairing prowess of Robin Riddell, because if you thought "something French and red" would be the perfect match for a bowl of ramen, I would have labeled you a liar. But the cabernet franc she poured, with just a hint of a knowing smile, was out of left field and wonderful.)
There were things that came after the ramen — a smoky onigiri rice ball with a spicy tuna spread inside and a pear sorbet — and they were very good, it must be said. But I walked out still thinking about that bowl and the floating bits of yolk and pork and green all wrapped around noodles.
Gavigan's quest to bring a little bit of authentic Japan to Tennessee was an unqualified success. This stop on her Otaku South roadshow may have been a little more elaborate thanks to Anderson and the Catbird staff, but I've got to believe that any event built around a bowl of her ramen is going to make friends.
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