A frequent and favorite conversation on the Scene's food blog, Bites, has to do with what types of restaurant mash-ups we'd like to see. For example, one recent thread proposed the fusion of a hot chicken shack and a beer joint, a match made in heaven, so long as the fire and fizz don't conspire to create an infernal burn.
Another such worthy marriage is the old-school meat-and-three with nouvelle gourmet cuisine, a combination that caterer Sharon Johnson masters at her new dine-in restaurant in East Nashville. A study in contrast, Southern Bred is located in a nondescript building that formerly housed a buffet-style restaurant, a world away from the black-tie events where Johnson and longtime employee Kim Pelman are known for elegant noshes such as tuna cornets and hand-sculpted butter roses. In this throwback to a slower time, an incongruous digital picture frame sits on the hostess stand, rotating stunning electronic images of crème brûlées and chocolate mousse from Johnson's catering business, which also operates from the premises.
You won't find any of Johnson's fancy-schmancy food at Southern Bred, where the menu is decidedly more blue-collar than black-tie—think collard greens, pork chops, white beans and chicken and dumplings. Nevertheless, the underpinnings of skillful cooking and attention to detail put Southern Bred in a class of its own when it comes to comfort food.
The playfully serene décor of oversize white chickens strutting across buttery yellow walls and a menu designed like a family tree pay homage to Southern traditions while delivering them with a subtle contemporary twist.
Sharon, you had me at iced tea in Mason jars. Couple that detail with a graceful tray bearing three types of warm homemade bread—yeast rolls, corn muffins and square crumbly biscuits—and you know you're in for a different caliber of meat-and-three.
Among other things, Southern Bred has a short salad menu, including a Caesar salad with freshly made croutons and shaved Parmesan. We substituted a side salad for a vegetable, and to our surprise arrived a bowl filled with fresh, fluffy mixed greens, grape tomatoes, shaved cheddar, croutons, bacon, almonds and a thick smoky bleu cheese dressing with a hint of red pepper—a far cry from the fingerbowl of iceberg we're used to picking up from the cold section of a buffet.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday there are pot roast, salmon patties and roasted pork shoulder on the meat menu. On Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, it's meat loaf, chicken livers and country fried steak. Don't lose your mind trying to remember the schedule, because in our experience the most important date to remember is fried chicken day, and that's every day.
Based on Johnson's mother's recipe, Southern Bred's fried chicken is outstanding. That's not to say it was crowned the all-Nashville champion among our crowd, many of whom prefer a crispy-crunchy crust, but the light blond batter stood out for many reasons. First, the color and taste bespoke of clean frying oil—a welcome detail. Second, the fried buttermilk batter and meat were so tender and delicate—the coating is more along the lines of tempura than the Colonel's extra crispy—that you could actually use a fork and knife to eat the chicken without sending a hard-fried drumstick skittering across the table. One diner in our group referred to the chicken as "girly"—an apt description, but one that didn't keep the manliest of men at the table from devouring his.
Other signs that you're in the right place include okra fried to order, whose delicate dusting of cornmeal tears open to reveal a grass-green cross-section of steaming fresh vegetable with little white pearls and no soggy goop. (If you don't order a salad, ask your server for a ramekin of the smoky blue cheese dressing, which makes a decadent dip for the golden-brown okra nuggets as well as for the thinly sliced fried green tomatoes.)
Squash casserole also showed a lot of handiwork, made predominantly with matchsticks of yellow skin-on squash. (Most of the fleshy white part was discarded to avoid sogginess.) Textured with toothsome tags of squash skins and sweet bits of onion, the casserole was eggier than we often find and less sumptuous than creamier versions.
Off the meat-and-three section of the menu, the White Out—a medley of white beans, coleslaw and corncakes—flaunts every doctrine of the low-carb religion, but while you're thumbing your nose at nutrition, you might as well pile on the fried catfish for an extra $2. The flaky sweet meat—farm-raised in Mississippi—comes out of the deep-fryer with so little grease in it that it recalled playing at the beach, when the sun dries the sand into a light gritty mask on your skin. Here again, Johnson & Co. put in the extra time to make an honest-to-goodness tartar sauce. No sweet relish in the mayo here. This is the real deal with minced gherkins, white onion, capers and dill. The accompanying coleslaw is equally rough-hewn with long shreds of fresh, crisp cabbage.
If you like chicken and dumplings, Southern Bred serves a portion that could feed a family, loaded with pillowy dumplings and tender hunks of chicken bobbing in a velvety bath of white sauce. Similarly, if you like salmon patties, Southern Bred's crisp-fried version with a piping-hot interior of finely minced fish is likely as good as it gets.
On the other hand, if you are invariably drawn to the cheesy tractor beam of mac-and-cheese, do your best to avert your eyes toward something else. In our experience, the noodly casserole separated into its component parts of elbow macaroni, cheddar cheese and bechamel, with no creaminess or marriage of flavors. Sweet corn puddings studded with chewy kernels and delivered in tiny tart shells were more interesting, if also a little dry.
Southern Bred is the kind of place where a gentleman—whether in work boots and overalls or in a charcoal-gray suit and wingtips—is likely to hold the door for you and wish you a good afternoon. A polite stranger is just as likely to suggest you order the carrot cake. Take the advice, because Johnson's decades of making pretty foods come to bear on the dessert menu, which is executed by pastry chef Betsy Johnston, who also works at Marché Artisan Foods. Among the chocolate cake, apple brown Betty and pecan pie, it's the carrot cake—ringed in toasted coconut and topped with a thick swirl of cream-cheese frosting—that moves strangers to share recommendations.
Then again, in a room as gracious and comfortable as Southern Bred, nobody really feels like a stranger.
Southern Bred is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
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