Don't tell tayst's chef-owner Jeremy Barlow this, but I might have just stolen from him. I can't think of any other explanation for how I just ordered six exquisite small plates at the bar of his newly redecorated restaurant, all for about 20 bucks. The delicious fleecing all happened right in front of his eyes, so I can't feel too guilty. Still, the unusual economy of the bar menu at Barlow's boutique eatery left me with the nagging feeling that I was gaming the system.
The system is quite simple: Take a seat at the clubby bar in the front of the shotgun store, or at the new four-seat curved counter behind the hostess stand, and order a few drinks — maybe something involving bartender Adrien "AD" Matthews' house-made blueberry-infused rum, or a cocktail stirred with Pritchard's Sweet Lucy bourbon and tart house-made lemonade. Then scan the half-dozen items on the ever-evolving bar menu and simply say, "Yes." Next thing you know, a sextet of small plates will rain on your head like a more palatable version of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. The largest item on the twee menu was the patty melt, a self-deprecatingly low-brow moniker for something that looks like a Krystal burger, but is actually a sliver of pork terrine between two spongy slabs of savory bread pudding, topped with melted cheddar and served with a side of ethereally thin potato chips.
Spiced chicken wings were rubbed with a subtle spice mix and thrown into the deep fryer until the skins were perfectly bronzed, snapping open to reveal steaming, tender meat on the bone. A threesome of the crisp, delicate joints arrived with a dollop of whipped blue cheese and frilly celery leaves that elevated the ubiquitous wings garnish to an elegantly understated salad.What Barlow plainly dubs "nachos" could also be described as a three-layer napoleon stacked with crisp-fried rounds of dumpling pastry and pulled braised lamb drizzled with sriracha-saffron aioli.
Against the tiny trifecta of meats, a medley of chopped tomatoes in balsamic vinegar and olive oil with threads of basil played a cool counterpoint. The plump fruit added a vibrant hint of red, with the reassuring creases and cosmetic imperfections of heirloom varietals.
The beauty of tayst's bar repertoire is that it functions like a diminutive tasting menu, with salad, proteins, dessert and even a cheese course. A sultry roasted peach arrived in a bath of melted ice cream, with a thick strand of Armagnac caramel that cooled to a crumbly texture, and the sampling concluded with two small triangles of Barely Buzzed cheddar, rubbed with ground coffee, lavender and sugar and blasted with a blowtorch to produce caramelized cheese. (As the menu says, "Oh, yes.")
Not printed on the bar menu was the daily special, a so-called "fat salad." The yin and yang of crisp fried pork lard and cool tiles of sweet cantaloupe, topped with pickled vegetables, mirrored the balancing act of Barlow's culinary style, which juxtaposes intelligence with whimsy, decadence with restraint.
In fact, Barlow explains, the bar menu derives from the culinary team's experimental snacks. "We eat this stuff in the kitchen, and it's so good we wanted to share it," he says. As the first restaurant in Nashville to be certified by the Green Restaurant Association, tayst has established a tradition of using whole animals to create dishes and menus that make the most of local livestock. (Remember that patty melt on bread pudding? That was made of pig's head, by the way.) Experiments such as deep-frying lard have led the team to nickname tayst's kitchen "Fatmanistan," and Barlow and Co. quietly refer to their decadent bar fare as "Fatmanisnacks." (Now you get the intellectual joke behind William Gentry's oil painting in the front room entitled "Fat Man at a Hot Dog Stand.")
But take the fat-man humor with a grain of salt, because anyone who knows Barlow knows that his passion for fatback, bacon, ham hocks and lard is balanced by an intellectual approach to eating healthier and more sustainably. While the tayst team may be frying up house-made cracklin' one day, the next day they are gathering school food advocates to explore strategies for improving student nutrition and reducing childhood obesity.
Not that Barlow is out to curtail the caloric intake of the clientele at his tony 21st Avenue eatery, but the concentration of flavor and creativity in his small bar plates makes an excellent case for less being more. The pint-size price tags — ranging from $2 for caramelized cheese to $7 for a pair of patty melts — don't hurt, either. For anyone who likes to sample a range of flavors without overextending the wallet, or even the waistband, tayst's high-impact-low-budget bar menu is a welcome equation. You might even call it the perfect crime.
The bar at tayst opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
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