If you have been within earshot of me recently, you have probably heard me brag about my bargain-shopping exploits. First there was a double-breasted quilted satin military jacket by Ralph Lauren for which I paid pennies on the dollar. Then there was a dubious garage sale treasure that is almost certainly an early study by a well-known contemporary painter. When it comes to eking out value for money, lately I'm on a roll.
But those two brand-name discoveries are nothing compared to what I found on the buffet at Turnip Truck Urban Fare. At owner John Dyke's long-awaited Gulch expansion of his popular East Nashville market, the culinary brand names in question are Laura Wilson — the chef at the bygone Ombi, who recently helped launch Holland House Bar & Refuge — and Sam Tucker — the onetime pastry chef at Watermark who recently helped launch Burger Up. And the delicious discount for the discerning diner is the $7.99-per-pound price tag on Wilson and Tucker's ever-changing array of comforting and contemporary cuisine.
Located in a former warehouse across the street from the venerable Station Inn, The Turnip Truck Urban Fare boasts 9,200 square-feet of gleaming, high-ceilinged space, outfitted with café tables fashioned from wood salvaged from Union Station. Grocery shelves are loaded with organic, gluten-free and local ingredients, flanked by meat, seafood and cheese counters, a gift section and a vast selection of microbrewed beers.
With two large islands dedicated to cold salads, hot entrees and soups, as well as a sandwich counter and indoor and outdoor seating, the market is fast becoming the de facto dining room for the growing Gulch workforce, including the Nashville Scene staff. (Yes, you can drink your beer in the store with your food.)
Over the last decade, the Turnip Truck in East Nashville has developed a devout following for its roster of favorite recipes — including curried chicken and tofu salads — and those mainstays have made their way to the Gulch. In addition, Wilson & Co. are introducing new sandwiches, such as Greek salad pitas and sublimely delicious panini with pancetta, goat cheese and fig on sourdough. Recipes from the Gulch will also find their way back to the Woodland Street store.
Long known for her prowess with all things porcine, executive chef Wilson is drawing on the store's inventory of antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and local produce to develop a repertoire equally suited to vegetarians and carnivores. On a recent Creole-Cajun day, the menu included a stew of monkfish and shrimp alongside vegetarian jambalaya with local Soysage and something called "e-Tof-ée." (The tofu-based spinoff of the classic crawfish stew raised some eyebrows among the devoutly carnivorous Louisiana-bred members of Wilson's staff.)
On French day, there were coq au vin and vegetarian bouillabaisse. On taco night, there was chili con carne made with textured vegetable protein. On other days, options have included flank steak with vegetables, chicken-and-vegetable skewers, roasted brussels sprouts with wild mushrooms, vegan pad Thai, chicken-fried Eden Farms pork loin and shrimp and grits. (Hint: The plump de-veined shrimp pair nicely with the pad Thai noodles.)
Dishes are labeled meticulously to distinguish vegan and vegetarian items from sumptuous sins of the flesh, so read carefully as you circle the buffet and fill your plate. Because, yes, Tucker's gorgeous golden-brown pastry knot of brioche is flavored with a little Benton's bacon fat, and the cauliflower gratin does contain a dairy-based béchamel and a generous topping of cheddar.
Of course, even Wilson, who can turn a sow's ear into, well, something eminently edible, can't prevent the inevitable ravages of a steam table, and a few items on the food bar were a little worse for the wear. (For example, grits congealed instantly upon hitting the plate, and schnitzel looked a little downtrodden.) But overall, the fare fared well, and the price, variety, quality and creativity more than made up for any predictable shortcomings of a smörgasbord-style delivery system.
On the other hand, a few items exceeded any expectations we might have had for even the most refined settings. Gnocchi mac-and-cheese, for one, made it to the table as a molten tangy béchamel bobbing with plump globes of potato pasta and topped with a buttery crisp layer of golden breadcrumbs. And Tucker's desserts (think panna cotta with spiced walnuts and zesty lemon curd or chocolate torta with salted caramel sauce) are the icing on the cake of Turnip Truck's culinary shopportunity. I did not actually calculate how many vanilla-bean-custard-filled-and-ganache-topped profiteroles it takes to make a pound*, but I bet eight bucks at the Turnip Truck buys more decadent confection of this caliber than you'll find anywhere in town.
Indeed, the Turnip Truck's buffet is available for takeout, a dinner time amenity that stands to change some rush-hour traffic patterns headed out of town. Meanwhile, Turnip Truck's unexpected value proposition stands to change some ideas about what — in terms of quality and pricing — constitutes cheap eats.
* Roughly 14 profiteroles make a pound. Good luck finding a better deal on fresh French pastries.
The Turnip Truck serves lunch and dinner 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily.
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