It's nothing unusual for several variations on the same culinary theme to emerge simultaneously. Remember fusion cuisine? Or the great wave of sushi? Or even the swirl of frozen yogurt that's currently circling around again?
What's less explicable is why certain restaurant names emerge en masse. For example, remember a while back when Prime 108, 1808 Grille and 108 Grille popped up within about a year of each other? (Or even when the anagrammatic pair Lime and Miel arrived almost contemporaneously?)
Most recently, the restaurant roulette wheel has landed on the number 55, which graces the nameplates of 55 South — chef Jason McConnell's Franklin-based ode to Southern road food, which opened in January — and The Blind Pig No. 55, a restaurant-bar serving smoked meats and other Southern fare, which opened in June in the 12South location of the bygone Mirror.
Usually we don't put too much thought into explicating the names of restaurants. But in the case of The Blind Pig No. 55, the title is loaded with associations that extend far beyond its actual source.* Consequently, the name helps frame some of the reactions to this newest eatery from Hospitality Development Group.
For starters, the "55" conjures images of Highway 55 — which connects Memphis to New Orleans — and is indeed an apt reference for a menu offering pan-Southern specialties such as pulled pork shoulder, an array of barbecue sauces and cornmeal-coated fried oysters. (The roadway also happens to be the inspiration for the name of McConnell's charming Franklin establishment.)
On the "pig" side of the equation, the porcine reference describes a menu punctuated with piggy parts, from pulled shoulder on sliders to Benton's prosciutto on fried oyster salad. Meanwhile, the name subtly invokes the revered gastropub spirits of The Spotted Pig in New York and The Pig's Ear in London, perhaps subconsciously ratcheting up expectations.
If the name evokes in your mind the backhanded Southernism "Even a blind hog can find an acorn once in a while," never fear: There are no blind hogs in this scenario. Two weeks prior to the launch of The Blind Pig No. 55, HDG imported Low Country legend Louis Osteen, named Best Chef in the Southeast in 2004 by the James Beard Foundation, to serve as executive chef. Osteen arrived in Nashville two weeks prior to the June launch and is still actively fine-tuning the menu and operations.
Over three visits, there were considerable inconsistencies in the food, which ranged from exquisite crisp-skinned smoked wings with a gorgeous balance of heat and sweet to limp french fries and greasy barbecued cabbage without a hint of the promised flavor. That said, with the recent appointment of Joe Shaw, former chef at Watermark and Miro District, as general manager, there is plenty of reason to expect continued improvement.
When things were good on our visits, they were very good. Most notably, when we told our server that two people were sharing an order of spare ribs, she graciously divided a meaty, caramelized rack and the accompanying sides onto two heaping plates that were well worth the $19 price tag to feed a couple.
Eight plump shrimp barbecued in the New Orleans style were delicately cooked so that the tender curlicues popped with a juicy sweetness that balanced the peppery reduction of ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and beer.
A surprising high point of this meaty destination was the roster of vegetable sides. Osteen & Co. scripted a welcome twist on standard Southern accoutrements, such as green bean casserole deconstructed into lightly cooked haricots verts tossed in delicate mushroom cream sauce and topped with a tangle of crisp-fried onions that put traditional canned onion strings to shame. Like the green beans, which retained their crisp freshness, the tiny kernels in the corn pudding were plump and tight, riddled with bright flecks of minced poblanos and dusted with a fine sand of breadcrumbs.
Mashed sweet potatoes with blue cheese left us scratching our heads with confusion and licking our lips with delight. On the one hand, the marriage of flavors was curious; on the other, the texture was sublime. Before we could fully explore the relative merits of combining the sweet and savory ingredients, we had scoured the plate and thereby answered our question.
Another standout was Sara's Potato Cake, a starchy pan-fried love child of mashed potatoes and latkes, served with creamy Russian dressing on the side.
But not everything was equally successful. Flaky empanadas, made with dough from Watermark and filled with spicy minced pork barbecue, were an amusing play on Southern fried pies. (Fried peach pies with sorghum glaze are available on the dessert menu.) But after a bite or two, the whimsy was overwhelmed by crust and dip, which was a too-similar spin-off of the barbecue shrimp sauce.
Fish tacos were by the book, layered with moist fried catfish, smooth guacamole, cilantro and green chili salsa, but the flavors lacked brightness, the textures lacked contrast, and the flour tortilla-wrapped bundles never amounted to more than the sum of their predictable parts.
The "Pig Burger," touted as a medley of chuck, brisket, boneless short rib (all beef) and Benton's bacon with caramelized onions and a fried green tomato, did nothing to elevate a hamburger. In fact, the name "Pig Burger" misled someone in our group to assume there was ground pork in the blend and therefore to order it cooked medium-well. The consequence was a thoroughly brown-and-beige platter of food. (In coming days, the Pig Burger will be served on a housemade brioche in lieu of the current potato bun.)
Reflecting on three visits to The Blind Pig No. 55, beige and brown emerge as the overall impressions. Not only do brown meats and beige breads far outweigh any lighter, brighter colors and flavors, the room itself is a study in brown — stained concrete, brown booths and chairs, brick peeking from under coats of faux-rusticated plaster. With the exception of very enthusiastic and efficient servers circulating the room, and periodic drop-bys from an amiable Osteen, the room, flickering with oversized TVs, lacks warmth or character.
That's not to say brown and beige are bad. Hell, chocolate is brown, and peanut butter is beige, and The Blind Pig No. 55 serves a remarkable chocolate-and-peanut-butter dessert. Shaped like a large filet mignon, the so-called Peanut Buttercup layers chocolate graham cracker crust with peanut butter and chocolate mousses under a coating of ganache. It's a brown-and-beige dream-come-true for a chocoholic. Likewise, the Jack Daniel's banana pudding is a bourbon-tinged, meringue-topped bombshell for fans of the classic vanilla wafer-laden confection. More than any other item on the menu, it's this classic dessert that the restaurant manages to elevate beyond expectation.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Even a blind hog finds an acorn every once in a while." But that kind of backhanded compliment far undersells 12South's new restaurant. There are more than a few acorns at The Blind Pig No. 55 — it's worth a visit to root them out.
The Blind Pig No. 55 serves lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and opens at 3 p.m. on weekends.
*The origin of the name is twofold. Blind pig was slang for a speakeasy, while No. 55 refers to H.G. Hill grocery store No. 55, which originally occupied the building.
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