What Can Brown Do for You? 

Chef Tyler Brown aims to elevate the top-notch Capitol Grille to top of mind

In the smoky, oaky bar of the Hermitage Hotel, lobbyists and legislators chew the fat about “ominous bills” and “physical notes,” whiling away per diems on strip steaks and club sandwiches.

In the smoky, oaky bar of the Hermitage Hotel, lobbyists and legislators chew the fat about “ominous bills” and “physical notes,” whiling away per diems on strip steaks and club sandwiches. Meanwhile, in the adjacent dining room, guests—many traveling with the express purpose of eating in Nashville’s only four-star restaurant—peruse an array of world-class gastronomy. That’s not to say the two groups never cross the aisle, but the dichotomy between Old Boy and New World poses a challenge for executive chef Tyler Brown as he seeks to make his imprint on the landmark Capitol Grille.

Almost a year into the top job, Brown, 30, grapples with the question of how to make Capitol Grille a frequent stop for locals as well as a destination for far-flung foodies. He’s hoping that programs like the Friends of the Grille 15 percent discount for downtown residents and 50 percent discounts on all bottles of wine on Sunday and Monday nights will make prices more accessible for everyday dining.

He also wrestles with the reputation of his wunderkind predecessor Sean Brock, who left in March to head the kitchen of McCready’s restaurant in Charleston, S.C. A disciple of the avant-garde cooking tenets of Ferrán Adrià at El Bulli restaurant in Spain, Brock dazzled diners with culinary histrionics like celery igloos, gourmet Dippin’ Dots and hot ice creams. He lassoed the Capitol Grille’s first four-star rating from Mobil Travel Guide and garnered national press for the newly renovated restaurant. But so much good publicity brought its own hurdles, like convincing the old guard there’s still an honest filet on the menu when everyone’s buzzing about foie gras Pop Rocks.

“I was here for the evolution of that,” says Brown, who came to Nashville to work with fellow Johnson & Wales alumnus Brock in 2003, when the mad scientist began showcasing exotic tasting menus of whimsically contorted foods. “I hold all that close to my heart, and I’m proud of everything we’ve done. But folks thought that the tasting menus were our focus, when what we were doing on the everyday menu was really very Nashville-friendly.”

Since taking over the toque, Brown has proven himself a worthy successor to his friend, earning the Capitol Grille’s second consecutive four-star rating and contributing to the Hermitage Hotel’s first five-star honor from Mobil last year. But Brown has dialed back the off-the-wall offerings and so-called “space foods.” For now, he has purged the menu of liquid nitrogen and so many other de rigueur catalysts of molecular gastronomy to focus instead on earthbound, regionally inspired foods that benefit from the technical experimentation of the prior three years.

While Brown has minimized the kitchen alchemy to fit in a teaspoon—literally (a recent amuse-bouche of caviar contained a pea-sized puff of dehydrated mango, akin to astronaut’s ice cream)—he still embraces the sous vide method, a controversial process that Brock brought to the Capitol Grille. Translated from the French expression “under vacuum,” sous vide describes a process in which food is vacuum-packed in plastic, then cooked for prolonged periods in a bath of water circulating at a constant temperature. By no means a new technology (commercial kitchens have used boil-in-bag processes for years), the sous vide method has become the rage in food centers like New York. After The New York Times Magazine featured the phenomenon on its cover in August 2005, sous vide cooking came under fire from city health officials concerned about the safety of food held at temperatures between 40ºF and 140ºF for prolonged periods.

While Brown has minimized the kitchen alchemy to fit in a teaspoon—literally (a recent amuse-bouche of caviar contained a pea-sized puff of dehydrated mango, akin to astronaut’s ice cream)—he still embraces the sous vide method, a controversial process that Brock brought to the Capitol Grille. Translated from the French expression “under vacuum,” sous vide describes a process in which food is vacuum-packed in plastic, then cooked for prolonged periods in a bath of water circulating at a constant temperature. By no means a new technology (commercial kitchens have used boil-in-bag processes for years), the sous vide method has become the rage in food centers like New York. After The New York Times Magazine featured the phenomenon on its cover in August 2005, sous vide cooking came under fire from city health officials concerned about the safety of food held at temperatures between 40ºF and 140ºF for prolonged periods.

But the long tongs of the law have not reached south toward the Capitol Grille, where Brown and his team use the method almost exclusively to prepare their menu of Southern-inspired food with a modern twist. To demonstrate the sous vide method, Brown fills a plastic bag with a duck breast, a scoop of fat, orange rind and a sprig of thyme, extracts the air and seals the bag using a $3,000 machine, then places it in a bath of water at 118ºF. (For reference, a residential hot water heater hovers near 110ºF.) The meat will cook for an hour-and-a-half, steeping in its own juices. Later, Brown will pan-sear the meat to finish it.

“We use sous vide because we think you can get a better result than with any other method of cooking,” Brown says, swirling his bare hands in water that’s cooking several bags of meat.

It’s hard to argue the point after sampling Brown’s astonishingly flavorful meats and vegetables. Most memorable among the meals we tasted was the moulard duck breast. The tender, dark purple meat from a foie gras duck arrived sliced and fanned along a berm of loose Brussels sprout leaves and mushrooms. It cut with a fork and blended sweet and earthy flavors of cider across a plate of diverse textures. The grouper entrée and the scallop appetizer both concentrated the sweet freshness of the seafoods to make them complement—not just carry—their vanilla-infused palettes.

Most entrées include at least a spare delivery of vegetables—the red wine-braised cabbage, for example, almost upstages the lamb it accompanies—so à la carte options aren’t critical. That said, don’t miss the mac-and-cheese, a sublime-to-ridiculous combination of floppy noodles and white cheese sauce tinged with truffle oil. In Brown’s hands, even the traditionally punitive cauliflower surrenders any bitterness, instead imparting flavors of roasted tomato and Parmesan in a confetti of tiny buds.

The ahi tuna entrée, seared rare with an exotic medley of white asparagus, truffles and salsify, begs for interpretation of the artistically positioned elements. Our servers were extremely fluent in the language of the kitchen, offering generous explanations of each plate (that glistening, velvet cube beside the pork chop is not foie gras—it’s pork belly) and sound advice on matching entrées with à la carte sides.

Most entrées include at least a spare delivery of vegetables—the red wine-braised cabbage, for example, almost upstages the lamb it accompanies—so à la carte options aren’t critical. That said, don’t miss the mac-and-cheese, a sublime-to-ridiculous combination of floppy noodles and white cheese sauce tinged with truffle oil. In Brown’s hands, even the traditionally punitive cauliflower surrenders any bitterness, instead imparting flavors of roasted tomato and Parmesan in a confetti of tiny buds.

The only lackluster item we found on the menu was fried green tomatoes. While it’s tempting to peek at Brown’s interpretation of the down-home staple, save the space for dessert or for the sweet onion soup, poured into the bowl tableside, over a crouton and whisper of bacon. (If you must know, the FGT’s aren’t all that different from the crispy breaded version at Arnold’s meat-and-three on Eighth Avenue.)

As for dessert, pastry chef Andy Manchester delivers a flourless chocolate cake, flavored with Asian five-spice, that balances a mound of roasted banana ice cream, a drizzle of orange caramel sauce and a dehydrated banana strip. Like the Capitol Grille itself, the individual Bundt cake is a glorious study in dichotomy: hot and cold, rich and light. It’s worthy of a special occasion, but comfortable enough to be the dessert next door.

Capitol Grille serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. Complimentary valet parking is available.

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