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Sitting pretty in The Catbird Seat

It’s hard to talk about your best meal. There are too many factors that make a moment great. Certainly there is no better meal in my mind than the one my mother cooks on Sunday, one scotch deep, roast chicken with the trimmings, sitting on the couch next to the fireplace. The chicken isn’t organic and the karmic weight of that feel heavy. The meal is not the healthiest, and the big red Californian wine is a bit too big next to the fireplace.

But yeah, my mother is fantastic cook. She never met a mashed potato she couldn’t work with, teasing out an incredible array of flavors. She always goes overboard with amount and variety, and despite her deprecations, she’s got great intuition. Plus, if I’m eating there it means I’m relaxed, safe and supported on a level I’ll never consciously understand or appreciate, and surrounded by family and friends. There will definitely be a dog at my feet.

So that’s one huge caveat to the dinner I’m going to talk about now. One of the best I’ve ever had for a whole different set of reasons. Jess and I recently spent the weekend in Nashville. Island Creek is lucky enough to work with one of the best restaurants in the country which is located very unassumingly in the heart of some neighborhood Nashville I frankly can’t recall. It is not a city of visual standout’s to the Northern’s Eye. What it does have in spades is incredibly kind people, a totally deep and earthy music culture and an interesting juxtaposition between homey southern life and worldly internationalism. We set out to spend a weekend in Nashville, with one greatly anticipated dinner as the centerpiece of the trip.

The space. The Catbird Seat is accessed through a doorway inside of a bar. Behind the door, there is a small room with an elevator. After the elevator, there is a bright hallway and a small windowless room with a U shaped bar and one or two tables. That’s the restaurant. I’m not sure of the seat numbers but there can’t have been more than 30 or 40 of us total, and that’s all they’ll do in a night. Erik and Josh are the chefs, and all the diners (except the one rockstar table that won’t take their sunglasses off despite said windowlessness) sit around the bar/kitchen and eat as the chefs prepare, talk about, serve, the food. At the same time, Jane the beverage goddess delivers the wine pairings with each dish – I think there were ten?

The structure. Here is what you find on their website: “The experience can be as interactive as you wish; that part is up to you. The details of what you’ll be savoring at your meal won’t be determined until you’re there; that part is up to us.” So yes, eight to ten dishes that come as a surprise and some one else chooses what you’ll drink with each dish. There has been a lot of press on the tyranny of the tasting menu – a long experience where you pay through the nose and are offered few, if any, choices. And I say bullocks to that! If you don’t want a tasting menu, don’t go to restaurants that offer them. If you are indecisive and experimental and open like me, it is a singular pleasure to dine that way. It provides such a rich palate for chefs to express their creativity.

The food. Cod wrapped in pressed kimchi, with watermelon rind and some avocado and coconut. A fennel salad with cucumbers and almonds, over shaved ice that tasted of juniper and quinine. Beef in a savory vietnamese broth. A leg of peasant with the claws still clasping an imaginary branch. Hay yogurt. Ramp capers. What about the small gelatinous balls filled with bourbon for dessert? And of course, for us the most special dish, the langostine with Island Creek oysters and oyster leaves. What a surprise to see that they emulsified the oysters (heretical if it didn’t work so well) and that they found a plant leaf that tastes exactly like an oyster. Look it up, you can’t make this stuff up!

The drink. The wine was equally adventurous and inspiring – champagne with quince vinegar and honey, Riesling with the cod, Rioja with the peasant, Sake, Beer mixed with Coffee Liquor, Gewürztraminer touched with a mint tincture. I have never, ever come across someone bold and brilliant enough to combine flavors within a glass of wine. It worked so well, on it’s own and with the food. It was an entirely other delightful aspect to the meal. As much something to talk about as they food itself.

The skinny. Talking about food is so much less interesting than eating it. But hopefully that list gives a idea of how carefully considered and well executed this meal was. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not shy with my criticism. Jess and I talked about what we were seeing and eating, enjoyed the hell out of it and gave toasts on multiple occasions. We spent some time through out the meal chatting with the chefs. It was so great to see them at work – present but focused, and acting like real people checking their phones and cracking the occasional joke while executing such precise dishes. The atmosphere was relaxed, despite all the rarified cuisine. And since we’ve been working with them since their inception, it was especially rewarding to see that we’ve been talking to such accomplished artists all this time.

It being my first time in Nashville, you could say it’s as far from home as any place could be. And the hours I’ve spent with those chefs would take up less than five fingers. But the architecture of the plate, and the tastes of the food and wine were so sublimely combined. And all the hours it took to get there, to figure out the city, to get dressed, for god’s sake, made for such an unusual and over the top feeling.

And if there is one thing those Sunday night Hale gatherings imbue, it’s love for all things over the top. And the idea that one can shoot for the best meals, and achieve them, if only one is willing to taking things just a little too far. And then some.

Dana Hale runs the sales department here at ICO and goes by many aliases including “Oysteress” and “The Hale Storm”. Don’t get in her way.

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