Chelsea Bistro, which quietly opened in Whites Creek this summer, presents a teachable moment for two advanced It City topics.
First topic: Whites Creek itself. Even a native Nashvillian might have difficulty describing exactly where it is (northwest of downtown), and may never actually have been there. It's the opposite of midtown Nashville — it's where people move to get away from hustle and bustle. It's residential, uncrowded, hilly and rural.
Second topic: Advanced Nashville Manners. Beyond the basic Nashville 101 (iced tea, y'all, church, twang, bless your heart) is a topic I call, "Arrange your face and say, 'That's wonderful.' " It's about not looking surprised when to do so would be rude. Like if the stoner slacker kid next door announces he's been accepted to Columbia, don't raise your eyebrows and say, "Really?" Arrange your face and say, "That's wonderful."
Chelsea Bistro is an opportunity to practice this skill. When someone tells you there's a true French bistro — not French-inspired, not Cali-French, but really French — in Whites Creek, and it's superb, don't let your eyebrows leap up, don't draw your head back, and don't say, "Really?" Put a pleasant expression on your face and say, "That sounds wonderful." Because Chelsea Bistro is wonderful, and it is in Whites Creek.
Owners Basha Satin and her son Josh Rew had talked for a long time about opening a restaurant, but they didn't want to get involved in the midtown real estate shuffle. They wanted, says Rew, to put the money into the food instead of the real estate. It's a classic case of "If you build it, they will come" — make the food so great that the restaurant becomes a destination.
Satin and Rew picked a pretty basic space for their restaurant, at the top of the ridge on the Clarksville Highway. (Another Nashville-ism — "the" always precedes "Clarksville Highway.") Dark paint and mirrors give it a soothing, low-key feel. One feature remains from the previous tenant — an enormous piano, which they use as a server station.
The menu hits many of the bistro classics, among them mussels marinière, a charcuterie plate and escargot. The mussels are piled high, steamed just right, and swimming in a buttery broth scented with Pernod, white wine, fennel, shallots, garlic and parsley, plus two pieces of Silke's baguette for dunking. Enough for a meal, and just $12.
A starter of escargot forgoes the usual shells-on-a-casserole presentation, instead nestling three snails each in two profiteroles, the classic French puff pastry. This smart treatment captures the buttery, garlicky sauce in pillowy pastry for dripless, knife-and-fork bites.
The charcuterie plate changes, but expect something along the lines of silky truffled ham, a firm sopressata, and a delicate house-made chicken liver mousse, served with bread and a gherkin.
Even simple bread and butter get special attention. A batarde, an epi and a baguette are served with a changing selection of compound butters, among them duck fat and thyme; lemon, lavender and thyme; arugula pesto; and quince and mint.
Our fromage plate came with a blue, a brie, a goat cheese, crisp toasts and marcona almonds — a terrific option if you're meeting a friend for a glass of cava or something else from the brief but curated wine list.
Another good sharer: goat cheese tart with caramelized onions. Despite its pedestrian title, this pretty little pie offers enough sandy, buttery crust, rich goat cheese and sweet threads of caramelized onion for a big appetite, or enough to share, especially if you add the salad aux lardons, featuring curly frisee topped with poached egg and homemade brioche crostini. Each bite of the salad includes some bitter green, a crisp and salty shard of lardon, a crunchy crostini bit and a dressing of rich egg yolk.
Hamburgers get a unique French twist. Chef Garrett Pittler says he wanted a custom blend of beef for the burger, so he chose ground brisket, short rib and chuck to get an intense beef flavor with both tender and firm textures. He then adds a wodge of brie, a tangle of caramelized onions and and a dollop of aioli, and serves it on Silke's poppyseed-topped brioche made just for Chelsea. If you never ventured further down the menu, you'd be utterly satisfied.
Of course, one of a bistro's most powerful draws is its frites. Chelsea cuts its frites with the skin on, fries them twice for a chewy, crisp texture, then sprinkles them lightly with coarse salt. Don't even try to resist. (But don't feel compelled to eat them all at the table — they reheat well.) They arrive with a well-made aioli that they don't really need.
Croque monsieur passes with flying colors, its velvety mornay, rosemary ham and gooey gruyere hitting all the right notes: meaty, tender, cheesy, salty, buttery and crisp.
Brisket baguette rounds out the sandwiches. I have a complicated relationship with brisket. It's lovely made at home, but it's temperamental, and at restaurants, it's easily botched by overcooking, over-saucing or being shredded too long before serving. Chelsea solves this problem by tossing the sliced meat with a tomato-y jus, just enough of it to tint the baguette. Again, the impact comes from contrasting textures and flavors, the tug of the baguette and the soft meat — though the beef was a bit soggy for my taste.
Duck confit and bistro steak are so quintessentially bistro they get their own decorative box in the center of the menu. You can have one duck leg or two, depending on how badly you are craving crunchy skin and salty threads of meat. The duck legs are simmered in duck fat, cooled, seared in a hot skillet, then crisped all over in the oven, resulting in a firm yet melty texture.
Chelsea's bistro steak is made from hanging tenderloin, aka petite chateau. Grilled on a flat grill in butter, it's as tender as a filet but with a richer flavor. We found the smallish "petite" serving delivered enough beefy satisfaction — along with the frites, of course. Not forgetting the frites, ever.
We had mostly pleasing experiences with the entrées. Trout almondine in a traditional beurre blanc has all the delicate flavors and softly melting textures it should. A beautiful salad of haricots verts with red peppers, shallots, onions and herbs provides a nice contrast of firm vegetables, sharp vinegar and fragrant herbs.
Parisian gnocchi is one of a couple of not-exactly-traditional bistro dishes, though it seems right at home on the Chelsea menu. The gnocchi are made from choux pastry, the kind used for profiteroles and gougeres. The pastry is piped into boiling water, then sauced with a gruyere béchamel, for a dreamy, dolled-up mac-and-cheese with shrimp, peas and carrots.
The bouillabaisse was stunning to look at, a real labor of love. Pittler says he's always "wanted to add something crispy to a bouillabaisse," so he fries up a full-size sardine and sets it atop the traditional bowl of seafood in saffron tomato broth. The sardine was properly cooked and a pleasure to eat, but excessive saffron gave the broth a bitter flavor that infused the sweet seafood.
My goal was to eat everything on the menu, but I didn't succeed, so you'll just have to go try the remaining entrées yourself.
By then, a bigger wine list will likely be in place, possibly including some of the the cellared bottles Rew is collecting.
A Whites Creek friend who went along for one of our visits said, "I have concerns about whether we are too redneck for this. My neighbors like to shoot guns for fun."
So yeah, Whites Creek may not be the new Green Hills. But it has a bistro, which has a cellar. Let's split the difference and call it the new Green Acres. Just arrange your face and say, "That's wonderful."