In the two-and-a-half years since it opened, The Catbird Seat has won as much acclaim as any restaurant in the city. Serving a multi-course dinner at a bar wrapped around an open kitchen, its cooks are performers, preparing a dizzying three-hour menu in front of diners. The results have often been spectacular and garnered a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Best New Restaurant in 2012, as well as Best New Chef nods from Food & Wine for chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger.
After the opening chefs moved on (Anderson to Minneapolis; Habiger to Pinewood Social, another Strategic Hospitality restaurant), Trevor Moran was brought in from Noma in Copenhagen, just named (again) this week the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine. Moran has begun to put his own stamp on the menu, bringing his ingredient-driven approach from Denmark and applying it in fascinating, Nashville-centric ways.
The results are both delicious and challenging. Below, Scene food writers Steve Cavendish and Carrington Fox discuss their experience, how the new incarnation compares to the one that dazzled patrons upon opening — and yes, whether the meal is worth the money.
SC: You reviewed The Catbird Seat when it opened with Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger behind the counter. How was the meal we ate different than what you reviewed two years ago?
CF: Let me start by saying both visits were filled with, literally, breathtaking delight and awe. But I preferred this meal, for a lot of reasons. When the restaurant debuted, the focus seemed to be on preparation and technique. Details like bourbon berries, kimchi leather and chicory gelée left me agape at their creativity. There was a lot of trompe l'oeil: Mushrooms looked like cookies, cookies looked like cheese. But if last time was an experiment in molecular gastronomy, this time was a celebration of the elements. Fire, ice, even dirt played a role on the plate. It's tempting to use the word "simple," but there was nothing simple about it.
Steve, you're a big guy, and everyone knows I'm a delicate flower, but we ate the same 13 small courses. Did you get enough nettles, wild onions and cucumber ice to satisfy you?
SC: See, you've actually found my one criticism of the meal: there was a course or two that maybe had too big of a portion. I'm thinking, in particular, about the beef tartare course. I loved the flavor and thought the contrasts in the dish were amazing — the seasoning on top added a little crunch, the green almond slices were very fresh, the dollop of yogurt on the bottom smoothly pulled everything together. There was just about twice as much of it as I needed. Almost everything else was perfectly sized, because it left me wanting more.
Like you, I spent about a day trying to wrap my head around the meal. It's really tempting to call it "simple" because of the emphasis on the ingredients, but that dramatically undersells the thought and technique that went into it. Take that potato course, for example. Those were cooked down in a yeast water until it coated the outside of the potatoes, topped with a bit of caviar for the salinity, and then draped with a piece of sturgeon so thin it was translucent. That's next-level stuff right there.
Now, be honest ... when they brought out the pig's tail, that's not what you had in mind, was it?
CF: Not a curlicue in sight. But I've been thinking about that two-ply finger-food ever since — caramelized-glass skin over molten meat, topped with gooseberries so tangy they could smack down the salty pork liquor. I guess describing that as "pork tail" is no more understated than what they call "red shrimp": a single raw-cold ruby-red shrimp draped with paper-thin kohlrabi, then followed by a chaser of its own head — like a mini-lobster, piped with velvety rouille and burnished with a blow torch — for you to clean out with your tongue.
Rumor has it that dinner on Vanderbilt graduation night sold out in 15 seconds. I love thinking about people taking their families there. Grandpa, enjoy this salad bouquet of dandelions and herbs bound by a piece of twine. Sorry, Grandma, there are no utensils for the bubbling-hot cheese made with PBR. Yes, those are flowers. No, that's not a potato. Seriously, not a potato.
What would you tell someone who says that's just not the way they like to eat?
SC: I'd tell them to get over it.
Every now and again we need to be challenged — to have a meal where we're delighted not just by the sensory experience but also by how it makes us think. How many times did you and I bite into something and immediately turn to each other and say, "How did they do that?" I get not wanting to have to think about your food all the time, but there's something to be said for a meal that constantly makes you consider what you just ate. How was it prepared? Why did the chef make a very deliberate choice? Have you ever seen X paired with Y? Did we really eat ice cream on top of something that fell off a tree?
For every time I've ever cursed at a kitchen and said, "What in the hell were they thinking," this is the kind of meal that makes you appreciate how much thought can go into food. How many meals do you have where you take a bite and then smile at the joy of a dish? That skate wing, delicately poached, served with ramps and tiny little onions, was one for me. Or the PBR cheese. They took bar nuts and made a cracker to scrape up this gooey cheese! And the very Irish chef gave us a marzipan potato facade filled with dessert. I don't know if he's laughing with us or at our expectations, but either way, that's funny.
We both did the pairings with dinner. Did you think it added something, or would you have been happier with just a glass of wine?
CF: I could go either way, because I love the creativity of the pairings, and I love exploring flavors such as Génépy and Cocchi Rose. But the morning after seven cocktails and wines — and I shared a pairing, so I'm talking about a half-dose — I questioned the wisdom of mixing so much grape and grain. My heart goes out to the couple we met who stopped at Patterson House for drinks before they went upstairs to Catbird. For me, that would have been too much of a good thing. If you are going to explore the pairings, I highly recommended sharing.
What would you tell someone considering dining at Catbird Seat?
SC: Here's what I would say: First, you should walk away from any preconceived ideas of what you like or don't like — and, outside of any allergies, eat everything. You will be surprised by ingredients that you thought you didn't like. Frequently, adventurousness is built through trust. If a chef or a restaurant I know and love does something I'm not normally inclined to try, they've got credit built up with me and I'll dive in. So I guess what I'm saying is, trust Moran and his staff, because they're a talented, interesting group who are making food that will satisfy you.
Let me ask a different version of that question: Was what you ate worth $100?
CF: Short answer: Yes. That doesn't mean I didn't catch my breath when our bill arrived. Dinner for four with two shared drinks pairings was $640, including tax and $103 service charge. But on the matrix of price and value, the Catbird Seat is sitting pretty, so to speak, in that top right-hand corner of premium pricing for a superior product. I think we got what we paid for.
Did you think it was worth it?
SC: Absolutely. The Catbird Seat was built to be ambitious. There's nothing else like it — in style or price — in the city. When it came time to replace Anderson and Habiger, I think it says a lot that owners Benjamin and Max Goldberg were able to bring someone in from what is regarded as one of the best restaurants on the planet (through a connection made by Anderson when he staged at Noma).
It's one thing to strive for greatness and it's another to actually achieve it. The meal we had shows Moran was the right hire — and a hell of a chef.
Catbird Seat serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations are required.
Catbird Seat, Course by Course
Red shrimp (raw)
Shrimp heads (torched, filled)
Nettles, egg yolk, potato skin
Pork tails, gooseberries
Bitter greens, pecans, huckleberry, pine
Small potatoes, cured sturgeon, yeast
Butter poached skate, wild onions
Beef tartare, green almond, grains
Roasted duck, spring veg, pistachios
Beer cheese, bar nut cracker
Cucumber and cream
Tea ice cream, redbuds
Rye whiskey, Cocchi Rose, Cherry Heering, Lemon
Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace
Bodegas, Dios Baco, Amontillado
Knipser Pinot Noir 2010
Fattoria Le Pupille Morellino di Scansano 2009
Gin, honey, orange, Moscato