"What are you celebrating this evening?" the voice asked when I called to make a reservation at F. Scott's. It was a predictable enough question, given that Wendy Burch and Elise Loehr's jazz-tuned Green Hills dining room is the site of many birthday and anniversary events. On this particular occasion, however, we weren't marking anything special — unless you count the guilty elation that comes with an evening free of children's athletic obligations — so I answered, "Not celebrating, just dining."
Little did I know the new spring menu would make dining, in and of itself, cause for celebration. Painted with the vernal vibrancy of watercress, field peas, ramps and mint and built upon meats, vegetables and cheese from across the region, chef Kevin Ramquist's latest repertoire is a festive tribute to springtime in Middle Tennessee. Meanwhile, it is also a dazzling display of the culinary artistry that has made F. Scott's a dining landmark in Nashville for the last quarter-century.
An eight-year veteran of the F. Scott's kitchen, Ramquist took over as head chef two years ago, and his spring roster proves he's got the chops to lead the esteemed eatery. An amuse-bouche of herbed polenta, topped with a deep-pink tag of lamb and coiffed with a sprig of micro greens and a drizzle of port demi-glace, set the tone for the pretty plates to come. Meanwhile, with so much food to explore in Ramquist's repertoire — from flatbreads to veal sweetbreads — we wouldn't usually succumb to the empty calories of a bread basket. But the sampler of warm house-baked delicacies was so far above the ubiquitous filler-starch of so many dinner rolls that we suspended our rule, and set about slathering fluffy butter onto focaccia laced with sun-dried tomatoes and sweet dark loaf studded with nuts and dried fruit.
From there, a series of beautiful, colorful plates landed on the table, often shattering our expectation of what the item, as described in simplest terms on the menu, might look like. For example, salad of watercress and duck confit was strewn down the length of a narrow rectangle, with plump al dente peas dotted across the bed like a playful ellipsis and buttery hunks of rich meat camouflaged among greenery tinged with cactus-pear vinaigrette. At first glance, it resembled an elaborate tray of sushi. Perhaps the singular most memorable bite of the evening was a shard of duck cracklin' hidden among the greens. The unctuous, deep-fried skin shattered with a salty satisfaction that would make a plain-old crouton cringe with shame.
We particularly enjoyed a bowl of clams with chorizo and shaved garlic lolling in a thick pool of sherry wine, apple juice, sorghum and pepper. Sweet, salty and tinged with heat, the reduction was too good to leave behind, and since the accompanying flatbread was already slathered with citrus-saffron aioli, we greedily scraped up every last drop with a spoon.
Beyond the exotic duck cracklin', Ramquist weaves a cast of unlikely proteins into the menu, from grilled frog legs pliéd over a pile of purple mashed potatoes and bathed with emerald parsley chimichurri, to rabbit confit with mushrooms and crisp kale. The former recalled an extremely delicate chicken dish, while the latter resembled an earthy iteration of crab cakes. Both starters were excellent and could serve as small entrées, especially if paired with a salad.
In addition to the duck-cress salad, we had a choice of orzo with avocado, cucumber, cauliflower and Bonnie Blue feta, or baby greens with Meyer lemon citronette and crostini with housemade ricotta and truffle honey.
The theme of adventurous meats extended into larger plates, such as slow-braised pork cheeks with Benton's country ham. Served atop a gratin of sliced potatoes and molten mozzarella, with red cabbage and a twirl of tangy ramp, the dish married succulent meat from the sides of the face (yes, those cheeks) with the deep brine of cured meat from the cheeks at the other end of the animal, infusing familiar-looking stew with exceptional depth of flavor.
In a twist on surf-and-turf, Ramquist swaddled monkfish with pancetta and served the lobster-textured parcels on a velvety bed of carrot puree with sautéed Brussels sprouts and bourbon sorghum vinaigrette.
On the less sweet side of things, lamb T-bone chop with stewed heirloom tomatoes and white beans reminded us of a deconstructed cassoulet, finished with a sand-textured flourish of herbed breadcrumbs. Our one complaint was that the rustic meat was so thoroughly cooked that it fell short of the medium-rare expectations set by the amuse-bouche of succulent lamb.
In a more straightforward presentation of seafood than the decadent monkfish, Ramquist plated pan-seared halibut over a fine-grained medley of rice, peas, leeks, pickled ramps and broccoli florets in a pink pool of beet-and-muscat jus. While the halibut lacked the layered richness of the monkfish, it earned the menu's sole notation of a "heart healthy" dish.
Meanwhile, there are two meatless options, including asparagus bundled with a ribbon of smoked carrot and plated with housemade ricotta, almond and herb breadcrumbs, Champagne brown butter vinaigrette and a finely grated hard-boiled egg. The smoky finish and firm resistance of the carrot almost fooled us into believing there was meat tucked inside. Listed among the appetizers, the dish should not be overlooked in the salad course.
When you reach the end of a significant meal and still have the wherewithal to consider dessert, it's more to the credit of the chef than to your digestive stamina, because a lot of thought goes into devising portions that satisfy an appetite without overwhelming a body. Our meals were built with such balance and restraint that we were satisfied but still curious about what treasures might lie on the dessert roster.
Even if you're not celebrating anything more auspicious than a night off from Little League, don't deprive yourself of pastry chef Paige Yodanis' whimsical sweets, such as peanut butter tart with bruléed banana marshmallow fluff and pumpkin-apple crème anglaise, and chocolate terrine with coffee ice cream, pound cake, malted milk balls and whipped cream. Or if you need an excuse to rationalize the indulgence, tell yourself that a tower of shortbread layered with house-made strawberry ice cream with fresh thyme, berries from Farmer Dave, dark rum syrup and vanilla crème fraîche is a birthday cake befitting one of Nashville's best culinary traditions.
F. Scott's serves dinner Monday through Saturday. In celebration of 25 years, F. Scott's will host a dinner Aug. 26 featuring the farmers and growers who provide ingredients for the menu. The Farm Dinner is open to the public. For information and reservations, call 269-5861.