Frequent readers of the Scene's dining pages might notice two trends that have occupied a lot of column inches in the last year or so. The first is the proliferation and growth of farmers markets, including Nashville's downtown market, which received a million-dollar makeover after the 2010 flood (and is currently up for further Metro subsidies, to be discussed at a budget hearing 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 7, in Metro Council chambers). The second is the popularity of temporary and mobile eateries — food trucks, supper clubs, even so-called pop-up restaurants, which, as the name implies, pop up at various times and places. This week's column finds us at the intersection of those two culinary vectors: The Speckled Hen pop-up restaurant at the Nashville Farmers' Market.
Rachel Hinson and Mike Moranski hatched the idea for a farm-to-table restaurant as their culinary résumés wound from Wyoming to Sonoma and ultimately to Nashville, where they both work at Flyte World Dining and Wine on Eighth Avenue. They decided to experiment with the pop-up format after seeing several references to the Grow Local Kitchen, which doubles as a demonstration facility and culinary business incubator. Located in the heart of the downtown market house, the GLK offers entrepreneurs a certified professional kitchen, without the high overhead costs of a stand-alone restaurant. Guests order at the counter, pay via iPhone, dine in the communal seating area of the market hall, and bus their own dishes back to the counter.
"If we wanted to do this, it would almost be impossible, because we would need enough capital to open a restaurant or a stand," Hinson said, adding that the GLK enabled them to open their business in April for less than $500 before food costs.
Those economics trickle down to The Speckled Hen's menu, where no item exceeds $7.50.
While the chalkboard menu of a half-dozen dishes is short by restaurant standards, the printed roster of farmers who provide Speckled Hen's ingredients is remarkably long. On our visit, that list included Rosson Orchards peaches, Bells Bend garlic scapes and Noble Springs goat cheese, among other locally sourced elements.
Headlining the ever-evolving brunch menu was an omelet with Windy Acres eggs swaddling molten white cheddar from Kenny's Farmhouse and smoky hunks of Walnut Hills bacon. A meatless alternative traded salty pork for cubed turnip tops and tangy garlic scapes, laced with creamy Noble Springs goat cheese. Omelets came with a side of sautéed cubed sweet potatoes and two slices of sourdough toast, which Moranski makes from scratch. In both cases, the omelets were much smaller than the inflated calzone-sized fold-overs that pass for omelets these days, and the lightly sautéed sweet potato hash was not the oil-drenched sizzle of smothered-and-loaded hash browns. We appreciated the restraint; however, for diners in search of a super-sized Sunday morning indulgence, The Speckled Hen might not offer enough bulk.
On the other hand, at these prices, you can pile on a few things and still be in for less than the cost of a brunch with higher overhead expenses.
On our visit, peaches from Rosson Orchard in Loretto, Tenn., were a centerpiece of the menu, appearing in both crêpes and granola. The first dish was a beautifully executed handkerchief-thin pancake folded with sautéed peaches and topped with a sweet slouching cloud of whipped cream.
The second was a playful parfait of toasted oats with sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds, served in a glass canning jar. Moranksi finished the cereal with a drizzle of housemade peach-almond milk, for which he pureed and strained raw nuts and blended the resulting liquid with peaches.
Like so much of The Speckled Hen's low-key and lovely operation, the final offering on the chalkboard both underpromised and overdelivered. Billed humbly as "Toast with 'Nutella,' " the description read like an afterthought or a second-fiddle side dish. When the crisped tranche of housemade sourdough, slathered seductively with molten dark chocolate, far exceeded our expectation of store-bought hazelnut-cocoa spread, we understood why "Nutella" was listed in quotes. In fact, this sultry schmear was a decadent house-made confection of dark chocolate and ground almonds, far superior to the brand-name product from a jar.
The final item on the concise menu was a choice of black tea or mint tea served over ice. The latter was a sun-colored medley of fresh mint, lemon balm, sugar, lemon juice and honey, which looked like lemonade but tasted like a faintly sweet infusion of fruits and flowers. Served in a canning jar, the cool, pretty drink was enough to make you forget that The Speckled Hen serves neither coffee nor Bloody Marys — nor any alcohol, for that matter.
That's not to say the Speckled Hen ultimately won't expand its repertoire or its roost. "We would like to have a restaurant eventually, but that takes a lot of capital," Hinson said. "We thought this was a good way to start, get our name out there." Until then, as The Speckled Hen feathers its nest at the Farmers' Market, Sunday morning diners have plenty to cluck about.
The Speckled Hen serves Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.