It's been a Cajun-flavored season for this dining column, including last week's sojourn to Papa Boudreaux's Cajun Café and Catering Company in Santa Fe, Tenn., and a recent visit to Patrick's Bistreaux in Berry Hill. You might've thought we'd be full up on mudbugs by now. But the dining experience at Tenn16 in East Nashville provides a fresh angle on the best of the Bayou, thanks to a vibrant urban atmosphere and a menu interspersed with well-executed Louisiana favorites.
To be honest, we got off to a rough start at Tenn16, both gastronomically and logistically. We showed up on a Sunday at about 4:35 p.m., for a ridiculously early family supper. With all the cheerful cartoony paintings and colorful murals adorning the highly visible space on Woodland Street, it never occurred to us that the establishment would transform into a 21-and-up-only venue at 4:30 p.m.
And when we returned sans minors, we had a consistently disappointing meal. Thin-sliced fried green tomatoes were over-sizzled to leathery toughness, with little identifiable fruit inside the breading. Crawfish gumbo had silky texture, but the dark-red gravy carried such overabundant spice that its rusty tinge was more abrasive than comforting. Finally, hot chicken on white bread, with pickles and mayonnaise-laden coleslaw, dripped with thin hot sauce. While the breast itself was fried to juicy perfection, the pepper seemed disconnected from its base.
Had we given up after that lunch and our mulligan of a family meal, we'd have dismissed Tenn16 as a handsome watering hole in the beery style of sister establishments 3 Crow Bar, Red Door Saloon and Broadway Brewhouse. Fortunately, we returned for brunch, where we had a completely different experience. It was a balmy day, windows opened to the sidewalk, and Big Ass Fans whirred overhead. (That's the brand name for the humongous ceiling fans.) Frozen drink machines churned behind the bar, football fans were politely boisterous and NFL games played on eight big-ass TVs. (They're just big-ass TVs.) Tenn16 was arguably the second-best place in the city to watch the Titans on that given Sunday.
As it turns out, Tenn16 is also a darn-good place to eat brunch.
After loitering in the vestibule for 30 minutes, we were seated and served efficiently, and our meal was well worth the wait. Crab Benedict arrived with fluffy clouds of poached egg atop plump patties of seared seafood. Delicate drizzles of smoked poblano hollandaise accented open-face English muffins, and a creamy scoop of potatoes — like the depraved spawn of hash browns and potatoes au gratin — almost upstaged the main dish.
The surprise beauty at the table was the pedestrian-sounding steak and eggs. We expected charred meat and a yellow scramble, but chef Steven Stuart had a more elegant vision. Seared to rose-red medium-rare perfection, the hanger steak was sliced on the bias and fanned elegantly alongside eggs of our choice. (Tip: Over-medium eggs provided silky yolk to push the marriage of béarnaise and potato cakes over the top.)
A sunny silken bath of sherry cream reduction put a refined twist on traditional shrimp and grits, which were loaded with andouille sausage and the trinity of onions, peppers and celery, and topped with shredded asiago cheese.
Remember that chicken that was fried so adeptly but soaked in thin, greasy pepper sauce? Now imagine it with a fluffy thick-gauge waffle instead of flabby white bread, and a glaze of maple syrup instead of watery pepper sting. That's the sweet and savory marriage of Tenn16's chicken and waffles.
If sweet is more your taste, bananas foster French toast hit the mark, with soft egg-soaked baguette topped with bruléed bananas, rum and whipped cream.
All in all, it was a touchdown of a Sunday brunch. Likewise, our next weekday lunch was better than the first.
We agonized over the tantalizing choice of fried oyster po'boy versus muffaletta, ultimately opting for the latter, even though we never seem to enjoy a muffaletta as much as we expect to. Tenn16's decadent pile-on of mortadella, prosciutto, salami, provolone and mozzarella on Provence's muffaletta bread explained why New Orleans folks wax longingly for the traditional sandwich. House-made giardiniera of finely minced artichoke, olives, garlic and carrots was slathered so thick that at first glance we thought we had been served a veggie burger. Instead, it was an intense layering of salty charcuterie, tangy vegetables and sweet fluffy bread, with a juxtaposition of textures ranging from toasted edges of sesame crust to molten cheese and plump olives.
In hindsight, muffaletta was the right choice. It was nearly perfect, whereas the fried oysters that arrived on top of a salad of romaine, gorgonzola, apples and granola were undercooked and soggy, not boding well for the po'boy.
That was unexpected, since we had heard an earlier criticism about over-fried oysters at Tenn16. Maybe the kitchen was overcorrecting, in an effort not to repeat that error. Inconsistency is not something to celebrate, but a kitchen that responds to feedback certainly is. Given the overall quality of food and service at Tenn16, we'll give those oysters the benefit of the doubt and hope they'll be just right next time.
Meanwhile, speaking of feedback, we'd ask that the 21-and-up service start a little later. It's disappointing to have a neighborhood landmark and a family-friendly menu that are largely unavailable to families.
Tenn16 serves daily 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. A smoking lounge is available.