We're used to seeing chef Clay Greenberg in slightly more starched attire. When he peeked out of the kitchens at Virago and Lime over the years, more often than not, he wore the crisp, ironed jacket of a chef's uniform. But when Greenberg stopped by our table at Silo on a recent Saturday night, he had slipped into something a little more comfortable. And not just in the terms of his wardrobe. Sure, the owner of Germantown's newest hot spot had swapped chef's coat for plaid flannel shirt and jeans, but he had also traded the high-concept repertoires of M Street's Asian and Latin fusion eateries for his own farm-to-table enterprise.
Located at the corner of Fifth and Madison in the Vista Germantown residential apartment building, Silo is the long-awaited entrepreneurial debut of Greenberg, who partnered with Paul Cercone on the project. After leaving the M Street conglomerate, Greenberg first laid plans for a French-inspired restaurant in Green Hills, to be called Chez Lis. But when the economy shifted and real estate plans fell through, he stepped back and reoriented toward Germantown and an "elevated Southern" concept.
One thing stayed constant in the business plan: Greenberg's cousin, Texas-based architect Greg Ibañez, would design the interior. The interior of Silo is the most subtle example of architecture parlante on the local restaurant scene. In the central dining room, a cylinder of gracefully woven birch planks rises above the standard ceiling, giving diners the impression of looking up into a grain silo. And what is a silo but an elevator for grain. Elevated Southern cuisine ... get it?
The polished rustication seen in the interior's reclaimed barnwood and furniture constructed by cabinetmaker Enos J. Hostetler spills over onto the menu, where Greenberg brings classical French training to the agricultural bounty of Middle Tennessee. Executive chef Larry Carlile and sous chef Chris Futrell, both former colleagues of Greenberg's from his days at Virago and Lime, oversee an ever-changing roster that shifts with the seasons and day-to-day availability of local ingredients.
On our visit, unctuous, crisp-topped pork belly was served on an earthy medley of cauliflower, pumpkin and oyster mushrooms. That preparation will trade cauliflower for parsnip on any given menu. Similarly, the crackling-skinned chicken over a hash of sweet potatoes, apples and onions will likely substitute pumpkin, depending on what's available from the Amish farmers in Ethridge, Tenn.
In the case of the pork belly from Fudge Farms in Alabama, the dish was so layered in earthy and salty flavors and crisp and fatty textures that our party kept circulating the shared plate, returning for bite after bite of comforting autumnal decadence.
Later, one diner remarked that while the pork may have been the best thing we shared, it would have been overwhelming as one person's entrée. By contrast, crisp-skinned and flaky mackerel in a briny bath with plump clams, andouille sausage and wilted mustard greens delivered the multidimensional impact of surf-and-turf, with more balance and moderation than the pork.
Our most unexpected discovery was the hanger steak, served with lightly sautéed cherry tomatoes and creamy mashed potatoes. Though seasoned only with salt and pepper, the beef was extremely tender and flavorful, and the 6-ounce portion was just enough to leave us wanting — but not needing — any more. Furthermore, the relatively small portion came with a proportional price tag, making the $21 dish a new favorite bargain.
Our group of four diners made a significant dent in the concise menu, which listed a half-dozen starters and eight entrées. We found more than a few outstanding bites along the way, including Nate Gifford's house-made charcuterie, velvety grits with caramelized onion jam, chicken skin that simultaneously crunched and melted, and Melinda Knight's no-nonsense pumpkin and pecan pies, which rejected frilly style in favor of sweet substance.
We also found room for improvement in one significant food group: vegetables. Our choices included appetizers of beer-battered green beans; field pea-and-bean salad with Benton's ham; and leathery kale tossed with cranberries and pecans. Meanwhile, the five sides included grits, pot likker kale, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and mac-and-cheese.
Of course, a dearth of fresh greens goes hand in hand with local seasonal cuisine, when you live in USDA Hardiness Zone 6. Greenberg, whose family farms their front yard in Sylvan Park, is sticking to his guns when it comes to keeping food miles to a minimum. He even commissioned Good Food for Good People farmer Sean Siple to plant vegetable beds along the Germantown sidewalk.
With the exception of red onions and russet potatoes for the burger and fries, all of Silo's ingredients hail from Middle Tennessee. (Oh, and there is that imported citrus that goes into mixologist Robert Longhurst's excellent cocktail roster of Chartreuse mojitos, gimlets and whiskey drink. Now that's some elevated grain!)
Despite the limitations of the regional growing season, Silo is off to an impressive start in a gorgeous setting. If Greenberg and his team can dazzle with the rough-hewn winter stock of parsnips and pumpkins, we can hardly wait to see what happens when the Tennessee harvest springs forth with tender lettuces, arugula, sweet corn and ruby-colored strawberries. No doubt, there is a lot in store at Silo.
Silo opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Sunday brunch runs from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.