Full disclosure: I’m a Josh Habiger fan. And friend. So anything I’m about to type regarding his astonishing new restaurant, The Catbird Seat, is likely to reflect a certain hyper-subjectivity, produced by the gigantic chef-crush that I have on the guy.
Hal and I became a Habiger devotee from across the bar at The Patterson House, a sophisticated speakeasy that he helped create (and that mixes the best Dark and Stormy that I have ever had). (note: The Saigon Pimm’s Cup is transcendent.)
You may be familiar with Hal’s “don’t be just another customer” philosophy. Along those lines, Hal eventually cooked up a nifty scheme with Habiger (over drinks, of course) to create a blog series that pairs a fictional PI with his/her perfect cocktail. Habiger played along, before decamping for wider culinary adventures in Chicago at Grant Achatz’s Aviary.
We were…I’d actually have to apply the term “joyful”…to learn that Habiger was planning to bring his monumental chefly chops back to Nashville to launch a cutting-edge restaurant concept. A lot of folks might say (OK, are saying) that a little Southern city like ours doesn’t deserve, and won’t appreciate, the prodigious creative energies of Habiger and his acclaimed co-conspirator, Erik Anderson. I hope the neysayers are wrong.
Because on Thursday night, The Catbird Seat’s second night open, Hal and I had the most extraordinary culinary and sensory experience of this lifetime.
From the moment you approach the door, the inventive minds at The Catbird Seat endeavor not just to feed you, but to engineer a full-on Wow experience. A fabulously besuited dude welcomes you and escorts you up, through a psychedelic wormhole, and into a sensory alternate universe. The design palate—clean lines of white, ebony, and stainless steel—serves as subtle backdrop to the comestible performance art that’s unfolding behind the U-shaped chef’s bar. And then there’s the menu:
This document offers a fascinating porthole glimpse into the minds of Habiger, Anderson, and charming spiritsmaster Jane Lopes. This menu isn’t merely a static, printed object: it’s a blueprint, a call to action. And the actions it calls forth are going on, right before your eyes: chefs and sous chefs assemble 7-9 courses of edible artistry on a central stage as guests dine in the round and watch the culinary floor show.
Some courses are Matisses: beautifully & creatively rendered, but wholly familiar; others are Warhols: familiar in form, unfamiliar in context. And a few are full-on experimental, abstract Rothkos and Pollacks—not immediately identifiable, but creating a series of powerful sensorial responses, reminiscent of, say, Prince’s Hot Chicken…in the form of a small, crunchy orange square. Or an earthy oreo…made out of mushrooms.
Our favorite course tended towards the more representational, with a dash of wild inspiration: a flawless cut of beef plus a velvety, perfectly poached egg. Potatoes, but not—crunchy and granular, their texture was more cous cous than potato. And the masterstroke? A light sauce giving off pale aromas of alfalfa and hay…as if you were actually eating your steak in the farm field itself.
And what’s truly striking about all this is that the Catbird Seat team manages this entire, singular performance without seeming stuffy, fussy, supercilious, or intimidating. They somehow feed you all this sumptuous, masterfully-prepared food in an atmosphere of fun-loving collegiality, of mutual respect: as in, “Hey, man! Check out what I just whipped up today!”
It certainly didn’t hurt matters that one of our dinner companions—the delightful Robin Riddell, wine rep extraordinaire and thrower of world-class dinner parties—shares our playful gustatory sensibility, and also knows every food and wine person of note in this town. She and her best guy, Lee, were the perfect dinnertime fellow-travelers. And being there with her, and with the ubiquitous Hal, made us feel as if we were already TCS regulars.
Even though I can’t afford to eat like this very often, I will without question reoccupy my catbird seat at Habiger’s and Anderson’s bar-theatre as soon as is economically feasible. For me, splurging occasionally on food-as-artistry is an easy sell. Assuming my basic needs are met and I have a few bucks to spend, I’d usually rather buy an unforgettable experience—a trip, an amazing meal, say—than a new pair of shoes. To me, the experience is forever, and it gives me more happiness than most objects can. And more and more, I’ve come to love the experience of eating something adventurous, something lovingly and masterfully created—it’s kind of like putting an art exhibit into your mouth.
Will Nashville embrace Habiger’s and Anderson’s experiment? I hope so. The fact that they chose to bring their avant-garde culinary atelier Southward indicates a leap of faith on their part that I want to see vindicated.
I’m hopeful. Beneath Nashville’s glitzy veneer of factory-generated shlock-art, there’s a deep creative seam running through this city. For all the self-conscious hipsters, there’s a secret cache of fearless revolutionaries making things nobody’s made before. Think Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush—subversives who helped to create a parallel Music Row universe.
To be a great city, we need a few radicals to pave the way for innovation, in the many forms it assumes. We need not just a Jack White, but a Steve Jobs, and some MacArthur Fellows of our own. We keep losing our home-grown Jad Abumrads (USN grad, MacArthur winner, and public radio innovator) to New York and L.A., perhaps because they feel that their opportunities in Nashville will always feel circumscribed by small-townism.
To get those bold minds here, and keep them here, we need to prove we’re not afraid of new ideas.
Food isn’t a bad place to start: if we’re ever going to recover from our reputation as a culinarily delayed city, Nashville needs its own young and energetic Frank Stitt, Grant Achatz, or Thomas Keller. And once he, she, or they are here, we should probably take notice. If you can afford to eat out and you’re not already clawing your way into Tandy Wilson’s City House and Margot McCormack’s places (Marché and Margot), well, you might want to do that.
The tendency to shy away from anything that seems fussy or high-falutin’? I get it. I’m a redneck who grew up eating casseroles and the Shoney’s breakfast buffet. But loving all kinds of food, from down-home to downright fancy, isn’t about snobbery. It’s about being engaged, captivated, in love with the world.
A long time ago, I decided not to be intimidated by food I’ve never heard of or wine with loftier bloodlines than mine. I’m convinced it’s more fun to approach life with curiosity and childlike wonder than to dismiss things that, because they’re mysterious and new, remind me of my own ignorance and redneckdom. Being open to mystery makes the world feel bigger, more brightly-colored, and yet, more accessible.
That’s exactly the feeling I had at the end of the night on Thursday: that my world just got a little bit bigger and more vibrantly hued, a feeling of discovery, a feeling that (sorry to say) I wasn’t in Nashville anymore. And what I hope for most is that I won’t have to feel that last bit for much longer. I hope that my city is ready to be large, to think large, and contain multitudes—not just musically, but in all things bold, new, and creative.
That doesn’t mean I think everybody has to love The Catbird Seat as much as I did. Plenty of folks won’t. But it’s time there was room in Nashville for those of us who choose to sup deeply and widely, from BBQ to banh mi, fried catfish to sous vide cuisine. I’m not into classical music or football, but I’m thrilled to have a world-class symphony hall and stadium. I want to live in a multifarious city that embraces all comers and whatever crazy, grandiose ideas they may bring.
I can’t say for sure whether Habiger and Anderson will turn out to be Nashville’s culinary pied pipers. But I’m pretty sure they have the chops. The rest is up to us.
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