Network Under 40
Join Network Under 40 on June 21 at AJ’s Good Time Bar, country music star Alan Jackson’s restaurant and bar, located in the heart of downtown Nashville. With
If you were to trace the evolution of Nashville’s current restaurant explosion to one of the most pivotal moments, you’d land squarely on the opening of The Catbird Seat. In 2011, the restaurant sent a thrill through the city’s savvy diners and garnered immediate national attention. With its 20 bar seats, casual and cool inclusiveness, and show-stopping dishes—not to mention the two scruffy chefs who dressed in jeans and ran the place like it was their own private dinner party—it provided a much-needed fine-dining concept that completely matched Nashville’s current vibe.
Fast forward five years, and the city now teems with fresh concepts, out-of-town chefs, plenty of fine dining, and more focused and fascinating styles of food. The Catbird Seat still stands as a singular destination—but, now, we have its younger cousin Bastion to fawn over, too.
Raw Beef + Cauliflower, $14
Ham + Friends, $15
Pork + Fruit, $17
Sunchoke + Foie Caramel, $9
Opened in the winter by Catbird’s original conceptualizer, Josh Habiger, Bastion was just a bar, at first. “I wanted to make sure it could stand on its own, before we added the food,” Habiger says.
And so it does, with its loud, funky atmosphere, customized old fashioneds, and toaster oven-heated nachos. But anxious food hounds had to wait until May before Habiger opened the dining room, which only serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday nights.
Bastion doesn’t take reservations for groups less than six, so prepare for a wait, or plan ahead: Gather friends and call to book their twice-nightly “feasts,” which are unscripted meals that the chefs cook on the fly.
“We want that to feel like a dinner party where you come in, we bring you food, and you get to hang out and socialize with your friends,” Habiger says.
But, first, you need to find the place, which is hidden off the main bar area to the right as you walk in. In the corner, an empty host stand is the only indication that you’re getting warmer. A note on top of the stand confirms it: “You are here.”
Soon, someone arrives to collect you and find you a seat. A heavy corrugated metal door slides open awkwardly. Inside, there’s an ante-bar with six seats where a bartender might be slinging cocktails for diners awaiting their spot. Just past that, the main dining room opens up: A half moon-shaped bar occupies most of the room, and, behind it, a handful of chefs and cooks man the equipment, which is all residential—stoves, ovens, and countertops, included. On one wall, a collection of vinyl and a record player sit on a shelf; occasionally, a chef will step out from behind the line to change the music.
“The idea was to bring you into a chef’s home kitchen, where you’re talking and interacting, and you get to watch what’s happening,” Habiger says. “So, it’s an extension of what we started at The Catbird Seat but, this time, a little cozier.”
Fans of that earlier iteration will appreciate the interactivity. Chefs act as servers and hosts, meaning you can chat them up as they shuck oysters, ask for tips on how to use purslane, or simply offer a high-five when you see something tasty arrive on your plate. Unlike Catbird, at Bastion, you can choose your menu. Arranged as a grid, 15 dishes are listed by price but in cryptic word combos, such as “Amberjack + Eggs,” “Beef Cheek + Mushroom,” or “Sea Urchin + Sour Carrot.” Habiger says the names are meant to draw in diners. “We want people to look at the menu and order the things that jump out at them. We’re asking for, and usually getting, a little more trust from people,” he says.
As for the 15 items, you’ll find a mix of styles and influences, an effect caused by Habiger sharing creative license equally with chefs Patrick Carroll, most recently of the restaurant Piccolo in Minneapolis, and Tom Bayless, who worked with Habiger at Patterson House and Catbird. Each either creates a dish from scratch or collaborates with the other two chefs to craft something.
A recent offering, called “Raw Beef + Cauliflower,” was a Bayless riff, with rhubarb, radish, and sprouted buckwheat adding crunch to the bits of beef, which sat under a pile of nasturtium leaves. Charred cauliflower puree on the side added a pleasantly bitter sweetness to every bite. One called “Ham + Friends” started with Habiger’s desire to make a Tennessee version of an authentic Japanese dashi broth—the others weighed in, contributing bites such as beans, pasta, pickled melon, and an egg to the otherwise porky and delightful arrangement.
For his part, Carroll contributes what might be the best dish I’ve eaten all year. Called “Sunchoke + Foie Caramel,” it was composed of savory elements, including sunchoke in ice cream form, shaved and structured bits of green apple, a luscious foie gras caramel, and thin slivers of malted chocolate shortbread shavings. Though it was a dessert, sweet played second fiddle to the balanced composition of clean coolness, salty chocolate, and refreshing fruit.
It, along with much of the menu, is mind-meltingly good—and it goes to show that when a single kitchen puts forth shared creative genius, offering equal footing to more than one inquisitive and brilliant mind, explosive things can happen on the plate, and to a city’s dining scene.
434 Houston St, Wedgewood/Houston, 615-490-8434; bastionnashville.com