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Modern American Brasserie, Henley

Henley introduces us to a James Beard award-winning chef whose focus is casual simplicity in the form of elevated local fare.

Written By:  Erin B. Murray

Photographers:  Emily Hall Dorio

Every restaurant opening has its hiccups. Permitting delays, construction issues. For Henley, it was a flood—about three days before the scheduled opening. Chef RJ Cooper, who moved to Nashville after cooking for 17 years in Washington D.C., and several places around the country including Alaska before that, was unfazed.

“The thing with restaurant openings is that there’s always a sense of anxiety that doesn’t necessarily have to be there. There will be mistakes, something will go wrong. It’s all about the commitment and management of the team,” he explains, adding, “We just did a lot of pickling that week.”

The flood didn’t have any lasting impact on the team, or the physical space. Set in the base of the Kimpton Aertson hotel in Midtown, Henley is a contemporary restaurant and bar that manages to feel both classy and homey. Towards the front, there’s a light-filled entry and large bar space. In the back, the dining rooms feels private and quieter, with familiar touches, like antique family photos on the wall. (They’re from the chef’s own grandmother’s house.) Cooper, who received a James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic while working in D.C., got to Nashville in January and quickly started scoping out farms and purveyors from which to source.

What to Order

Note: the menu changes frequently

What to Order45-day dry aged sirloin tartare, $7
Heirloom tomatoes, buttermilk ricotta, $12
Smoked duck egg gemelli, $18
Bear Creek Farm short rib, $60
Heirloom grits, $13

Dubbed a modern American brasserie, the concept, Cooper specifies, “is primarily focused on this region. Even simpler: I want it to be products from a 100-mile radius around Nashville.”

The menu includes several lists, like snacks, plates, communal, and sides for the table. Each item is listed simply: heirloom tomatoes, buttermilk ricotta; Gulf coast cobia, summer squash. Additional ingredients are named underneath. Those brief lists express Cooper’s goal—he isn’t using complicated techniques but rather letting seasonality and flavor do most of the work. And when an ingredient is gone for the season, it’s off the menu, he says.

The snacks are small, one or two-bite dishes: oysters, sourdough bread, caviar. There’s a 45-day dry aged sirloin tartare chopped fine and packed with a lemon-y zing. Order the cheese plate and out rolls a cart with five different options; a server details and doles out each slice, along with jams, almonds, and wildflower honey.

The plates are more substantial and, like most of the menu, meant to be shared. During an early summer visit there was a charred watermelon dish with grilled bitter greens, bits of goat cheese, and spicy peanuts. The cornbread agnolotti, was a hot seller this summer (likely gone with the Alabama crab season by the time you’re reading this) but also labor-intensive. A cornbread base, made with hominy and polenta, is shaped into agnolotti, and fresh sweet corn was juiced to accompany it.

Hopefully, dishes like the smoked duck egg gemelli with morels will remain in some fashion, as that earthy, unctuous pasta dish, bolstered by the richness of liver and sausage, seems like just the thing to lead us into fall. There’s also a mix of seafood and meat dishes on the lengthy plates list, like the 60-day dry aged rib cap with bone marrow, or trout with pole beans.

We were warned about the communal plates: Enough to feed a crowd. Our two-person attempt to take down the Bear Creek Farm short rib, which had been nearly blackened to a char, was unsuccessful—but that’s mostly because we’d eaten our fill of snacks and plates first. If going with a group, try that dish or the Wedge Oak Farm whole chicken, both of which come with a few accompaniments as sides. Or, supplement with something for the table like the heirloom grits, which Cooper grinds in house, or the okra with tomato gravy. Desserts, too, can be a communal experience: there’s an Olive and Sinclair 74-percent chocolate torte with salted pretzel ice cream as well as a milk chocolate soufflé, both substantial enough for a group.Meanwhile, the bar is quenching any thirst you’ll have along the way. An Old Bell, made with Belle Meade bourbon and hit with sherry and absinthe is a strong and sturdy companion. The beer list, especially by the bottle, is significant, with options from around the region as the focus. To finish, you could dip into the short list

Meanwhile, the bar is quenching any thirst you’ll have along the way. An Old Bell, made with Belle Meade Bourbon and hit with sherry and absinthe is a strong and sturdy companion. The beer list, especially by the bottle, is significant, with options from around the region as the focus. To finish, you could dip into the short list of of brandies.

As Henley shifts with the seasons, it’ll be interesting to see where Cooper’s whims lead and how he navigates the steady march of Tennessee’s available ingredients. For now, each visit should provide a surprise, as well as a chance to eat well with friends.

(Inside the Kimpton Aertson Hotel)
2023 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203; 615-340-6378; henleynashville.com

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