If you have even just glanced through this blog, you know that I love great food. It’s not just that I love to eat, it’s that I love to appreciate food. Perhaps you could say that I love to appreciate saporific beauty.
I heard of John Besh several years ago, but since I still haven’t made it to New Orleans, I just assumed I probably would never get to enjoy his food. After marking eating at a Bobby Flay restaurant off my bucket list three years ago, I thought I had pretty much emptied that bucket (that’s in the running for the name of this project… #emptythebucket). But there’s something alluring about John Besh, and suddenly he showed up on this not-bucket-list-but-something-list. Perhaps it’s because he’s not your typical “celebrity” chef.
Or perhaps it’s because he’s Catholic.
Yes, I admit it. I wanted to eat at a John Besh restaurant because he’s Catholic. Because he’s on the board of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. Because he likes St. Josemaria Escriva.
Come on. If I can enjoy incredible food and also support a Catholic, I’m in.
So when he opened a new restaurant in Nashville, Marsh House, despite the fact that I had heard nothing about it, good or bad… I knew I needed to convince Manda to go there for our annual joint-birthday dinner. Lucky for me, she wasn’t hard to convince.
The restaurant is attached to a hotel, which for some reason normally would kind of turn me off. But I was pretty set on liking this place, so I pushed that aside. The two hostesses were wearing adorable blue wrap dresses, and a nice man in a suit showed me to my table. He later stopped by to chat while I waited for Manda, just to make sure I didn’t need a drink while I waited. I appreciated how down-to-earth the wait staff seemed, while also remaining completely professional. (Like the wonderfully perfect gesture of folding your napkin for you if you left to use the restroom. Always a nice touch.) We later found out that the nice man in a suit was the sommelier.
The menu is seafood-based, and the majority of it consists of small plates meant for sharing. There are also several meat and seafood entrees, and a raw bar menu that features a selection of oysters.
We both ordered cocktails – mine was whiskey-based and Manda’s had prosecco. Both, while very different, were nicely suited for the cold weather.
The one article I read about Marsh House was an interview with Besh where he spoke highly of the gumbo, stressing that he had worked with the chefs to make sure they got his recipe – or rather, his mother’s recipe – just right. So Manda and I split the gumbo (which they dished up beautifully in separate bowls for us). Manda also ordered oysters, and loved them. I passed.
For dinner, I was excited to see swordfish on the menu, so I couldn’t pass that up. Swordfish isn’t a fish I generally see at the places I frequent. I distinctly remember the first time I had swordfish – it was in 2001 at a restaurant in Rome in a neighborhood near the Aventine Hill. I was told that it had a more meat-like texture than most fish, and I ordered it on a whim… and loved it. Since then, I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had it, and I was anxious to try it again.
This didn’t disappoint. There was a nice light breading on it – more of a slight crust than anything – and it was served with winter greens and a tomato jam. Manda ordered the stuffed flounder, and it looked pretty incredible- almost a work of art, and probably more worthy of a picture than my dish. Oh well.
We both saved room for dessert, of course… and when we couldn’t decide between the opera cake – a buttermilk chocolate cake with ganache and espresso – and the pumpkin cheesecake with cranberries and brittle… we ordered both.
Good night. They were both incredible, but the pumpkin cheesecake was simply out of this world. I was afraid it would be a bit cliche- a concession to every PSL lover and a throwaway tribute to fall. I was wrong. Manda hit the nail on the head when she said it was more of a mousse than a cheesecake. It was exactly what you wanted out of a pumpkin dessert – enough spice to bring home the pumpkin (since pumpkin doesn’t actually have much a flavor by itself) but a lightness that left you completely content and not overwhelmed. The brittle and toasted marshmallow on the top were the companions you would expect – but surpassed expectations – and then the cranberry drizzled around the plate was a completely unexpected guest but rounded out the dessert without being a strange forced reference to Thanksgiving dinner.
The atmosphere of the restaurant gave me the same feeling I had at Bar Americain – it was more relaxed than I expected, and there were people in jeans — but it was just the right mix of classy and casual – definitely an elevated feel that was comfortable without being ostentatious. Our waitress mentioned that the decor was supposed to evoke a train station (which it did, without being over the top) because of back in the day, that’s what used to be in the neighborhood. Any indication that a place recognizes the history of Nashville gets props from me, especially in a neighborhood like the Gulch that is congested with brand new restaurants, condos, and bars that are trendy today and will probably be closed tomorrow. So many of the places – and people – that have come to Nashville seem ignorant of the true charm of the city, which is quickly disappearing as it grows faster than is probably healthy.
How many of these new places are worth the hype? Probably very few. But, while I admit I went in tonight pretty biased … I’d like to see John Besh’s place stay. The menu was elevated without elevating anything just for the heck of it. Most of the ingredients were recognizable, and while brussels sprouts and beets made an appearance, the menu was largely devoid of the trendy ingredients that people probably only eat because the person next to them told them they should.
First item of the list complete. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Chef Besh had come out and talked with us about Josemaria Escriva. Maybe next time.