Fav Nashville Eats: Christmas in Chinatown

Good Fortune

Good Fortune

I always wanted to do it. Go out to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner.

You know, there’s always the standard, traditional, you-gotta-do-it Christmas dinner. Turkey. Goose. Roast Beef. All great stuff. But sneaking off to a Chinese restaurant instead …makes you kinda giggly.

For the 2nd year in a row my mom, sister (Nina), Duane, and I have done just that. The first year we didn’t know where to go and just followed the local online suggestions. We went to Chinatown in Green Hills. LOVED IT. We’ve been back several times throughout the year. The hostesses & the waitresses know us now. And we have our favorite waitress, too, but love them all. Everyone who works at Chinatown is especially friendly and all of them smile so very easily.

So this Christmas we knew exactly where to go. We also heard that reservations might be a good idea altho we never made them before. But we did this time and it seemed to work a little magic for us in the overly stuffed entryway crowded with guests trying to get in, picking up a take-out order, or just making an attempt to get to the desk to check in for their reservation. This is a very ambitious group and you have to be sure to bring your patience when arriving at Chinatown on Christmas day.

Crowd waiting for tables

Crowd waiting for tables

We got to our table and our favorite waitress ran over, obviously in a frenzy (but with an enjoying-it smile), already apologizing for delays. But she got our hot Chinese tea, beers, crispy noodles & dipping sauce, and scallion pancake out right away.

Noodles & Dipping Sauce

Noodles & Dipping Sauce

I love Chinese oolong tea.

I love Chinese oolong tea.

Then we ordered our Chinatown favorites (read: best things on the menu according to us): Mongolian Beef

Mongolian Beef at Chinatown

Mongolian Beef at Chinatown

Shrimp w Black Bean Sauce

Shrimp w Black Bean Sauce at Chinatown

Shrimp w Black Bean Sauce at Chinatown

(We passed on our other fav: Pineapple Shrimp in favor for:)

Shrimp Lo Mein

Moo Shu Vegetables (you know, the one with the pancakes)

Nina likes it.

Nina likes it.

Let me divert here for a minute…my family LOVES Chinese food the way we knew it & tasted it made by Chinese people in New York restaurants. They called it Cantonese, but I’m not sure if that is indeed what they cooked in Canton (egg foo young, shrimp in lobster sauce, pepper steak, wonton soup, fried rice, lo mein, chicken chow mein, spare ribs, shrimp toast). Still, that was Chinese food to us.

Fortune Cookies at Chinatown are from Brooklyn, NY

Fortune Cookies at Chinatown are from Brooklyn, NY

Nashville’s Chinatown delivers some of this nostalgic taste plus their spin on classics, and many of their own signature dishes. They take it all many steps higher. WOW.  i.e. the Pineapple Shrimp. You have to try this. Little squares of pineapple (like those little math block squares) and chunky shrimp dusted with a mystery coating and fried or sautéed (hard to tell which). It’s a surprise with every morsel. WHAT IS THAT FLAVOR? I think it’s heaven.

Just Give Me A Shrimp And I'm Happy.

Just Give Me A Shrimp And I’m Happy.

At this restaurant, you don’t have 5 entrees on the table all basically tasting like soy sauce. Every time you try a new dish you’re sampling a whole new flavor.

We liked it.

We liked it.

It’s a year-round regular stop (for dinner or lunch). It does not disappoint. And if you go next Christmas, make a reservation. I’ll see you there for sure.

Profound.

Profound.

Heavy.

Heavy.

[If you’ve got a minute (well, actually 4.5) I’m betting you’ll love this little film. It’s about eavesdropping at a restaurant– but it kinda connects.] CLICK: Table 7

Fav Nashville Eats: Wendell Smith’s

Wendell Smith's

Wendell Smith’s

If a place has some character, serves good food (read: GOOD food…not necessarily complicated food, but GOOD), and the prices are reasonable…it gets my attention. Sure I love to sample what chefs create, but if I’m not in a sampling mood and just want something comfy and consistent and in an atmosphere where I relax easily…then I go to the ole reliables.

I lived in NYC for many years and one of my all-time favorite reliables was the local diner. Any one of them!

Malibu Diner in NYC

Malibu Diner in NYC

NY diners are usually run by Greeks with a menu that includes some Greek specialties, but the big draw for me was the all-day/all-night breakfast. Sure they had classic sandwiches, big burgers, a zillion salads, sometimes even lobster tails, steak, plus a lit-up carousel filled with mile-high cakes and pies (these I never ordered) (too much sweet for my timid sweet tooth). Gimme the eggs; I want the home fries.

Here in Nashville, diners aren’t on every other corner like they (used to be) in NYC (even there, they’re disappearing). But I’ve happily connected to 3 restaurants that do the diner thing and THEN SOME.

Today I’ll just start with one. Wendell Smith’s. To say I’ve discovered Wendell Smith’s just goes to show you what a Nashville greenhorn I am. When you walk into Wendell Smith’s for the first time you realize everyone in there has been going for YEARS. That maiden visit I almost felt like an intruder. But they greet you friendly enough. And now Wendell’s tickles me every time I walk in their door.

From what I understand the restaurant started in the 1950’s. The place still looks like the 1950’s including some wear and tear from the passage of decades. But that’s all added charm.

Wendell's menus

Wendell’s menus

It used to have a drive-up window that they closed in to add more tables. A friend’s mom and dad met at that drive-up window years ago!

Wendell’s is not necessarily known for its breakfast food. It’s a meat and 3 with a changing daily menu. Their permanent menu has the eggs and omelets, burgers, and sandwiches, and things like tuna-stuffed tomato.

Wendell's cheeseburger

Wendell’s bacon cheeseburger

But I’ve got my favorite breakfast dish and order it almost every time: 2 eggs, scrambled soft, home fries, and sliced tomatoes. (Okay, occasionally I get the cheese omelet.)

Wendell's eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s is big on tomatoes. They ALWAYS  have big, ripe fresh tomatoes on hand. And they sell them by the pound, too.

Local tomatoes by the pound

Local tomatoes by the pound at Wendell’s

On some days they have Polish Sausage on the meat and 3 menu. Duane will always order that. And if their yumfest fried chicken is on the menu I’ll skip my breakfast for that. I also LOVE their turnip greens.

Meat & 2

Meat & 2

Meat & 3 Menu

Meat & 3 Menu

The place gets packed at lunch (when I seem to usually have breakfast) but each time we go there’s a booth available.

Wendell's at lunchtime

Wendell’s at lunchtime

ADDED BONUS: Wendell’s waitresses are the best in town. Serious career waitresses. They already know what we’re gonna order. And we love that feeling of being regulars.

Wendell Smith’s is true Nashville.

Wendell's is Open

Wendell’s is Open

Wendell's

Wendell’s

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Easy Like Sunday Morning

The first time I went to Pinewood Social I thought they were a little bit too much taken with themselves. Cooler than cool. And when a vibe is off-putting it doesn’t matter how great the menu or mixology is– I’d just rather not be there.

But now time has passed. And the cool sheen has calmed down. And I was out at the theatre with a friend and there weren’t many places open for dinner after 10 pm. So we went to Pinewood…to be Social.

Unfortunately, our dinner plans went awry since our pre-theatre intended-to-be-small appetizer with a drink turned out to be big appetizer. So we weren’t that hungry at 10.  The only menu item at Pinewood Social that appealed to me was apple pie à la mode. Which was “okay.” BUT the drink I ordered (which seemed a good pairing) STOOD OUT (in a good way).

Go get this drink if it’s the only thing you ever order at Pinewood Social.

It’s called: Easy Like Sunday Morning (you can’t help but hum the song in your head as you sip).

It’s a cortado (a coffee I first encountered in Burgos, Spain: espresso with milk in it). To the cortado they add: a healthy dash of Fernet Branca (that herby-bitterish-spiky digestivo) and demerara (a kind of unrefined sugar). It’s served in an on-the-rocks glass with a pretty cappuccino-like milky pattern on top.

THIS DRINK IS DELICIOUS. I have trouble writing about it without wanting to simultaneously drink it.

Sometimes trendy, cool, full of themselves places really come up with great stuff. (And our server was as nice as can be.)

I’ll be back to Pinewood Social. For an Easy Like Sunday Morning. And now I’m curious to sample a different menu item to pair it with. Like maybe the goat cheese omelet, or the lobster roll. Or the smoked trout dip or apple salad. (I sound kinda won over, don’t I?)

Fav Nashville Eats: City Limits Bakery & Cafe

Bagle

Bagel

Bagels. They can really run the gamut. There are some pretty awful bagels out there. And even the awful ones range on a scale of 1 to 10 of awfulness. If you’re really stuck and you really want a bagel you can end up eating something with the texture of rubber, cake, or cardboard– none of that has anything to do with bagels.

Bagels should be chewy with a slight crispy/crunch on the surface. They’re not soft but they’re a little soft. When you give them a squeeze they should barely yield. But they should yield some. The outside has a slight sheen. The inside breadiness has holes here and there. A good bagel is ridiculously good. A bad bagel is something like hell.

I lived in NYC for 30 years. The last 10 of which were in the Bronx. Spuyten Duyvil to be exact-Riverdale by its more familiar name. There were at least 3 bagel bakeries in this smallish neighborhood. And I investigated each one for my column in the Riverdale Press called “Riverdale Eats.” What a treat to see the process and even get a chance to make a bagel.

Process:

They make the dough in one of those huge mixers. Ingredients were a bit of a secret for each bakery but flour, salt, yeast, and malt seemed to be the staples. They make a BIG batch of dough. Slap in on a work table. Cut it into smaller slabs that get shaped into bagels by a wonderful bagel-shaping machine. They proof them in their bagel shapes then boil them in a big vat of water before they’re lined up on wooden planks that fit into a rotating oven (looks like a kind of ferris wheel).

And Waa-Laa!

Buttered Bagel

Buttered Bagel

In the Bronx I had a friend that came for breakfast on most Sunday mornings. He lived downtown in the Village and would stop at Russ & Daughters to get some whitefish salad. I picked up the bagels from Rolen Bagels or Bagel Corner (same owners in Riverdale but Riverdalians swore that the bagels were different in each bakery although the owners told me ingredients and process were exactly the same) (still I preferred Bagel Corner-you’re right, they are on the corner). Once in a while, along with the whitefish salad he would bring bagels from Russ & Daughters. They weren’t as good as my Bronx bagels (altho I suspect Russ & Daughters didn’t bake them themselves but got them from some other Manhattan bagel source). When I lived in Manhattan I swore by  H & H Bagels but lost interest once I tasted my new neighborhood bagels.

Oh, yes, it goes on and on. Talk to a New Yorker about bagels and you’ll be there for hours. And invariably the part about New York water will come up. Is it true? Do NY bagels and NY pizza taste better because of the NY water?

And what’s all this have to do with Nashville? Well, I got a bakery in Bellevue that gets their bagel dough from the Bronx. Bakes ’em up perfectly and now I get to have Bronx-originated bagels any ol’ time! Where in the Bronx they get it I don’t know but I don’t care. They have perfect bagels EVERY time.

City Limits Bakery & Cafe on Clofton Drive is the place you want to be. It’s a hidden gem that only Bellevue locals seem to know about (and now I go blabbing about it — don’t ruin it guys by making it too popular around town, it’s perfect!) Even though it’s a local place it’s almost always packed (except on weekday afternoons around 3-4 when it’s quiet and I like to go there to write).

City Limits Bakery & Cafe

City Limits Bakery & Cafe

BTW they’ve got way more than bagels. Yummy muffins (I like the orange blossom one). Other sweet treats: brownies, danishes, scones, more. AND the main draw is their food-food. Sandwiches, salads, soups (they do a City Max special: half sandwich with soup or salad). The atmosphere is airy and tranquil and friendly. You can bring your computer and park all day but they don’t have WIFI (which is a good thing, otherwise I’d move in).  You’ll want to adopt everyone who works there because they’re so NICE.

City Limits Bakery & Cafe

City Limits Bakery & Cafe

And…added bonus: right behind the bakery are train tracks and every once in a while a humongous freight train goes by, blowing its whistle and giving you (if you step outside and go to the side of the building) a great close-up view of the power that moves our country! (An aside: my band Duette does a song called “The Old Hickory Commuter Train” …we shot our video for the song from this train-barreling vantage point– we’re still thrilled.)

Train

Oh, and, you can eat outside, too.

City Limits Bakery & Cafe

City Limits Bakery & Cafe

Let me know if you try the bagel. And let me know what you think. We can argue. Come on, it’s fun.

City Limits Bagel w some Hot Tea

City Limits Bagel w some Hot Tea

 

Fav Nashville Eats: Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

So where do you go out to eat Italian food?

Sometimes someone will ask me that.

I’m usually stumped. I don’t often eat out “Italian.” I’ve got a kitchen-full of Italian food and students coming over to cook it with me! So when I go out you’ll find me at a Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Greek, or Chinese restaurant. A pub/sports bar or a meat n’ 3.  A place with a Southern/or Southern re-invention menu. A bakery. A casual American joint.

BUT. I do occasionally get the urge to eat out “Italian.” Usually when I’m hanging with my mom and sister. We each have geiger-counter-style Italian palates that act like false-o meters. The food has got to have the right taste (even if it’s not the sauce you would make at home) — it’s gotta be in the proper “realm” — it has to hit the true Italian “note.”

One place we can rely on is Caffe Nonna in Sylvan Park.

We were there recently and hadn’t been for more than year. One of the waiters recognized us as soon as we walked in and welcomed us as if we were regulars. “Good to see you again! It’s been a while!”

The place is tiny. And full of people. The lighting glows intimately. The room hugs you with warm colors and old world decor. You immediately feel at home.

Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

Their menu has lots of entrees but we get caught up with the pasta choices. Choose from a list of pasta shapes and a list of pasta sauces. Mix and match. That’s immediately such a fun game. Italians are very particular about which pasta shapes go with which pasta sauces. Certain dishes never change: Penne all’Arrabiata, Fettuccine alla Bolognese, Linguine alle Vongole,  Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Bucatini con le Sarde, Fettuccine Alfredo, etc.

I think every other time I’ve eaten here I picked fettuccine with bolognese sauce. This time I went for fettuccine with white clam sauce. I loved NOT choosing the proper linguine or spaghetti. It’s an exotic treat to match fettuccine (the “wrong” pasta shape) with clam sauce! My sister got the same. My mom went for fettuccine, too, but with the bolognese sauce.

While we waited for our dishes we nibbled on bread dipped in seasoned olive oil (they don’t do this in Italy but it’s tasty.)

dip some bread in flavored olive oil

dip some bread in flavored olive oil

When our dishes arrived they looked wonderful. They smelled wonderful. And they were very healthy portions. Each bowl had a tablespoon in it. We each pulled out the spoon and set it aside. You really don’t need a spoon to eat long-stranded pasta. (I’ll tell you how if you think you do.)

The waitress asked if we wanted grated cheese. My mom took some (she thought they put too much but liked it anyway).

fettuccine alla bolognese

fettuccine alla bolognese

You’re not supposed to have cheese on any pasta with fish/clams, etc. in it.

fettuccine with white clam sauce

fettuccine with white clam sauce

But I was feeling rather decadent and asked for some cheese. So did my sister.

fettuccine with white clam sauce and cheese on top

fettuccine with white clam sauce and cheese on top

The pastas are seriously yummy. And I was surprised to find a bit of cream in the “white” clam sauce (which is usually white because it’s not red, but is actually clear with olive oil & white wine). If you would have told me cream was in the sauce I wouldn’t have ordered it. But tasting it (and eating ALL of it) I loved it. In fact, I’m stealing that idea!

empty dish of fettuccine with white clam sauce

empty dish of fettuccine with white clam sauce

My sister and I toasted our wine glasses a few times (my mom sticking to water). Nina had a Pinot Grigio, I loved my Barbera D’Asti.  (The way I pair wines is like this: I pick a dish I want to eat. And I pick a wine I want to drink. They don’t necessarily have to go together but somehow they do….like fettuccine with clam sauce.)

Nina & I toasting our wine

Nina & I toasting our wine

Nina--wine finished!

Nina–wine finished!

Chef Dan even came by the table to see how we liked our dinner. Before we were done we were talking about coming back (that’s like talking about what’s for breakfast tomorrow while you’re having dinner tonight). And we will be back. Thanks, Caffe Nonna!

Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

 

Fav Nashville Eats: Burger Up

Duane and I don’t wait for tables often. Even at Burger Up. There’s always a crowd at Burger Up.

But the other day we took a chance, found a parking space right across the street and passed thru the waiting crowds into the restaurant and snagged a couple of stools at the bar (very high stools, you kinda have to climb up, and then you realize you can spin them to be lower…something like a-custom-bar-stool-for-you).

Bar at Burger Up

Bar at Burger Up

Easy. We were in.

Just looking at the menu we remembered how much we loved it the last time we were there and why has it been so long since we’ve been back? You don’t think about that much longer because your eyes are pretending to be your stomach mind-tasting each item on the menu. You order your burger (after see-sawing over which one). Duane went for the blue cheese with an added compliment of Benton’s bacon. I took the lamb burger. Whatever you choose know that the meat has been exquisitely sourced and you’re gonna taste the difference oh-yesiree-bob.

Burger Up blue burger w Benton's Bacon

Burger Up blue burger w Benton’s Bacon

Add their house-made ketchup and aioli and you’ll be a happy chewing fool. We scarfed down the burgers with onion rings and spinach accompaniment.

Burger Up house-made sauces

Burger Up house-made sauces

Gazed at all the lovely wood on walls and ceiling and tables. Watched the Nashville world go by, and were entertained by the bottle filling, drink making, and napkin folding going on behind the bar.

at the bar at Burger Up

at the bar at Burger Up

We’ll be back as long as we can snag those two bar stools again. Thanks, Burger Up!

D and me at Burger Up

D and me at Burger Up