My review of The Catbird Seat (and why it took me a year to write)

The Catbird Seat, moments before opening.
[Photo by chef Josh Habiger on Flickr.]
This blog post took almost a year to write. It started when my blogger friend Joe Stirt, the Charlottesville, Va., anesthesiologist who maintains the cool-tracking website, the website I described eight years ago as the blog I would take to a desert island, called me out on Twitter for not reviewing the Catbird Seat, the Nashville restaurant Joe noted the New York Times claimed “diners in Nashville and beyond (are) abuzz with its bold, daring approach to high-end cuisine.” Joe expected me to be on top of such “abuzz-ness” in my hometown.

Okay, I told Joe. I’ll eat there and write a post about it.

It took me a couple of months to fulfill the eating part of that promise. But it has taken me almost a year to do the blogging part. I have an unwritten rule that blog posts  are never supposed to be “chores,” rather they must be easy to write — 15 minutes max to put together the framework of what I’d like to say. “Easy to write” is another way of saying, “something I actually want to respond to, observe or share.”

Had Joe not continued to publicly (and friendly) taunt me about this missing post, I may have given up. But last month, when I heard that Bon Appetit magazine included the restaurant in its cover-feature about the ten best new restaurants in America — added to the long list of accolades the restaurant has received — I started once more and attempt to discover my inner Calvin Trillin.

But alas, it was not to be.

Why has this been so difficult? Here’s my guess. I am neither a “foodie,” nor is this a foodie blog. In fact, my only shout-out for writing anything related to food was once having my review of Nashville’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack chosen as “Review of the Day.”

I have no vocabulary or foundational understanding or creator’s appreciation to write anything more than a ham-fisted comment (pun somewhat intended) about how something tastes (“the chicken was so spicy, it numbed my taste buds for a week”) or what a place looks like (when I say, “hole in the wall, I mean, literally, there’s this wall that has an opening through which you place your order.”)

The Catbird Seat is a restaurant that outstrips the words I know or my ability to string together such words to explain why the restaurant is so special. It’s about something far beyond food and taste and place. To use the restaurant as a trial-run to test my food-writing skills is akin to a 15-year-old testing ones driving skills using a Porsche.

This is just over my head.

Notice how, despite this being a restaurant review, I’ve avoided that topic up to this point. So, focus, Rex, focus. Here goes.

The first thing I discovered was that it takes about a month to get to sit in one of those catbird seats, and about that long to save up for the bill. Spoiler: The wait and the saving-up are worth it. There are only about 30 seats in the restaurant, most of which are at a u-shaped counter surrounding the island kitchen where the chefs work (see photo). If that arrangement makes you think of Benihana, let me be clear: I know Benihana and Catbird seat is no Benihana. In other words: Leave the kids home. Bring a working credit card. The restaurant has a fixed priced for a nine (or 10, we lost count) course series of sampling portions of food that, as I’ve already admitted, left me speechless. When my wife and I ate there last January, the price per person was $100 for the food and two fixed-priced drink-paring options: $35 and $65. We chose the $35 one and found it plenty special. So the entire price was $135 per person, plus tip. And this is an experience where you actually want to tip.

While the NY Times and others are accurately describing the Catbird Seat as a high-end restaurant, it’s not the most expensive restaurant I’ve been to in Nashville — you can spend more at the steak places that cater to professional athletes and expense-account client diners.

And compared to what I consider a “high-end” restaurant to be,  it’s surprisingly casual. Strikingly casual, in fact. No coat and ties or linen tablecloths.

The setting is casual, but the food is very precise, as in great attention is given to its preparation and presentation. However, there’s a whimsy to it that I can’t quite explain. It’s like the chefs are seriously great cooks but they are playing with the food. And they want you to play along.

The menu for a meal at the Catbird Seat is provided at the end of the evening. [Credit: Mike Fabio, via: Flickr]
Back to the tasting menu concept. This is one of the reasons the restaurant is getting such a national buzz. The concept is daring for both the restaurateur and the diners. It’s like being invited to dinner at someone’s home and you’re going to be served what you’re going to be served. There’s a menu, but you receive it at the endof your meal (see photo).

Among those who are into food in a big way, it’s apparently a big adventure these days to seek out these restaurants and experience what is happening. On the late January Saturday night my wife and I ate there, everyone seemed to be from some place other than Nashville: A group from Michigan and New York had flown in to dine together at the restaurant — you heard that right, they flew in for dinner; a couple from Louisville had driven down; and so on.

Starting several days before the meal, we received calls from the staff that not only confirmed the reservation, but previewed what we’d be eating — and sought out any information about allergies or preferences we might have. I strongly suggest that you limit your customization to the allergy variety. Even something that you think you may not like (my wife’s not a fan of oysters, for example) won’t be prepared in the way you had them when you decided you didn’t like it.

There’s an expression, “food porn,” on the internet (I guess offline, as well?) that refers to beautiful photos of chef-created dishes. The three hours you’ll spend dining at the Catbird Seat will consist of nine courses of live food porn that tastes as beautiful as it looks. (You would think I’d have come up with a better metaphor in nine months.)

While nine courses sounds like a lot, spread over three hours with each course being a small portion, I never felt over-whelmed by either the food or drink.  (If you want to see some Catbird Seat food porn, check out this Flickr set of photos taken by one of the chefs, Josh Habiger. Also, at the bottom of this post, I’ve embedded a slideshow comprised of Flickr photos that include the words “catbird seat restaurant” in their descriptions.)

As I mentioned, there are two options for drink pairings. With each course, there is a tasting portion of something that will make you go, “Wow, who who think that that this would go with this?” (Turns out, the answer to that question is, “Jane, that’s who.”) We had tasting portions of drinks ranging from a mead to a scotch beer.

By the end of the evening, you will know the names of the two co-chefs (Eric and Josh), the two assistants (when we were there, Mamie and Tom) and Jane, the aforementioned sommelier. The owner, Ben, was also in the middle of things, acting more like an assistant, than a proprietor. (Towards the end of the evening Ben left to check in on a couple oyf other places he owns, The Patterson House, downstairs from the Catbird Seat, is one of them.)

The people, set up and approach are all swell, but what’s causing the restaurant to have such buzz is the food experience (notice I didn’t say, dining experience — this place is about the food experience). I’ve never been to a restaurant where the focus was so much on celebrating each dish, and each ingredient of each dish.

Because the two chefs and their assistants and sommelier are preparing things and serving you, all within a few feet of you, each course is a chance for a conversation in which you can learn more about the food. Despite the chefs, yes, there are two, having a quiet but charming wit, I’ll take the word of all the people giving them awards: their recipes and food combinations are unique and creative and they seem thrilled that you are enjoying their creations. These are not the screaming, yelling, pan-throwing types of chefs you see on reality shows.

About mid-way through the evening, I remarked to my wife how I felt like I was experiencing Babette’s Feast, a reference to the Oscar-winning 1988 Danish film. I mentioned this to the staff and was surprised to learn that none of them or the people around us — the out-of-town foodies — had seen the movie. I would think foodies would consider Babette’s Feast their To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind.

Now that I think about it, the reason I found this post so daunting to write was the same reason I would never try to use this blog to review 25-year-old Danish films that I have no idea why I saw in the first place . I just don’t have the vocabulary to explain why it is special — and I know that it is an outlier type of specialness that I don’t anticipate delving into enough to devote the time to truly understand and appreciate. (I have other topics that draw me in their directions for which I’ve dedicated such time.)

In my professional life of creating media that companies use to communicate with customers, we refer to the need of companies to “deliver value” — an MBA-sounding term that means that which a company provides to a customer beyond the product sold, that enables a customer to get the most out a product — to be, or become or accomplish that thing they had in mind when purchasing the product.

To do this, a company must become a teacher, a mentor, a coach and collaborator.

The Catbird Seat does that. I not only had a great meal there. I had a great experience and a glimpse at why others can find so much more to enjoy about food than I ever will.

The chefs, owner and staff are not just great cooks and entertainers. They are wonderful teachers who provided my wife and me something we still are marveling, ten months later.

And Joe, there it is.