And finally, I have saved my favorite dining experience in Nashville for last. Merchants is by far my favorite restaurant in downtown Nashville.  While it has it’s glitches, each time I have dined there it has been a pleasant experience with the food far exceeding my expectations. And if true love means seeing an imperfect restaurant perfectly, then I love it there.

Merchants was established in 1892. We learned during our first visit to Merchants years ago that it was a former hotel, drug store and ice cream parlor. (And apparently the drug store/ice cream parlor interlapped, as our waiter told us colorful stories about elderly women sprinkling their medications on their ice cream at the marble bar, which is still there today.) Our waiter told us ghost stories about the building and even led us on a tour throughout the upper floors of the restaurant.  Maybe it was the dinner cocktails, but we all undeniably felt a strange energy on one of the top floors and even a gust of cold air. If I was a ghost, I wouldn’t mind being confined to haunting Merchants as long as I had my taste buds still in tact.

This year it was especially packed due to the CMA Fest crowd. We didn’t have a reservation but we were still promptly seated on the second floor of the restaurant.  The first floor is a bit more casual and includes a bar. On the second floor you will find white linen table cloths and napkins with real silverwear ornamenting the tables, a nice and drastic change to the barstools and paper napkins and utensils we’ve been putting to use all week. Our waiter looked exhausted (rightfully so after the dinner rush before the concert) but he still managed to smile and was very polite and helpful. He was such a nice person and really patient with us. I was a little bit disappointed that Merchants was featuring a limited menu because of the CMA fest but I understood the reasoning behind it.

We ordered two appetizers: the fried pickles and fried green tomatoes. The fried green tomatoes at Merchants were, hands down, the best I have ever had in my life. The huge tomatoes were breaded and fried, and not too tough or mushy. They were covered with a black bean, corn, red onion salsa and smothered in a grainy dijon mustard sauce. 

The butter pickles were battered and fried and served with a red pepper aioli dipping sauce. These were enjoyable as well, but I have a hunch that if some fresh herbs (dill perhaps) were used in the batter, it would have kicked them up a bit.

The house salad was standard but solid and excellent. Mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, homemade croutons, parmesean cheese and your choice of dressing.

For dinner, I ordered a real southern staple, something extremely difficult if not impossible to find on the menu of a restaurant in the northeast region: Shrimp and Grits.  This flavors of this dish were phenomenal and if I could have, I would have ordered another one, boxed it up and flown it home first class.  Jumbo pieces of juicy grilled shrimp, smoky andoiulle sausage with sauteed spinach over a mound of cheesy grits and lathered with a light tomato broth, this dish was pure southern perfection.  With each bite, I thought to myself how grateful I was to be alive and feasting on this succulent dish.  I am determined to recreate this in my own home but I am certain it will take a few attempts before I can master the cheesy grits.

The scallops, pan seared over corn, lima bean and tomato succotash were also perfection.

The blue corn tacos were pretty as plated, but a little bland. The blue corn tortilla shells were soft and seemed to be homemade but something additional was needed to kick this dish up a notch. It could have been improved upon, but I’d still order them if I were in the mood for tacos.  Spicy beans were served on the side but cheesy grits were available as well.

Merchants also offers an array of creative desserts, like the key lime pie martini below. (Had this during a previous trip to Nashville.)

I will absolutely return to Merchant’s again. The next time I am in Nashville, I will call ahead to make sure that they are featuring the full menu so we can order it up and sample a wider variety of southern specialties! See you next year Merchants!

Enjoy!

On our last night in Nashville, we ventured to the Germantown Cafe, one of the top rated restaurants in Nashville, to see what all the fuss was about and hopefully enjoy some of the local cuisine beyond greasy fried foods smothered in barbecue sauce.  I’m happy to report that we had a very pleasant experience here and I would absolutely return there again. The atmosphere was quaint and cozy, the crowd a mix of all ages from locals to foreign CMA music fest concert goers. Though we didn’t have reservations, we didn’t have to wait for a table. The hostess was kind and happy. She seated us a a table near the glass window which allowed just enough of the setting sunlight to peer in to the restaurant. There was a great view of the Nashville skyline.

I was pretty impressed with our server, who had the patience of an angel when answering all of our detailed questions about the menu and the daily specials.  She was a perfect example of what every server should be: kind, patient, attentive, prompt.  She possessed an all encompasing knowledge of the items on the menu and was not afraid to steer me in the right direction when it came to ordering the restaurant’s specialties. 

We started with the strudel and the fried green tomatoes.  The tomatoes, served hot, were deep fried in a crisp and greasy (but not too greasy) coating and topped with miniature goat cheese rounds, accompanied by a spicy red bell pepper aioli sauce. We devoured these within seconds.

The Germantown Cafe Strudel was served with a tropical salsa. Studel, German for “whirlpool” or “eddy” is a type of pastry composed of thin layers of dough spread with a filling and rolled and baked until crisp and golden brown.  The dough tastes just like the Greek phyllo dough, commonly known as a puff pastry shell.  (These sheets can be found in the frozen aisle of your local grocery store.) Strudel is commonly filled with fruit but it can come in all different varieties and be savory as well.  The Germantown Cafe Strudel was a savory, spicy blend of chicken, cream cheese and peppers. It was very different and that is why I loved it! 

The most jaw dropping part of our dining experience at the Germantown Cafe may have been the bread basket, which was really a little bundle of heaven. Imagine biting into soft and buttery round roll right out of the oven – sounds like a pretty ordinary indulgence. Now imgaine that the bread is deep fried, making the outside crust crisp, flaky and a bit oily with a soft warm center. Bread is absolutely my weakness in this life and I have sampled many different kinds but I’ve never had anything like this before. And there was a silver lining. Indulging in a deep fried roll made it easier for me to limit myself to one.
The caesar salad was equally as delicious, with its crisp romaine lshaved parmegiano regiano cheese and deep friend herbed croutons. Add a piece of grilled shrimp, this could have been dinner.

The Germantown Cafe offered a generous portion of a crab cakes, placing three decent size lightly pan fried cakes consisting mainly of jumbo lump crabmeat on a dish with an abundant serving of french fries and green beans. The crab cakes were served with a mustard-tartar sauce, a nice and creative accompaniment to this classic dish, without being over the top. 

The plum pork was tender and delicious. Thinly sliced pork medallions grilled and served in a savory but sweet plum sauce over mashed potatoes and served with green beans.

I decided to take a chance on the fresh catch of the day, the Grouper. Served over creamy polenta and accompanied by a heaping portion of lima beans drizzled with a light chunky tomato sauce, this dish was a much welcomed change from the greasy southern barbecue we loved but overdosed on. The Grouper was delicate but firm, easily flaked with a fork and oozing with its own juices. A light cream sauce with parsley adorned the grouper, enhancing its own flavor.

The only negative part of the dining experience was that we were too stuffed to try the desserts, which sounded sinfully delicate and delicious – but it’s all the more reason to return again next year!

Enjoy! 🙂

Barbecue, noun: 1. Commonly referred to as a grill, a barbecue is generally a brazier fitted with a grill and sometimes a spit. The brazier can range anywhere from a simple firebowl, which uses hot coals as heat, to an elaborate electric barbecue. 2. Food (usually meat) that has been cooked using a barbecue method. 3. A term used in the United States for an informal style of outdoor entertaining where barbecued food is served.


Barbecue, verb: A method of cooking by which meat, poultry or fish (either whole or in pieces) or other food is covered slowly cooked in a pit or on a spit, using hot coals or hardwood as a heat source. The food is basted, usually with a highly seasoned sauce, to keep it moist.


~ Except from “The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion,” 2009, Barron’s Educational Series.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for barbecue.  There’s something about the smell and taste of a sweet sauce that conjures up memories of long, steamy days of summer that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside – kinda like how you feel when watching a Country Time Lemonade commercial. The smell of barbecue also brings me back to my days as a proud employee of Danny Meyer’s upscale New York City barbecue joint, Blue Smoke/Jazz Standard.

During my recent visit to Nashville, I made it a point to boldly go for lunch where we have never been in all the years we have been there to taste of the best BBQ Nashville has to offer: Neely’s BBQ.  In 1988, the first Neelys BBQ was opened in Memphis by the four Neelys brothers: Gaelin, Tony, Mark and Patrick. As a result of bustling business, the brothers expanded their BBQ empire and Pat’s wife, Gina, came on board in 1992. Naturally, I was ecstatic to learn that not only do the Neelys have BBQ restaurants in Memphis, but they also have two in Nashville.

 In 2008, “Down Home with the Neelys” premiered on the Food Network, breaking records to become the highest rated Food Network series debut. It still remains one of the Food Network’s top shows. Everyday I rush home from work so that I will make it just in time for the 5:30 showing of “Down Home with the Neelys” on the Food Network. There is something so intriguing about Pat and Gina Neely, who are obviously very much in love with each other and barbecue.  Their vivacious energy and enthusiasm for their food is so fascinating to watch that it even makes me jealous at times. It’s evident to anyone who has seen the show how these two are in adoration of each other in the kitchen. I’ll have what they’re having!!!

The walls of Neelys BBQ are adorned with hundreds of photos Neelys barbecue products and food, famous foodies and celebrity chefs who have visited. I was excited to see a picture of Guy Fieri and of Giada DiLaurentis, two of my favorite Food Network stars. If they’ve eaten here, I thought, the BBQ really must be good!
One of the best parts of my dining experience at Neelys BBQ was that all of the people behind the counter were the nicest servers I have ever encountered in my life. Yes, this is a bold statement I can comfortably make. It was mid-week lunchtime and there was a long line behind me of guys in suits waiting to get their BBQ fill.  Since this was my first time there, I had a million questions for the lady taking my order and I did hold up the line a little bit. I didn’t know what to expect and wondered if they were going to yell at me. (I did get yelled at for asking a question about hot peppers at Pat’s in Philadelphia once. You have to keep the line moving!!!) But this was the south. Either these people have a longer lunch hour or they’re just patient.  The server happily and patiently answered all of my questions and even recommended some of her own personal favorites.
I decided to order the BBQ Chicken Dinner – a half chicken slow roasted over hickory wood and glazed with the Neely’s mild BBQ Sauce. It had a really intense smokey flavor and was out of this world. The dinner platters were served with two sides so I enlisted the help of the Neelys employees in deciding which was the best side to get. They recommended the potato salad, hands down. They weren’t mistaken, the potato salad was very fresh and tasty. The chunks of potatoes were large and soaked up just enough of the creamy mayo.  I also went with the baked beans, which were delicious and I think a southern barbecue staple.
Intrigued by the notion of BBQ nachos, we sampled these as well. They looked somewhat like the old school tortilla chips and cheeze whiz from a can that you would get at a high school sporting event but they were surprisingly fresh tasting and really great.  The pulled pork hiding under the cheeze whiz was tender and not overly fatty. Warning: fork and napkin required. 

The ribs were phenomenal and fell right off of the bone. These are available wet or dry and there are three different kinds of barbecue sauce available at the counter for you to dip them in. I personally loved the original sauce – a little sweet and not too tangy, just the way a barbecue sauce should be.
The macaroni and cheese was similar in taste to the BBQ nachos, but definitely not my favorite bite of the day. But it’s not the fault of the Neelys. I didn’t care for the macaroni and cheese anywhere in Nashville.  I learned on this recent trip that I prefer French style macaroni and cheese, baked to a crisp engulfed in layers of gruyere and fontina, rather than the old school southern style. 

The ONLY “vegetable” on the menu at the Neely’s BBQ was the coleslaw. I was a little bit surprised and disappointed about this considering Gina is constantly raving about how much she loves collard greens and the romantic twosome are always whipping up enticing salad concoctions. The coleslaw was tasty and fresh, but I shuddered at the thought of how much sugar must be in it. But let’s be honest, we obviously weren’t here to have a healthy lunch. 🙂 

The Neelys menu also featured BBQ wings, which apparently were amazing and out of this world! (I don’t eat wings but I trust the reputation of these wings enough to recommend them!)

Finally, we had to finish off the meal with a sampling of a Neely dessert: the peach cobbler. I always love to watch Pat and Gina make desserts on their show and was really excited about having the chance to try a bite of one of their cobblers. The Peach Cobbler at Neely’s BBQ was sinfully light and scrumptious. A scoop of ice cream would have been the icing on my cobbler, but I was still happy with it as is! 

Lastly, as if my experience at Neelys BBQ wasn’t exciting or authentic enough, I was absolutely thrilled when  some of the servers took me in the back to see the electric fire pit in person, the powerhouse of the restaurant.  I almost died when I saw it – I literally almost fainted when the doors opened and a plume of BBQ smoke came at me.  (I did have to shower several times to rid myself of the smell of the bbq pit.  Ladies, do not expect to get close to your man after a trip to this place.) But it was well worth it and I will never forget this experience!!!

To all of the staff at Neelys BBQ, thanks for showing us “Yankee girls” an amazing time and serving us out of this world authentic southern BBQ! Love love loved it!

Enjoy!

Anyone who knows me knows that there is, in fact, one thing in this life that I love MORE than food: MUSIC! In honor of this one true and unconditional love, every year I travel to Nashville, TN with my beloved crew for the CMA Music Festival, which is undoubtedly the best live country music event anywhere EVER. (Think: the Bonnaroo of Country Music).  For four nights at LP Field (the home of the Tennessee Titans), a celebration of the best of country music takes place. Artists this year included Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellem, Martina McBride, the Zac Brown Band, Blake Shelton, Trace Atkins, Josh Turner and my girl Miranda Lambert. On September 1 at 8PM this event will be featured on ABC. Being present for this yearly event feels like partaking in an absolute fairytale. Sampling the best foods of Nashville is no different. I’ve posted some highlights below. 
This year we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the CMT Music Awards, which we immediately followed up with excessive pitchers of beer at from the Paradise Trailer Park. Hey, it is Tennessee after all and it was sweltering hot. But it made the greasy food we ordered all the better. Excellent grilled cheese sandwich on whole wheat toast with sweet potato fries with Carolina BBQ sauce. Other members of the crew enjoyed a chili cheese dog, chili cheeseburger, and macaroni and cheese. All served on top of wax paper in paper cartons on a red cafeteria style trays. The Paradise Park is one of our favorite drinking places downtown because it’s cheap and really fun – there’s always great live entertainment and great food! 

Another one of our Nashville staples is Rippy’s BBQ for multiple reasons including cost, convenience, atmosphere, speedy service and most importantly: AMAZING food!  This year we were a little disappointed because Rippy’s featured a special events menu which meant that our favorite Nashville sandwich of all time, the Pork Loin Sandwich on Texas Toast, was unavailable. (The horror!) But we still enjoyed their pulled pork bbq with a side of baked beans with jalapeños.  The cornbread is also a must have at Rippys – it’s as light and buttery as a pancake. 
One of our favorite things to do when we visit Nashville is to take a trip on the General Jackson Showboat.  This river cruise is an amazing way to enjoy the gorgeous TN weather. Good food, good drink, good company … there’s nothing better. We enjoyed a traditional southern bbq buffet on the outdoor deck before putting the bartenders to work inside. It was ridiculously gluttonous but worth every cent and every calorie. I attempted to capture the essence of this luncheon in one dish, seen below. 
A tossed mixed green salad, hot house grown cucumbers, grape tomatoes, blue cheese, croûtons and ranch dressing. (For some reason, it seems like everyone in the south LOVES Ranch dressing. It’s everywhere! This one tasted particularly fresh and may have been homemade.) To my delight, there was a fresh tomato and basil salad. “Rachel’s Sour Cream Baked Potato Salad” was absolutely amazing! I’ve never had this before and am wondering this twist on the potato salad is a southern trick? Rachel, if you are out there reading this, I would love this recipe! 🙂 
For the entree, we were treated to Coca-Cola Braised Beef Short Ribs, Buttermilk Fried Catfish and Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo. (Loved the gumbo – but I think that mine was just as good!) The sides were country herb roasted yellow potatoes, country style garden vegetables. For dessert, a vanilla bread pudding. 
The view from the General Jackson boat was beautiful but it was a little bittersweet as well. Remnants of the devastating flood were evident along the riverbanks of the Cumberland and it really saddened my heart to think about what the people of Tennessee went through and how much they have lost. Our driver tearfully told us how she lost all of her furniture in the flood. Thankfully, half of the proceeds of the CMA fest benefited flood victims of Middle Tennessee.  To learn more about how you can help: click here to visit the Red Cross; click here to visit the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee; and click here to visit Feeding America

All the barbecue in Nashville can seem a little bit overwhelming at times, so thankfully we were able to scour out a few places where we could find real lettuce, vegetables and other edible items not swimming in barbecue sauce, sugar and mayonnaise.  One of my favorite salads was the Hummus and Goat Cheese Salad with Grilled Chicken from the Big River Grille.  It’s a heaping pile of lettuce with roasted red peppers and tomatoes topped over warm grilled flat bread and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. I was very happy with this salad. 
Our server also recommended trying the Smoked Tomato Bruschetta with fresh basil and asiago cheese, claiming it was the best in at least 5 states.  As soon as she said it, I knew it probably wasn’t but I appreciated her recommendation and ordered it anyway. The capers in the bruschetta were a nice touch, but I wasn’t really crazy about the fact that the tomatoes were not served directly on the bread and they were room temperature. My family has been making bruschetta from home grown Pittston tomatoes so I am a little bit spoiled and bias. But I enjoyed this dish nonetheless. I also included a pic of the lemons I ordered – which tasted like little pieces of heaven squeezed into my glass of cold water on a 98 degree day. I cherished those first few sips.
My only problem with this restaurant was that we waited a ridiculous long time for our food and an eternity for our check. But it was the CMA Fest and they were understandably extremely busy. (Or maybe people in the south just aren’t as rushed as we are? I’m not sure.)  But props to the the Big River Grille for even being open after the devastating flood! I’d go back again. And I’d get the Hummus and Goat Cheese salad. 

Another option to try if you are looking for a salad is Tazza Restaurant which is on Church Street downtown.  This place got mixed reviews online but I enjoyed it and would go back again. It was an Italian pizzeria and we felt at home inside. My Mediterranean Salmon Salad with strawberries and creamy feta cheese was refreshing and crisp and the service was really great. Our server was so sweet and really tried to give us some good suggestions about what to order. 
Another highlight of our trip was the Josh Turner fan club party. For $35 a ticket, we enjoyed an intimate private concert by Josh, one of my favorite country artists.  We were pleasantly surprised that this price even included a catered Cracker Barrel Country Style Breakfast.  I tried biscuits and gravy for the first time in my life – they weren’t bad either! he servers looked shocked when I firmly passed on all the hot fruit toppings though – the idea of hot fruit on pancakes is not appetizing to me, but apparently it’s a huge thing in the south.

Hope you enjoyed my pics! Check back soon as I will be posting more on my fairytale feasts from Nashville soon! 🙂

I was recently invited to attend a real fairytale feast at the Scranton Cultural Center, compliments of Constantino’s Catering. Before every Broadway Theater show at the Cultural Center, Constantino’s caters “Dinner at the Theater,”  a pre-show feast normally consisting of passed hors d’oeurves, a salad station, and entrée station and a dessert, all for a menial cost of $25 per person. 

Each menu is different and Constantino’s creatively attempts to pair the dinner to the theme of the show.  For Mamma Mia, Constantino’s featured a Mediterranean Feast. I attended Dinner at the Theater before the showing of Beauty and the Beast and the menu was “Mangia Italiano.” 

Now, being the granddaughter of Italian two chefs and a loyal supporter of the family restaurant, the Gramercy, I was a little bit worried about whether or not I would truly enjoy an Italian-themed meal prepared by someone outside of the family. But as the elevator doors opened and I stepped out onto the second floor of the cultural center, I was pleased to be greeted by a giant cutout of cheese adorning a table of cured meats and mixed olives. I knew this would be a good evening that would surely not disappoint even the toughest critic and I was correct.

The antipasto station included a platter of assorted cheese, peppers, olives and breads. There was fresh mozzarella and and a roasted red pepper platter. The stuffed pepper shooters which were cleverly stuffed with provolone and prosciutto.  (Not too spicy, but not too mild – just right. And who can pass up prosciutto?)

The passed hors d’oeurves included Old Forge style pizza. For those readers not native to this area, Old Forge pizza is a square pizza with a crust that has a thicker consistency, see the Revello’s website for details. While I enjoy Old Forge style pizza every now and then, it’s never been my all-time favorite style. (I’m from Pittston and only eat Gramercy pizza, which is in a class all of its own. Plus after many years spent living in New York City, I am partial to thin crust slices.)  But from the first to the last bite, Constantino’s Old Forge style pizza was absolutely delicious and packed full of flavor. The crust wasn’t too thick or thin, too soft or too crunchy, too dry or too oily. It was just right. The sauce was sweet, just the way that I enjoy it. The cheese had flavor and there wasn’t too much or too little. I enjoyed the way it melted.  I had to restrain myself from asking for more, as I could have happily feasted on the anti-pasto station and this pizza alone and been satisfied.
I heard that there was also stromboli and prosciutto wrapped melon somewhere, but I never saw them because I couldn’t tear myself away from the antipasto station, which included a Caesar salad.

When it was time for dinner, each table was called to feast on a variety of pastas and entrees. 

Pork tenderloin stuffed with smoked provolone cheese, prosciutto and roasted red peppers in a Marsala wine sauce.

My favorite entree bite of the night was the Italian-style Tilapia. If the Beast had made this dish to exhibit his love for Belle, I bet he would have turned into a real human a whole lot sooner. I have never tasted Tilapia made this way but certainly hope to again. Though white fish served banquet style or on a buffet tends to dry out quickly, this fish was sinfully moist, fresh and tender, served swimming n a heavenly pool of buttery juices, fresh tomatoes and herbs. I savored each bite. Bravo, Larry!

The entrees were served with herbed red roasted potatoes and sauteed broccoli rabe with tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. 
Penne pasta with vodka marinara, bow tie pasta with sausage bolognese sauce and chicken parmigiana.

Finally, for dessert, there was a “dueling cannoli station” with regular and chocolate coated cannoli shells with a creamy ricotta cheese and assorted toppings – a perfect Italian dessert to compliment a perfect Italian style fairytale feast!

 
Enjoy! 🙂