Saturday night in Nashville:
I remember when Jody Faison and Randy Rayburn began to change how we Nashvillians thought about food. Before Randy and Jody, Tex-Mex was considered novel cuisine, guacamole came in industrial sized cans from Robert Orr Sysco and the waitresses pronounced quesadilla like the Texans pronounce armadillo. Jimmy Kelly’s was a go to place with the staid, unimaginative food that was just right for our Tennessee legislators – thick steaks, a baked potato on the side, black waiters for the mostly white power brokers. There was Sperry’s in Belle Meade to cater to the gentry with their own version of quite ordinary food. For the rest of us there weren’t a lot of choices and frankly we didn’t know any better. The Loveless Motel was considered a good place to have breakfast with their white biscuits and white sausage gravy. In Hillsboro Village there was Pancake Pantry and I’ve got to say, I have always loved their cornmeal pancakes. There was Ciraco’s, a decent Italian place and Mario’s, the upscale Italian place. They were considered the best of the best but looking back I am amazed at how dismal our food choices were.
Then came the dynamic duo. First, Jody opened Faison’s and then Randy, the Sunset Grill and our eyes were opened. I am still in awe of their fortitude and vision. Restaurants are grueling and uncertain endeavors. The failure rate for new restaurants is huge. Jody had a magnificent 23 year run ending in 2004 when the last of his many wonderful restaurants closed. Frankly, I used to say he’d made a pact with the devil because every restaurant he opened was imaginative, fun and found an immediate following.
Rayburn has persevered with his three wonderful restaurants. Nashville is a city of fine dining thanks in large part to the efforts of these two visionaries. There is now a Randy Rayburn School of Culinary Arts and many of his protégées from his early years and from the school have created fine restaurants of their own.
So I am excited to be having dinner at one of the granddaddies of them all, the Sunset Grill. Randy always went in for long menus and long wine lists and sure enough we were presented with his usual 20” menu and an equally lengthy wine list. I see some of the old favorites on the menu as well as some exciting new items. What to do? I decide to go with the stir fry which I had never gotten when I lived in Nashville. I was not disappointed. It was wonderfully spiced, vegetables perfectly cooked. Linda got the Beggar’s Purse, an old standby from the Third Coast Restaurant, a restaurant Randy managed before opening Sunset Grill. It’s comfort food writ large, a pot pie in phyllo dough, deep flavors, satisfying on so many levels. I got to sample it and noticed different flavors from the one I remember. When I asked Randy about it, he said, “Original Beggars Purse was at Third Coast with a seafood, mushroom duxelles mixture. It went off the Sunset menu by the hand of a chef with a bigger ego than mine. That’s BIG! It returned in 2011 with a smoked BBQ pork filling as the current rendition. “ An ego bigger than Randy’s? I’d love to know who that was!
Randy, my husband Randy, had the hangar steak. Hangar steak is very flavorful but can be tough if not prepared properly. This one was tender and delicious.
I would have loved to have tried so many of his newer dishes: shrimp and grits with Tobasco butter, Mississippi delta catfish with Benton’s country ham butter bean confit or braised lamb shank with Tennessee pumpkin. All those dishes are what I began to call, “Down Home Food, Done Up.” I found so many restaurants in Nashville were revisiting southern standards but doing them with finesse and a light touch lacking in the original.
Tonight, however, is a night of reminiscing and so I am happy to have the stir fry with a few bites of the Beggar’s Purse. Next trip, however, I really want to try the Coca-Cola BBQ Short Rib with sweet potato Johnny cakes.