Nashville food and music scene: Chef Tandy Wilson spills his secrets

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Nashville chef Tandy Wilson shares some of his city's essential experiences

A show at the Ryman and a meat-and-three meal are Nashville musts

CNN  — 

There are only two essential elements to doing Nashville right: music and food.

And the choices for both auditory and gustatory indulgence are getting broader and broader in the booming Tennessee capital, where nearly 100 new residents arrive each day.

Chicken fried every which way is still very much on the menu in Nashville, but now forks carrying smoked carp and octopus are also making their way to mouths wide open to ingredients unheard of on menus of the not-so-distant past.

That’s the case at City House, where chef and Nashville native Tandy Wilson has been turning local products into inventive Italian dishes with rich Southern accents since opening the restaurant in 2007 in the Germantown neighborhood.

“We have a market of customers that are really willing to see what’s going on and try what it is you’re doing,” said Wilson, 39, who won a James Beard Award in 2016 for best chef in the Southeast.

Wilson is considered a pioneer of his hometown culinary community, where City House’s opening served as a catalyst for the now thriving Nashville food scene. He’s a big music fan, too.

We asked Wilson for some tips on what to see and try in Music City.

Bourdain on Nashville: We left ‘damaged but happy’

For starters: The Ryman

Seeing a show in the 1892 tabernacle-turned-Ryman Auditorium is a near-religious experience.

The Ryman Auditorium is the sacred cornerstone of a trip to Nashville.

“Find a show at the Ryman that you want to see and buy those tickets, and then plan the rest of your trip around that,” Wilson advises his guests.

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Bourdain parties like a rock star in Nashville
01:25 - Source: CNN

“You know, it’s the Mother Church. It’s the best. You walk in there and you get chill bumps and you say to yourself, ‘man, if these walls could talk,’” Wilson said.

An 1892 tabernacle-turned-performance space, the Ryman Auditorium was home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show for three decades and has hosted nearly every name in country music and scores and scores of musicians of other genres.

This “Mother Church of Country Music” is just steps from Lower Broadway and popular downtown Nashville honky-tonk Robert’s Western World.

“If we’re down at the Ryman for a show, we’re going to spend a little time at Robert’s and hear some good music,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s also a fan of a hip-hop party called the Boom Bap, hosted monthly at the Basement East in East Nashville.

For a special occasion: Bastion

This scallop and melon dish appeared on a menu at Bastion, a restaurant from chef Josh Habiger.

Wilson and his wife recently had a phenomenal meal at Bastion, a 24-seat restaurant-within-a-bar from chef Josh Habiger, who brought a flood of national attention to Nashville when he opened The Catbird Seat in 2011.

Bastion, which opened in 2016, is “one of those places where the kitchen does most of the service so you have a lot of interaction with them as far as what you’re eating,” Wilson said. “You know, all the menu descriptions are like two words. So it’s a total guess or you’re going to have a conversation.”

Case in point from a September menu: the deceptively simple Scallop + Melon.

The dish consists of thin slices of raw scallop placed on pieces of melon, topped with diced white onions soaked in verjus, and sprinkled with tiny basil buds and carrot greens. The plate is then dressed with spicy, Carolina Reaper chile-infused buttermilk and a little bit of tarragon oil.

Another great date night idea? Margot Café and Bar in East Nashville, where Wilson sharpened his skills with mentoring from chef Margot McCormack, another Nashville culinary pioneer.

“If you’re going out on a date, I just feel like there are few places better than that,” Wilson said.

For a casual meal out: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

Martin’s Bar-B-Que is one of Wilson’s go-tos for casual dining.

Founder and pit master Pat Martin “is another dear friend, but a whole-hog sandwich with slaw on it is like, that’s my favorite food. That’s my death-row meal,” Wilson said.

Martin opened the restaurant’s first location in 2006 in Nolensville, Tennessee. There are now four Tennessee locations, including a new spot in downtown Nashville.

For the classics: Arnold’s Country Kitchen

No visit to Nashville would be complete without digging into a meat of your choice accompanied by three delicious Southern side dishes.

“Memphis is a barbecue city, right? We’re a meat-and-three city,” Wilson said, and Arnold’s is a standard-bearer.

“I think that Arnold’s Country Kitchen defines our city better than any other restaurant that we have.”

But what about the ubiquitous and sought-after Nashville hot chicken? Legend goes that the fiery chicken was originally fried up as a woman’s revenge on a cheating man.

It’s a little too intense for Wilson’s taste.

“I don’t really eat it,” he said. “I go honky-tonking more than I eat hot chicken, without people in town. It just tears me up. I like good fried chicken and I like spicier fried chicken and don’t get me wrong, I’ll go eat it, but I don’t do anything like ‘I want the extra-hot.’”

When he goes, when there are people in town, he goes to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack or Hattie B’s Hot Chicken.

Roaming around, sampling life’s little pleasures – and a taste of pain here and there – really is the thing to do in Nashville.

“That’s really most of what we do is eat and listen to music here,” Wilson said.