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Checking out Sean Brock's The Continental

As I recently told Dave Infante of Fingers in an interview for his podcast, it’s time to get back to the business of sizing up restaurants. And where better to begin than at Sean Brock’s first fine dining venture since McCrady’s?

Even the pâte en croute comes on a cart.

All kinds of things come on a cart at The Continental, one of three places that chef Sean Brock has opened in Nashville during the pandemic.

The right-now chatter is centered on Audrey, a brand-new Appalachian restaurant that’s being framed as the culinary equivalent of a midlife memoir. But I’ve been curious about The Continental since it opened at the Grand Hyatt this past May: It sounded like the second coming of McCrady’s Tavern, Brock’s brilliant and short-lived tribute to the Gilded Age apex of cosmopolitan cookery.

At McCrady’s Tavern in Charleston, most of the allusions to robber baron luxury were confined to the table: McCrady’s Tavern is where Brock’s team served tater tots with caviar. But the Grand Hyatt Nashville built out its whole dining room as a cheat sheet to the resident restaurant’s theme, with classy wood-paneled walls; ceiling-to-floor drapery and plenty of space to maneuver wooden service carts.

There are so many carts at The Continental that anyone who spends much time in the company of wheeled vehicles might start to worry about available parking spaces. Yet in the hands of The Continental’s impressively suave service staff, they never crowd or clatter: They do their job of enhancing the dreamy atmosphere and ferrying around big meaty items, such as prime rib and the pâte en croute, perhaps the emblematic item of the style that the South’s best-known chef intends to celebrate.

Our pâte en croute was pushed by a blue-aproned young chef who took a craftsperson’s pride in the long loaf of pastry-wrapped terrine. The man explained that he’d been working diligently to master the components of the form, which requires fluency in fats and aspic and takes at least two days to create.

In a widely circulated press photo of The Continental’s pâte en croute cart, there is a quartet of seductively split meat pies, each outfitted as though the cart’s next stop is the Met Gala: One wears a crown of citrus slices suspended in maroon-hued gelatin; another has an outer coat of honeycomb-patterned pastry.

Weeknight pâte en croute, at least on a recent October Tuesday, is a more straightforward affair: It’s an oblong of coarse carnivorous bits, apparently chosen for flavor rather than visual drama, sliced and served with dabs of port wine gelee; onion compote and a mustard-colored fruit ketchup.

It’s ridiculously good.

And like those Carnegies and Vanderbilts who amassed wealth comfortably, The Continental’s pâte en croute is one of several menu items that’s phenomenally rich but doesn’t register as a daredevil fling with making yourself sick. Brock’s latter-day interest in wellness has perhaps crept into his dish construction, much to the benefit of pleasure-minded diners with garden-variety guts.

Still, that’s only the third best thing about the pâte en croute, just a nose behind its flaky pâte brisee crust. My favorite thing about the pâte en croute is the case it makes for the continued significance of restaurants (and thank heavens, restaurant reviews.)

While the prime rib cried out for a potato partner on the night I tried it, there was plenty of loveliness contained in a side of grilled honeynut squash/ Hanna Raskin

This, by the way, is not a restaurant review. I know it looks like one, what with the words and all. But there’s a methodology to formal reviews: Namely, I make multiple anonymous and unannounced visits to a restaurant that’s been open for at least one month before putting up my assessment.

I’ve explained those rules so many times that I’ve completely internalized them: I’ll probably be the old lady at the nursing home making a second trip through the cafeteria line so I can decide what to say on my comment card about the Salisbury steak.

Otherwise, though, my reviewing muscles have gotten flabby: I quit writing them at the start of lockdown, in large part because South Carolina reopened indoor dining nearly 11 months before vaccines were available to all adults. Even if I raved about a takeout order, there was nothing to stop readers from eating indoors at the restaurant which produced it, putting employees and other vulnerable members of our community at mortal risk.  

Now, though, it’s time to get back to work on behalf of the eaters who deserve fantastic meals after so much turmoil and tragedy. And I wanted to start in Nashville because The Continental and Brock’s counter-service joint, Joyland, sum up what seem to be the two main options for big-name chefs right now: Hook up with a hotel or hawk burgers, which is what’s going on over at Joyland.

Joyland serves biscuits, milkshakes, chicken-on-a-stick and cheeseburgers. A “crustburger,” which is supposed to be something like the soccarat of a meat patty, could have been a little lower-down and dirtier, but it’s hard to mount any complaints in the face of Joyland’s relentlessly upbeat branding

Yet I doubt I’ll think back on my Joyland meal, whereas I keep reflecting on that pâte en croute guy. Cheffy comfort food may be fun for now, but it’s not moving the needle any.

To Brock’s credit, he didn’t shy away from The Continental’s setting when he came up with an identity for the restaurant. Instead, he leaned hard into it, reviving the feelings of fanciness and fineries that defined hotel dining before grand banquets gave way to chicken breast luncheons.

Hotels’ glories aren’t entirely in the past, though. For years, talented cooks and trained chefs have ended up in hotel kitchens because big companies can offer what independent restaurant owners often claim they can’t, including health insurance, professional growth opportunities, and programs in support of workplace diversity. When the pâte en croute creator at our table spoke proudly of the pastry skills he’d acquired, I felt my hotel restaurant cynicism shrink a few sizes.

In other words, before we burn it all down on the fine dining front, it might be worth looking at how some hotel restaurants are operating. Of course, that’s moot if the food is played-out and boring, but that’s never the case at The Continental.

At The Continental, for $85-$110, each diner gets a choice of entrée and dessert; everything else is served automatically. In the entrée column, the prime rib has gotten all the attention, and rightly so: While a wedge of potato-crusted halibut was a mite overcooked, the hulky prime rib, drenched in its own juices, is stunning. It’s edged by cracklings that make good on the satisfaction promise of the crust on the Joyland burger.

Because the fish was making its first appearance on the night we tried it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kitchen has since worked out its timing. The only other noticeable imperfections – a cloying savory custard in a fetching silver egg cup and a somewhat predictable wine list – are similarly easy to fix.

“Easy” is a weird word to use in connection with The Continental, since Brock and chef de cuisine Colin Shane aren’t sending out anything that feels underthought or rushed.

To orient diners to the experience ahead, dinner starts with an oyster “Continental” that deserves the permanence that the “Rockefeller” preparation earned. Essentially a starkly fresh version of the latter, the “Continental” is an ice-cold oyster topped with a spinach microgreen; spritz of lime; domestic caviar and daub of Pernod jelly.

So much at The Continental is special. Yet only three dishes bear The Continental’s name: The oyster; the prime rib and an utterly remarkable salad that looks like a standard pile of greens; a dollop of buttermilk dressing and a seeded slice of avocado.

Perhaps I’d forgotten, before tasting that salad, about the importance of serving lettuce at precisely the right moment. Maybe I’d blanked on the practice of honoring proportions on a plate. It felt good to be reminded that luxury isn’t limited to dishes involving chilled butter and terrine molds.

Or to put it another way: After more than a year of dodging restaurants, and an even longer stretch of not writing reviews, I’m looking forward to my first and second meals at Audrey.   

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