Chef R.J. Cooper's new restaurant shines with shared plates and smart cocktails

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Nashville Scene

By Dana Kopp Franklin

One of the forces that is shaping Nashville’s evolving food scene is the continual opening of new hotels. Because hotel restaurants have the security of a built-in customer base of tourists, they get to worry less about the lag time it takes before Nashvillians discover and accept a groundbreaking spot.

One example of this hotel-driven restaurant dynamic is The 404 Kitchen, which opened alongside the tiny 404 Hotel in the booming Gulch neighborhood in 2013. It gave chef Matt Bolus an expansive playground (albeit inside a minuscule kitchen) for his experiments and creativity, and it wound up earning a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant in the nation. (Having outgrown its quirky shipping-container home, The 404 Kitchen remains in the Gulch but is set to officially reopen this week in the much larger space across the street formerly occupied by Watermark.)

A more recent example of a hotel teaming with an ambitious restaurant is Henley, the dining spot that opened in June inside the the Kimpton Aertson Hotel in Midtown. Henley is an adventurous spot with a well-credentialed chef at the helm: R.J. Cooper, who won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for his work in Washington, D.C.

During its long construction, the mixed-use Aertson development — hotel, apartments and retail in one massive complex — struck many observers as an oversized monstrosity set precariously upon the busy confluence of Division, Broadway and 20th Avenue South, less than a block from Vanderbilt campus. I was one of skeptics, and while I still think the structure looks overscaled, now that I’ve gotten to explore the excellent food at Henley, I can say I’m pleased with what the Kimpton boutique hotel chain has brought to the diners of Nashville.

Joined by a couple of dining companions, I visited Henley, subtitled “an American brasserie,” on three occasions and found it to be a farm-to-table restaurant of great creativity, with carefully crafted cocktails to match.

The dinner menu is designed to encourage sharing. First, there’s a small appendix to the menu that consists of a slate of snacks to share. The left side of the main menu, meanwhile, features a column of small plates, again with an emphasis on sharing. On the right side is a list of communal dishes, designed to feed multiple diners.

(One offering that was on the menu during my recent visits is a five-course tasting menu that re-creates the special dinner that Cooper served Nov. 11 at the James Beard House in New York. As tempting as it looked, I knew it was a fleeting option, so I stuck to the regular menu.)

With helpful explanation from our servers, we wrangled the menu successfully — and on my visits that led to meals that were rich in variety without the burden of gustatory overload. I am told the menu changes frequently, based on the freshest ingredients, but I can report on what was available in the past couple of weeks.

Since the menu takes a few minutes to peruse, it’s worth ordering something from the small snacks menu while you strategize. My favorite thing on that list was an order of Parker House rolls: so simple, but so soft — practically melting — and satisfying. 

On the main menu, the first item that deserves notice is on the list of communal dishes: a whole Springer Mountain Chicken roasted and served with a torn sourdough panade, acorn squash and ’nduja sauce. The panade, as presented, bore some resemblance to the traditional bread stuffing served with poultry — the chunks of sourdough soaked up the juices of the chicken and became extremely savory. The sauce, made with spicy ’nduja sausage, added depth without overpowering the chicken. It turned out to be one of the best versions of roast chicken I’ve had in my life, and while it initially seemed pricey at $50, it handily served three diners with plenty of chicken to take home as leftovers. (The panade was even more flavorful the second day.)

Another outstanding dish (also delightfully novel) is the plate of fried “sugar toads,” a seasonal delicacy from the Chesapeake Bay. Chef Cooper discovered it back in D.C.— a small puffer fish described by fishermen as “sweet as sugar, ugly as a toad.” The fish’s lumpy, “ugly” appearance doesn’t really matter the way Cooper serves it, enrobed in sourdough tempura with malt vinegar powder (a nod to English fish-and-chips) and seaweed-black-vinegar aioli. The little fish are marvelously sweet, melt-in-your-mouth nuggets that you hold by the tail to enjoy all at once, in one or two big bites. Again, this immediately ranked highly on my life list of dishes — one of the very best versions of fried fish I’ve ever had.

For those who demand meat, I recommend the plate of corned beef made with local Bear Creek Farms beef, served with deep-fried pierogi. Pickled red cabbage and Russian hollandaise give the dish a hint of homage to the Reuben sandwich. It was a succulent treat.

Henley’s romaine salad is a similarly creative twist on a classic, with elements of the emperor of salads, the Caesar. Baby romaine is put on a grill and served with hen-egg pudding and roasted garlic dressing, topped with a good Caesar salad’s secret weapon: white anchovies. Warm lettuce may sound unorthodox, but the whole package was excellent.

Henley also has a strong cocktail program. I liked the Cold Cobbler, which was served with a sizable portion of crushed ice, but had rich and warming main ingredients: fino sherry and the rarer palo cortado sherry, seasoned with cinnamon to help invoke the cobbler theme, and a garnish of figs. It was unusual and addictive — despite my best efforts to slow down, I swiftly sipped up the whole thing.

One of my companions ordered one of the loveliest vodka cocktails that I can recall. The Greenlands cocktail pairs Ketel One Vodka with pineau de charentes blanc (a grapey cousin of French cognac) and acqua di cedro (a lemony Italian aperitif). It’s served in a coupe glass with lime, salt and edible nasturtium leaves, and tastes likes a liquefied garden of pure sweet green essence.

Helping to navigate the menu were the friendly and knowledgeable servers. My only gripe was one of my pet irritants — being told only after ordering that a menu item is unavailable or has changed. In this case, the swordfish listed on the menu had been replaced by tuna; since the two fish really aren’t that interchangeable, I was forced into a quick reassessment of my ordering plan. But that’s a relatively minor quibble in a very welcoming ambience.

As is to be expected in a restaurant connected to a chic Kimpton hotel, Henley features striking decor, combining midcentury design elements with hints of history stretching back even further. The large U-shaped bar tends to attract hotel visitors to drink and dine expeditiously. The sit-down seating is convivial, divided between a black-and-white-tiled bistro-style area in front, and roomier banquettes in the back half of the room.

Interestingly, Henley also contains a secret that I’ve yet to explore. Concealed behind a panel in the room is The Rabbit Hole, a special table in the kitchen where Cooper serves guests a massive, multi-course chef’s tasting menu. For $225 per person, the website promises, The Rabbit Hole delivers “an experiential meal you must encounter to believe,” created via the whimsy of the chef; it’s a dinner “inspired by Tennessee, its rich bounty, and crafted with modernist techniques.”

I enjoyed Henley, endorse it and plan to go back. But the fact that there’s a secret level behind the surface of this brasserie makes it more mysterious and ambitious than even New Nashville is used to.

Henley

2023 Broadway

615-340-6378

Grilled Baby Romaine $10

Sugar Toads $16

Bear Creek Farms Corned Beef $20

Cocktails $12