In Nashville, Tennessee, aka Music City, there’s a tiny club called The Bluebird Cafe, where the world’s finest songwriters convene to sit in the round, strum acoustic guitars, and deliver heartfelt versions of the tunes they’ve penned for stadium-level performers like Pink and Keith Urban. Folks pack in here for good reason: You get an up-close-and-personal experience with behind-the-scenes geniuses as they serve up their very best.
The restaurant at Bastion is a bit like The Bluebird Cafe of fine dining. Just opened, this latest from Nashville’s peripatetic Strategic Hospitality—whose portfolio ranges from bowling alley/pool party Pinewood Social to the upscale French brasserie Le Sel—collapses the distance between chefs and diners, offering an intimacy that bares the soul of the cooking and makes you fall in love. It’s helmed by one of Nashville’s most beloved chefs, Josh Habiger, who was an originator of The Catbird Seat, Strategic Hospitality’s famed kitchen counter where diners hover above cooks crafting exceptional multi-course meals to pumping music. Bastion pulls guests even closer.
As at The Catbird Seat, Bastion chefs work in the open and do all of their own serving. But where the the interaction is more stylized at Catbird, the vibe is humble at Bastion. The food is also more approachable, the portions are larger, the prices ($9-$15 for à la carte dishes; $100 for prix fixe feasts) are gentle, and the format—Chinese-menu-like checklists at the counter and family-style shared plates at the three tables—projects a casualness that belies the sophistication of the food. You feel kick-off-your-shoes comfy.
It all starts outside the restaurant, in a warehouse-style bar designed to be a neighborhood watering hole for the up-and-coming artsy area of Wedgewood Houston. Set within an old preserves factory, the space has sky-high ceilings and a garage-door front that opens onto the scruffy street. It’s filled with eclectic artworks and midcentury seating. To go with cocktails, batch punch, and boilermakers of all sorts is a sole menu item: loaded nachos. Given the venue's friendly, breezy, fun vibe, you could spend all night here, never venturing into the restaurant, which is hidden speakeasy-style behind a rolling metal door.
But you can choose to enter because, unlike other restaurants of its size and caliber, Bastion offers first-come, first-serve counter seating. “It becomes less special occasion-y,” Habiger explains. “If I have a buddy who wants to stop by at 5:30 and have some snacks, I would love to have him.”
Those “snacks” might include raw oysters served atop a brisk cucumber mousse and finished with a seaweed, cider vinegar, and ramp mignonette. Or meaty, pear wood-smoked ribs glazed in honey, fish sauce, and ume plum vinegar and covered in fragrant cilantro dotted with pickled gooseberries. Habiger has cooked in places as minimalist at New York City’s Craft and as gastromolecular as Chicago’s Alinea, so a dish at Bastion might be as traditional as chicken and dumplings, here set atop a smoky cauliflower cream and gorgeously strewn with celery leaves and pea tendrils. Or it might be as outlandish as a tangy slaw of carrots fermented in rye sourdough and served on yogurt with nutty granola, green-apple caramel, and crunchy, pickled kohlrabi and turnips. Or, even more outrageous, a savory-sweet sunchoke ice cream with a foie gras caramel, green apple granita, and a shortbread that tastes like chocolate but is, in fact, flavored with malt.
But everything, as elevated and thoughtful as it is, also comforts and satisfies. Puffed wild rice adds a toasty crunch to just-blanched split peas; rich pistachio butter offsets bitter, braised escarole in a dish of cod cheeks swimming in a buttermilk dill broth so delicious you will want to slurp it straight from the bowl. And it all tastes better because the chefs, though they’re working, are happy to chat with diners about what they are serving. “We want it to feel like you’re sitting in someone’s kitchen,” says Habiger.
At tables, which are reserved for a family-style meal, often featuring a centerpiece roast (leg of lamb, whole duck), “it’s like a dinner party,” says Habiger. And, as at a dinner party, some guests get so cozy that they play impromptu D.J. The vintage Pioneer receiver, turntable, and stack of vinyls—in a digital world, Bastion’s charm boils down to a word that Habiger loves to use: analog.
“Sometimes you have to go through certain analog things, like trussing a chicken before roasting it. That’s an important part of the process. Grabbing a physical record, pulling it out of its sleeve, and putting the needle on it is part of that philosophy,” says Habiger, who’s looking forward to keeping Bastion’s old-school party going. “I’m hoping that once we become more established, people will bring records and say, ‘Hey, can we listen to this when we’re having dinner tonight?’ It would be really cool.”
Dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday, starting at 5:30 P.M.; 434 Houston St., Nashville, TN; 615-490-8434; bastionnashville.com.
Image Credit: Danielle Atkins