How to Eat Like an Award Winner in Nashville
Lisa Donovan's savory and sweet recommendationsLeah Koenig
November 25, 2019
Lisa Donovan is one of the country’s best pastry chefs. Full stop. The Nashville-based chef’s creations (everything from buttermilk chess pie and peach hand pies to caramel layer cake) have anchored the dessert menus at some of the city’s top restaurants from Husk to City House to Margot Cafe and Bar. But since leaving Husk’s kitchen in 2014, she said she has “put the days of the kitchen arena happily behind me.”
Today, Donovan devotes time to her other passion—food writing. Donovan’s 2017 James Beard Award–winning Food & Wine essay about sexual harassment in the professional kitchen made waves and, more importantly, encouraged other women to own and share their stories. Next summer, Penguin will publish her first memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger.
Donovan is an unabashed fan of her city’s culinary scene—from the old school meat-and-threes to the high-end (but not pretentious) fine dining spots. She has even found a few stand-out desserts that break through her exacting pastry chef standards. I spoke with her earlier this year to learn more about her Nashville favorites.
(Note: this interview has been edited.)
Anytime I want a beautiful, well-articulated, and not pretentious meal I go to Folk. I don’t think I’ve had a miss there yet. It wears me out when restaurants try too hard, but the team at Folk cooks confidently and from a place of great care. They have this amazing version of a Caesar salad made with cucumbers, trout roe, and these super-duper twice-crispy bread crumbs. It’s not traditional at all, but it has just the right flavor profile. It is also very rare that I go nuts over a dessert, but I love their tiramisù cream puff. It has a crispy texture outside with a beautiful set cream inside that tastes just like tiramisù. It is covered in cocoa powder and a bit of finely ground coffee—it is super simple and so perfect, which is emblematic of every dish at Folk.
We also have had amazing meals at Peninsula, which is a Spanish restaurant. They have an awesome gin and tonic program and beautiful sherries on the drinks menu. And their food manages to have elements of molecular gastronomy while still feeling warm and lovely and not intimidating or obnoxious. We had this perfectly cooked mackerel dish that came in a bowl of yeasted foam. Upon first appearance I was like, “Oh great, foam.” But it is the most wonderful dish that somehow evolves every few bites.
And the desserts—I was so mad about how good they were! We had one that was a sweet milk ice cream with caviar and housemade potato chips. It was so crazy. We also had a sassafras panna cotta with this beautiful cloud of whipped cream that somehow had the texture of a marshmallow. I’m very particular about panna cotta, but I swear it is one of the most lovely desserts I’ve had in a long time.
For special occasions, we also love this old-school steakhouse called Sperry’s. My son, who is now almost 20, has been requesting it for his birthday dinner since he was a kid. They have one of those killer salad bars where everything is in a metal container on ice, and I drown my feelings in Thousand Island dressing. They have a delicious trout amandine and shrimp scampi. Everything comes out from the kitchen the same way every time—but not in a boring way, in a beautiful way.
Another place I’d be remiss not to mention is Arnold’s Country Kitchen [a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic!], which is a meat-and-three restaurant run by the Arnold family. I appreciate that they spend the extra money on good meat and work with local farmers while still making their food really affordable to people. And the food is so very good—the fried catfish, the stewed cabbage, their beautiful squash casserole. I could literally go to Arnold’s every day. I have to purposefully forget that it is there or I really would.
I don’t love to spend money on coffee away from home–so often you get charged eight bucks for a cup of fancy coffee that tastes like hot orange juice. But two friends of mine opened this place called Crema that is wonderful. Their espresso is my favorite and they have this coffee soda that I love. It’s cold and fizzy with a citrusy essence. It gets so hot here, so it’s the perfect thing to drink in August when it is 500 degrees outside.
Nashville has the highest Kurdish immigrant population in the United States, and there’s this great Kurdish bakery called Azadi making traditional flatbreads. They sell other things like olives and halva, but when I go in I typically make a beeline straight to the back to watch these four women slapping the breads around this round-bellied oven. I get a little teary, get my bread—usually a plain one that I warm up in the oven and brush with garlic butter—and go home.
For cocktails I love this place called Duke’s. My husband, who is a sculptor, and I primarily work from home these days. Sometimes we will take a midday break and head over to Duke’s for gin and tonics. They make these killer stoner sandwiches too, like the sloppiest grilled cheese with hot giardiniera. We go and crush one of those and a gin and tonic and get back to work.
Lisa Donovan’s Nashville Dining Guide
Arnold’s Country Kitchen (Meat and Three)
605 8th Avenue South; 615-256-4455
Azadi International Food Market (Bakery)
91 Elysian Fields Ct; 615-315-0940
1000 Main St; 615-228-2697
Folk (New American, Seasonal)
823 Meridian Street; 615-610-2595
1035 W Eastland Ave; 615-679-0377
Sperry’s Restaurant (Surf and Turf)
Leah Koenig is a food writer, author of several cookbooks, including her latest, The Jewish Cookbook (Phaidon), and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @leah.koenig.