Nashville Gaylord — Real Food in a Fake Place (Grade: A-)

So I had the opportunity (?) to spend a week at Nashville’s Gaylord Hotel (aka, the “Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center”) which is located near absolutely nothing worth paying attention to, except maybe the Grand Ole Opry and Cooter’s Dukes of Hazzard Museum.  This becomes relevant if you find yourself in my situation:  at the hotel without a car.  Generally, I don’t give hotel restaurants a second thought unless:  1) I’m in Vegas, or 2) I don’t have my own transportation.  So, faced with the options of a snack-mix dinner, $25 (one-way) cab rides downtown, Shoney’s or some weird hunting/redneck-motifed joint across the street … hotel food it was.

If you haven’t been to a Gaylord Hotel, you should get someone to drop you off at the front door (park, and you’ll be out $20 or so) so that you can wander around.  The place is a sight to behold.  Essentially, it’s a biosphere — a hopelessly fake place under a giant glass dome.  They’ve got waterfalls, “garden” paths and canals replete with guided boat tours (really).  The air handlers even manage to create a breeze in the afternoon.  Guests wander about slack-jawed taking pictures of plants, little statues, koi fish, the above-mentioned boats, and virtually every other fixed item in the place.  Most of said guests should spend a little more time investigating the nice hotel gym, which overlooks the great pools, in which a number of guests who really, really should be investigating the gym splash about (on the upside, you’ll feel extra good about yourself as you charge ahead on the treadmill) … but I digress.  Being in the Gaylord is like being in an amusement park with no rides.  It’s just plain weird.  I mean, one part of the hotel is made up to resemble Venice.  Now listen to me, here:  if you want to sit next to canals and eat great food as the sun sets over the Italian horizon:  GO TO ITALY.  Seriously.  Just buy plane tickets and fly to Venice.  In the end, you’ll pay just a little more for something 100% real.

To give the Gaylord credit, they are a seriously green operation.  With more than 2,800 rooms, the hotel has equipped each with low-flow fixtures.  They have their own in-house water recycling operation for their low-water laundry systems.  They sort recyclables out of the trash and due to the glass dome, natural light abounds.  Even the restaurants feature grass-fed and free-range meats.  So, weird and fake as the place is, mega kudos for their enlightened practices.

By definition, hotel food is seriously overpriced, and Gaylord doesn’t disappoint on this front.  Let me give you an idea here:  a room-service continental breakfast (two pastries, yogurt, berries and juice or coffee) will run you $17.  Plus $3 delivery charge.  Plus 21% service charge.  Plus tax.  The thing is is that the profit margin in the food isn’t just getting pocketed — it pays for the fake waterfall, the music coming out of the ground, the pretty blue lights … you’re buying the atmosphere, the experience.  Of course, when you’re totally jaded like me, you just feel like you’re being ripped off, but I’m trying to pretend to be at least a little balanced here.  (it isn’t working, is it?)

OK, so the food.  Let me state that I am making an exception to my rule of not reviewing places I have only dined at once.  I am a firm believer that one should not judge a restaurant based upon one lousy server or one bad experience.  But, I am only here for the week, and “Music City” isn’t high on my places to go back to (if I want a good music city experience, I’m going to Austin).

Solario — Fortunately, I’m not a big “first impressions” person

Solario was the only disappointment of the four restaurants I tried, and it bombed on several levels.  The hotel bills the place as “authentic Mexican,” which I am an authentic sucker for.  It was also my first meal at the Gaylord, and it started out promisingly enough — the host cheerfully guided me to my seat, pointing out the guacamole stand he did part-time duty at along the way and explaining that the barkeep infuses the liquors in-house.

The waitress, whom I assume was new, started undoing the experience immediately.  I asked for the cucumber/cilantro-themed Pepino margarita.  She looked at me blankly.  Another waitress whispered something in her ear, but my waitress continued to just stare at me.  I pulled out the menu and pointed at what I wanted, and that did the trick.  I was curious about the house-infused floaters referenced in the menu, but I didn’t want to upset the applecart any more than I already had and risk getting a Corona Light poured over an avocado.

The ten-buck margarita fell squarely in the “OK” camp.  Nice liquors, but the heavy-handed pour of simple syrup wiped out most of the cucumber and cilantro flavors.  Any straggling nuances were killed off by a salted rim that would be the envy of ice cream machines everywhere.

Solario violated my first commandment of Mexican restaurants in the United States:  Thou shalt provide free chips and salsa.  Five fifty for chips and salsa?  Really?  Ten bucks for guacamole?  And you don’t even get salsa when you order guacamole?  Catastrophic fail.

[Don't try and sell me some line of b.s. about "hand-crafted" salsa.  You want good salsa?  Grab your blender, toss in a can of diced tomatoes, half a handful of chopped onions, a diced jalapeno or two, a tablespoon of garlic powder, a teaspoon of salt, one lime's worth of juice, and a handful of cilantro leaves.  Blend.  You now have gourmet salsa.  Wanna be really fancy?  Roast fresh tomatoes and use those instead of canned ones.  You can roast the jalapenos and onions or grill all of them.  Grill a mango and toss that in the blender.  Simmer the salsa if you like a deeper, denser flavor.  The bottom line is that the whole affair is going to set you back two bucks or less.]

Being a little late in the afternoon, I thought I would go for a couple appetizers rather than a full-blown entree.   (The waitress blurted out the name of a special — a “bomber burrito” or something, but couldn’t explain what was in it).

Me:  “How large is the pozole?”

Her:  “What?”

Me:  [pointing to the pozole in the menu]  “How big is this?  Is it a large bowl, or a small one?”

Her:  “It’s like a regular bowl of soup.”

To cut her some slack, US-centric diners aren’t really accustomed to the concept of soup-as-a-meal, so my money is that she has no idea that pozole normally comes in a gallon-sized bowl … hence my query about the size.

I also ordered the empenadas (pointing to them in the menu), at which point the waitress yanked the menu out of my hand and stormed off.  Now, I know I probably come across as totally pompous in this blog, but I go out of my way to be polite and cheerful to waitstaff, because I know how little they are paid.  So, I don’t know if she was frustrated that I had to point to everything in the menu, or if she was hoping I would have ordered more food or what (note that the drink and two appetizers came to almost $40).

Anyway, the pozole had about five pieces of hominy in a flat broth.  Keep in mind the two main ingredients (besides water) in pozole are:  pork and hominy.  Solario’s version?  Totally forgettable.  The menu said it had green chili in it, but I’m deeply skeptical.  I got three small pork-filled empendadas — the first of which amounted to super-dry pork encased in a cool, rock-hard pastry.  The other two involved very moist pork inside of warm, nicely fried dough … but I kept wondering where they found the first one.  Was it one of yesterday’s left-overs?  A holdover from the staff meal?

To add insult to injury, settling the check took a full half hour on account of the waitress doting on a neighboring table’s kid (which would’ve been fine, had she not walked by my credit card five times).

So Solario?  Just say no.

Urbanspoon diners say:
Solario on Urbanspoon

Cascades — Sweetly Seductive

After the Solario debacle, I was apprehensive about eating anywhere else in the Gaylord, but … no car, so I figured I’d give Cascades “American Cafe” a shot.

I walked up to the hostess stand, where small family was fretting over the menu.  A second hostess peeked around the intense familial conference, beamed a hundred-watt smile at me and promptly led me to my table, amiably asking about my day, what I was in town for, and so on.

I ended up eating at Cascades twice, and I have to say the waitstaff, all the way down to the guy who refilled my water, were not just faultlessly pleasant and charming — they made me feel important, like they genuinely cared if I had a good evening or not.  And that is no small thing.  I have paid far, far more at restaurants only to be treated like some sort of imposition on the waitstaff’s time, so major, major kudos to Cascades’ staff for wonderful experiences.

The food easily matches the staff’s enthusiasm, with one exception, which I’ll save for last.  The pork belly and pork loin is a decadent meat-lover’s feast.  I got about a half-pound of pork loin plus a large cube of perfectly-crisped pork belly (which had a thicker-than-usual layer of meat on it — a welcome foil to the rich belly fat).  The loin came piled on top of a wonderful fried corn-meal concoction and butter-bacon-smoke-infused collard greens, which were easily the best greens I have ever had anywhere.

Since the two-way pork was such an unabashed hit, I opted for the duck on my second visit.  The skin-on duck breast was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, but the show stopper was the duck confit scattered about the plate with shreds of Brussels sprouts leaves.

Oh. My. God.

The confit was ludicrously tender, rich and perfectly seasoned.  I could’ve easily eaten a whole plateful of the stuff.  Underneath the confit were a few underseasoned butternut-squash filled raviolis.  They were supposed to be dressed with a sage butter, but I think the kitchen forgot that element.  The confit, however, was so good I couldn’t have cared less.

Cascades’ cheese tray was also a home run, with an aged sheep’s cheese, a brilliant cheddar and fantastic blue paired with cubes of a fruit gelee.  The cheeses also came with seasoned almonds (likely off-the-shelf, but good nonetheless) and ultra-crisp “crostinis” (I have a sneaking suspicion they deep-fried the bread … however it happened, it was awesome).

Cascades’ staff effortlessly discussed the menu and wine pairings and even recommended some of the less-expensive options.  So, props again for a job really well done.

The one menu item I thought fell short was their crab bisque.  Yes, it was rich. Yes, it was creamy.  But, I was still grabbing the salt.  The bisque’s flavors were hopelessly unbalanced, as if the idea was to be as rich as possible just for the sake of richness.  I’m all about butter and cream, but you have to brighten the stuff up a bit.  What really killed it for me, though, was the poor crab quality.  It had the soft-grainy texture of the steel canned crab from China you find at the grocery store.  If you go, I would either inquire about the crab’s origins next time or just skip the bisque altogether.

Cascades does have some other issues, such as charging $30 for a dozen oysters (more than what I overpaid last time I was in San Francisco) and the same for a dungeness crab (they were going for $2 a pound just a few years ago).  But for the food that hits the table?  Four stars.

And you get to look out over the water and forget about just about everything for a couple hours.

In other words:  eat here.

Thoughts from Urbanspoon foodies in case you think I’ve missed the boat:
Cascades All-American Cafe on Urbanspoon

Old Hickory — Serious Steakhouse, Serious Sticker-Shock

As with Cascades, Old Hickory’s staff is warm, friendly and service-oriented to a fault.  I was dining alone, but I felt like I was eating at an old friend’s house, which is something worth far, far more than the price of admission.

If you eat here, do yourself a favor and get the cheese cart appetizer.  Outside of France, it’s the second-best cheese course I’ve ever had (and was about a quarter of the price of my #1).  The self-described “cheese girl” recommended the garrotxa, which was fantastic even though I never pronounced it quite right.

Steaks are done simply, as they should be.  Mine came cooked to a perfect medium-rare, hatched grill marks, solid seasoning.  Since they use a lot of grass-fed/free-range beef, they don’t have the typical (and useless) prime/choice/select labels.  Don’t worry about it — you’re getting a great cut of meat.

As an aside, I was up in Montana recently, and I asked a cattle rancher about the whole beef-grading thing.  He said when they sold the cattle at auction, the inspectors would deem cows as “prime” or “choice” or “select.”  So, every chunk of meat from that cow got the same label.  And since the cow was living at the time, it wasn’t like the decision was made on taste or anything more scientific than some guy’s eyeball.  So, forgive me if I think the whole USDA meat grading system is 100% utter baloney.

The sides I had were out of the park.  A blue cheese potato gratin?  Asparagus spears with hollandaise?  Oh, man, I could eat these for every meal for the rest of my life.  They were just … awesome.

Here’s the Urbanspoon reviewers’ take (I suspect they are hostile about Hickory’s admittedly high prices):
Old Hickory Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

So weird fake biosphere hotel aside, you can get some serious food at Gaylord.  I say make reservations and plan on spending the night.  You can use the spare time to plan a trip to someplace distinctly real.  Like Venice.

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