“Sean Brock is a genius.”
I had heard the phrase so many times from friends in Nashville and Charleston over the years that by the time I ate at Husk Nashville when it opened in 2013, I was probably predisposed to believe the meal would be great. (It was, and I have eyewitnesses.)
Over the years, the Brock media machine has helped reinforce his genius. There were drunken odes to Waffle House on Anthony Bourdain’s shows, a PBS series titled The Mind of a Chef, a gorgeous, Beard-award winning book titled Heritage, and a star turn on Netflix’s ultimate hagiographic food series, “Chef’s Table.”
Before all that though, he made a name for himself at Capitol Grille. At just 24, he was placed in charge of former flagship restaurant at Nashville’s venerable Hermitage Hotel and turned it into his own personal triumph. There were epic, thirty-course tasting menus and molecular gastronomical inspirations in addition to his take on modern Southern cuisine. But after just three years, he was gone to Charleston in search of glory in the town where he attended culinary school.
Music City suited him, however. Beginning with Husk Nashville, Brock split time between the two cities, while also maintaining his presence at multiple Husks, McCrady’s, and other Neighborhood Dining Group (NDG) places. After a few years—and an embrace of sobriety—he cut ties with NDG. He began exploring a number of concepts in Nashville, where he’s now permanently settled.
The new Brock empire, for now, has three places. Joyland, opened in 2020, is a straight-up fast food joint. Go for crusty smashburgers, fried chicken on a stick, biscuit sandwiches for breakfast, and milkshakes to chase it all down. The Continental, opened within a year of Joyland inside the Grand Hyatt hotel. This prix fixe ode to old-style hotel dining, complete with jacketed servers pushing carts of prime rib, oyster courses, and rarely seen classics like pâté en croûte. But the flagship is Audrey, a two-story temple to the Appalachian style of Southern food Brock grew up with in rural Virginia. This is where he is staking his most personal claim.
Pull Up a Chair at Audrey, by Sean Brock
The first thing that strikes you when you enter the restaurant is the attention given to the design, from the folk art on the walls to the George Nakashima spindle-back chairs at the tables. It’s just a gorgeous interior—complete with an open kitchen and a live-fire setup—and one that I found myself staring at throughout my meal.
The same could be said for the food, too. The menu changes regularly. You might encounter Lady Edison Country Ham draped over a small wooden hanger and sliced so thin the pink luminescence becomes its own art element. It’s salty and perfect and nearly melts in your mouth. A perfectly trimmed turnip sits on a wooden disc platform adorned with green goddess dressing and shiso. A bowl of pureed chanterelles and farmhouse cheese, an earthy and wonderful combo, is topped with a shaved truffle. Salt-risen bread comes with a perfect cap of cultured butter, which reveals a creamy orange mass of squash jam underneath when you go to spread it. And grilled shrimp are served on a plate created by a giant collard leaf and intertwined pieces of wood.
There is rarely an unconsidered moment when it comes to dining at Audrey. Brock and his team are creating an experience for you. At various points throughout my two-plus hour dinner, a server would arrive to explain the next course with props. One was a basket containing pine branches and two potatoes—our server explained the process of cooking the pine rosin potato that accompanied a perfect piece of bluefin tuna.
Yes, these are revival techniques meant to pay tribute to an Appalachian way of life that may be in danger of fading away. But the product on the plate goes farther in stretching our appreciation than any bit of tableside dinner theater. (And that’s not to say the service was anything less than excellent, which is no small feat during a time of extreme shortages in experienced staff.)
More than any other technique or bite—even the fifty-one-day dry aged beef with dry cured onion and mustard leaves or the study of sweet potatoes for dessert—the dish that brings home what Brock wants to achieve at Audrey is a bowl of grits. Jimmy Red corn grits arrive with a sorghum-cured egg on top, a dark orange eye floating in a sea of heritage grain goodness. It’s such a perfect combination, with the runny egg adding sauce to the subtle corn flavor. This is the bowl that truly expresses Appalachian technique, and where I can see a progression from Brock’s try-anything years at Capitol Grille to the greater restraint of Husk to his embrace of the region of his youth.
The Sean Brock that left the city fifteen years ago was a comet. The Nashville he returned to is no longer the sleepy culinary backwater in need of a singular visionary to lift it. In many ways, the highest end of the city’s dining scene has caught up with much of what Brock is doing. And that’s what makes Audrey—an ambitious undertaking that Brock will certainly fulfill in time—interesting as an endeavor, because of his personal ties to the concept. When the restaurant succeeds, and the genius shines through, it’s not because of a singular, dazzling moment, but rather takes place when Brock finds harmony with the ingredients he’s trying to elevate.
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