04 April 2014

Ode to Everything Nashville

The Parthenon  
Did y'all know that Nashville has its very own Parthenon?  The first time I visited the city (maybe seven or eight years ago), this came as a complete surprise to me. Since the original Parthenon has been shattered by ordnance and the ravages of time, the Nashville replica stands proud.  It may not have all of the architectural wonders and illusions of the original, but at least it does offer visitors a sense of scope.

I mention this because last week my husband I visited Nashville at the behest of Vanderbilt University, whose library had purchased a large collection of my DH's work (alas, not from us but at auction!), and so we journeyed south for a few days. DH taught a couple of micro classes and visited with students in the special collections and in the divinity school, and then he gave a couple of talks, including one in conversation with Ann Patchett.

The view from our hotel room. Too bad we're not football fans! 
Because our schedule was largely driven by our hosts, I really only had a few hours of free time to call my own;  a nasty headcold, in conjunction with the unseasonably cold and rainy weather, contrived to make me want to nap my free time away.  I managed to explore a little, including a visit to Patchett's wonderful bookstore, Parnassus, and a quick stop at an old Union fort from the Civil War.

Parnassus is beautiful, and like all of the best spaces, it combines new and old elements for a timeless and comfortable feel. You'd never guess that the bookstore has only been in place for about three years. It also has hundreds of personal touches, so that even though the store is part of a strip mall, once you step inside, you're a world away from that box-store feel.  I particularly liked the memorial benches down the center of the store: obviously for sitting and reading, but also firmly anchoring this space in a local community.

The memorial benches down the center of the store
One bench was in memory of a loving dog. I just loved that.

Or this piano, which is used to good effect for creating displays in the music section, but is also played during some events--or whenever a small child simply cannot resist the urge.

In the tradition of Narnia, Oz, and Wonderland, the children's department at Parnassus has a special child-sized access point.  I love how it also evokes both the local icon of the Parthenon and the store's own eponym:
Of course I ducked through here
And what bookstore would be complete without a four-legged mascot?
I also love the way that the bookstore augments the standard overhead lighting with unexpected bits of whimsy:
Stars for the children's department
Or these bird fixtures in a non-fiction alcove
Parnassus also offers a small selection of cards.  Most of them are beautifully printed by letterpress, and thus on the pricier side ($5 and up). I was reminded once again that I was in the South when I saw  two rows of cards like these:

I didn't even know they made cards for this!
My visit to Parnassus wouldn't be complete without mentioning the fun staff they had there and my opportunity to chat with Karen Hayes, Patchett's co-owner. I knew her from my days as a bookseller at Lemuria, lo, these many years ago, so we had a late lunch talking books, shop, and travel.  It was also the occasion of my first bento box, so naturally I had to take a picture.
Isn't it beautiful?  And it was only $8.95!
By then there was just time enough for me to take a quick tour of Fort Negley before heading back to the hotel before the lecture that night. I wish I could say that it was amazing, but it wasn't. I suppose I could say it was at least worth the price of admission (it was FREE). I've visited a few forts before, all of which were much older that Ft Negley (by a couple hundred years), so I was definitely expecting more.  Once you've seen any of the old forts in the Caribbean, particularly the two excellent ones in Old San Juan, I suppose most others would be a disappointment.

What I got was a small hill, a view to downtown and a baseball stadium, some crumbly walls that I mostly couldn't get near, and some boardwalks. Oh, and lots of wind and some intermittent drizzle.
Visitors must stick to the paved paths or boardwalks at all times.
A distant stone wall
I think these trees are actually more interesting than the fort itself
In one direction you could semi-visualize what the view might have been like for the Union soldiers defending the fort:

But mostly the fort is encroached on all sides by the city of Nashville.  There's one building in particular that looks like it would be better suited to Gotham:

Can't you just imagine the bat signal emanating from there?
Still, I learned a little bit of history and took a walk that I otherwise wouldn't have taken, so that's a victory in the face of my inherent laziness.

By 3:00, though, my cold was getting the better of me, so I went back to the hotel to get my nap on before dressing for the big lecture that night.  Not much to tell about that, other than it was very entertaining to hear Ann and my DH in conversation about books, reading, e-readers, bookstores, writers, reviewers, publishing, working, discipline, the myth of writers block, and just about any other subject related to the production of a book.

The rest of our time in Nashville was either taken up with university stuff or with family, but DH and I had one evening free for dinner together just the two of us.  Thanks to the help of the Nashville forum on TripAdvisor, we were lucky enough to get a next-day reservation for an early dinner at Chateau West, just up the road from our hotel. We chose wisely, for although the ambience at this new restaurant wasn't a match for Tin Angel, where we had dined with one of the deans earlier in the week, the food was better.

It had been a long time since we had partaken of a full-on French meal, so we made a pact to eat lightly all day on Friday so that we'd have belly room to appreciate the various courses. For an appetizer, DH ordered the escargot and I chose the charcuterie platter because it featured one of my favorite cheeses, St. Andre.  But when our plates arrived, I was promptly filled with food envy: his snails were served in puff pastry.  My charcuterie was good--it could have benefitted from some flatbread or crackers--but the escargot were fabulous:

For our main courses, we had trouble making up our minds but DH eventually settled on the coquilles St. Jacques while I decided on the duck Chambord. Both were dreamy.  His scallops were huge and tender and came with a sweet potato soufflé. The sauce, unlike every other sample of that dish we've had, was not at all heavy (but no doubt still very calorie-laden).  I don't order duck very frequently but I basically did that night because I was skeptical of how Chambord would work with it.  It was amazing.  The potatoes added an earthiness that balanced the sweetness of the sauce perfectly.  I was surprised that I didn't love the sweet potato cake, which was actually too dense to be rightfully called a soufflé, and it was overburdened with nutmeg, a spice I normally love.

Coquilles St Jacques
Duck Chambord
The dessert menu was the piece de resistance. I love dessert and while I will eat almost anything sweet, I will laugh in your face if your restaurant puts on airs about its desserts for offering a cheesecake, a creme brûlée, and a variation of Death By Chocolate.  Puh-leeze. Those are so pedestrian that every major chain restaurant offers those. No, if you want to impress me, you have to do a little better than that.  Chateau West impressed me. We selected a strawberry mille feuille and a hazelnut Paris-Brest.  The former was quite good, and beautiful to boot.  But the latter? It was pure heaven. I'd never heard of a Paris-Brest dessert, but it's a puff pastry with hazelnut cream and it was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.

The strawberry mille feuille
The Paris-Brest
I reckon that concludes my trip to Nashville.  I hope I get to visit again with more time to spare, for seeing more sites, eating more good food, and maybe going to hear some live music, which we didn't do at all on this trip.  And, of course, I'd love to have more time for visiting family & friends in the area!


  1. Emily, as usual your food photos have me drooling. How great are gyoza and bento boxes!?!

    I wish I could admire that football view from the hotel room, but ugh sport. I just can't muster more than 'I bet certain people would love this, haha.

    Parnassus...I want to go to there.

    1. Kayleigh, I wish I could say that I knew what gyoza was (were?), but I don't. I definitely loved my first bento box, though!

      Parnassus was terrific.

    2. They're the tasty little dumplings in your bento :-) I could eat 1000 of them.

      And I just noticed you said your duck came with a chambord sauce! That's such an interesting flavour combination, but I think I would have encouraged someone else to order it so I could try it but be safe with something else in case I wasn't a fan, haha

    3. Oh, my. Yes, they were tasty indeed! If I could have coaxed my DH to get the duck instead, I would have, but did not work. Happily the chambord worked out great with it.

  2. I am most definitely anticipating a trip to Nashville in September to run a half and visit that lovely, lovely bookstore. Thanks for a mini tour. I will definitely find those restaurants you mentioned. Belle

  3. Go, Belle! Parnassus is definitely worth a visit--and I can personally recommend the bento boxes served next door. ;)

    Good luck with your half marathon!

  4. Going to Parnassus is on my list if I ever do a grand tour of bookstores! Would it be strange to plan an entire trip around independent bookstores? Because that's what I really want to do.

    That hazlenut dessert thingy goes on the list too!

  5. Parnassus looks wonderful. I would love to visit one day!

    I hope you are feeling all better! :)

  6. SO MANY THINGS. Scallops. Duck. Scallops. Duck. To hearken back to yesteryear, "I want to go to there."

    Also Civil War fort selfie! Also "In one direction you could semi-visualize what the view might have been like for the Union soldiers defending the fort" YES now I want to visit. Just because of that view. Mmm old things and oldness. ALSO PARNASSUS. Excellent description, madam. If I get to Nashville, totes going and buying a book.

    That Bento box is ALSO awesome and maybe I'm just really hungry right now. *looks woefully at banana*

  7. Yaaay travel post. I have to repeat Kayleigh's comment about your food looking SO GOOD. And that bookstore is adorable. I want to go to there.

  8. I've never been to Nashville before, but that bookstore alone is worth a visit.

  9. Glad you enjoyed the Nashville trip and sorry our weather was so awful. Funny, I've lived here 15 years and I've never been to Ft. Negley!


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