Welcome to Inside the Dishes, where Eater takes an in-depth look at the defining dishes at some of Nashville’s best restaurants.
“That’s not really what we do here,” Craig Schoen says into the phone on a recent weekday afternoon. The caller is looking to book a dinner table for 19. Certainly, lots of Nashville restaurants do that well, serving good food and good drinks to good-time crowds. But with 38 seats and a menu that is more refined than refried, Schoen knows his audience, and, indeed, that’s not what Peninsula does.
In the two years since business partners Bar Manager Schoen, Chef Jake Howell, and General Manager Yuriko Say opened Peninsula, it has been more defined by what it isn’t than what it is. A critic’s darling (and the Eater Nashville 2018 Restaurant of the Year), Peninsula is not for everyone. Those following halal or kosher dietary laws or who eat a vegan diet might flounder here.
Officially, as its name suggests, Peninsula serves food from the Iberian Peninsula, described on the website as Spanish and Portuguese eats, with some French techniques thrown in, complemented by a bar program with an extensive Spanish gin and tonic menu (more on that later) and Old World Wines.
But, says Howell, Peninsula is not taking its own description literally. “We’re not going on vacation there and then coming home and making the exact same thing. I would find that super boring. And not authentic. We’re interpreting.” Howell feels that Spanish cooking is as essential to the global culinary world as Italian, Asian, and French cuisine, but sometimes it doesn’t get the same credit.
“We’re just trying to cook whole food in a way that is slightly interesting for diners,” Howell says. “The purpose is not to serve something weird, but to serve something we thought was good.” Peninsula, he adds, is a destination restaurant, a place people go with intention, to sample the team’s innovation. It is not a place to go when you Google “restaurants open near me.”
Regulars and, yes, tourists (albeit not those traveling in groups of 19), come to see what Howell and his team have created. About 20 percent of the menu stays consistent over time; other dishes change. When something comes off the menu, other items change, so that the menu is overall balanced with salt and acid. Howell describes himself as “weird” and says he hires “weird, creative” people who fit that vibe.
The kitchen staff, to some degree, march to the beat of their own drums, but, of course, Howell has to be the drummer because physically it’s a very small kitchen. Once on the team, folks are encouraged to experiment with tastes and textures and temperatures and riff off of one another.
A chicken terrine with the piney-tasting suterberry and hibiscus is one example of a popular dish that came together by combining elements of discovery by several members of the kitchen staff.
Howell is modest about how he uses quality ingredients to rave reviews. “I don’t know what else to say except we looked at it and cared about it. We are nice to it and try not to mess it up.”
Instead of continuing to describe Peninsula as what it’s not, it’s time to go inside the dishes and have them help illustrate what the restaurant is.
At one point, the simple, yet not, braised rabbit was the restaurant’s best-seller. It’s not anymore, but not because it isn’t still a hit, but because other things on the menu are more challenging, and Peninsula’s diners, particularly its loyal regulars, rise to a challenge.
The rabbit, served on toasted garlic broth and Gifford’s bacon, is a simple as a perfect roasted chicken elsewhere, and also as complex as any other dish on Howell’s menu. This is one of the dishes that has been available since Peninsula opened; while the basics haven’t changed — better quality bacon has been a big help — Howell says the process behind it is improved, thanks to two years of practice. “It is nothing like a bowl of ramen, but there’s something in it that a lot of people can relate to, like ramen,” he says.
Toast, Specifically, But Not Always, Tomato Toast
“To have a yummy piece of grilled bread with something else yummy is a good thing to have on your table. Every time I go to a restaurant, I’ll order it, even if it doesn’t sound good, “ Howell says. “I wanted to showcase delicious, beautiful bread and I wanted to do something that doesn’t mess it up.”
The Peninsula kitchen starts with really good bread—from Michael Matson, who also bakes for Folk and Rolf and Daughters—and grills it to a nutty toastiness. “If we were using sourdough I made, the dish would be worse because I am not as good of a baker as Michael,” Howell says.
There’s always a toast on the menu, but the rest changes. The tomato version, a favorite with slightly dehydrated tomatoes and nigella seeds, which give it an oregano-like taste with a crunchy texture, and a “ballsy” amount of salt, is a neighborhood obsession. “I thought we were not going to do that dish again this year because I do not want to get in the habit of doing something just because it works. It was three months before it was even remotely the time [for it to return] and people kept asking about it,” Howell explains of its 2019 return. More than 700 people “liked” a simple photo in May when it was announced on Instagram that the dish was back on the menu.
For the first year Peninsula was in business this crepe was “a flop,” Howell says. Howell takes the flavors he would use to make a blood sausage, and uses them to make a traditional French crepe with it and serves it over sweetbreads. Howell and Schoen are both devoted to reducing food waste, so in those early months, the kitchen prepped for crepe inefficiently, not wanting to waste ingredients—such as the cream and onion sauce, the eggs in batter, and the sweetbreads—when it didn’t sell. Howell remembers if he sold five in one night, he was thrilled. Now, it is a consistent signature for the chef, for whom use of offal is considered a personal stamp.
“It was kind of crazy to leave it on the menu, but at some point, you have to say you stand for something,” Howell says, adding that the crepe is the only dish he has never considered removing from the menu. Blood sausage exists in other cuisines, but the way it is seasoned in this dish is traditionally Spanish. “To me this dish signified this was not a traditional tapas menu.”
Gin and Tonic
“Gin and tonic was always an afterthought to me,” says Schoen, who has worked in bars for nearly three decades. “It was an old man’s drink. A throwaway.” When I first started going to Spain, and they were serving gin and tonic in Burgundy wine glasses with really good tonic and different style gin, light and citrusy and herbal and I thought, ‘This makes sense.’” So Schoen decided to be “a gin-heavy bar in a bourbon town.” There are eight gin and tonics on the menu. He changes a few every three weeks, depending on availability of citrus, Howell’s menu, the weather and other factors.
Making his own tonic allows Schoen to reduce sugar levels. The gin and tonics by far outsell anything else, and Schoen urges diners not to think about the brand of gin (although Peninsula stocks dozens). “Think about, ‘Do I like cucumber? Do I like salty, Do I like savory? Do I like herbal?’” The #2, with Aria gin from Portland, Oregon, and cucumber and black pepper is what Schoen considers the “gateway gin and tonic.”