Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year 2022: Locust, Nashville

·6 min read
Restaurant of the Year
Restaurant of the Year

Alex Lau

Locust is open three days a week, for five and a half hours a day. Two hours are dedicated to lunch; the remaining time is for dinner service. On average, there are about six dishes on the menu, plus the occasional special (or three). The wine list is just as short. It's hard to define what exactly the restaurant is, but as of right now, the food mostly has a Japanese bent. And on any given night, there might be a heavy metal soundtrack blasting from the open kitchen, with a few chefs head-banging away as they prepare your next dish. Locust is fully, uncompromisingly, and unapologetically itself—which is exactly what makes it so playful and brilliant.

If Locust proves one thing, it is that the era of restaurants bending over backward for diners, doing everything to capture every customer possible, is officially over. There is no longer a need to endure long and taxing hours, offering giant menus that accommodate every possible minute preference. For chef Trevor Moran (whose pedigree includes Nashville's The Catbird Seat and Noma in Copenhagen), Locust, which started off as a dumpling and noodle pop-up during the pandemic, was in many ways always supposed to be a re-imagining of industry expectations. "Chefs are very proud of saying out loud, 'Oh, this business is so hard, and the only way to make it is if you just destroy yourself.' And I always thought, 'Well, that's weird.'"

Even though the playlists are loud and the hours are short at Locust, there is an incredible sense of hospitality at the core of the restaurant. There are no servers. Instead, each cook pops out of the restaurant's open kitchen to bring you the dish they just made for you. Oftentimes, they might even take a minute to kneel by your table to explain the dish, but also to have a quick chat about anything and everything. There's a buzzing energy that courses from the kitchen into the rest of the restaurant.

Chef Trevor Moran
Chef Trevor Moran

Alex Lau

And then there is the food: Do not be fooled by the simplicity and minimalism of the rectangular menu card handed to you upon being seated. It might read "beef tartare" (with the option of adding "too much caviar"), but Locust's rendition is a far cry from a humble dish of diced raw protein with a side of toast. Moran and his team grind the "really, really good meat" and season it vigorously with salt, mustard oil, and housemade horseradish oil so that it derives flavor from two different types of heat. It arrives at the table topped with a mound of gleaming caviar and with a bowl of tender white rice gently folded with smoked pickled egg cream, which Moran describes as mayonnaise "with more lactic acid vibes," and sheets of crackly nori. To the side is a small bowl of freeze-dried capers, something Moran made once on a whim, tossing them in the freeze-dryer overnight to dry out. The result is a brilliant, crispy pop of salinity that will have you wondering why all capers aren't served freeze-dried. The idea is to eat the tartare as a hand roll, layering the protein, rice, and capers in the nori in whichever proportions that make you happiest.

The shrimp toast, listed simply as "royal red shrimp pocket," is a thick, glazed concoction that will linger in your dreams for weeks. Moran and team pipe a mousse of royal red shrimp gussied up with seasonings like white pepper and lemongrass onto white bread (importantly, with the crusts cut off). The mousse-topped bread then gets dipped in a sake-laced tempura batter and fried until golden and crispy. As an ode to Nashville's most iconic dish—hot chicken—the shrimp toast is brushed straight out of the fryer with a shrimp-head oil and then glazed with a housemade sweet chile sauce.

The dumplings, with skins so translucent and thin that they must be filled, sealed, and cooked to order, cannot be skipped. They arrive plump, cradled in their steamer basket, waiting to be plucked with a set of chopsticks. They are best followed by the kakigori, a marvel of a shaved ice dessert that Moran and his team quite literally turned on its side. Instead of presenting the dessert as a giant mound of shaved ice drizzled with toppings, the one at Locust is shaped in a loaf tin (and, more recently, in a custom ceramic bowl made by Sarah Cihat) to create a more compact dessert that makes it possible to experience every textural and flavor element in each spoonful.

Everything on the menu is subject to change at Locust. Moran is now focused on swapping out the dumpling filling for one that is less heavy on pork and more heavy on lamb, a protein that meshes with his Irish upbringing. He is also tinkering with an Irish brown soda bread with housemade butter and taking the team on a research trip to Ireland. A few months from now, Locust may very well be an Irish restaurant, leaving its dumplings and kakigori in the rearview mirror. It's the freedom to keep evolving that matters to him the most. "It still feels like a pop-up in our own permanent kitchen," says Moran. "It's lovely."

It's All in the Details

The beef tartare at Locust riffs on the classic dish, reinterpreting the elements of the original (crisp toast, tender beef, rich egg yolk, saline capers) into hand-roll form. Nori sheets are the umami-laden vehicle for the beef; the capers are freeze- dried, offering a crunchy, satisfying texture as well as salty pops of flavor, while the rice spiked with smoked pickled egg cream provides a creamy foil. The proportions of elements are what you make them—each diner can choose their own adventure

Beef tartare ingredients
Beef tartare ingredients

Delicate Dumplings

Each order of dumplings, with fillings encased in thin, delicate wrappers, is folded and steamed to order by Moran and his team. If they're on the menu, these are a must-order.

Dumplings from Locust
Dumplings from Locust

A Fancy Toast

For the shrimp toast, shrimp mousse–topped bread is dipped in tempura batter, fried, and glazed with sweet chile sauce.

Shrimp toast from Locust
Shrimp toast from Locust

Don't Skip Dessert

This kakigori gets its unique shape from being assembled in a loaf pan. It's then turned onto the plate and dramatically

Kakigori
Kakigori

Ham It Up

If this looks like thin sheets of ham on a cracker with a swipe of horseradish sauce, that's because it is, with one twist: The "ham" is made from salted smoked tuna loin.

Restaurant of the Year
Restaurant of the Year

Locust, 2305 12th Ave S., Nashville, Tennessee locustnasville.com