Fish out of Water: Meet the Women behind Nashville Restaurant Henrietta Red
The best oyster you’ll eat this year is served 400 miles from the nearest coast, in an understated white building in the heart of Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood. There are no seashells on the menu, no mermaids on the walls. Instead, there’s a clean, tiled dining room flooded with natural light, the subtle smell of a wood-burning oven in the next room and a menu that challenges you to think more expansively about everything the flavors of the heartland can be.
The restaurant is Henrietta Red, and the co-owners behind it—general manager Allison Poindexter and chef Julia Sullivan—are challenging preconceptions in all kinds of ways. As women restaurateurs in a still male-dominated industry delivering seafood-focused food in urban Tennessee, there’s no doubting their boldness. But what’s more remarkable about Poindexter and Sullivan—as well as about Henrietta Red itself—is how they marry that sense of daringness with grace, delivering a dining experience that is all the more startling for its confident simplicity.
That Henrietta Red’s story started in New York City makes the Nashville staple even more of a feat. Poindexter was running the cooking school at an event space and café in Chelsea; Sullivan was her boss, fresh off stints at Per Se and Pinewood Social.
“One of the things we did all of the time after work was go to oyster bars,” Poindexter remembers. “We were young and on a budget, and they always had discounted oysters and cheap bubbles. We bonded over our love of that style of food.”
That sense of eating as a bonding experience is crucial to the restaurant they built together, too. Sullivan’s created a dynamic menu focused around small plates and raw-bar staples that jigsaw-puzzle together into something astounding, no matter which combination you choose. “Truthfully, the traditional kind of menu format is not even the way I like to eat when I eat out,” Sullivan admits. “I don’t usually order a dish where protein is the focus of the meal. I prefer everything to be pieced together, where the whole menu—if we order eight random dishes and share them, they’ll all come together beautifully.”
Beautifully but not necessarily neatly.
Henrietta Red encourages guests to eat with their hands, if not outright play with their food; oysters are slurped, as are the elevated, toothpick-skewered Jell-O shots that have earned the restaurant’s bar as many raves as its food menu. “There’s a kind of convivial nature to the experience here,” Poindexter says. “We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”
Yet for a relaxed middle-price-point restaurant that aims to make guests feel welcomed enough to become regulars, Henrietta Red has the fine-dining crowd ex- cited, too. Sullivan was named one of Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2018; the restaurant made the list of finalists for Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants, as well as being named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award in the same category. That’s no doubt because of Sullivan’s extraordinary flavors. She’s always attuned to seasonal, hyper-local produce—she’s a Nashville native, as were her grandparents before her, Henrietta and Red Sullivan; the restaurant is named for them. But her flavors extend past the Tennessee border, including expertly sourced ingredients from all three of the nation’s coasts. It’s thrilling to listen to her detail how her Seattle oysters are planted on ropes when they’re still microscopic—“like seeds,” she says—before being harvested and shipped to her kitchen door.
But a noted portion of Henrietta Red’s success is due to Poindexter, too, and the fresh outsider’s perspective she brings to their corner of Germantown. She grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and her first trip to the Music City didn’t leave a good impression—an old friend brought her to a college football game straight off the plane. “It was a little overwhelming,” she admits. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a fish out of water here.’ But I did come visit again, and you know, you realize that most of the time, the South moves at a little bit of a slower pace.”
Sullivan’s shared Chicken Liver Mousse is a dish that encapsulates that sense of warm southern slowness, as well as Henrietta Red’s sense of dynamism and surprise. It’s one of the few items on the menu that centers on a protein that doesn’t come from the sea. “I’m not a meat fanatic, but I’m a chicken-liver fanatic,” Sullivan says. “This one has duck fat and cream and brandy, and it’s extremely rich and nicely balanced, but it’s smooth and creamy and kind of luxurious. We put it into a bowl and cover it with a layer of galette that we change every two months. Right now, it’s Concord grape, but we’ve had melon, we’ve had apple, we’ve had cantaloupe, we’ve had mushroom … the liver never changes, but the galette on top does.”
Two things in balance, complementing one another even as they’re ever changing: it might remind you of the women behind Henrietta Red.
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 4, available now.