PART 2: Fancy Eats
We stay with friends when we come to Nashville, and by way of thanks take them out to the restaurant of their choice for dinner. Mr. and Mrs. G chose their new favorite...
MIEL, SYLVAN PARK. This was bittersweet for me; I'd gotten to know the old Johnson meat market behind Bobbie's Dairy Dip just before it went out of business, and now here was this fashionably spare-but-warm upscale eatery in their old space. I should not have worried; the joint is in good hands. The guy at the door was sharply dressed and genial; one of the owners, a very charming young woman (and an old friend of our friends) was warmly welcoming, and in the course of the meal and afterwards showed both her commitment to good food and her willingness to discuss the dishes and how they might be improved. Our waiter, though new to the restaurant, showed himself to be deeply knowledgeable about the food and the wine, but by no means a know-it-all; at least twice he excused himself to go ask for an answer he wasn't sure of. Ten points for that...
The "amuse" - can't we please call it something else? - was a tiny little butter-pat plate with a tiny little dab of yellow squash purée from a pastry tube, topped with a sliver of house-cured and -smoked bacon. It amused my mouth just fine. Then, a bottle of a nice crisp Loire Valley Brut Rosé sparkler*, with an order of the steak tartare shared by whomever wanted it; my bite was good. I ordered the plate of frog legs and escargot, which got me two big and rather chewy legs in a crisply-fried semolina batter, unfortunately completely without salt, and our lovely stainless-steel salt cellar was empty. This got taken care of right away. The six escargot are served naked in a dimpled plate; being the only ones I've had in Nashville I don't know how they'd compare locally, but though not the best I've ever had (a little over-adorned and overcooked) they did the trick, and the sauce was worth mopping up with some of the very good bread.
Round Two was the grilled flat-iron steak for Mr. G, monkfish for Mrs. G, roasted free-range chicken for Mrs. O and the "Parisian Gnocchi" pour moi. This made the question of wine a puzzlement; even though the fish came in an oxtail-stock reduction, Mrs. G wanted white with it, so our waiter suggested a glass of the Oregon Pinot Gris**, saying that it was deeper in character than most of this varietal, as it proved to be. I wanted to get a Grenache from Sardinia, just because I'd never tried anything from there, but the waiter gently steered us to a Bordeaux red***, same price but he thought better for our food, and I'm sure he was right; it was a lovely wine, for sure. Even Mrs. O, who hardly ever drinks red, had a glass. When the food arrived we all commented on how beautiful it was, then exclaimed at how delicious it was, then proceeded to shut up and eat, pausing occasionally to pass bites across the table and exclaim some more. The monkfish dish had been revised since the menu was printed, and I'm sure for the better; it was the most flavorful bite of that fish I've ever tasted. The chicken and the steak were both meltingly tender but also bursting with flavor; the owner told us the steak and the chicken are first cooked sous vide, to break down the muscle fibers and tendons and things very gently, then grilled or roasted to finish and bring up the big flavors. I have to say that my gnocchi was as close to being a dud as anything here could be. Kinda gluey, nice flavor but not quite enough of it, almost too rich and with no bright notes anywhere - I was really grateful for the wine! The chanterelles it came with were nice enough, but the dish really needed something sharp, like maybe some sautéed bitter greens. When I brought this up with the owner, a bit reluctantly (because people do sometimes take offense at criticism from rank amateurs), she agreed that the dish was a bit stodgy and seemed happy to discuss what could be done about it. Ten more points!
Dessert: chocolate chess pie, bites all around, Yum Yum.
About $70 apiece all told, with tax and tip, and worth every nickel.
* NV St. Meyland Brut Rosé 2007, $8.50/33
** Brandborg Pinot Gris, Umpqua Valley, Oregon 2007, $7.50/27
*** Château Saint-Sulpice Bordeaux Rouge, Bordeaux 2006, $29
CHA-CHAH, BELMONT. Meeting some old friends for drinks and then having dinner with one (JJ), we knew this place had gotten some good buzz, as well as rather lukewarm reviews, but everyone agreed it was pleasant and fun, and in our old neighborhood besides. The place has the character of a large, multi-roomed front porch, very attractive and fun to be in. The woman making the drinks was outgoing and friendly, and (in sharp contrast to some Nashville bartenders I remember) perfectly willing to make me a martini the extremely old-fashioned way, equal parts gin and vermouth with a dash or two of bitters. In fact, she made me two... The downside was that she was making them in a too-small shaker, and using wet ice besides, so that the drinks came out diluted and the distinctive flavors of the (expensive) Hendricks gin lost in the shuffle. But we'd been joined by two more old buddies, and having a good time together was the important part.
The two later arrivals were dining elsewhere, so we and JJ got a table towards the front. The menu is small but the food looked interesting; I wish I could say that it WAS interesting, but the earlier impression of big promises and faltering execution became all too true. JJ's Mussels Santiago were probably the best thing to hit the table, but when he picked up his next-to-last mussel it was closed tight! Don't know where these guys went to school, but even a Midwestern boy like me knows you do not serve closed mussels. I had the Adobo Steak w/Kale, all tasty enough, except that the steak was way past well-done while the kale was almost raw. Mrs. O's Moroccan Spiced Lamb was the stunner, though, and not in a good way: the most expensive item on the menu, at $18, her plate held approximately two tablespoons of lamb and a bit of shredded cucumber sitting one tablespoon of some sort of slippery cous cous-like substance . This was not even an appetizer portion, more like a tiny bar snack. The tab, not including the bar drinks but including our wine, which we did not record, was right at $100.
We are told that the brunches here are very good; we'll take our well-informed friends' word for that. If this place could perform up to its promise it would be worth a trip back any time. But I think next time I'm in this area I'll just be lunching at International Market.