Thursday, June 2, 2011

First Bites: Newk's and Fish & Grits

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2011 at 5:56 AM

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Two new restaurants have recently swung open their doors in the middle Tennessee area in the past couple of weeks, so we thought we'd better give you the 411 on them: Newk's Express Cafe, a Cool Springs outpost of the fast-casual chain; and Fish & Grits, which promises to serve the classic Southern comfort food 'round the clock.

First up is Newk's, at 535 Cool Springs Blvd. This will be the second franchise for owners Phillip and Mary Armour O’Reilly who also run a Newk’s in Murfreesboro. Phillip was previously the general manager at the original Newk's location in Oxford, Miss.

The Newk's chain was started by the founders of McAlister’s Deli and features a fairly typical menu of soups, salads, pizzas and sandwiches, but with the addition of some creole and Cajun takes on the traditional items.

The interior is bright and colorful with an emphasis on customer service that oozes Southern hospitality. Newk's has an aggressive expansion model and looks to open at least one more location in the Nashville area soon.

They must be doing something right, because they attracted the attention of a local hockey hero who visited during the first week they were open. Oh yeah, and his wife Carrie Underwood, too. ...

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Also opening in last week after much speculation was the Fish & Grits Restaurant at Eighth Avenue South and Division. Commuters to downtown waited anxiously after first seeing the sign that promised 24/7 fish and grits to feed the drunken masses as they (we) pile out of shows at Mercy Lounge around the corner. Residents of the Gulch were already mapping the safest stagger home after a wee hours bite.

(And it's also convenient for lunch if you work in the Gulch or SoBro.)

Now the wait is over as the restaurant is officially open. An initial visit discovered some solid food at a surprisingly elevated price level. Admittedly, the blackened tilapia over cheese grits does come with home fries, toast and two eggs, but revelers are going to have to remember to ration $12 + tip from their going-out money if they expect to partake in this form of late-night alcohol absorption.

The deep-fried catfish over grits plate was identically priced and was a notable preparation with a crispy corn meal crust and just enough spice in the crunchy coating. But for twelve bucks, I'd hope for more than one skinny fillet and maybe a little less of the wallpaper-paste-consistency grits.

If you do like grits though, Fish & Grits has 10 varieties available for $3 a plate. At that price, I might try a few different ones and use the leftovers to grout my shower. Their version of a po' boy, the Shrimp Po' Girl, featured grilled shrimp, onions and peppers and a delightful butter/mustard sauce. My only gripe was that the shrimp were still tail-on, which necessitated deconstructing the sandwich while eating if you didn't want to munch on that much extra protein from the tails. If I wanted that, I'd eat a cicada. And I don't.

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Breakfast is available around the clock for $7-$9, so if you're looking for cheaper eats you might consider the Awful House on Sidco Drive. Sandwiches range from $5 for a grilled cheese to $11 for the Po' Girl, but they do come with fries and a nice slaw flavored with nutmeg. We didn't try any of the appetizers, but the Fried Green Beans sounded interesting, and the management is particularly proud of their chicken wings. We'll save it for next time.

The day we visited, Fish & Grits was running a buy-one-get-one-free special on homemade desserts, so we sampled the key lime pie and the red velvet cake, both of which were excellent. One of my dining companions complained there was too much meringue on the pie, but the rest of us thought both desserts were exemplary.

So plan to come hungry so that you'll get your money's worth at Fish & Grits, or just drop in for a cup of coffee and dessert. Regardless, it could prove to be a popular dining destination for the denizens of downtown for a while to come.

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