When Castro took control of Cuba decades ago, Florida became the home away from home for émigrés who fled his regime. Alex Martinez traveled a little farther north to Nashville, where he and his Central American-born wife Rebecca have owned and operated Mama Mia’s Italian restaurant for more than 10 years. With Back to Cuba, Martinez pays homage to his native island. Cuban food is not spicy, but it is highly seasoned, as diners will discover in specialties like lechon (marinated and roasted pork), ropa vieja (seasoned beef stew cooked until the meat is in shreds) and pargo frito (fried red snapper, served whole), all of them served with black beans and rice, and two different types of fried plantain, one sweet, one savory. The Cuban sandwich is nearly as good as any one might find in Little Havana—the classic construction of ham, pork, cheese, pickles and mustard is layered on a length of French bread, swiped with butter, and cooked on a sandwich press until the cheese and meats ooze together in gooey goodness.
primary flavors across Abay’s menu come from berbere and
mitmita. The pungent blends of garlic, onion and various spices lend
a smoky, peppery glow to many of the meats and lentils, which you will eat with your hands, scooping up flavorful stews with piles of fresh injera bread. The best approach is to dive right in with a
combination platter—meat or vegetarian.
Owner Tom Sheffer describes the food at his hot and hopping new West End restaurant as “equatorial cuisine,” with influences from the Caribbean, South Pacific, Latin America, Indonesia and Spain. An extensive menu of fruity, colorful, exotic drinks will start the evening on a festive note. Satay is a Southeast Asian mainstay of skewered, marinated grilled meat, served here with spicy peanut, West Indies barbecue and Argentinean chimichurri dipping sauces. The rest of the food menu spins the eyeballs with unfamiliar words like chivitos (Uruguayan mini-cheeseburgers), salada palmitas (hearts of palm salad) and churrasco (sirloin steak with chorizo sausage). One could make a meal of the appetizers, which isn’t such a bad idea.
It's worth venturing out of your sushi-and-curry comfort zone at this cheery Japanese-Thai restaurant. Don't miss the Tiger Tear salad of beef with lime and chili. Frogs legs basil and Volcano shrimp are beautiful and unusual dishes, but it is the grilled yellowtail jawbone ($7.50) that makes Lemongrass a destination restaurant.
A decade ago, native Mexican Carlos Yepez opened a Hispanic market with a small grill to serve the growing south-of-the-border population. Soon word got out about his soft tacos served with chopped meat, fresh cilantro, a slice of avocado and a wedge of lime. Gringos flocked, La Hacienda expanded, then expanded again. Now it is a full-service restaurant, and though it has made concessions to its American clientele, it has the best seafood cocktail in town.
More than a decade ago, serious sushi lovers flocked to Koto, a little hole-in-the-wall south of downtown, to partake of the artistry of chef-owner Hajima Keruma. Sometimes he rewarded their loyalty by creating special rolls just for them. One menu staple is the Wayne Roll, consisting of eel, crabstick, burdock, avocado and a special secret sauce; it’s named for DreamWorks Records exec Wayne Halper. The current Koto is in larger, fancier digs downtown, but each and every piece of sushi and sashimi created under Haji’s flying fingers is still given the same studious, workmanlike attention.
By no means does the Basil menu deviate from what fans of Asian food have come to expect in Nashville. Spring rolls, lettuce wraps, dumplings, pad Thai and the other usual suspects are all present and accounted for. But the atmosphere of this snappy loft-like space is a world apart from so many “(fill in the blank) dragon” restaurants trapped lifelessly in strip malls—the ones with the standard-issue red-and-gold décor, the pan-Asian Muzak and the nervous hush of couples fumbling lumps of sweet-and-sour pork with chopsticks. Instead, with its sleek lighting, luminous bar and regular Thursday-night jazz, Basil has the sexy flair of a place in, say, San Diego.
One of the new members of the renovated Farmers Market food court, B&C (which stands for Bacon & Caviar) offers a familiar selection of chicken and pork barbecue, along with sides such as garlic-cheese grits, chipotle corn salad and stewed collard greens from the growers in the adjacent produce stalls. Breakfast includes homemade cinnamon buns.
The all-American breakfast at this Franklin Road eatery has earned a faithful following. The lunch and dinner menu has evolved from diner standards to an extensive selection of Greek specialties that one might find in a family-owned taberna, which is exactly the ambiance of the cheerful blue-and-white dining room that shows little evidence of its former fast-food tenant. The dishes are simple, flavorful, freshly prepared comfort foods using the staples of Greek cuisine: olive oil, lemons, garlic, olives, spinach, feta cheese, tomatoes, eggplant, grape leaves, oregano, parsley and rosemary.
The menu at this tony Belle Meade eatery changes daily — depending on what’s fresh and available locally and across the country — so it might be impossible to step into the same river twice, so to speak. But the repertoire of European and Mexican-inspired dishes is consistently creative and fresh. Expect the unexpected, from a grilled tentacle of octopus to seared Wagyu carpaccio. An exhaustive wine list and a soufflé of the day bookend the meal at this casually elegant culinary destination, which is equally suited to burgers on the patio and wine dinners in the private dining room.