4403 Murphy Rd. 383-4409
Open 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Any chef with a smidgen of egowhich is akin to saying any ocean that has a fishdreams of owning his or her own restaurant. Willie Thomas is no exception, though as far as culinary egos go, his is of fairly modest dimensions. But he has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in the employ of others, which recently culminated in the opening of his own restaurant, Park Café in Sylvan Park.
Thomas began building his résumé in a humble fashion, washing dishes at The Pancake House in Pittsburgh, Pa., when he was just 14. One night, the head cook was so drunk that he passed out, and Thomas took over the grill, a position he refused to relinquish once the cook came to his senses. At that pointThomas was 17he knew that food was his passion, but he also knew that if he were going to pursue a career in the kitchen, he would have to set his sights beyond his hometown.
He enrolled in the esteemed Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence, R.I., but left after a year in favor of obtaining more hands-on experience. “I wanted to work under as many good chefs as I could and learn as much as I could,” he says. For the next several years, he split his time between Cape Cod and Vail, Colo., following the seasons in each region. Eventually, he and his wife, Yvette Grenier, decided they wanted a more settled life, and Thomas submitted his name to a headhunter.
One of the positions that sounded intriguing was executive chef of a new restaurant opening in a recently renovated historic hotel in downtown Nashville. The owners of the Hermitage Hotel wanted a fine-dining establishment to complement their upper-crust accommodations, but general manager Richard Markheim wasn’t sure if Thomas’ experience was sufficiently haute cuisine. With sufficient self-confidence, if not the credentials, Thomas purchased his own ticket to Nashville, showed up at the Hermitage Hotel, and offered to demonstrate his skills. Markheim knew a talent when he saw one and hired him on the spot.
Markheim’s confidence in the young chef paid off not long afterward, when Esquire magazine named the Capitol Grille one of the country’s top 25 new restaurants for 1995. When the hotel was sold to a national chain, Thomas departed his post for a position at Bound’ry, first under executive chef Deb Paquette, then taking over the reins himself.
One of his most ardent customers was Berenice Denton, the queen of local estate sales, who owned some adjacent properties in Sylvan Park at the curve of Murphy Road, just a few doors down from Caffe Nonna. When Denton offered Thomas the chance to take over the lease of the bottom floor of her buildings, he accepted, and in early March, Park Café opened for dinner six nights a week.
His goal was to create a “casual restaurant with a bistro feel that would offer creative food, moderately priced,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be a special occasion place, but one where people might come once or twice a week to eat. I wanted a restaurant that would feel like home.”
He succeeds admirably with the second goal, though not too many homes are as quirkily decorated as Park Café; each of the seven rooms has a different look, but the common thread is a sense of fun, warmth, and whimsy. (Credit goes to Yvette Grenier, Thomas Brooks of Providence Home, and Shon Hudspeth.) The patio offers another seating option, particularly as the summer’s heat cools to more tolerable temperatures. “Our customers already have their favorite table in their favorite room, which they request when they arrive or make reservations,” Thomas says.
A bistro, according to noted food writer Patricia Wells, is a neighborhood restaurant serving home-style, substantial fare; these eateries, she explains, were originally an extension of the family living room. Thomas’ commitment to such fare is foreshadowed with the arrival of the bread basket, always a clear indication of the meal to follow. Tucked within the black napkin are generous slabs of Bread & Company’s onion-rosemary focaccia and ciabatta country bread, either of which are terrific alone or as dipping tools for the small dishes of herbed olive oil and tiny black olives.
Much of Park Café’s menu is a textbook example of Wells’ definition, and the good news is that the execution of the dishes meets every expectationand then some. Yet many come with an Asian or Southwestern twist, thanks in some part to Thomas’ tenure at the Bound’ry, and to the contributions of his Bound’ry colleagues Jason Kroll and Kenji Nakagawa.
Starters from the Far East and the Left Bank coexist peacefully. In the former category, we were particularly fond of the black-sesame-seared scallops, three succulent scallops rolled in black sesame seeds and scooted up against a mound of sticky jasmine rice topped with a tangle of seaweed salad. Offering a salad and appetizer in one, the lettuce cups take P.F. Chang’s version up several notches, thanks to the more pliant Bibb lettuce in place of iceberg, and a more flavorful version of the filling: quick-cooked chopped beef, mushrooms, scallions, peanuts, and ginger-soy sauce. Thomas is now pan-frying, rather than steaming, his pork pot stickers, which improves their texture tremendously. A tempura tuna nori roll rounds out the Asian offerings.
If French is more your bent, sample the crispy salmon-and-potato croquettes, but be prepared for the rather unexpected side of Napa cabbage slaw in place of sauerkraut. Likewise, the jumbo crab cake is not teamed with rémoulade or cocktail sauce, but with creamed spinach and artichokes. And in a big, shallow bowl, three crispy triangles of polenta bob about in a garlicky miso broth. In a category all its own is the phyllo-wrapped jumbo shrimp with a zesty Creole mustard sauce.
A quartet of salads are offered; not only does their volume require plates the size of hubcaps, but they should come with a warning that they cannot be consumed by one mouth alone. Share, or order as an entrée, but you can’t lose with any of the four. In order of preference, they were: a fried green tomato and crab salad, assembled into a leaning tower; a watermelon salad with juicy chunks of seeded fruit, toasted pistachio nuts, and a plump medallion of goat cheese atop a mountain of arugula; thin slices of port-wine-poached pears fanned around the perimeter of a plate piled high with mesclun greens, spiced-sugared pecans, sun-dried cherries, and gorgonzola cheese; and, finally, crawfish tails tossed in Tabasco butter atop greens.
Most of the entrées would be right at home in a French country kitchen. The peppered beef tenderloin is served with classic accoutrements of pommes frites, Béarnaise sauce, and crisp asparagus spears. The mahi-mahi is slathered in olive oil, then roasted, topped with a pile of fried onion sticks, and delivered lying cozily on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. The grilled double-cut pork chop is a manly dish, boasting a smoky chipotle adobo glaze and partnered with braised greens and creamy, zesty green-chili mac-and-cheese.
Comfort seekers need look no further than the robust stew of jumbo scallops and potato-ricotta gnocchi with fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic, and smoked tomato sauce. The simple pan-seared salmon is elevated by its spectacular side of Szechuan green beans, so delectable that they elicited a table-wide response that must have carried all the way back to the kitchen.
Where Park Café detours from conventional bistro fare is not in the food, but the presentation. Rather than the traditional, simple white stoneware, Park’s dishes are a crazy-quilt collection of color, shape, and materials, enhancing the liveliness that permeates the restaurant.
Though every entréeall priced under $20comes with at least two sides, 14 side items are also available à la carte for $3.50 each, and many regular customers often make a meal of three or four.
If you’re a sweet lover and if you have roomnot likely, considering the gargantuan portion sizes, which were my only complaintdesserts may steal the show. There are four to choose from: a napoleon of crème brûlée; molten chocolate cake; chocolate and hazelnut fondue for two served with fruit, meringue pillows, and pound cake; and a quintessential, all-American apple and sun-dried-cherry pie with pecan crumble crisp.
Patricia Wells writes that what she loves about bistro food is its “sense of generosity, of wholeness, of copiousness.... It is not afraid to be lusty and earthy...a food without pretension, based on familiar ingredients we can all relate to.” She would find much to like about Park Café. It may not be one of Esquire’s top 25 new restaurants in the country, but Park Café earns its place as one of Nashville’s best new places to eat.