Around the World in 18 Plates 

Sambuca launches an eclectic menu of appetizers

Sambuca launches an eclectic menu of appetizers

Let's say you were a particularly cheeky construction worker building one of the new Gulch high-rises, and you got a wild hair to seal a time capsule into the building's foundation. If you wanted to commemorate the second half of the first decade of the new millennium in Nashville, what souvenirs would you include? A program from the Presidential Town Hall debate at Belmont? The deed to a luxury penthouse? A birth announcement from Keith and Nicole?

If you were a particularly food-centric person, your time capsule might include a hint of Asian cuisine, a nod to nuevo Latino food and something deconstructed—all hallmarks of Nashville's dining landscape in the last few years.

Throw in shrimp and grits, a fried crab cake and a few familiar snacks from far-flung cultures, and you've got the new menu of small plates at Sambuca, the 3-year-old dining and music venue that anchors the restaurant strip in the Gulch.

Opened in 2005, Sambuca is the Nashville satellite of a five-restaurant chain. Since its debut, the kitchen has been led by executive chef Steve Shires, who left Sambuca in September after five years with the Texas-based company. Before leaving the restaurant in the hands of sous chef James Reesor, an alumnus of Sunset Grill, Shires launched a new menu of small plates and appetizers that were the result of collaboration among the chefs at Sambuca restaurants in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Nashville.

The eclectic repertoire reads like a grown-up version of a dinner with the high school AFS club. From India, there are chicken samosas—puff pastry stuffed with potatoes, peas and onions and served with chutney. From Southeast Asia, there's chicken satay—skewers of meat with a candied soy dipping sauce. From Italy, there are artichokes stuffed with goat cheese and served with romesco. But far from the high school global culture club, Shires & Co. composed a series of beautiful showplates that range in price from $6.50 for satay to $14 for skewers of ponzu-glazed sea bass.

The popular Buca beignets—fluffy doughnut holes stuffed with gooey mozzarella and prosciutto and served with a jalapeno-basil drizzle and a balsamic reduction—remain on the menu, along with the fried calamari and a seafood martini of lump crab and shrimp. But the rest of the 18 small plates and starters are new this fall.

Several of the small plates we ordered were designed for sharing—with three tacos here, three dumplings there or a half-dozen tiles of tuna—and all were presented dramatically on oversized white plates, like so many contemporary canvases. Our favorite item was Sambuca's version of fish tacos, which elevated the popular street food to colorful artwork. Each delicate tortilla was rolled around a sautéed medley of halibut, sea bass, cod and vegetables before being deep fried. The trio of piping-hot tacos was topped with a cool pico de gallo of diced lobster, mango, red pepper, pink onion, avocado and cilantro, plated on a rectangular white platter in a pattern that alternated tacos with succulent strips of mango.

Deconstructed sushi put an interesting spin on the Japanese-themed favorite by arranging the components of a sushi roll across a plate, as if they were waiting to be assembled. In one pile: six tiles of tuna lightly seared with a coating of black and white sesame seeds. In another: six nori-wrapped coins of sushi rice. Long strips of crisp carrot and twirly ribbons of cool cucumber arrived like a tangly salad, dressed in a thin sweet-and-sour drizzle of soy and plum sauce. A crispy cornet of tuna tartare garnished the pretty plate. Our only complaint about the beautiful and playful dish was that the rice was too crunchy.

Lobster dumplings preyed on our predictable weakness for the word "lobster." Made with minced meat from slipper lobsters—clawless crustaceans much smaller than the fat-tailed Maine variety—the dumplings stood out not for their bland seafood filling but for the pale green dipping sauce. The creamy blend of sweet coconut milk and nose-stinging wasabi was an ingenious pairing, one that we'd like to see exploited in many ways—coconut-wasabi gelato, for example.

Sambuca's nutty avocado recalls the popular deep-fried "fat ball" from Alley Cat in East Nashville, but adds a nubbly crust of ground pine nuts and almonds and a pile of lump crab. While we applauded the combination of simple, rich ingredients, we would just as soon not have our avocado hot, since it is the cool, buttery texture that makes the fruit so appealing in the first place.

Among so many succinct plates of fresh, vibrant ingredients, the barbecue pork tamale fell flat. The most generously portioned of the small plates we ordered, the $6.75 tamale—corn husk stuffed with pulled pork and sleek pearls of Israeli couscous—traded flavor for bulk. That said, if you're actually hungry but don't want to pony up for the pricier entrées, it's an efficient order.

For more substantial appetites, Sambuca offers a menu of entrées ranging from lasagna with artichoke hearts, spinach, olives and feta ($18.75) to a New York strip ($36). At lunch, dishes such as blackened tuna étouffée, Gorgonzola salmon and fish 'n' chips hover around $13. The lunch combination of a half-sandwich, soup and salad for $10.95 is a remarkably well-priced way to enjoy the sultry suede-coated scene at Sambuca. With chef Reesor at the helm for now, the Nashville team is contributing ideas for a companywide overhaul of the lunch menu, which will take place in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the next few weeks might just be the best time to explore the eclectic menu at Sambuca—especially on the sprawling patio—as the summer temperatures abate and the gleaming facades of the nearby condo towers take shape. On a recent balmy evening, as jazz music wafted across the Gulch and the blue neon trim of the Icon blazed across the dusky 12 South sky, we devoured plates of deconstructed sushi, fish tacos and bodacious cinnamon-dusted sopapillas. It was a dinner that orbited the world—in a setting that was unique to Nashville.

Sambuca serves lunch and dinner daily, with live music in the evenings.

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