I don’t know where the epicenter of Five Points in East Nashville is, but just for the heck of it, let’s make it the bar stool closest to the window at 3 Crow Bar. From that point, within easy walking distance—or stumbling distance, depending on how long you’ve parked your butt there—are more than a dozen other places to grab a drink and a bite to eat, with choices ranging from a fried avocado at Alley Cat to pan-roasted perch with curried eggplant puree at Margot less than two blocks away. Ten years ago, the epicenter of Five Points was a bar called Shirley’s, an establishment of such disrepute that it was included in a Scene story about Bad Bars. Back then, within walking distance of Shirley’s it was easier to buy drugs or sex than a burger or a slice of pizza.
The newest tenant in the Five Points drink ’n’ dine district is Batter’d & Fried Boston Seafood House. Owner Matt Charette is no stranger to the ’hood; the front door of Batter’d on Woodland Street is about 100 yards as the crow flies from his first restaurant/bar, Beyond the Edge, one block south on 11th Street. Charette opened Edge about three years ago, and he has built a steady neighborhood clientele who enjoy the variety of beer (100 in all) and the menu of sandwiches, wraps and pizzas, with games on the tube and on site.
Charette, a Massachusetts native, has long had a hankering for the fish houses and pubs that are as common to New England as BBQ joints in the south. Last year, when his Edge landlord proposed he take over the lease of the cinderblock building at 1008 Woodland, Charerette jumped at the chance. This spring, he opened Batter’d & Fried.
Solicitations from friends and colleagues to accompany me on dining-review expeditions are not uncommon, but usually not so specific as to request a particular restaurant. Given that the friend asking this time was a native Bostonian, her opinion on a restaurant that purports to be a “Boston seafood house” seemed valuable. She was conscripted, along with another friend who lived in the heart of Beantown for nearly a decade before coming home to Nashville.
Three of us met at 3 Crow for spicy Bloody Marys—kudos to the vodka-soaked pepper strips that garnish the drink—while waiting for our fourth. As we drank our Bloodies, the Bostonian, just back from a two-week trip to the city, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, went on and on about what she ate there—the lobster rolls, the fried fish sandwiches, the clam strips, the chowder. She was particularly ecstatic about the pots of steamers she enjoyed on the deck of the home where she stayed. By the time we got to Batter’d & Fried, we were all practically drooling.
Charette has done a swell job transforming what was a Laundromat and a barbershop into a pubbish bar, with dining to the left and an attractive dining room with a bar to the right. On all three visits, the latter hosted at least one table of families with small fry taking advantage of the children’s menu, as well as couples and groups of friends. The bar side is sporty, with televisions currently tuned to baseball (particularly if AL East first-place Red Sox ball is available). Boston team memorabilia adorns the walls, giving the low-ceilinged room the comfortable, casual feel of a pal’s finished basement. Much like Beyond the Edge, the ambiance is easygoing.
If this were simply a bar with food, it would be a winner. But Batter’d & Fried presents itself—particularly the dining room—as a restaurant. And judged by that standard, it is not quite a contender against stiff competition from other neighborhood options, including its own sibling.
Though the menu is three pages long—with a fourth primarily devoted to beverages—steamer clams were not among the 40-or-so options. That was our first disappointment, but unfortunately not our last. The name Batter’d & Fried gets it half right: almost everything on the menu—including dessert—comes to the table from the fryer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Deep frying can make even the most awful things edible, if you can get past your natural squeamishness at snacking on squirrel heads and bull testicles.
But there are elements required to make food good, not just edible—and that’s where Batter’d & Fried falls short. Most everything on the menu—from onion rings to oysters, shrimp to scallops—is not battered but breaded in cracker crumbs, which add weight but no flavor. The crumbs absorb too much oil to obtain the crispy cracklin’ crunch that even Captain D’s has mastered. The finished product also lacks the clean flavor that comes with frequent oil changes, not to mention the nearly grease-free finish that comes from frying at the exact right temperature for the exact right amount of time.
Distinctions made on the menu to certain items being “homemade” or “hand-breaded” led us to suspect that everything else—with descriptions that almost unanimously begin “lightly breaded”—comes out of the freezer ready to hit the fryer. Of the items we tried, that assumption seemed true of the onion rings, mushrooms, clam strips, butterfly shrimp and the mystifying “baby whole belly clams”—a basket of which resembled breaded deep-fried animal droppings and raised questions about what exactly the name meant. Were they the detached bellies of baby clams? Or is “whole belly clam” the proper name of the bivalve, and are these particular ones infants of the species? Either way, if not for the cracker coating, these clam bits the size of your pinkie fingernail would pass without notice across the tongue and to the belly. Of the four apps we tried—the bellies, onion rings, mushrooms and jalapeño chips—the only one that could claim any flavor was the heat-packing jalapeño chips, which we gobbled right down.
Aside from the pickles, jalapeño chips and onion rings, all of the other fried specialties (including the baby bellies) come in five sizes: small app, large app, lunch entrée, small and large dinner, which commendably offers individual portion control. Lunch and dinner servings come with fries served in a brown paper sack, a nice touch, and a plastic ramekin of slaw. One of the day’s specials, the pan-seared amberjack sandwich, was fine—better after we removed the totally superfluous gooey slice of Monterey Jack cheese.
The grouper tenders were our one successful encounter with the fryer: the firm morsels of sweet white fish boasted a golden-crisped exterior. The Batter’d & Fried basket presents three items at one time—fried cod, shrimp and clam strips—and in the same order, the consensus was: bad, really bad and simply awful. The most egregious failures were the “bite-sized crab cakes,” which we imagined as meatball-sized, but were actually flattened discs about the diameter of a poker chip. So lacking were these in crab, so distasteful were these in flavor (and so gummy in texture), that five was one too many for our party of four. Rarely in my long history of crab-cake affection has one gone back to the kitchen untouched.
To add insult to injury, the eight-or-so dinner salads on the menu are simply mixed greens or iceberg lettuce topped with the same fried items—i.e., coconut shrimp over iceberg lettuce with shredded cheddar and tomatoes, crab cakes over mixed greens with tomatoes. And the sandwiches? You guessed it: fried breaded oysters on a bun, fried cod on a bun, fried grouper tenders on a bun.
Matt Charette should be respected for his contributions to the development of Five Points; he has taken risks, worked hard and been an ebullient cheerleader for the neighborhood. Batter’d & Fried is a great idea, but at this stage it is poorly executed and sadly disappointing. My unsolicited advice would be to dramatically edit the menu and narrow it down to what the kitchen can prepare fresh and fry perfectly. Don’t change a thing on the grouper tenders and French fries; figure out the difference between batter and breading; work on the fish and chips; keep the chicken tenders for the kids; go back to the drawing board on the crab cakes; grill the amberjack sandwich—and please, check out sources for steamers. Until then, you can’t go wrong with a cold beer, a large order of jalapeño chips and a classic, season-deciding Red Sox-Yankees series on the tube.