Bravo Sasso 

Fine dining finds a home across the river

Fine dining finds a home across the river

Sasso

1400 Woodland Street, 226-7942

Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Appetizers from 2:30-5:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri. Dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; until 11 p.m. Fri. and Sat.

East Nashville has not yet erected a statue, or built a park, or named a street for Anita Hartel, Corey Griffith, and Nina Neal. But that’s because many of the residents of the long beleaguered neighborhood have been otherwise occupied, vying for table space at Sasso, the trio’s brand new restaurant on the corner of Woodland and 14th Street.

While they wait at the bar, they clink martini glasses and marvel at their good fortune. Once seated, the wine flows, the knives flash, the forks fly, the music swells, everyone smiles, and the entire scene resembles nothing less than a picture perfect Hollywood happy ending.

Perhaps it was just the night we visited, when four separate parties of 10 or more were simultaneously celebrating four separate birthdays. Birthday or not, though, there is plenty to celebrate with the arrival of Sasso in The Land Beyond The River.

The partners are celebrating its very existence, considering that on April 16, 1998, when the tornado blew an ill wind through the neighborhood and across the roof of their building, they had just closed the deal, and their insurance premium check was still in the mail. The natural disaster put things a little bit behind schedule.

They also celebrate the good fortune that brought them all together. Hartel, who has cooked at Cakewalk and Tin Angel, among others, met Griffith when he came to Nashville from California to take over as chef at Cakewalk. They thought they could make beautiful food together and had already reached the menu-planning stage of their screenplay when Neal came into the picture. Neal, a paralegal who lives on nearby Fatherland Street, was willing to put up the money for a good neighborhood restaurant. As it turned out, the three formed a partnership and took over the narrow, two-story, early-1900s building on Woodland. Then they went to work.

They painted and drywalled and spackled and tiled and sawed and nailed and by the time it was over, Hartell turned to Neal and said, ”I hate everybody but you and Corey.“ She knew that if they could make it through that ordeal, they could run a restaurant together.

And so they have. Sasso is not just what East Nashville needed, it’s an exciting and welcome addition to the city’s dining landscape wherever you live.

The front door deposits you right in the main room, with dark-hued walls, a black-and-white checkerboard floor, and subdued lighting. If you do have to wait for a table, you’ll do it at the sleek wood bar against one wall. There’s an easy, welcoming neighborhood feel about Sasso, yet its casual sophistication makes even cosmopolitan world travelers feel at home.

The menu reflects that dual personality—hearty basics enlightened with global tastes. Hartell says she and Griffith are so all over the place in their influences and inclinations that her husband Mark Smith calls their cuisine ”transcontinental.“ That sounds about right, but how does it work?

For the most part, pretty darn well. I’ve got three favorite starters already, and I’ve sampled each of them twice. The big steamed shrimp dumplings, topped with crispy shredded sweet carrots, come in a deep bowl with a light cilantro broth; the chopsticks are a nice touch. The big plate of mussels are piled into a shallow bowl, a garlicky, chunky tomato broth ladled over top; save some for scooping with the crusty hot rolls. The moist, plump salmon cakes with bare-minimal breading are fried golden on the outside and sauced with a spicy remoulade. The plate of fried plantains with red salsa flew around the table and was empty by the time it got back to me.

Both chefs have an affinity for fresh, creative salads—Hartell says she looks forward to spring when she can bring in herbs and lettuces from her garden—and Sasso’s selection is hard to resist. Caesar devotees will like their sparsely-dressed version with a generous grating of parmesan. Deciding between the arugula with a lime dressing and the tender spinach salads may come down to a matter of texture—do you want creamy, oozing medallions of fried goat cheese (with the arugula) or the crunchy, crackling spicy pecan brittle (on the spinach)? Do you suppose I could get a side of each? The only salad I could not bring myself to sample was the house—pickled beets, red onion, and salted cucumbers with gorgonzola dressing, but the man who did ate every blessed bite and declared it perfect.

In the entree department, there are celebratory dishes for special occasions and drop-in-for-a-bite-to-eat dishes for the nights you just don’t feel like cooking. Prices are manageable for most budgets, with no entree over $20 and with the average being about $16.

For the Big Night, I’d choose the mustard-coated lamb chops with toasted walnuts and dried cranberries over the braised lamb shank, particularly if you like a milder flavor of lamb. The shank is simply too strong for most tastes, even mine, and I love most game. Perhaps baby cow shank instead of baby sheep?

The People’s Choice award at our table went to the outstanding Szechuan peanut-crusted salmon—a thick filet quickly seared—that was served alongside a tangle of delicious crispy fried noodles. The New York strip, with mushrooms and fried shoestring potatoes, was evocative of a French bistro staple. So was the perfectly roasted chicken, happily teamed with Mission figs, apple slices, golden Yukon potatoes, and served in its pan juices. A less successful pairing was the very good rum-marinated pork chops with the BBQ lentils; the earthy flavor of the lentils did not lend itself to the sweet overtones of the sauce. The greens on the side more than compensated—someone back there knows their greens, and whenever they show up, it’s a treat. The Brazilian-style seafood stew was chock-full of fish, scallops, and shrimp, and delicately flavored with a touch of ginger, but the sauce was quite a bit thicker than I thought it would be—I perhaps saw stew on the menu but expected bouillabaisse.

The fussilli pasta with grilled shrimp, Swiss chard, and garlic was another winning combination of flavors. If you came to Sasso early, tried the risotto, and were disappointed, give it another shot. First versions had neither cream nor cheese, a nod to vegan customers (the menu should have indicated such). People who actually eat food—as opposed to vegans who may as well be fed intravenously—complained. Hartel promises steps have already been taken to insure risotto satisfaction.

And that’s the kind of place Sasso will be. Big enough to hold a world of flavor, but small and personal enough that the chefs notice—and care—when a plate comes back to the kitchen nearly full.

Sasso is just right for this neighborhood that is awash in harmonious contradiction—hip and grounded; diverse and focused; resilient and receptive. But if I lived there, and had waited as long as they have for a place like this, I’d ask for preferred neighborhood seating. Let West Nashville see what it feels like to live on the ”other“ side of the river for a change.

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