Cafe 123 is right near the top of my short list of favorite dining rooms in Nashville. I love its location, which is slightly off the beaten track, nestled between the loading docks of the daily papers and the service garages of auto dealerships. I love the “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Nashville anymore” atmosphere. I love the dark interiorthe rich browns of the floor and the deep-red brick walls, the bronze-painted tin ceiling, the wooden fans twirling lazily overhead. I love the big plate-glass windows and their lace cafe curtains. I love the jazzy, sophisticated music on the sound sytemElla Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday. I love the solid oak tables that gleam in the warm light reflected from the crackling fire in the fireplace.
I really, really, really love the mahogany Brunswick bar that owner Jody Faison found in Atlanta and used as the focal point, in vision and in design, for Cafe 123. “The bar reminded me of what I thought a speakeasy might have,” Faison has said. “I wanted the room to have that sort of feeldark and maybe a little bit dangerous, a place where you might have gone during Prohibition.” Maybe that explains itI’ve occasionally been attracted to the dark, little-bit-dangerous side of life.
In short, I think the 123 bar is the best sitting-and-drinking bar in town, the perfect place for a glass of good wine, and one of the only bars in town where I am completely comfortable enjoying that glass of wine without a companion.
So, what’s not to love about Cafe 123? These days, the cafe has two problemsthe prices and the menu. And those are important points when it comes to taking the measure of any restaurant.
Faison opened Cafe 123 in January 1995. It was his fifth restaurant, but it marked the first time he had hired an honest-to-goodness chef, his brother Rob Faison, a graduate of the Hyde Park Culinary Institute of America. The difference showed. The menu was exciting and creative, an intriguing combination of Southern staples, American basics, and ethnic influences: Tart grapefruit salad with edible flowers, mixed greens, and honey-cinnamon dressing. Spinach salad with grilled shiitake mushrooms, country ham, caramelized red onions, oranges, peppered pecans, and bleu cheese with mustard curry dressing. Hoppin’ John salad with chicory, black-eyed peas, brown rice, and radicchio. Fried okra, sweet onions, and fried green tomatoes with a zingy poblano rémoulade. A memorable mustard-green strudel with feta and stout wild mushroom duxelles. Grilled veal chop and dried cranberry port sauce with buttermilk-and-horseradish mashed potatoes. Chile-grilled salmon with red pepper hi-de-ho cakes, southern beurre blanc, and roasted veggies. Black Angus ribeye with ancho-peppered home fries and Louisiana-style green peppers and onions.
One of my personal faves was the bistro-esque Sausage 123pork, peach, and smoked mozzarella sausagemade on the premises and grilled and served on sautéed spinach with cheese jalapeño grits and radicchio cole slaw. The prices were right, the menu was well-executed, and I felt confident recommending 123 to discerning diners and out-of-town visitors.
In July 1996 during a particularly violent summer storm, Cafe 123’s roof was ripped off. When the restaurant reopened in October, it appeared that an ill wind had swept through the kitchen, and that the roof had blown off the prices.
Jody had shuffled brother Rob over to Faison’s, then on to Jules (where he remains today). A new chef took over the kitchen. Complaints began filtering in from friends and acquaintances. The new menu was weird, the food was wildly erratic, the prices were steep. One music-industry friendon a generous expense accountsaid she got sticker shock the last time she was there. A loyal group of 123 fans dropped their traditional Saturday-night dinners there, blaming a deadly combination of disappointing food and unaffordable prices. I dropped by last fall for a late-night bite to eat and had to send my plate back twice.
The chef and Cafe 123 parted ways a few months ago, and Faison has hired Vito Randazzo, who gained his hands-on culinary experience at the White Bridge Road Caesar’s Ristorante Italiano, which is owned by his father, Caesar Randazzo.
At a fact-finding-only dinner at Cafe 123 on a recent Saturday night, this is what I found: The menu has crossed the line from creative to chaotic and is in imminent danger of fatal ingredient overdose. The flavor combinations are no longer intriguing; now they’re just plain strange. The prices have increased, across the board, by margins ranging from $1 to $6. The original spinach salad jumped from $4.95 to $7.95, the Caesar from $5.95 to $7.95.
Pan-seared sea scallops with poached asparagus ($7.25) now appear, inexplicably, in a spicy mango-banana sauce with Aztec wonton chips ($8.95). The simple wild mushoom sauté with dried cherries and fennel root ($5.75) is now served with a greasy mascarpone-stuffed polenta ($7.95). I couldn’t bring myself to sample the barbecue duck wontons with Asian greens and chipotle vinaigrette. Likewise, the shrimp-and-ginger-crusted sea bass served with a vanilla-papaya sauce. Eeek. The Black Angus tenderloin and the rack of lamb have each jumped $6; the elemental Caponata pasta has gone up $3; the chili-grilled salmon has leapt $3 and is now seared with spinach and shallots and finished with cream and Sambuca. Two appetizers, one salad, one entrée, one dessert, and a $20 bottle of wine came to $82.36.
Faison, who has never shirked encounters with the press, responds that problems in the kitchen helped drive up the prices, but he says that, with the resolution of those problems, he’ll be bringing prices back down to a more moderate level. Some changesin menu and pricesare already on line for later this week. Brother Faison has been working out the new menu at the recently renamed Jody’s (formerly Jules), and when that project is completed, he’ll turn his attention and talents back to Cafe 123and not a moment too soon.
I’ll be keeping an eye on Cafe 123from a safe distance at the cool Brunswick barand I’m hoping for the best. Love, don’t you know, is a terrible thing to waste.
♦ Because of an out-of-town trip, I missed the Herb Society’s annual sale at Ellington Agricultural Center last weekend. So, upon my return late Sunday afternoon, I hotfooted it out to the Farmer’s Market in search of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. I was fortunate to meet up with Dale Ridgill and Barbara Kinkead, owners of Moonstruck Herbs. Their business was born five years ago when Barbara asked Dale to dig an herb garden for her. He got started so late in the day that, by the time the planting was done, the moon was high in the night sky (hence the “Moonstruck”name). Today, Moonstruck supplies some of Nashville’s best restaurants and speciality markets.
For just one more weekend, you too can take advantage of their low prices and their sage advice. I picked up sweet basil, Siam basil, sage, thyme, dill, chives, Italian parsley, cilantro, sorrel, and salad burnet (12 plants total, along with a sheet of recipes) for just $20. Moonstruck is in the northeast outdoor corner of the Market closest to the buildingthis weekend only