Volunteering for a nonprofit organization can be thankless work, from raising money to stuffing envelops. But for the lucky—or strategic—do-gooder, such responsibilities also come with privileges. Like when the board members of the Belle Meade Plantation got to select a new concession to fill the vacancy left by this spring's closing of Martha's at the Plantation.
With a handful of beloved restaurateurs vying for the tony location, the board reviewed concepts, business plans and menus in what developed into a culinary beauty pageant of sorts. After a series of interviews and private tastings, chef Brian Hainley emerged as belle of the ball, winning the right to debut a pretty, modern restaurant on the grounds of the historic mansion.
With a résumé that weaves from Nashville to a family restaurant in Indiana, the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Aubergine restaurant in California, and his own restaurant in Pinehurst, N.C., Hainley brings a quiet confidence to the new enterprise. Drawing on his family's experience in the refrigerator manufacturing industry, Hainley took on a significant overhaul of the kitchen, transforming the space into a gleaming stainless-steel laboratory for deliberate, detail-oriented cooking.
With the help of his mom, he redecorated the dining room, swapping gray walls for dusky blue, laying new rich carpet and reconfiguring the hostess stand to make a slightly grander entrance to the room.
With white tablecloths, single rosebuds on the tables and a name like Belle, you might expect a prissy repertoire of finger foods and ladylike cuisine, but Hainley delivers a stealthily hearty roster of local and seasonal food, ranging from heirloom tomato salad to steak frites.
If you want to make the baby-faced Hainley bristle, ask him where he buys the perfectly crisp French fries that overflow from oversized silver julep cups. Because at any given minute, there's a tub full of fresh, finely sliced potatoes soaking in cool water near the pots of simmering chicken stock and poaching Maine lobsters. Hainley & Co. make everything from scratch, including the pappardelle, pickles and pistachio ice cream. The Bloody Mary mix is homemade, and the kids' chicken fingers are hand-dipped. (However, Hainley's quick to explain that the warm potato chips that accompany the sandwiches are not hand-cut but rather purchased and deep-fried on site.) While the kitchen gardens at the plantation have gone wild, Hainley is working on a list of plantings for spring, when he'll start growing some of his own produce.
The early autumn lunch menu, which debuted Sept. 14, is a terse two-page list of soups, sandwiches, salads and entrées. Over our visits, the daily soup rotated from a vibrant orange butternut squash to a thick medley of chicken and wild rice with celery, mushrooms and carrots in a rich base that used the homemade stock to maximum effect.
Intrigued by plates bearing rustic canning jars, we were eager to explore them for ourselves, but when we asked about the whimsical presentation, we were told that the chicken liver pâté—potted in the jars with sage leaves and clarified butter—was unavailable that day. Instead, we opted for the charcuterie platter with handkerchief-thin folds of prosciutto, bresaola and sopressata, along with hunks of Maytag blue cheese, Cabot cheddar and triple-cream brie, honeycomb, fig, gherkins, grainy mustard and slices of warm toast from Provence. The $12 appetizer was a gorgeous opening to the meal and would make an equally exquisite closer.
To describe Belle as a chicken-salad-serving restaurant would be a misnomer. Hainley does indeed serve a chicken salad, but rather than a mayonnaise-y mash-up of pale cubed meat, Belle offers a Cobb salad with a joint of roasted Ashley Farms chicken atop a fluffy bed of mixed greens and stations of corn, avocado, red onion, cherry tomatoes, blue cheese and crisp bacon circling the plate like numbers on a colorful clock.
While there is little trace of the predecessor restaurant, the Belle Meade Plantation staff did request that Hainley keep the favorite Southern staple of fried green tomatoes on the menu in some form. In response, Belle offers a salad with wild baby arugula and FGTs in buttermilk dressing. But perhaps the more engaging way to enjoy the tangy disks of premature fruit is on the Belle BLT, where they are stacked with Haney's signature wine-braised beef short ribs, homemade pickles and minced slaw on a sweet fluffy brioche. Like a marriage of barbecue sandwich and pot roast, the double-fisted concoction layers complex flavors of veal stock and red wine with a down-home hungryman's helping of pulled tender meat.
An equally satisfying, if less messy, sandwich laid a fillet of triggerfish on the sweet brioche, adorned with homemade herb tartar sauce and strips of peeled tomato. Lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and sautéed to a golden sandy finish, the buttery triggerfish would make a delicate fork-and-knife entrée but worked particularly well with the soft bread for a more causal meal.
When Belle launches dinner Oct. 14, the evening menu will likely include a few highlights from the lunch roster, including the poached lobster on a lightly dressed bed of greens with hearts of palm and fine green beans. Hainley will also feature braised short ribs, fresh pasta, halibut and the "205" burger infused with braised short ribs. (Served on brioche with red onion jam and tomato concassé, it's a really good, juicy burger. But whether it—or any burger—is worth $16 is a whole other question, to which the answer will almost invariably be "No.")
Be that as it may, when the server asks you about dessert, say "Yes," and zero in on the chocolate offerings—particularly the flourless chocolate cake served with a small green dollop of homemade pistachio ice cream and an amber shard of pistachio brittle. An instant in the microwave just before serving transforms the rich torte into a decadent substance best described as the lovechild of warm pudding and, well, clouds. Or for something more down to earth, stick with the elegantly decadent chocolate brownie piled with homemade vanilla bean ice cream and warm chocolate fudge, Spanish peanuts and a mound of whipped cream. A straightforward traditional combination delivered with uncommon detail, the dessert—like Hainley's restaurant—is anything but prissy, and beautiful to boot.
Belle serves lunch Monday through Friday and brunch Saturday and Sunday. Starting Oct. 14, Belle will serve dinner Wednesday through Saturday.
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