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Inviting, inventive Red Wagon Cafe offers a fresh, flavorful, convivial dining experience

Inviting, inventive Red Wagon Cafe offers a fresh, flavorful, convivial dining experience

Red Wagon Cafe

1112 Woodland St. 226-2527

Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; for brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.; for wine, snacks and take-out dinner 4-7 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.

Meg Giuffrida, of the melodious laugh, sparkling smile and strawberry blond ringlets, has done many things in her life. She has worked for record labels, she has been a visual artist, a graphic designer and even a bartender. But, those who know her agree, it was when she parked herself in front of a stove and began cooking that she found her true calling—one that has deservedly earned her a devoted and growing contingent of fans.

Over the past few years, I have eaten Meg Giuffrida’s food at parties, at picnics, at fundraisers, for breakfast, lunch, cocktails and dinner. I can honestly say I have never experienced a bad or disappointing bite of food at her hands. That was true at her first restaurant kitchen job at The Yellow Porch, when she started her own catering company, and during the six months she cooked brunch at Bongo Java Roasting Company and did take-out lunches at the Good Earth Market. And it has certainly held true at Red Wagon Cafe, the restaurant she and husband Paul Burch opened June 1 in East Nashville, where the brunch and lunch menus present a multitude of appealing possibilities: The eggs Bilbao or the lemon-ricotta pancakes? The muffaletta or the Thai curried chicken? The vegetable plate or the noodle of the day?

Though the process of making a decision is painful in a sort of pleasurable way, the good news is that—unlike multiple-choice exams, footwear and romances—there simply are no wrong choices to be made from the Red Wagon menu. Giuffrida’s food has steadily progressed from very good to consistently superb, with clean, fresh flavor bursting forth from every plate. Her focus is home-cooked healthy foods and seasonal eating, using organics as much as possible. Though she does the Southern regional thing as well as anyone, her global influences are frequently Asian and Indian. Vegetarians and even vegans will be pleased with her generosity toward their dietary lifestyles.

The flower-lined front walk presents a most charming entrance to the cornflower-blue Victorian house. Inside, the well-worn wooden floors slope and creak underfoot; the spacious dining rooms flow easily from one to another, each painted in happy colors of aqua, periwinkle blue, yellow or chartreuse. The walls are sparely decorated with large unframed paintings, tall windows are left bare and the contemporary light-wood and matte-metal tables and chairs are generously spaced. The breezy, sunny ambiance and cheerful staff deliver a most pleasant respite from the world outside and can subliminally persuade an attitude adjustment from even the most harried or melancholy visitor. Giuffrida continues the seduction from the large kitchen in the back of the restaurant, which, lacking a door, lures diners to poke their heads in to see what’s cooking.

During one lunch visit there, my dining partners and I were enamored of the green curry Thai chicken on flat noodles in a coconut milk broth, the spicy black sesame noodles with steamed shrimp, and the rich goat cheese tart. On another day, it was a hearty sandwich of roasted chicken with ripe avocado, goat cheese and dried cherries on chewy Provence bread; equally appealing was Red Wagon’s version of the muffaletta, a half-round of homemade foccacia slathered with tart olive spread and slices of good white cheddar.

I hate to appear fickle, but the next visit, I couldn’t resist the not-pimento cheese sandwich, a flavor-balancing act of tangy shredded white cheddar mixed with sweet roasted red peppers and briny Kalamata olives and capers overflowing the slices of sourdough bread. Nor could I stop myself from stealing a bite or two of my companion’s BLT—center-cut slices of apple-smoked bacon, juicy homegrown tomato slices, a chunky avocado spread and Swiss cheese. For my vegan friend, it was love at first bite with the vegetable plate of the day, which included lentils, greens and other vegan-correct ingredients. Likewise, a vegetarian, Indian-food-loving pal found the best of both worlds in the curried potato wrap, which places a samosa filling in a large green tortilla sided with an onion-tomato chutney and shredded-carrot raita.

Whatever my favorite dish of the moment might be, I freely confess to a wild crush on the spiced grapes that come with nearly all of the lunch plates. And pastry chef Rebekah Turshen is bewitching sweets lovers with her tantalizing desserts.

Saturday and Sunday are more leisurely affairs—at least for the diners, who read the Times or chat lazily over their ratatouille and goat cheese omelets. Other offerings include the eggs Bilbao—crispy homemade English muffin halves topped with a poached egg, salty prosciutto and paste-thick romescu sauce—and the scrambled eggs with roasted red peppers, slices of portobello mushrooms and fresh spinach sautéed in butter. Many diners are infatuated with the fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes fetchingly painted with raspberry syrup.

Last week, Giuffrida began cooking dinner entrées to go, available from the cooler case by the register from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Still, she would hate for you to run off; a small select list of wines by the glass or bottle and a menu of tapas-sized snacks offer all the reason one needs to linger awhile.

In late September, Giuffrida will change out the current spring/summer menu for fall/winter. And not long after, she will undertake a new endeavor: motherhood. She and Burch are expecting their first child Nov. 1, a blissful event that will no doubt complement the happy, extended family that has taken up residence at the corner of 12th and Woodland streets.

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