So maybe there’s an element of surprise to The Grill at Green Hills, the horseshoe-shaped bar with seating for about 20.
Or maybe it’s the ambiance: relaxed and bustling, with an endless stream of folks walking by with grocery carts, waving and often stopping to ask, “Did you taste the scallops?” or “Have you seen the cranberry bog?”
Maybe it’s the spectacle: The open plan of the gleaming kitchen affords a view of all the ingredients, athleticism and weird humor that go into a short-order menu of fish and chips, beef short ribs and seared scallops.
Maybe it’s the price: With a no-tipping policy, a catch-of-the-day sandwich of jewel-toned seared tuna on toasted sourdough bread with a side of hand-cut fries comes out to 7 bucks plus tax.
Or maybe it’s just the food: creative, attractive and, frankly, as good as you’ll find in some of Nashville’s infinitely more self-conscious restaurants.
More likely, it’s a combination of all those things that makes the in-house dining experience at Whole Foods such a delight.
Chef Julia Helton, who left the cubbyhole of a kitchen at Family Wash this spring, leads the Grill team in their efforts to showcase ingredients from throughout the store. For now Helton & Co. are using a combination of recipes from the Whole Foods corporate playbook and from Capitol Grille/Flyte alumnus Jake Stearns, who heads up the much larger prep kitchen for all the store’s hot bars. Stearns signed onto Whole Foods before Helton came on board and drafted a few dishes to help launch The Grill. Going forward, Helton will add her own recipes to the mix.
Among the more remarkable items on the menu are the seared scallops with a honey ginger glaze. Perfectly cooked to a dark, caramelized brown, the scallops melt like butter in your mouth—and they’re conveniently available just across the aisle in the seafood department, if you care to try them at home. Helton can also point you to the honey aisle and to the produce section, where you can pick up some ginger.
We also loved the short ribs, tender and falling off the bone, with a glaze that tasted of something delicious and vaguely familiar that we couldn’t quite identify—until we looked behind the counter and saw the taps for Abita root beer on draft. The dark soda reduces to a rich, sweet sauce, just perfect for sopping up with the sweet corn fritters.
While a bar is a tricky layout for dining in a group—since everyone has to sit in a line—the vibe at The Grill is so low-key and comfortable that we made an evening of ordering lots of plates and passing them around. At one point, I found myself with a plate of plump, meaty crab-cake BLT on my lap and a long tray of beautifully fried oysters on a bed of salty black olives and shaved fennel on the counter in front of me. Meanwhile, tender, flaky fish and chips and crisp spring rolls stuffed with chicken and drizzled with blue cheese and spicy barbecue sauce passed back and forth in front me in a frenzy of sharing. At one point, our group swapped food with complete strangers further down the counter. The Grill is indeed a unique dining environment.
As we watched the other diners, we couldn’t help but notice one lonely, hungry guy who seemed to wait forever for his meal. But when it arrived, we were all instantly jealous. He had figured out what is possibly the best feature of the eatery: You can walk to the meat department, select your own fish or steak and bring it back to The Grill. They will charge you the grocery price plus a $4.99 premium, and will prepare it to your specifications, plated with a starch and vegetables, which vary depending on what’s in season and what’s on Chef Helton’s mind. (No, she cannot prepare a roast on the spot. Men have asked. Seriously, guys, it takes like an hour to cook a roast.)
In the playground of fresh produce, meats, cheeses and specialty ingredients, Helton says she hopes to work closely with the departments to showcase the seasonal and intriguing products that arrive in their cases. While there will always be fish and chips and a hamburger, Helton hopes to work in some dishes with duck and veal, and to showcase the unusual produce (such as blue foot mushrooms) that shows up every now and then—so you never know what might end up alongside the grilled salmon or seared scallops. We had squashes, but it could just as easily be brussels sprouts another day. Helton hopes to add a cheese plate, and in the future she might on occasion feature her famous shepherd’s pie from her days at Family Wash.
But don’t expect dessert at The Grill any time soon. For the sweet stuff, you’ll have to head over to the pastry case or gelato stand.
And as civilized as it would be to sip a nice viognier with your scallops, don’t expect to find a wine list at The Grill. For that, you’ll have to head to another state.
The Grill at Green Hills opens at 11 a.m. daily and closes at 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday.
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