Asparagus with poached egg $8
Steamed mussels $9
House-made ricotta ravioli $14
Pan-seared Alaskan halibut $16
Brown sugar pit ham $15
Drop by Chef Margot McCormack's delightful East Nashville cafe Marché during Sunday brunch and you'll see a dining room teeming with diversity: Brentwood matrons, Vanderbilt docs wearing scrubs, Music Row types swapping stories and mild one-upmanship, sorority sisters sporting nearly identical minidresses, members of congregations both black and white stopping by after church in suits and elegant hats, and of course, the ubiquitous East Nashville hipsters. And finally, don't forget the west-side foodies of every stripe who hasten across the river to take advantage of one of Nashville's best and most affordable brunches
Saturday and Sunday brunch at Marché can be a mob scene, but people seem willing to stand by with a cup of coffee or a cucumber-sake bloody Mary and wait as long as it takes to get a table.
And yet where are these people on a typical weeknight when McCormack serves up her equally delectable and value-laden dinner menu? For some reason, dinner (or supper, as the menu calls it) at Marché has never made the impact on Nashvillians' dining consciousness that weekend brunch has.
Sure, plenty of savvy folks enjoy dinner at Marché, but nothing like the crush of humanity seen for brunch. Many of the brunchers don't even know Marché serves dinner, or that every Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 9 p.m., McCormack delivers the level of fresh ingredients and French-inspired preparation that every diner should dream of.
On a recent Thursday evening, three friends and I checked out what the finely tuned McCormack machine had to offer. We arrived on one of the first nights of the April supper menu. (The menu changes monthly, though the soup and dinner omelet vary each night, and aspects of other dishes may change as seasonal ingredients fluctuate.)
The menu recommends wine or high-gravity beer pairings for every dish. (It's one of those odd situations where a restaurant can't get a license to sell beer, which is controlled by Metro. Yet it can sell wine and liquor, controlled by state rules. So Marché serves only brews whose higher alcohol content qualifies them as liquor.) The beverage list is relatively small, but there's something to suit every palate. My beer-loving friends were glad to see La Fin du Monde, a Belgian-style high-alcohol brew from Canada. I stuck to wine, enjoying first a Spanish sparkler, then a delicious red (a Barbera from Argentina) with my meal.
Few things are as wonderfully welcome in spring as fresh asparagus, and a roasted asparagus appetizer was elevated from solid to ethereal with the addition of a poached egg, fresh from a local farm. As the warm yolk burst, it melded the delicate green spears with the crispy pecorino-cheese croutons. The final stroke, a shiitake mushroom vinaigrette, was both sprightly and savory. Quite an experience for 8 bucks.
I generally have a policy not to order mussels in Nashville, because they invariably disappoint. (The last time I broke the rule, at another of the city's best restaurants, I wound up with a sad bowl of bivalves with an unpalatable pong.) Thank goodness I was brave enough to order the Marché version, an appetizer of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels served in a classic preparation with garlic, white wine and herbs. Even after all the mussels were gone, I continued to sop up the buttery broth with the helpfully supplied French bread rounds. Only politesse (or cowardice) prevented me from making a scene by raising the bowl and licking it clean like an eager puppy.
The aforementioned asparagus reappeared in an entrée with another favorite, spring risotto, in this case brightened with fresh lemon. Adding heft (and healthy protein) to the plate was a perfectly pan-seared Alaskan halibut fillet.
The halibut wound up in a three-way tie for best main dish of the evening, vying with two very different contenders. One was a light entrée of house-made ravioli stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese, accompanied by suitably seasonal sugar snap peas, mint and a knockout shallot-butter sauce.
The other captivating entrée was brown sugar pit ham. I'm not normally a ham fan, given that it's often way too salty yet oddly watered-down in flavor. Not this hunk of porcine pleasure. Cornbread pudding, mustard greens and onion jam added to the sense of down-home goodness — if your home happens to be staffed by a Culinary Institute of America grad.
Which brings us back to Margot McCormack. She's considered one of the pioneers of fine dining in Nashville, a CIA heavy hitter who left New York for Nashville, eventually opening her original restaurant, Margot Café and Bar, in East Nashville at one of the Five Points vertices. The Margot Café mothership is still in steady orbit, but McCormack went on to add a significant satellite with Marché, less than a block away.
The chef initially wanted Marché to be primarily a food market to fill the void in gourmet groceries in the neighborhood. But before long, she realized the other market (the clamoring customer base) had spoken, demanding dining, and a sit-down cafe became the focus.
The ceiling-high storefront windows made the space at 10th and Main a sunny paradise at lunch and brunch. The reasonable prices clinched the deal.
Which leads to one possible reason why Marché is less popular for dinner. When night falls, and streetlights illuminate the asphalt, Marché seems more clearly situated in its funky but lovable neighborhood, as opposed to being some Provençal oasis mysteriously transported to 37206.
As for me, I enjoy either ambience, and I think anyone's a fool to miss Marché for supper. The night we dined, watching the sun set over Hunter's Custom Auto Parts, I was glad to be right where I was, in East Nashville, in Chef Margot's capable hands. I didn't want to be anywhere else.
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