Evening Star 

Bright skies at Sunset Grill

No matter how inappropriate the setting, it’s hard to resist asking a doctor friend about that little mole on your arm. Or asking the auto mechanic about that weird noise every time you accelerate. Or asking the stockbroker about that mutual fund you’ve been looking into. By the same token, once people find out what I do for a living, I can easily predict their next few questions: Why don’t you weigh 250 pounds ? (I’m not telling.) Who chooses the restaurants? (I do.) Do they know you are coming? (No.) Where can I get great Italian food at a reasonable price? (Mezzogiorno on Spring Street in New York.)

And then, The Big One: Where should I take my date/father/sister/ex-girlfriend/business prospect/secretary/out-of-town friend for dinner/lunch/birthday/anniversary/ drinks/a deal/the scene/people-watching/ seduction?

That’s easy, I say. With complete confidence, I steer their party—of two or 22—toward Sunset Grill. I know that they will be well-met, well-fed and well-served, and that my reputation as restaurant advisor will not be damaged one whit.

This month Sunset Grill celebrates its fifth anniversary. It is a tribute to Randy Rayburn and his team that it has only been five years, since they enjoy landmark status on the Nashville restaurant landscape. Or perhaps I am confusing the property with the proprietor. If you have eaten out in Nashville, attended a food and wine event, or bought a ticket to a pay-party at any time during the last 20 years,you have run across Randy.

When he opened Sunset Grill, with 100 dinner seats and 40 more in the bar, his résumé included stints at Mère Bulles, F.Scott’s and Third Coast. By far, Sunset Grill ranks as his most successful venture. Last week the Tennessee Restaurant Association named him Middle Tennessee Restaurateur of the Year for the second time.

After several expansions, Sunset Grill now seats 220 for dinner and 36 in the bar. On many a Saturday night, or after a big music industry event, even that is not enough.

Did I mention the music industry? Sunset has always had an understanding for musicians’ and artists’ wacky schedules, serving full meals at midnight—just the thing after a long night in the studio. Lunch is served until 4:45 p.m. most days, just in case you don’t roll out of bed until 3.

On a recent Saturday night, we made our reservations for the perfectly reasonable hour of 7:30. I must confess that, while I made the reservations under a different name, the minute we walked in, the gig was up. Let me add, however, that other than perhaps assigning his best waiter—John Woodard—to our table, I do not believe we received treatment that was substantially different from the service I’ve always received at Sunset during the past five years. Our service was excellent throughout the entire evening.

Eighteen months ago, while attending the Jack Daniel’s barbecue contest in Lynchburg, Rayburn was introduced to Will Greenwood, the award-winning chef who was then in charge of the kitchen at The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C. Greenwood confessed his desire to move south. This past June, Greenwood took over the Sunset kitchen. His able sous chef is Jeff Lunsford, locally grown, New Orleans-trained.

The plan, according to Rayburn, was to keep some of the Sunset Grill signature dishes while letting Greenwood explore his creative urges as he came to know the kitchen, the region, the local vendors and the clientele.

His mark first became apparent in the listings of daily specials. Finally, in September, the Autumn Dinner 1995 menu was introduced.

Faced with the new menu choices, I was wishing I had 20 mouths to feed. There are seven additions to the appetizer section, several new salads, half a dozen new pastas and grains, and six new entrées. Daily additions include a soup, an appetizer, a pasta, a chef’s inspiration, a vegetarian selection, and at least three seafood dishes.

The buffalo portobello is a perfect starter for one. A meaty grilled portobello mushroom topped with a healthy mound of creamy mozzarella is presented in a bowl of tomato broth. You’ll want to share the fabulous shrimp and Havarti quesadilla, prettily presented in a pool of spicy black bean sauce and painted with a lime-green cilantro cream sauce.

Chef Greenwood’s bayou crawfish cakes with andouille sausage are a zippier interpretation of traditional crabcakes, served with a zesty rémoulade sauce and a pile of crispy noodles. The special Asian dumplings with a crisp shredded vegetable salad and peanutty dipping sauce were another table favorite. Unfortunately, the barbecued duck in the soft taco was overwhelmed by the cilantro tomato salsa.

The salads were admirably fresh, from the simple house version to my favorite, the Sonoma, which features baby greens and sweet chunks of apple with huge tangy triangles of Danish bleu cheese.

We gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the brand-new veal T-bone, which is accompanied by posole—a Southwestern take on hominy—wild mushrooms and red onion relish in a chipolte pepper glaze. Meanwhile, Sunset’s signature lamb dijonnaise maintains its star billing. We sampled four fish dishes—seared salmon with an herb celery vinaigrette, grilled swordfish with prosciutto, smoked trout with a tomato vinaigrette, and a huge piece of tuna in an intense red wine reduction sauce. Each was superbly cooked and exquisitely sauced. In a seasonal vein, the peppery slices of tender pork loin fanned atop a bowl of October bean cassoulet served as a testament to the wonders of comfort food and simplicity.

Indeed, throughout the menu, Chef Greenwood successfully resists the current rage to include every ethnic and regional culinary influence in one dish. (This misguided culinary overkill reminds me of my children using all their crayons at once to create one new, peculiarly unidentifiable color.) Knowing when to stop is as important as knowing where to begin and how to proceed. Greenwood is skillful in creating dishes that combine one or two flavor undercurrents to enhance the main character. As he says, “The meals I remember most are usually the simplest ones. I like to keep my dishes very clean-flavored.” So he does.

Desserts were, as always, irresistable all around. Grand total for the meal before gratuity was $574, which is about $57 per person. Wine—about five bottles—probably added $150-$175 to the bill.

Several years ago, when my group arrived at Sunset, well after midnight and after a concert, we enjoyed a full and excellent dinner. I expressed my appreciation to Randy for providing the late-night service, which is quite unusual for Nashville. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “We’re a restaurant. What kind of restaurant would I be if I didn’t feed my customers when they want to eat?” Good question. Kudos to Sunset Grill for consistently providing the answer.

Sunset Grill is located at 2001 Belcourt Ave. (386-3663). Hours are Mon.-Fri: 11 a.m.-1:30 am.; Sat.: 4:45 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Reservations and major credit cards accepted.

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