If you want proof that good things come in small packages, that still waters run deep, that you can’t judge a book by its cover, I urge you to discover Wild Iris. If you live in Brentwood, you won’t have to travel far. But even if you’re a hardcore inner-loop Nashvillianand I count myself in that categoryyou’ll do yourself a favor by jumping on I-65 South, making the short hop over to the Old Hickory Boulevard exit, turning left onto Franklin Road, and then taking a right into the Brentwood House Shopping Center.
At the rear of the strip center, down at the far end, you’ll find Wild Iris, a restaurant that proves less really can be morethat, sometimes, the best way to be heard above the din is simply to lower your voice.
The first things you’re likely to notice are the garden boxes hanging from the fence around the small patio and brimming with fresh herbs. The thriving basil, mint, thyme, and rosemary plants are aromatic harbingers of the pleasures that lie ahead.
Inside, the first thing you’ll notice is the comfortable, muted elegance of the room. It’s a small room, but, almost magically, the tables don’t crowd one another. There’s even space against one wall for a bar that seats eight or 10. (If I were asked to compare Wild Iris to a mainland Nashville restaurant, I’d probably mention Midtown Cafe.)
Anyone attentive to detail will also note lovely touches like the good bread from Provence Breads and Cafe and the plates of fruity olive oil, green with chopped fresh basil. The subtle lighting made all of us feel oh-so-pretty, but the type in the menus is large enough to make reading easy for even the most mature among us. Among our party of eight, the soothing acoustics and subtle background music allowed for an easy flow of conversation from one end of the table to the other.
My compliments to Katie Nelson, the mastermind of this delightful ambiance. Her accomplishment is all the more impressive given that not quite two years ago the location was home to Cross Corner Bar & Grill, a neighborhood sports-oriented restaurant where Nelson worked for the owner, her brother Michael Groos. While she was carting trays of burgers and fries, Nelson began toying with the idea of opening her own restaurant, a place she envisioned as “upscale when it comes to ingredients and the food but simple enough that people would feel comfortable in blue jeans.” When her brother moved Cross Corners to a new location, Nelson seized the moment; she set out to realize her vision and redecorated the space on a “mere pittance.”
Wild Iris’ menu is concise, and for good reason, according to Nelson. “We are small and we can’t be everything to everybody,” she says. “On the other hand, with a small menu, everything has to be a winner.” Enter, stage right, chef Len Mitchell.
Mitchell didn’t open Wild Iris. But when he came on board a little over a year ago, Nelson says, he took the restaurant to a new step in its development, steering his staff from the basics done well to the creative and adventurous done better. It was a wise move, one that gently steered regular customers in a new direction, toward fresh culinary challenges.
The understated descriptions of the menu items could lure even the most timid diner to try a dish that might seem frightening anywhere else. We ordered the ahi tuna appetizer and were rewarded with sushi-fresh slices of bright pink tuna, nestled atop organic greens, tossed in a light ginger-soy vinaigrette. The Peking pork dumplings, each an itty-bitty empanada you can finish in two bites, are served alongside crunchy sugar snap peas and a pool of ancho-sesame reduction sauce. The spear of grilled blue tiger shrimp is accompanied by a lemongrass coconut sauce that lends a scrumptious Thai spirit.
Heartier appetites will be well satisfied with the dangerously rich duck quesadilla. Committed veggies will be happy with the pappardelle of cucumbers with Roma tomatoes, but only if they are extremely fond of cucumbers. I shared the very unusual rose gazpacho with our party’s most adventurous diner, and we both liked it. However, we found no other takers. They were too busy polishing off the salad with porcini mushrooms and Camembert croustade.
There are just nine entrées (two are vegetarian-friendly pastas), and the chef offers at least one special daily. I’ll be forced to go back if I want to try what sounded like the most intriguing item on the menuthe Honduran scallop ceviche with lime, cilantro, and green chilies and plantains with toasted coconut. (The kitchen had sold out of it on the night of my visit.)
When I do go back, I’ll recommend that my fellow diners try the breast of duck with tropical fruit-berry salsa, the yellowfin tuna with herbed mashed potatoes, or the excellent tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes and a robust wild currant merlot sauce. Of the two pastas, we preferred the lighter linguine with sundried tomatoes and Roma tomato-yellow pepper coulis, rather than the linguine with porcini saffron cream.
If the thought of chicken makes you yawn, Mitchell’s Provence chicken, with its lively flavors, will wake up your tastebuds. Over the course of the entire meal, our sole disappointment was the grilled salmon. Even then, the problem was the raspberry sauce that accompanied it; the syrupy texture and cloying sweetness didn’t work for us.
The superb bread pudding and peach cobbler, with homemade ice cream, were exactly what we wanted for dessert. Even on a busy Saturday night, service was friendly and well-paced.
All of the wines on the small, carefully selected list are available by the glass and by the bottlea generous gesture, in my opinion. Because Nelson was unschooled about wines when she opened Wild Iris, she asked David Hart of Nashville Wine & Spirits to assist her in building her list. He also helped her with the wine suggestions that accompany each item on the dinner menuanother helpful touch, particularly for the wine neophyte.
Brentwood is often viewed as a place for people who want more, more, more. The grand homes in sprawling subdivisions, the runaway retail and office park developments, and the proliferation of cavernous chain restaurants, would suggest that many Williamson Countians prefer things big, bigger, biggest. But Katie Nelson thinks on a smaller scale. She isn’t interested in trying to be everything to everybody. As a result, Wild Iris is something special for a select few.
Wild Iris’ dinner entrées run from $13 to $20; appetizers are $4 to $10. At lunch, the restaurant offers several of the dinner appetizers, the two pastas, as well as some enticing sandwiches, including portobello mushroom, smoked turkey, filet mignon, and roasted chicken breast. Lunch prices range from $7.50 to $9.
Wild Iris is located at 127 Franklin Rd. in Brentwood (370-0871). Open Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
On the van guard
I received the call from Paul Niehaus, the Scene’s circulation manager, last Thursday afternoon. “Hey, Kay,” the message said. “Just wanted to let you know that the Bar-B-Licious van is back. Check it out.”
Last week I reported that Bar-B-Licious, which usually operated out of a small truck parked in the lot beside a small auto-parts store at the corner of 18th & Charlotte, had mysteriously disappearedthe very day after I had left an order on their answering machine and just a couple of days after architect/foodie Manuel Zeitlin had left a copy of their menu in my Scene mailbox. I had asked Paul to keep his eye out for the truck while he made his rounds, and sure enough, he spotted it.
Friday afternoon I was on my way to 18th and Charlotte. When I got there, I discovered that the auto-parts store was gone, but the bright yellow truck was parked in the lot, and an intoxicating aroma was wafting from the black iron cooker hooked to its back bumper.
Guy Henderson, in a black apron, was standing outside, and his wife, Katina, was in the truck. The Hendersons own Bar-B-Licious, which touts itself as “barbecue Tennessee style with a Texas twist.” They started the business, Guy says, because, after he moved to Tennessee from Houston, he couldn’t find good barbecue. Lacking a major bankroll, they started operating out of the truck and have been cooking there since September 1997. The April tornado destroyed the auto-parts store and blew the Bar-B-Licious van a good two blocks down the road. The Hendersons aren’t giving specifics about last week’s disappearance, but they assured me it had nothing to do with the weather. For now, you can find the truck in its usual spot, Tuesday through Friday, from about 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Zeitlin promised that Bar-B-Licious has “the best shoulder sandwich in town,” and he wasn’t lying. The one I sampled was a masterpiece of tender, smoky meat, and spicy sauce (ask for it hot) that put all other contenders to shame. As a part-time Texan, I know better than to get into a fight with Tennesseans when it comes to barbecue bragging rights. I invite you to conduct your own taste test; I promise it’ll be a win-win situation.
Nick of Thyme, the gourmet lunchroom and carry-out shop in Brentwood’s Merchant’s Walk shopping center, is changing its hours as of August 24. The store will continue to open at 11 a.m., Monday through Saturday, but it will close at 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and at 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Owners Cathy Lewis and Amy Carver want to devote more time to their burgeoning catering business.
Loyal fans of Lewis and Carver’s take-home cuisine can still place orders and request a pick-up as late as 5 p.m. The Nick of Thyme dining room will also be available for rental for private parties, and the two owners plan to produce monthly wine dinners for as many as 34 people. Call 370-6477 for more information.
Joy Patterson opened the 5 Star General Store on Halcyon Street, just off Granny White Pike in the 12South neighborhood, several months ago. In addition to her eclectic inventory of used clothing and kitschy home furnishings, she also offers homemade foodstuffs from her friends and family. Husband Mark Nevers sells jars of Pollo Diablo ($4), a torrid sauce made with Scotch bluebonnet and purple devil peppers.
Nevers uses it to make his signature hot chicken, and he includes the chicken recipe with each jar. You can do-it-yourself at home, or you can drop by the store this Saturday from 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. for live music and a plate of Nevers’ own version. I wager it’s enough to make a grown man cry.