701 Chapel Ave. 627-1088 Open 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 5-11 Fri.-Sat.
$25-$50 (three courses, not including alcohol)
Had the volunteer who visited Ted Prater’s fifth-grade Career Day been a visual artist, the grown-up Prater might now be spending his days and nights in a studio, with oils and canvas. But the man was a chef. “He made something pretty goofy, like peanut butter and chocolate balls,” Prater recalls. “He talked about the hard work, nights and weekends, how women loved chefs because they could cook. I dug his checked pants and his white chef’s jacket. It all sounded great to me.” By the time the chef left the classroom, Prater knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
That, fellow foodies, is our good fortune, because after getting his first restaurant job at 14, sweating his way from fast-food stores to fine-dining establishments in his home state of Florida, then spending several years working under some of Nashville’s most creative chefs, Prater is now running his own kitchen in what seems destined to be one of our best independent restaurants. It is East Nashville’s better luck, because the restaurant, Chapel Bistro, happens to be in that restaurant-crazy part of town.
Though the center of the East Nashville dining map these days may be in the Five Points area, to visit Prater, you’ll need to drive east on Woodland Street, past Margot, Slow Bar, Bongo Java Roasting Co. and Red Wagon, to 14th Street. Lipstick Lounge will be to your right, but turn left instead, continue north to the four-way stop at Eastland Avenue, turn right and keep going until you get to Chapel Avenue. Chapel Bistro is on the left, at the corner of Chapel and Eastland. Easy enough.
The route Prater took to Chapel Bistro was far more strenuous and circuitous. Shortly after his fifth-grade epiphany, Prater began cooking at home, messing around in the kitchen. He also fished frequently with friends, as well as accompanying his father Ed and his pals on deep-sea fishing expeditions, learning how to clean and cook seafood. At 14, he got his first restaurant job at The Royal Palms Dinner Theatre, and he was hooked for life. At 17, he started apprenticing in better restaurants, where he learned to refine his cooking skills.
Moving to Nashville with his parents in 1991, his culinary radar led him to the Corner Market, where he got a job as assistant produce manager. He soaked up everything he could from local organic farmers about the region and seasons, and in the kitchen he worked with one of Nashville’s most talented trios of that time: Steve Scalise, Martha Stamps and Heath Williams. It became his mission to seek out and learn from the city’s most creative chefs, which he did with single-minded determination.
He began at Zola, working with Deb Paquette for two years. “I learned more from Deb than anyone I have ever worked with. She has such a love and respect and knowledge of food. We both love to know the what, why, where and how of food. She taught me about balance: sweet, sour, salty, crunch.”
In addition to serving as Paquette’s dinner sous chef, he was also working at Basante’s as day sous chef under Luis Fonseca. From there, he went to the newly opened mAmbu, joining co-owner and chef Corey Griffith in the kitchen. He was there just over a year, when he decided he was ready to run his own kitchen and put the word out among his peers. Kim Totzke, chef at Yellow Porch and Wild Iris, passed along a tip that Fred Grgich was opening a new place in East Nashville.
Grgich’s name is well-known in the chef community, thanks to his involvement in three different restaurants that have contributed much to the burgeoning popularity of neighborhood eateries: Caffe Nonna and Margot (neither of which he is associated with now), and Family Wash on Porter Road. “Fred can be hard to reach, but I kept calling and calling,” Prater remembers. “I was afraid he would hire someone else before I could get him. He was pretty annoyed with me by the time I finally got him. But we talked and found out we were pretty much on the same page as far as the kind of restaurant we liked. I got him my résumé and wrote up a sample menu, and we were in business. The thing is, Fred knows how to do a room; he can bring in the people. Our service staff keeps them happy while they’re here. And my job is to make great food to bring them back. It’s pretty simple.”
If it were that simple, everybody would do it. Opening a restaurant is one of the riskiest and most grueling business ventures anyone can undertake. But to Prater and Grgich’s credit, they manage to make it look easy.
Grgich does do a great room. He has an affinity for old buildings, preserving the architectural skeleton and structural foundations, then adding his own design elements and transforming the space into a lively, yet somehow still cozy, restaurant. There is a vibrancy and exuberance to his establishments that make diners feel, from the moment they enter, that they have made a wise choice and are in for a fun evening. Chapel Bistro, located in a 75-year-old building that was once a drugstore, is his finest achievement to date. A small bar is to the right, and booth, table or banquette seating is in the main room (with additional tables on the front porch or back patio). Ceilings are high, the art is large, colors are muted. The open kitchen against the back wall provides the culinary cast with a prominent stage to entertain diners, but the glass on the front keeps the kitchen noise in the kitchen, where it belongs.
The menu has undergone several rewrites since Chapel Bistro opened on Dec. 26, a result of Grgich acquiring more confidence in his chef to execute creative interpretations of fresh, simple, seasonal foods. Admirably, Prater works from the concept that less is more, reflected in the size of the menu and the composition of the individual dishes.
I first dined at Chapel the very night before the late spring menu was set to be changed to a summer menu, which gave me the perfectly legitimate excuse to go back a few weeks later. Though my first dinner was marvelous, it was on my second visit that I discovered my absolutely favorite dish of the summer: Prater’s shrimp ceviche, an exquisite balance of taste and texture. Sweet melon wrapped in salty prosciutto and peppery cracker crisps encircle a mound of mesclun greens dressed in a spicy jalapeño-avocado-cilantro vinaigrette. The buried treasure lies within the greens: peeled, de-veined split shrimp marinated twice in a lemon-lime-orange blend until they are so soaked with succulence that you will have to concentrate to keep them on your tongue before they slip effortlessly down your throat.
The vegetable wrap is also a standout starter to share, or an entrée for vegetarians. Ingredients depend on the market, but on our visit they included bright-green stalks of barely blanched asparagus and cucumber-cilantro relish, dressed in a watermelon-ginger balsamic vinaigrette and wrapped in a thick, grilled tortilla. The calamari is rolled in polenta, then fried, which makes for a light, slightly gritty coating; the dish is a starter staple, though the accompanying dipcurrently a fresh tomato gazpachovaries by season.
My food phobia is the beet, but if you are not so afflicted, Prater has added a roasted beet, arugula and green apple salad, dressed in his superbly decadent cognac-truffle vinaigrette. (Rather than drink the dressing, as I would in the privacy of my own home, I ordered it on the house salad.) The grilled focaccia salad sings of summer with its thick slices of homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella on grilled country bread; caper berries add the right touch of bitterness and crunch.
With all of that irresistible deliciousness at the front end, you may find yourself struggling with the consequences of wanton self-indulgence by the time entrées arrive, though Prater has a respect for reasonable and refined portion sizes. He also has a talent for elevating simple itemsa chicken breast, a bowl of pasta, a pork chopto flavorful heights with sauces, vinaigrettes and sides.
The sight of salmon on menus usually makes me yawn, but Prater’s is one I would order when I go back, thanks to its crusty topping of crushed sunflower seeds sweetened with strawberries and zinged with crumbled bleu cheese; a curry-spiced Moroccan couscous studded with yellow raisins and slivered almonds comes on the side. Likewise, the plump sautéed prawns over angel hair pasta with chopped fennel, sliced onions and sun-dried tomatoes in a light sauce provides a light option with plenty of flavor. The bone-in, simply seasoned chicken breast is grilled to a lovely crisp, but it plays second fiddle to the accompanying pan-fried ravioli square stuffed with shiitake mushroom, fennel, onion, red pepper and fresh mozzarella; the sweet pea pesto that tops the dish is unique and memorable.
Unique, memorable, intimate, passionate, generous, informed, daring, selfless: These are among the vital characteristics that distinguish an independent restaurant from the chains that so often dampen the delightful experience of dining out. Grigch’s contributions to our growing independent restaurant scene are well-known; it is young Prater’s talents that we are just now getting a taste of as we linger over his tables, savoring the fruition of his childhood dream.